Belgium: Six hundred at conference for a new left formation

Important step towards a new workers’ party

The movement for “different politics” (CAP) initiated by the former social democratic MPs Jef Sleeckx and Lode Van Outrive held its first conference on 28 October. This conference was an important step towards the building of a new workers’ party that respects the diversity of the workers movement and which can be used as a political instrument to unite our forces. The conference showed the huge potential for such a formation, but also pointed out some dangers. While this conference was an important starting point, the struggle to build such a force is not yet over.

What answer to the lack of representation?

LSP/MAS played an important role in helping organise and build for this conference. In drawing up a balance sheet of the campaign so far we do not offer simply a one-sided view that avoids any controversy, we want to offer our readers a look behind the scenes and explain the political discussions at stake.

Since social democracy dropped its lip-service to socialism, embraced the “free” market and became the major author of the government’s neo-liberal policy, a discussion raged amongst the left on how to build a new political representation for the workers’ movement. The lack of such a representation explains why the trade unions have no answer for the “liberalisation” of the market, privatisation of former public services, plant closures, restructuring etc. The mass struggle against the Generation Pact (an austerity plan that included an attack on early retirement schemes) last year transformed this discussion amongst “specialists” into a public debate. This led to different initiatives which all have had some successes.

Some believe we have to dig ourselves into the Flemish and Francophone social-democratic parties and wait for the masses to transform them. They formed a Flemish organisation called SPa-Rood (Socialist Party-Red) which initially Jef Sleeckx and others subscribed to, but then left, understanding they would be completely ignored by the party apparatus and because the rank and file they hoped to rely upon had left that party in disgust years ago. The maoist party, the biggest to the left of social-democracy and greens, considers itself the new broad party, and as a result limits itself to trying to build a trade union “opposition”. The LSP/MAS defends the idea of a new broad political instrument for workers’ and their families. The small SAP/POS, linked to the French LCR, favours a regroupment of the left centred mainly around the “new social movements”.

The initiative that offers by far the best chance to our opinion is the CAP (Committee for Different Politics). It was launched by the former MP’s Jef Sleeckx and Lode Van Outrive, along with the former general secretary of the ABVV/FGBT socialist trade union federation Georges Debunne, as they did not see a future for the SPa-Rood.

Successful conference

The conference on 28 October took place exactly one year after the huge demonstration against the Generation Pact. On Friday 28 October 2005 some 100,000 workers took the streets in Brussels to protest against the Pact and many more took strike action. But a few weeks later the Generation Pact was voted on in the parliament with almost no opposition against it, except for the four Francophone green MP’s, but they were completely discredited since they had participated in the previous government coalition.

The question of a workers’ political instrument is therefore very important. The CAP launched a campaign for a founding conference. At the conference we counted 500 in the meeting hall, according to the organisers’ committee there were about 600 present counting those in the bar, around the stalls and discussing outside the main hall. That was a good turnout and there was a good mix of youth and trade union activists. Amongst the participants there were shop stewards from all main chemical plants, including Bayer, Degussa, BASF, BRC, Total and Agfa in Antwerp and Solvay in Brussels. There were construction workers and workers from the VW car factory in Brussels, from Philips in Turnhout and many others. There were also a good number of hospital workers and public sector workers such as railway drivers, bus drivers, postal workers, teachers etc. The trade union leadership at the Flemish university in Brussels mobilised jointly with Active Left Students which, together with the anti-fascist organisation Blokbuster, accounted for 90% of the young people present.

The mobilisation however had some delay. Months of valuable time was lost as the CAP tried to come to an agreement with a French speaking initiative ‘Une Autre Gauche’ (UAG, ‘A Different Left’) on the content and the date for the conference. This debate centred around concept of the new formation – does it have to be a broad fighting instrument (CAP) or on the contrary a regroupment of the left (UAG) – and its orientation: mainly towards workers (CAP) or mainly towards left wing individuals and NGO people (UAG). Also the UAG installed a set of rules limiting the freedom of organisations inside it, while the CAP states any participant should be able to keep its identity. As a result the UAG preferred small meetings working out a set of rules and a programme before appealing to broader layers, while CAP favours involving workers in constructing the programme and the structure. At first the UAG criticised the CAP for not having an explicitly anti-capitalist programme and stopped working with it. But, after the call for a new workers’ party centred in the big media coverage the CAP received in early August, the UAG leaders changed their minds and resumed joint activities with the CAP. Then however the UAG leaders started arguing against the idea of the CAP standing in next year’s general election. Earlier this year, in June, LSP/MAS had already decided to leave the UAG as this initiative lacked both democratic methods and an approach to broader layers, and work to build the CAP in the Francophone areas.

