How can we fight for a working class political voice?
On Sunday 29 June, 300 people filled the main hall in South Camden Community School in London to round off a very important weekend for the labour movement in Britain and to address the central question facing workers in Britain today: How can we fight for a working class political voice?
This third conference of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) had the opportunity to assess the stage the campaign is now at, and to debate a number of resolutions that were put forward. The conference was preceded in the morning by a debate between different left currents, on the way forward for the left and the fight for a working class political voice.
THE CNWP conference took place in the wake of New Labour’s pummelling in the polls in the Henley byelection, where for the first time in a British byelection since 1937, a governing party came fifth! Trailing in behind both the Green Party and the British National Party, Labour didn’t even retain its £500 deposit.
Most workers don’t want a return to a Tory government, the prospect of which is growing; the scars in working class communities from their last 18 years in power still run deep. However, as speaker after speaker pointed out at the CNWP conference, in effect we already have a Tory government.
So the threat of the Tories coming back, waved at working people by New Labour, is now dead in the water in the minds of many workers. New Labour seems bad enough, and in any case cannot necessarily beat the Tories as they are not seen as being much different.
Currently there is no party that has the interests of the working class at its heart that can offer a national challenge to the politics of the three main bosses’ parties. Creating such a party is the central task facing working people and the CNWP exists to promote that task.
Before the conference got underway, the CNWP hosted a morning discussion forum where different currents on the left were able to share their experiences and give opinions on how we can best go about fighting for a working class political voice.
Of particular importance in this session were the contributions of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) vice-president John McInally, and Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) general secretary Bob Crow.
John McInally outlined the fight being conducted by the PCS against the attacks of the New Labour government and stated:
“We will do everything in our power to coordinate this action with other public sector unions and push the TUC to implement the resolution passed on coordinated action”.
He went on to state that this was only half the struggle and that:
“Without developing the struggle on the political front we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back.”
He argued that those trade union leaders who call for a vote for Labour and refuse to criticise the Labour government for fear of the Tories, are complicit in the attacks on working people that the government has carried out.
He put out a call to bring together all those who believe industrial struggle must come alongside political struggle, and urged that backing be given to election candidates who decide to stand against the three big business parties and their assaults on the working class.
He said that regarding political representation, a trade union driven initiative is needed, and that leading figures in the PCS are urgently looking at discussing with other left union leaders the holding of a trade union meeting in the autumn to discuss this issue.
Bob Crow also recognised the need for working class political representation when he stated:
“I’m not launching a new political party today, but there clearly has to be one. The question is when”.
He spoke about the dangers we could face if such a party is not brought about. Workers are sickened by New Labour and all of the establishment parties. If we’re not careful, he said, the unions could go down the “American road” of non-political trade unionism. We now have three Tory parties who “all embrace privatisation, anti-trade union laws and imperialist wars”.
He spoke about the importance of a new party being an “umbrella”, federal in nature, with a simple structure and a basic programme that working people can take up as their own.
Warning against the mistakes of the past, Bob pointed to the rigid, rule-dominated nature of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and indicated that we cannot afford another false start along those lines or those of the now divided Respect.
Simeon Andrews from the Labour Representation Committee made his position very clear:
“The Labour Party is not just dead; the body has been burnt and the ashes have been scattered”.
He saw no way that Labour could be reclaimed for the left and thinks a new party has to be built.
However, he said that left Labour MPs such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn should remain in Labour at least until after the next general election in order to retain the positions that they have and continue the work they do representing working people in parliament.
In response to this, CNWP national chair Dave Nellist pointed to the role that left figurehead Oskar Lafontaine has played in the development of Die Linke, the new left party in Germany. A prominent individual like John McDonnell could play an important role in helping to speed along the process towards a new party.
Dave emphasised the importance of the tasks that face us and said:
“We cannot afford to travel at the speed of the slowest wagon”.
He added that we owe it to the next generation to build a viable political alternative, so that they can have a future.
Rob Hoveman from Respect (the part led by George Galloway following Respect’s split) spoke of some of the shortcomings and successes of the Respect project. He recognised that its main support is limited to “pockets in certain areas”. He saw Respect as a “contribution” rather than a “finished article” and wanted to be part of further discussion with others on the left about a new mass alternative.
Mike Davies from the Alliance for Green Socialism spoke about the environmental problems humanity faces, and about the need for coordinated work and unity on the left. He reminded the audience that the umbrella group called the Socialist Green Unity Coalition (which includes the Socialist Party) has existed as an electoral coalition for a while, and although limited in its present aims, serves a useful purpose.
Dave Church from the Walsall Democratic Labour Party also contributed from the platform, expressing the frustration that many workers have over the fact that we do not yet have a new working-class based political alternative.
Following the platform speakers, a number of people contributed to the discussion from the floor of the conference, and there was time for some brief replies from the front table. Everyone found the debate interesting and informative and it marked a useful step along the road towards the beginnings of a working class political alternative.
Development of the CNWP
Buoyed by the mood of the opening debate, the CNWP conference got underway with the task of planning out the work of the CNWP over the next 12 months. Several resolutions were debated, and those passed have committed the campaign to redoubling its efforts to popularise the idea of a new workers’ party.
In terms of signatories, the campaign now has around 3,500 supporters. The conference pledged to drive this up to 5,000 and beyond, before the year is out. Overall the work will be stepped up and supporters will be given the campaign material to back this up, with more national leaflets and bulletins.
Significantly, the conference voted to move to a membership structure for the campaign. With a minimum subscription of £5 a year, there will be a more solid financial base for the campaign. This measure will also put more meat on the bones of the campaign in terms of building a national network of members who can coordinate the campaign’s work.
Conference agreed that regional meetings should be hosted at least once a quarter to help develop the campaign’s work. In some areas, the CNWP already meets more frequently than this on a regional, city or town level. The commitment of the conference to this will mean a significant stepping up of this regional work.
On a national level, the conference agreed to approach a number of left trade union leaderships for discussion on how the case for a new party can be developed in the trade union movement. It was also agreed that a national meeting of anti-cuts, anti-privatisation councillors would be organised; and that trade union and community anti-cuts campaigners would be encouraged to contest elections.
The conference ended with the election of a team of national officers.
Faced with the urgent need to build a party ‘for the millions not the millionaires’ and enthused by the developments just around the corner indicated by the opening debate, the discussions that took place focused well on the task in hand and on how we can most effectively go forward in the coming months.
We live in very uncertain times. The credit crunch and looming recession are only just beginning to hit the real economy and will express themselves further over the next period. Leaps in the cost of food and fuel mean more and more working people are pushed into the ranks of the ‘working poor’.
We need to fight for a new mass political party that will stand shoulder to shoulder with all working class people against the attacks of the bosses and their three parties. This serious-minded conference addressed these questions and brought renewed confidence that such a party will be achieved.
In the afternoon the conference divided into five separate workshops to discuss:
- Break the link! Why the trade unions should disaffiliate from Labour.
- Jobs, homes and services not racism! How can we defeat the BNP?
- Building an electoral alternative – results from the May elections and the next step from there.
- The environment.
- Crash! The economic crisis and what it means for building a new workers’ party.