Britain: Conference for a working class alternative

Delegates condemn New Labour’s pro-big business policies

The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party was set up in March 2006 to unite socialists, trade unionists, community campaigners and ordinary workers in campaigning for a new mass party for working-class people. The CNWP believes a new workers’ party would have to represent a fundamental break with the big business politics which currently dominate politics, giving workers the opportunity to resist the neo-liberal capitalist agenda and fight for a socialist programme. Socialist Party members initiated the CNWP and alongside others, play an important role in developing it. The following report taken from the current issue of the Socialist newspaper is a report of the CNWP’s second annual conference

A highly successful second conference of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) took place on Saturday 12 May. A central London hall was packed with over 350 people who were united in wanting to develop the campaign further.

CNWP CHAIR, Dave Nellist, opened the conference by saying it was apposite to be meeting in the same week that Tony Blair announced his departure from power. But when Blair leaves office on 27 June, "unfortunately he won’t be taking the entire cabinet with him".

The world is a less safe place as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and in Britain, young people now face massive debts consisting of loans and payments equivalent to "three mortgages": the first for a house, the second for rising pension contributions and the third for university fees. However, house prices are so high now, that workers such as firefighters, teachers and health workers are unable to afford a house at all in many parts of the country.

Voters in elections are not faced with "three competing parties" because "the Tories, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree on all the essential issues – at least between elections." The CNWP needs to build further on the 2,500 signatories it has so far, by sinking deep roots in local communities and trade unions to help create the conditions as soon as possible for the existence of a new party.

The assistant general secretary of the PCS union, Chris Baugh, then addressed the conference (in a personal capacity) and expressed his support for the CNWP. He condemned Gordon Brown’s "arbitrary and swingeing" 100,000 job cuts plan in the civil service and said such cuts will inevitably damage vital services. He also condemned Brown as the chief architect of the NHS funding crisis, the huge privatisation programme being forced on 20,000 workers in the Ministry of Defence, and the vicious spending limits across the public sector. "PCS members will take some convincing that there is any material difference between Blair and Brown" he concluded. He reminded the conference that three million public sector workers had threatened strike action in the run-up to the last general election over the government’s plan to increase the pension age, and that this forced a significant government climb down. More recently, on May Day this month, successful PCS strike action shocked the government and was a warning of further action if cuts continue.

TV actor and ‘Shrewsbury Two’ campaigner Ricky Tomlinson gave a ‘virtual’ address to the conference, through a video of a specially recorded interview. After outlining the campaign still running over the jailing of 24 construction workers for picketing in 1972, he expressed his anger at the way New Labour has made things "worse and worse" for workers in Britain. He went on to say: "I don’t think there will be a difference between Blair and Brown because they’ve worked so closely together.. New Labour doesn’t represent working class people.. I call on workers to unite to form a left wing socialist party to represent the working class. There’s no shortcuts, no easy fix.. If I’ve one thing to say about New Labour, it’s: New Labour, my arse!"

Charter debate

THE FIRST conference debate was on the CNWP’s charter. In proposing an updated charter, CNWP assistant secretary, Hannah Sell, explained that its wording needed to cover the period up until the next conference, so it deliberately concentrated on the most enduring issues and government attacks (see for the updated charter text).

Hannah argued that it is preferable to keep a clause stating the need for socialism in the charter. But she argued against resolutions being put to the conference by Workers’ Power (WP) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) wanting clauses for the ‘revolutionary overthrow’ of capitalism and how it could be achieved, because: "It is not our job to sound as left and radical as possible. We need a programme that is readily taken up by workers.., one that they can identify with. Most of these workers have not yet drawn conclusions on how socialism will be achieved".

In the debate that followed, four organisations- the Socialist Alliance (SA), WP, the Campaign for a Marxist Party and the CPGB moved four resolutions and amendments. The debate also included contributions from conference delegates, including from Onay Kasab of Greenwich Unison, who spoke on the battle against pay cuts by employees of Greenwich council and from Alec Thraves, a Socialist Party candidate in the Wales Assembly election, who concluded: "In Wales many people voted for the party most likely to defeat New Labour because there is no mass workers’ party. They need a voice".

In the voting at the end of the debate, the CNWP officers’ proposed updated charter was overwhelmingly carried, along with the amendment from the SA. The three other amendments and resolutions were defeated.

Debating the way forward

THE SECOND conference debate was on the way forward for the CNWP. Secretary of the CNWP, Roger Bannister, moved a resolution from the CNWP officers, which called for the CNWP to "vigorously campaign to popularise the idea of a new mass workers’ party over the coming year" and outlined a number of steps towards doing this (see for the text). The debate that followed was opened by the moving of three resolutions, from Berkshire CNWP (subsequently carried), the SA (defeated) and Workers’ Power (defeated).

In moving the Berkshire resolution, Terry Pearce reported on a "spirited" campaign in his area to defend council housing, and called for a regular CNWP newsletter to be produced that can report on all campaigns around the country.

Vanessa from the health service campaign PUSH spoke in this session on the need to build for a protest against NHS cuts and privatisation in Parliament Square on 5 July. She expressed her frustration with the union leaders’ delay of a national demonstration to save the NHS – now called for 13 October – by asking "will October ever come?"

Burslem postal worker, Jane, explained why she and other local postal workers had been forced to take nine days of strike action. During the second strike, 400 managers had been drafted in to do the work of 100 workers! Darfur refugee Sadiq Abakar, made a moving appeal for help with his campaign for asylum, and that of other Darfur refugees whose lives are in danger.

