"The discussion this weekend is how we can change the world".
Socialism 2006 more than lived up to the expectations of those that attended. Almost a thousand people took part in debates and discussions over the course of the weekend. Bob Severn reports on the main rally, Ian Slattery on the closing youth rally and Alison Hill on the How to Defend the NHS rally.
Socialism 2006 – "A brilliant and inspiring experience"
"Almost half the world lives without clean water or modern sewage systems," said Hannah Sell, introducing the Rally for Socialism. "In Zimbabwe, the average life-expectancy for women has fallen to 34 years, lower than the Bronze Age. The richest 356 people on the planet now have more wealth than the poorest 40%."
"The discussion this weekend is how we can change the world".
After a short film showing action taken against hospital cuts around Britain, Len Hockey, the Unison joint branch secretary at Whipps Cross hospital in Waltham Forest, spoke on behalf of porters, domestics and switchboard staff and their battle against privatisation and to achieve parity of their pay and conditions. Len spoke of the solidarity between the older workers on better conditions and the new workers, who had maintained almost 100% attendance on the picket line during the eight days of victorious strike action this year.
"When we are told by the Whitehouse, the Kremlin and now Beijing that socialism is history, it is even more urgent that we fight for it!" said Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of civil service union PCS. "The obituary of trade unionism has been written and rewritten since the industrial revolution but with globalisation unions are more important than ever."
The PCS, which is prepared to take strike action against cuts, privatisation and low pay, are encouraging young workers to join the union and fight. Unfortunately, Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, was unable to attend due to a family emergency. However, he sent his greetings to the rally.
Introducing Solidarity MSP Tommy Sheridan, the rally saw news footage of a young Tommy holding a street meeting during the anti-poll tax struggle in Glasgow. His Labour Party branch was suspended for recruiting too many working-class people!
The next clip showed Tommy speaking after he won his libel case against the News of the World. Unfortunately, some socialists and former comrades – the current leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party – had supported the wrong side, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire.
On the new party Solidarity, Tommy said: "All over Scotland, we are rebuilding the Scottish Socialist Movement, based on sticking together – socialist ideas are back on the agenda. Tommy urged people to join the socialists: "Fight for socialism locally, but think globally – replace the billionaires’ values of hate, war and poverty, with socialist values of love, peace and humanity".
Salonika university student and Xekinima (CWI Greece) member Anna Kleitsa reported on the biggest movement in Greece since the military dictatorship ended in 1974, against the government’s moves to privatise higher education. University occupations began in May and by June 460 of the 485 university schools in Salonika were under student control.
From September, school teachers went on strike for six weeks, then pupils occupied one-third of the schools in Greece. However, "because trade union and ’left’ party leaders didn’t want to fight, the opposition lost" said Anna. "What we need is real democratic structures, based among workers and youth, that won’t sell out and will win!"
"This year British business announced record profits, thanks to low pay and privatisation," said Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, speaking for International Socialist Resistance (ISR). "The wages of 368,000 Tesco workers have been cut by 8.8% while the supermarkets’ profits are up by 12%."
France and Greece are not so different to Britain, said Sarah, young people here are angry too! Both ISR and Socialist Students are linking up with young people to fight against low pay, for free education and a socialist alternative to the big business parties.
"The PDS (formerly the East German Communist Party) talk socialism on Sunday but carry out cuts on Monday", said Lucy Redler, SAV (CWI Germany) and WASG (the new Left party) national committee member. In September, the PDS lost half their votes in Berlin but continue their coalition, and policy of privatisation and cuts, with the SPD (Social Democratic Party). Ex-finance minister Oscar Lafontaine joining the WASG made it well known, but working with the PDS has stopped the party from growing.
As a result, WASG Berlin, led by Lucy and other SAV members, stood separately in the November elections. If merger with the PDS goes ahead based on carrying out cuts and privatisation, Lucy said this would end the first chapter in building a new workers’ party. But thanks to the WASG Berlin, the next chapter will not start on page one!
