Britain: Socialist Party 2008 congress

Assessing progress, building for the future

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

John Hancock

Delegates and visitors from Socialist Party branches across England and Wales met in London on 8-10 March, for the Socialist Party’s annual congress. The congress opened with two inspiring speeches, the first from Sarah Sachs-Eldridge to mark International Women’s Day, and the second from John Hancock, the branch secretary of the Prison Officers Association in Wormword Scrubs prison. There followed sessions over the three days on the present World situation, Britain, trade union and workplace work, party building, finance, sales of The Socialist, party programme and youth work. Below are summaries of four of these discussions. Pictures by Paul Mattsson.

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Socialist Party 2008 congress

World repercussions of economic crisis

Peter Taaffe

Peter Taaffe

Speaking to a packed and enthusiastic audience, Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, introduced the first congress session on the world situation and the tasks facing the workers’ movement. His main theme was that change is coming: “Not the vacuous empty phrases about ‘change’ by US presidential aspirant, Barak Obama, or Gordon Brown”, but a fundamental reshaping of the outlook of millions of working-class people in Britain and worldwide through the hammer blows of events that impend.

He dealt with the systemic crisis in world capitalism; some capitalist economists are predicting ‘catastrophic’ repercussions from the subprime crisis in the US, linked to other aspects of financial meltdown. This has had a huge effect in the US, with one-fifth of its economy already in crisis, and with millions resorting to ‘jingle mail’ – house keys put in the post as the indebted owners walk away. Rows of empty houses scar the cities.

This crisis has produced an ideological shift, reflected in Gordon Brown’s New Labour government being dragged ‘kicking and screaming’ into nationalising Northern Rock. This is a huge blow against the ideology of neo-liberalism, of the ‘free market’.

The intervention of the state in the US to bail out an ailing financial system, has also struck a blow against free-market ideology. Peter said, tongue in cheek, that it is even rumoured that Fidel Castro had recently declared: ‘New Labour has nationalised a bank, my job is done’, and promptly resigned as president of Cuba!


In reality, the Northern Rock measure of ‘state capitalism’ will lead to redundancy for many of the bank’s employees, and a managerial setup that will be used to discredit the idea of public ownership.

Nevertheless, it will also lead to pressure on the labour movement for a turning back to the ‘reformist’ policies of the 1970s and 1980s, but above all of a layer of workers and young people turning to the ideas of socialism and Marxism.

Peter also gave a wide-ranging analysis of the effects of the crisis in the US on the rest of the world, of the impossibility of the US winning the war on Iraq, of the desire of Bush to bomb Iran, and the terrible imbroglio in Israel-Palestine.

In the concluding part of his speech he spoke about the emerging new workers’ party in Brazil and the Left Party in Germany. It was also noted that, despite the election victory of Sarkozy in France, a militant strike movement had developed from below, as has also been the case in Germany. In Greece, two million workers came out in a general strike in the last couple of months.

He drew out the need for a conscious, socialist, Marxist force to intervene in the reawakening of the workers’ movement internationally.


In the discussion that followed the introduction, the first contributor, Pete Dickenson, raised points on the way in which the looming world recession will affect China. Chinese exports will be hit, but to what extent will China’s domestic economy be affected?

Karl Debbaut

Karl Debbaut

Tony Saunois

Tony Saunois

There were contributions from two International Secretariat members of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), who had participated in the recent highly successful CWI Latin America school held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Karl Debbaut reported on his subsequent visit to Bolivia, where the forces of revolution and counter-revolution are developing under the reformist government of Evo Morales, and Tony Saunois reported on his visit to Venezuela, where president Chavez’s top-down ‘socialist revolution’ is benefitting a bureaucracy at the expense of the working class.

Other contributions in the wide ranging discussion included one from Jon Dale, covering the crisis facing billions of poor people from the massive price hikes in world food prices, from Mike Forster on the issue of ‘stagflation’, from International Secretariat member Clare Doyle on the potentially explosive situation developing in France, and from Mariam Kamish on the strike wave in Egypt, in particular the militancy of women textile workers.

Abandoned socialism

Lynn Walsh

Lynn Walsh

Summing up the discussion, the editor of Socialism Today, Lynn Walsh, explained how many people, previously on the left, abandoned the idea of socialism and economic planning as a result of the collapse of Stalinism. However, the current economic crisis is shattering the idea that the market can correct itself and overcome its many problems.

The current phase of globalisation is coming to an end through its own contradictions and there are increased calls for more regulation of financial markets.

As well as the nationalisation of Northern Rock in Britain, elsewhere in the world, sovereign wealth funds (that manage state savings for the purposes of investment) are rescuing failing banks and companies by buying them up – a move towards nationalisation but conducted across nation states. There is a deep organic crisis of the banking system, which is already producing a crisis in the ‘real’ economy.

What are the conditions for economic recovery? The factors that caused the crisis must be reversed, ie the mountains of debt built up over decades must be wiped out or paid off – a very painful process. In Japan during the 1990s it took ten years to reduce debt to manageable levels and the economy has still not fully recovered.

People will ask who or what is responsible for the crisis and this gives us a golden opportunity to explain the socialist alternative to capitalism. Society should be run according to social needs, democratically planned and managed by those who produce the wealth – the working class.

Independent class politics needed

Hannah Sell

Hannah Sell

We are fast approaching “a turning point in British society”. This was the central message of Hannah Sell’s introduction to the British perspectives debate. The changes that will be wrought by the turmoil in the world economy and its effects in Britain will alter the outlook of much larger layers of the working class and youth than has been the case for more than a decade. More people will draw the conclusion that capitalism cannot guarantee their living standards.