Overall the time lost in the long discussions between the CAP and UAG meant that it was not possible to fully maximise the impact of the press attention the CAP received in early August. There were some unnecessary delays in producing conference mobilising material, the website, answering the hundreds of emails from interested people etc. Fortunately LSP/MAS took over a part of the work and its election campaign for the October 8 local elections was mainly aimed at mobilising towards the CAP conference. One journalist even wrote about our electoral poster: “it seems as if the 28 October is more important than 8 October”. Unfortunately not all the organisations inside the CAP and UAG had the same approach. The result of our campaign was clear: about 200 LSP/MAS members plus some 150 supporters and/or colleagues of our members participated in the CAP conference. This was clearly noticeable at the stalls, the bar, the sandwich bar, the cleaning team,… but unfortunately not in the list of those who were given time to speak.

The CAP conference was significant and shows the potential for building a new workers’ party. While many workers were present at the conference unfortunately their active involvement in its debates was limited, something which allowed more academic rhetoric of a minority to sometimes dominate discussions.

Two trends

During the whole day it seemed as if there were two trends speaking besides each other. On the one hand we heard practical experiences from the shop floor, inside the unions and proposals for youth campaigns. On the other hand there were academic and technical interventions, intellectual thoughts, confusion and even total rubbish.

Such a situation is unavoidable in the early stage of the movement. In the first period a movement can attract all sorts of people who have nowhere else to go. We hope that, as the movement will grow, their impact will decrease. The result at this conference however was that, in most of the 12 workshops in the afternoon, the discussion on a programme was overwhelmed by a load of needless technical and academic interventions.

The discussion was not made easier by the strict running of the conference which avoided potentially controversial discussions. This conference was very important and nobody wanted to wreck the movement. The LSP/MAS definitely did not want this to happen, but we doubted the necessity to block any discussion on the programme and the structures. We of course did not want an open war and knew that we would have to compromise. The LSP/MAS did not want to lead 200 to 350 conference participants in voting against or abstaining on the main resolution, as this would probably have led to the end of the movement. We therefore approved the resolution as it was proposed.

This resolution decided to build a movement with a combative political programme that opposes neo-liberalism. It also points out that the new formation will take part in the national elections in 2007 in those areas where the local committees think it this is possible. Finally the resolution decided to work together with all those interested in all parts of the country and to continue the collaboration between UAG and CAP.

Participation in the elections in 2007

The LSP/MAS was in favour of discussing one central slogan in each of the workshops held during the conference. Then these slogans could have been submitted to a conference vote as a starting point to develop a programme. Unfortunately we could not convince the others of this approach and therefore the conference was presented with a general resolution that leaves many options open. Luckily we were able to maintain the ambition to participate in the 2007 national elections. Finally we had to accept that UAG and CAP would continue to collaborate. The conference resolution however left enough space to build the CAP in the French speaking areas. We think that if UAG does not change its methods, it will prove to be a dead end. At this moment there are no indications of a change in its methods.

The most important concession for the LSP/MAS was the acceptance that the conference did not mean the end of CAP and UAG as separate campaigns and the launch of a new movement with the election of representative leading bodies. This was the initial proposal by the CAP. The secretariat of UAG will continue to exist and so will the “temporarily” leadership of the CAP. On November 6 an open meeting of both leading bodies will come together to “form” a national leadership. The failure to do this on October 28 was a missed chance to have a real democratic involvement of all those present at the conference.

The conference was a success: the potential is there, the movement is being built, at present it seems that it will take part in the 2007 elections and we will have a democratic congress, even though there was no date set for this. Until then we do not have a democratic structure or programme, not even the main guidelines for a programme or a leadership. But this will not stop the LSP/MAS campaigning for the CAP to build on this conference and hopefully take further steps towards building a new workers’ party.

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