"How is it possible to fight the juggernaut of capitalism?" asked Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary. "It is a lie that working-class people aren’t prepared to struggle, as shown by the millions taking action in France, Chile and Greece. There has been a mid-term electoral uprising by American people, but no overthrow of Bush thanks to the cowardly Democrats.
"Saddam is on trial, but sharing the dock should be Bush and Blair. Iraq has cost one and a half times the spending on Vietnam. If this money went to everyone who lives on $1 a day, they would have $2,000 each."
Peter pointed out that only 12 Labour MPs voted for an enquiry into the war: "No time should be lost in breaking union funding of New Labour." The working class needs to raise its own voice, which is why the Socialist Party helped launch the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party. If there is no left alternative given, as shown in Germany, more disillusioned workers will turn to racist far-right parties.
"Five hundred firms control the majority of resources on this planet. Even capitalists are worried about environmental damage, but their reaction is like the late Victorian sewage crisis, only taking action to protect their own wealth, as shown by the Stern report. The bosses organisation the CBI said that they’re in favour of saving the environment, as long as there are no tax increases – we can’t trust profiteers to save the earth! For China to get to the living standards of the USA, we’d need four times the world’s current resources, only a worldwide democratic socialist plan could safely achieve this."
Peter said it is the historic task of the working class to achieve socialism. In Venezuela, left president Hugo Chávez no longer speaks of humane capitalism but of socialism in the 21st century. "This change didn’t just happen in the head of Hugo Chávez, but from the pressure of the Venezuelan masses.
"In the future, in a socialist world, there’ll be a museum with effigies of Blair, Bush, Saddam Hussein, of unemployment and poverty. This is the historic task for the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the CWI around the world."
A world in struggle
The rally began with a short film showing workers fighting back around the world. Starting in the US, the belly of the beast, the film showed Soldiers of Solidarity members taking strike action against job and wage cuts at the Delphi (GM) car plants.
This was followed by 34,000 New York transit workers on strike, then millions marching for immigrant workers rights.
In Latin America, the film showed hundreds of thousands protesting in Mexico City against the rigged election victory of pro-Bush Felipe Calderon. Then one million school students in Chile taking to the streets to demand education reforms. Finally, Bolivian workers demanding the renationalisation of their oil industry and the election of left leader Evo Morales as president.
’Europe – working class enter the scene’ was next, showing French youth demonstrating to force the government to cancel the CPE attack on young workers’ rights. Then we saw ISR marching against war and occupation outside the Labour Party conference in September.
As the film said: "A world in struggle – fight for a socialist world"!
Youth rally: Socialist ideas are the future
Out of the comfort of the boardroom came a familiar sight to viewers of Question Time (but not so much to an audience at a Socialist Party youth rally!), a representative of the Tory party – Mark Clarke, chair of Conservative Future, the youth wing of the Tory party.
Alongside him for the closing Sunday afternoon youth rally of Socialism 2006 were some alternative views from the Young Greens (Aled Dilwyn Fisher), the Labour Representation Committee (LRC – Owen Jones), International Socialist Resistance (ISR – Sarah Sachs-Eldridge) and Socialist Students (Matt Dobson).
Each were given three minutes to answer questions posed by members of the audience: on education, the Iraq war, young workers and the environment. As the Liberal Democrats Youth and the Labour Students had failed to appear, Mark Clarke was alone in defending the policies of capitalism – as he admitted, an embarrassing position to be in at an event like Socialism 2006. The representative from Respect also refused to attend.
However, if Mark Clarke thought that was going to let him off the hook he was rudely awoken. Question after question threw up incredible claims by Clarke that were immediately disproved by the other four speakers. Emotions reached a peak when, to a huge cheer from the audience, Socialist Students national organiser Matt Dobson ripped into Clarke after Tory-boy had the audacity to proudly claim that he fully backed the war from the beginning. "Your party has funded murderers for the last 30 years by selling arms across the world", Matt exclaimed, followed by heckles of "accessory" from the crowd. Clarke sat smiling, but killers are killers and our disgust was real.