Sean Figg

Even the British capitalists, among the most neo-liberal in the world, performed a volte face, with the majority of them calling for the nationalisation of Northern Rock. As was to be expected, Northern Rock featured prominently in the congress discussion. Elaine Brunskill from Newcastle commented on the pro-capitalist way in which the Northern Rock nationalisation has been carried out. The looming job losses at the bank could be used by the capitalist class to throw mud at the idea of nationalisation and we will have to take them up on that.

Hannah emphasised that the lack of independent class politics was the “critical issue” facing socialists. This theme was taken up by a number of speakers. Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist pointed out that the main parties are more similar now than at any time in the post-World War Two period. As Andrew Price commented, this situation makes urgent the question of a new workers’ party “rooted in the experience of the working class”.

This similarity makes the outcome of elections extremely difficult to anticipate. Although a Tory victory at the next general election is more likely than at any point in the last eleven years, such an outcome would not change the strategic demand we raise for a new workers’ party, confirmed Clive Heemskerk, when replying to the discussion.

Comments of speakers from Wales and Scotland showed the move away of working class support from the Labour Party. Dave Bartlett reported on the situation in Wales since Labour lost control of the Welsh Assembly, receiving the lowest vote since 1918. Ray Gunnion commented on the continuing arrogance of New Labour in Scotland despite losing control of Holyrood to the Scottish National Party.The SNP is now treading a dangerous line of populist politics.

Union leaders

A number of speakers fleshed out with examples the pernicious role in holding back workers’ struggles, of many of the trade union leaders and trade union bureaucracies, still tied to the prison-house of New Labour. Roger Davey spoke of the dismal “I love the NHS” campaign of the Unison leadership, a very inadequate response to the attacks on the health service. Onay Kasab and Tim Cutter commented on workers’ struggles and leaderships at local level. Onay explained how in Greenwich, council workers are finding ways to successfully struggle. As Hannah commented in her introduction, the union leaders cannot hold back workers’ struggle indefinitely – the dam will burst.

Glenn Kelly commented that the debacle of ‘single status’ and ‘equal pay’ made “Fagin look like Mother Teresa” in the way it was being used to attack local government pay.

The attacks on the NHS and on post offices are another illustration of the crisis in British capitalism. Michael Wrack and Socialist Party councillor Dr Jackie Grunsell both spoke on the Darzi NHS report and how it would increase privatisation in the NHS and lead to the closure of half the A&E departments in London.

Chris Moore and Andy Bentley reported on the angry response of local communities to the planned closures of local post offices.

The overall situation will open up huge possibilities for socialists to make gains for the ideas of socialism and Marxism, but complications and unexpected twists and turns in the situation will also be a feature.

Hannah cautioned how we will need to “take real situations” as they develop and be flexible in our approach. Clive echoed this in his reply to the discussion, confirming that “we are in a new period economically and socially” and that it will “not be a repetition of the past”.

Both Clive and Hannah pointed out that the channels through which the class struggle could flow may be a change from what has gone before. As workers try to find ways around right-wing union bureaucracies, and youth enter struggle with low or even no trade union consciousness, there could be a rise in unofficial action or even new poles of attraction in the labour movement.

There is the risk of some growth of the right-wing racist British National Party, which was elaborated on by Suzanne Beishon and others. But the most important trend will be radicalisation in an anti-capitalist and socialist direction of growing numbers of workers and youth.

Presenting socialist ideas

The congress discussion on ‘party programme’ was lively and very useful. Judy Beishon outlined the essential features of the ‘transitional programme’ written by Leon Trotsky 70 years ago, in 1938, and its relevance today. The Socialist Party is based firmly on Marxist ideas, particularly on the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky; the subsequent furthering of their ideas and approach by the Socialist Party’s forerunners; and by congresses and leadership bodies of the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International.

During the congress discussion, branch delegates elaborated on how ideas can be presented and demands drawn up, and made many specific points on demands that can be put forward in day-to-day work at present.

Demands that relate to today’s situation and events need to be regularly evaluated, and adjusted where necessary. With this in mind, an updated draft of the party’s ‘what we stand for’ list of demands (printed each week on the back page of The Socialist) was discussed, with a view to printing the new version shortly.

Youth – socialism back on the agenda

One of the highlights of the congress was the discussion on youth and student work. Matt Dobson introduced the discussion with a rousing introduction on the situation facing young people in Britain today and our tasks for the coming year. A big part of this related to the effects that the growing economic downturn will have and how political consciousness of young people will develop, who will undoubtedly be amongst the worst hit in such a crisis.

Suzanne Beishon

Throughout the wide-ranging discussion, many new young party members and first time attendees at a party congress spoke on many issues, from what has been achieved over the past year, to the situation young people find themselves in and what we need to focus on this year.

A key feature was the success of the Campaign to Defeat Fees day of action which took place last month in a number of areas and universities. Delegates from the party’s Southern region reported on their lobby of John Denham in which over 40 students took part with a petition of over a thousand signatures from Portsmouth University.

Lee Vernon, newly elected finance officer for Sussex University, reported on his successful sabbatical election campaign in which a number of students played a role, learning important skills and lessons in running election campaigns. He also talked about the National Union of Students governance review and the importance of fighting this massive attack on NUS democracy, as well as on preparing to send delegates to the Activist Academy which Portsmouth students are hosting for all student unions that want to give a fighting lead to their angry membership.

A crucial part of the discussion was on the role of young workers in future struggles. Tracy Edwards, PCS union youth organiser (personal capacity), illustrated the vital role fighting unions can play in attracting new, young members. The PCS is managing to recruit a large layer of young workers because of its fighting lead.

The contributors were very optimistic about the coming period and the potential for struggles amongst young people to develop.

With a third of the congress delegates being youth, the positions we are building show promise that socialist ideas will be back on the agenda for a larger layer of young people, sooner rather than later!

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March 2008