Democracy for the millions not the millionaires

Steve Freeman

The conference to set up the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party was a significant event. Not because a lot happened - it did not. And what did happen was predictable. It was more like a rally than a conference and was dominated by Socialist Party speakers.

Despite all this it was an important gathering of the non-Respect left. It represents the beginning of a new realignment and the first real challenge to Respect. We saw the initial skirmish when Alan Thornett addressed the 500 socialists and trade unionists present and urged us to join Respect. The audience were polite but unmoved.

The perspective of uniting the non-Respect left was originally outlined by the provisional Socialist Alliance in our first leaflet in 2005. We believed the new SA should take this up as our first task and in a limited way we made some progress. The baton is now in the hands of the Socialist Party.

It has been impossible to have a real dialogue with the Respect leadership, whether you are inside or out. That was obvious in the way the proposals from the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform were rejected at the Respect founding conference. It was confirmed in the subsequent treatment meted out to the CPGB and comrade Thornett’s International Socialist Group inside Respect.

What is clear, though, is that a new workers’ party must involve the forces organised around Respect. But sitting in a wheelbarrow is not the best way to steer it. You are likely to end up wherever George Galloway is taking you - including, of course, the Big brother house. Bringing the non-Respect left together opens up new possibilities for a different kind of engagement. It was therefore a welcome move by the conference organisers to invite Respect to join the CNWP.

If we examine the committee elected at the end of the conference we get an insight into the politics represented in this project. There were five committee members from the Socialist Party, one from the Socialist Alliance, one from Workers Power, plus a comrade whose affiliation is unknown to me. Since the party question is central to the whole campaign, we have three identifiable positions represented here - a Labourite party, a republican socialist party, and a Marxist-Trotskyist party.

A united front of the Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance and Workers Power is the best outcome we could hope for at the current stage. It should be remembered, however, that the SA has a number of affiliates, including the Alliance for Green Socialism, CPGB, Revolutionary Democratic Group, International Socialist League, Walsall Democratic Labour Party and the Swindon Socialists. In addition both the Socialist Unity Network and the United Socialist Party have agreed to send delegates to the SA’s Council of Socialist Organisations. If we can bring all this together, we surely have the seeds of a new SP-led, pro-party socialist alliance. Our task is to make sure we do not go back to the pre-2001 SA mark one.

The question of working class representation was the theme of the recent conference organised by the RMT union. Its general secretary, Bob Crow, argued from the platform then that this problem should not be seen narrowly as the party question. In the 19th century working class representation was primarily about parliamentary reform rather than party. The 1832 Reform Act excluded the working class and the Chartists fought to change that. Today the working class is excluded from parliament in the same measure that parliament is excluded from power. We need a new mass Chartist movement to change that.

But unfortunately most of the left in England is an economistic, one-trick pony. The only trick it really knows is Labourism. The left doesn’t have the time for the high politics about who runs the country and how they do it. The assumption is that the British constitution is as near perfect as can be imagined until socialism arrives. Then it will be completely different anyway. This is therefore not something that should concern the working class. Working class politics is seen through the narrow prism of trade union politics!

At the 2005 election, 39% of the electorate did not go to the ballot box. Labour won only 22% of the eligible votes. Yet the first-past-the-post voting system gave the Labour government a parliamentary majority of 67 seats. Blair uses this majority against the millions to privatise services and to attack workers’ rights and civil liberties. Parliament is unrepresentative. No wonder people are alienated from politics.

It is clear to millions that far too much power is concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and a few top civil servants. The corrupt nature of that power is now exposed. The millions who opposed the war in Iraq have seen how Blair manipulated parliament and how it failed to investigate this or call the government to account. The failure of parliamentary democracy is one of the most important factors in current politics. It is a situation that the British National Party will exploit to the full.

Real democracy is for the millions, not the millionaires. True, the banner above the platform at the CNWP launch proclaimed itself “for the millions, not the millionaires”. But this was not a reference to democracy. It was about having a party that would do things “for” the millions rather than a party that aimed at the self-empowerment of the working class. A party that fights for democracy does not appear on the Socialist Party’s radar screen.

Democracy is the missing element in SP politics. It did not want us to discuss policies or programme. Therefore it presented conference with a few ‘uncontroversial’ points that no economist could disagree with. In fact we could all agree on “opposing cuts, privatisation, environmental degradation and war” and “for a living minimum wage, full trade union rights and a fully funded, democratically controlled public services”. Presumably we could not agree on democracy or its importance to the working class.

The SP has conjured up the genie of another, more leftwing, Labour Party, following a British road to the socialism. This is not surprising. The post-war working class movement has been dominated by Labourism and Trotskyism. These stood for the ‘opposites’ of reform and revolution. Yet these opposites were interpenetrated, most obviously when the Militant Tendency built a base inside the Labour Party. What emerged from the dialectic was a common thread of economism. Labourism subverted Trotskyism, not the other way round.

Thus the crisis of Labourism has given us the peculiar phenomenon of Trotskyism trying to recreate the old ideas. First we had the Socialist Labour Party. Some of us will remember the role played by the Trotskyist Fourth International Supporters Caucus in the Scargill party. Then we had the Socialist Workers Party-led Socialist Alliance with its Labourite ‘priority pledges’ to the electorate in 2001. And Respect is busily promoting all the good, old-fashioned values of Labourism.