The first question set the tone of the debate as Clarke argued that "education is never free, someone always pays," before claiming, "one couldn’t knock on a door, perhaps talking to someone not too well off, and tell them that they are paying extra taxes to fund education for people they don’t even know." Needless to say all other speakers spoke above that embarrassingly patronising level, putting forward concrete ideas as to how to fight for the cost of education and its future funding.
Matt spoke of Socialist Student’s campaign to defeat fees and the need for a united struggle involving all student groups, including those on the platform. Aled from the Green Party continued along those lines, describing a "conveyor belt" system from universities to jobs.
Sarah from ISR pointed out that the Green Party’s position in Brighton (where they supported the setting up an ALMO – a form of housing privatisation) seemed to contradict the anti-privatisation rhetoric of Aled. She also drew inspiration from the movements in Chile, France and Greece – mass campaigns of students fighting alongside workers against education cuts.
The fiery war debate followed. Sarah dealt with the position of those who argue that the UN should have intervened in Iraq, pointing out that the war was over "oil, prestige and power", so any UN-backed approach would have still had the same goal.
Matt again showed the hypocrisy of the Green position by pointing out that on their website they support an alternative to NATO, the OSCE, which is a free market organisation.
By this time Owen from the LRC had arrived. He immediately attacked the Labour Party himself, pointing out that "this war showed the complete lack of democracy in New Labour." He also began his ’vote John McDonnell’ campaign immediately, stating his strong anti-war stance and pledge to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq.
Clarke continued toeing the Tory line with the next question about the minimum wage, arguing that "if we put wages up then the number of jobs available will go down"!
Sarah pointed out the importance of trade union involvement in low pay campaigns and that it is the most militant unions, like the PCS, who are gaining the most ground on the issue of raising wage levels. She added that young people are now so put off by Labour that by having ’Vote Labour’ on their leaflets, unions like USDAW lose a large layer of youth.
Owen pointed out that the RMT and FBU both help fund the LRC, saying that "it would be easier and more likely for trade unions to support John McDonnell than any Campaign for a New Workers’ Party." Easier perhaps, but that doesn’t address the far more important issue of which would be more productive to support! Unfortunately Owen failed to develop any of his apparently socialist or left ideas enough to prove how they would work inside a party that has shown contempt for such policies and ideas.
The final topic of the environment still failed to help Aled prove to the crowd that his opinions were not just his own but reflected the party as a whole – his speech about the problems of capitalist parties sounded as naïve as Owen’s points about the lack of democracy in New Labour.
Most in the audience were hoping for a uniting of the four socialists on the platform, but it became obvious that while they were united in their derision of the 19th century Tory policies put forward by Mark Clarke, socialism is the idea of a minority inside both the Green Party and the Labour Party.
Closing rally: How to defend the NHS
THE CLOSING rally on how to defend the NHS, not surprisingly, was packed. Dr Jackie Grunsell and Huddersfield Save Our NHS councillor gave a moving introduction, exposing how New Labour’s policies on the NHS were designed to open it up further to the big business sharks. They just want the NHS as a brand name, so the private healthcare companies can pile up their profits more easily.
But she also explained how Huddersfield Save Our NHS had tried to force the local council to hold a referendum on the proposed cuts in the local health services. When they refused, the campaign decided to stand in the local elections – and Jackie was elected with a massive 8,000 majority.
Policies that make sense to the government are being rejected as madness by working-class people.
Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist then developed that argument. He reminded everyone that the NHS used to be the envy of the world. But now that private profit is being given the upper hand, all we have to look forward to is cuts and closures.
But there is a fightback. Dave described some of the protest meetings and demonstrations which have been held in the West Midlands.
700 came to a meeting in Nuneaton. 35,000 people signed a petition and thousands joined demonstrations protesting against cuts in the Warwick and Rugby area. As a result the primary care trust backed off slightly – so protest can work.