Well-received in this second conference session was a contribution from newly elected Democratic Labour Party (DLP) councillor Pete Smith from Walsall. He explained that since he and others in the DLP had been "kicked out of the Labour Party" they had refused to be silent. In response to points made during the conference by members of Workers’ Power and the CPGB, he said that during the election campaign he had been "so busy in the cul de sacs and streets of Walsall that I have not had time to work out if I am a revisionist, a radical or a revolutionary" and that in the DLP they "work with local people, starting at the level they’re at – otherwise we’d be nothing but a talking shop. We have gained increasing respect in our communities. Since leaving the Labour Party, we have remained clear to our consciences; no pillow is more comfortable than a clear conscience. We need a nationwide party to oppose New Labour. A large tapestry to link in the views of working class people in our towns. I hope this conference takes us closer to a new party, a truly democratic party, in the interests of workers and their families".

Paying tribute to the role of the Socialist Party (SP) in the CNWP, presently in a majority, CNWP press officer, Pete McClaren, himself a member of the minority SA, said to the conference that his press releases went out without any unwelcome political edits by other CNWP officers, in this way making it clear that he was happy with the working relationship. There was however a difference at the conference between the SP and SA on the present structure of the CNWP, with the SA calling for individual membership to be introduced now and there to be a right of representation on the steering committee regardless of the size of affiliated organisations. These issues should be discussed further in the coming period to attempt to reach agreement.

Following commissions (see below) and the election of a new steering committee, the conference was closed with an inspiring speech by Tony Mulhearn, who was president of the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) during the 1980s battles of Liverpool council against the then Tory government. In summing up what he described as "a great conference", he said that the politics of the mainstream parties today is to "make promises, get elected and then to break promises", but that in Liverpool in the 1980s the Marxist and other leaders of the DLP carried out their promises. By building a firm basis in local communities, we can again "be absolutely positive that we can build a mass movement".

Six commissions were held during the conference:

Standing in elections

SOCIALIST PARTY member Lindsay Currie, candidate in May’s elections in St Michael’s ward Coventry and Dave Church of Walsall DLP, that won a council seat in May, introduced this commission. Others outlined the election campaigns in Kirklees in Yorkshire by the Huddersfield Save our NHS campaign that obtained over 1,000 votes and by the Save our Services campaign that stood a parent of children at a threatened nursery. Most people agreed that standing in elections is hard work but can be very fruitful for fighting against cuts in services and other attacks and spreading socialist ideas. Candidates though have to be prepared to tackle all the problems faced by working-class people, even taking up such issues as the positioning of bus stops!

Roger Shrives

New Labour-affiliated trade unions

GLENN KELLY from UNISON and Rob Williams from TGWU (now part of Unite), introduced this session. There was a very positive discussion which mainly revolved around how to build support for the CNWP amongst grass-roots activists. It is clear that the leadership of most of the affiliated unions will do all they can to avoid a split from the Labour Party and in some cases are doing their best to even avoid the issue being discussed at the trade union conferences.

Several speakers explained the need to organise debates at trade union branch meetings and shop steward meetings, so that the issues can be discussed amongst those trade unionists who never get to conferences and other national meetings.

Contact details were exchanged so the work can be co-ordinated better within each union.

Alison Hill

Unaffiliated trade unions

I DID the first introduction to this commission on building the CNWP in trade unions that are not affiliated to the Labour Party. While the NUT does not yet have a political fund, it certainly can’t afford to be independent of politics. As well as trade union struggles, a political struggle is necessary.

An important step in changing consciousness on this issue will be to argue for unions to stand – or support – election candidates supporting union policies and fighting cuts, closures and privatisation measures, such as academy schools. The second introductory speaker, Katrine Williams from the PCS, explained how the PCS’s ‘make your vote count’ campaign had raised the need for that union to have a political voice.  

In the discussion, RMT members from London Underground argued that the RMT should consider standing its own candidates in the London Assembly elections. Another theme taken up was that as more workers move into struggle, more would draw political conclusions and see the need to campaign for a new workers’ party.

Martin Powell-Davies (NUT)

Combating the BNP

A PACKED commission discussed how best to combat the far-right racist BNP. Andy Bentley from Stoke explained how enormous anger against the Labour Party has led some workers to vote BNP in protest. We need to reach these workers with a genuine alternative, as opposed to campaigns based on moral outrage that often involve the very politicians who have opened the door to the BNP.

The media’s role in building support for the BNP was a big issue, particularly newspapers whipping up prejudice against migrants. Real answers need to be given to the concerns people have about pressure on overstretched public services, housing and jobs, and the cynical exploitation of the bosses exposed and fought against. As Bobbie from Basildon said, if the minimum wage was set at a decent level and enforced, migrants could not be used for cheap labour.

Naomi Byron

Campaigning amongst young people

WHILE MANY young people may not be interested in the main political parties that exist at the moment, this session made the need for a political voice for young workers and students absolutely clear. Introduced by Tracy Edwards, organiser of the PCS youth network, the discussion underlined the conditions young people face at work and in education. Speakers pointed out the need for the many struggles they were participating in to be linked to campaigning for a political voice.

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

The environment

MIKE DAVIES from the Alliance for Green Socialism introduced this commission in a packed seminar room. Despite the limitations of time, he was able to touch on a wide range of issues, as did the discussion that followed. As well as good points being made about issues such as pollution, GM products and climate change, a discussion developed on how a sustainable environment can be achieved. The drawbacks of ‘green taxes’, biofuels and ‘carbon trading’ were raised, and there was general agreement that environmentalists must also be socialists, as the severe problems that exist will not be solved on the basis of capitalism.

Judy Beishon

 NB: trade unionists speaking in the above commissions were speaking in a personal capacity.

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May 2007