But the new chief executive of the NHS has declared that he wants to cut 60 accident and emergency departments nationally and one-third of all maternity units.
"The Tories sold off big industries like gas, electric and transport to reward their big-business friends. But now New Labour is selling off public services to their friends", Dave explained.
But he also pointed out that the tops of the Labour movement are not up to speed on what is happening. He reminded everyone that at a rally at Socialism 2005, the idea of building a new workers’ party was discussed. The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party was subsequently launched because it is not enough just to expose what New Labour is doing. We need a new party to represent the interests of working-class people.
Dave explained there are already six pensioners in Coventry who want to stand in the local elections. But these challenges to New Labour need to be co-ordinated. The single issue campaigns need to broaden out into a wider political agenda – that’s why we must build a new party.
Dave concluded by saying that we can achieve victories now but we must go further and campaign to change society.
Lois Austin, a member of the Socialist Party’s executive committee, took us back to 1997 when New Labour was first elected – when workers breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of the Tories. But all we’ve seen since is cuts and privatisation.
Lois gave two examples – Birmingham Childrens’ Hospital have turned away 159 referrals in nine months. And 70% of student physiotherapists can’t get jobs in the NHS.
Lois explained how words like "reconfiguration", "reform", "choice", "modernisation" are bandied around to cover up the cuts. As George Orwell explained, they: "Fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details."
We have to expose what is really happening. The government only want us to have the public sector which the private sector can provide. But we must campaign for an NHS which is state-funded and planned at a local, regional and national level.
But the relationship of the big four trade unions with the Labour Party is a block on effective campaigning to defend the NHS. "We must now say to the union leaders – stop prevaricating, if you won’t organise a demonstration in February, we will", Lois declared.
On 15 December a number of campaigns across the country, united in the People United Saving Hospitals (PUSH) campaign are organising a day of action. In January, Keep Our NHS Public is organising a week of action. All these events can help to build for a big, national demonstration in February.
Finance appeal – £30,873.44!
Once again the finance collection at the Socialism Rally was a highlight of the weekend. A magnificent £30,873.44 was donated which was even more than the collection last year.
Jackie Grunsell, recently elected Save Our NHS councillor in Huddersfield urged everyone to donate to the collection. She described the dread that many families feel in the run-up to Christmas trying to provide the ’idealised Christmas.’
We were reminded of the working class families who had been saving for Christmas with Farepak and had lost all their money. Compare this to the millions being paid out in City bonuses. "For big business it’s Christmas every day as they buy up our private services."
Socialist Party members have given a lead on the NHS battles at Whipps Cross, Huddersfield and other areas – compare this to the ineptitude of the trade union leaders.
Those at the rally showed their determination to support the Socialist Party in its current campaigns and to build a socialist future by their response to the finance appeal. One UNISON member donated £500 and a young member sent a note with his donation of £10: "Been unemployed for five months and have not got my first wage yet!"
Another member donated £10,000, having recently inherited some money. A Hackney member donated half their winter fuel allowance (£100). One of our members brought along £50 for the collection – his retired next door neighbour had popped it through his letterbox, as she could not make the rally.
Branches had also clubbed together – Camden members donated £1,000, Huddersfield £2,812, Stevenage £1,690 and Brighton £1,005. Unfortunately, there is not enough room to print all the branch or individual donations but every amount, however small is greatly appreciated.
This year’s appeal is not only going to our fighting fund but also to help with our international work and to start a print fund for new equipment. Those who attended the weekend of Socialism participated in discussions and debates about fighting cuts in the NHS, getting rid of tuition fees, international struggles, socialism in today’s world and the need for a new workers’ party.
We always explain that we need more people to join us and get involved in the Socialist Party but finances are also crucial to sustain our party and to ensure we have the resources to continue our campaigning work. Many thanks to all those who donated – every penny will be accounted for and will go towards the struggle for socialism.