Now the Socialist Party’s CNWP is pointing in the same direction. A Labourite party run by the ‘Trots’ indicates that Labourism has passed its sell-by date and is decomposing as we speak. By some bizarre twist of fate Trotskyism has morphed into a new form of Labourism. Meanwhile, Workers Power, which presented itself at the conference as the last bastion of Trotskyism holding out against this, came up with a ‘transitional’ programme calling for troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, halting privatisation, repealing the anti-union laws, defending pensions, halting deportations, getting rid of immigration controls, smashing the BNP, free childcare, etc.

The RDG submitted a motion on Platforms headed ‘Developing a democratic campaign’. But we concentrated our speech on the Scottish dimension. The motion read:

“1. This conference recognises that the struggle for a new workers’ party is a political and ideological struggle. We recognise that there are different views amongst socialists who support this campaign about what kind of party is possible and necessary.

2. The Socialist Party has begun to explain its view on the kind of party that is needed. The Socialist Alliance has a different view, as do some of our affiliates - for example, the CPGB.

3. The working class movement has everything to gain from full democracy and the clearest and most open explanation of different ideas and proposals. We call on members with particular views on the kind of party we need to form platforms on the party question. Such platforms should be officially recognised within the campaign and by the committee.”

This won about 60 votes, but fell because it was opposed by the Socialist Party. This was a mistake on their part. It would have cost little to back it and it would have sent out a signal that the SP was genuine in its desire to include new forces. It contradicts some of the rhetoric of openness which came from the SP before the conference. In terms of democratic practice the SP did not speak against it until the very last speaker before we moved to the vote. There was no right of reply. It was said that we did not need platform rights because groups could say what they wanted. Fair enough, but what about those not in groups who might want to form their own platform or join a new platform with one of more groups acting together?

When Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, she meant we should all be fragmented individuals so that all power remains concentrated at the centre. When the SP says there is no such thing as platforms its message about power is essentially the same.

The RDG concentrated the case for Platforms by setting out some political differences that should be expressed through platforms. We argued as follows. Ten years ago Arthur Scargill set up the Socialist Labour Party. After some initial optimism it failed. Five years ago the SA stood 98 candidates in the 2001 general election. The SA brought together the SWP, SP, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, CPGB RDG, ISG, Workers Power and the Walsall DLP, as well as many independents. That could have been the beginning of a new workers’ party, but it failed.

The SA is part of our collective experience. We cannot ignore it. We have to learn the lessons and apply them to finding the way forward. In contrast to the failures in England, the Scottish Socialist Alliance brought the Scottish left together. It established a more democratic culture - in part by allowing platforms. Then it launched the Scottish Socialist Party. Of course, it was given a helping hand by constitutional change. The Scottish parliament and proportional representation opened up politics, enabling the SSP to elbow its way in. This shows that setting up a new party of the left is not an impossible dream. It is an achievable goal if we go about it in the right way.

We need to find the progressive secret in the politics of the SSP. This is in its democratic arguments even if these are hidden under the blanket of tartan socialism. It is to be found in the fight for democracy and a Scottish republic, embedded in the declaration of Calton Hill. We need to generalise the fight for a republic and bring it down the A1, past Newcastle to the rest of England. This is why we need to fight for a republican socialist party. If we are to break with Labourism, we need to take up an earlier political tradition associated with the Levellers and the Chartists, which made the fight for democracy the key to social change.

Labourism has always been a politically conservative party, loyal to the crown and supportive of the existing constitution. By contrast the SSP aims to end the constitution and establish a Scottish republic. This is a radical break from Labourism. The SSP has brought socialists, communists and trade unionists into a single party. It has developed an open democracy with different views, expressed in platforms. It promotes internationalism and environmentalism and opposes racism, fascism and all forms of social oppression.

The Scottish Socialist Party is not, therefore, a Labour Party with a different name. It is a break with Labour’s constitutionalism. Given the crisis and failure of parliamentary democracy, it is a break which the working class movement must make sooner rather than later. However, that does not mean we should substitute English nationalism for Scottish nationalism. We need to learn from Scotland critically. We need to make a ‘Scottish turn’ towards democracy and republicanism.

What practical conclusions emerge from this perspective? Certainly we can unite behind the slogan of a new workers’ party. It must become a democratic campaign which encourages platforms. These will facilitate a fundamental and radical rethink about the way forward. A majority may want a new Labour Party, but a significant minority will want to take the Scottish road.

A single-issue campaign is a start, but we need to become a Socialist Alliance-type organisation as soon as possible. We need an organisation with its own programme, membership and branches, able to intervene in the class struggle, including elections. This alliance would not require the liquidation of existing socialist organisations. However, like the SSA it would be a pre-party organisation, able to prepare the ground in theory and practice for the launch of a party like the SSP.

Unfortunately the legacy of the SA still haunts the SP and gives its comrades a jaundiced view of what needs to be done. The SP bailed out of the SA rather than face down the bullying of the SWP. Because of this the SP cannot think sensibly about the Socialist Alliance question. Uniting the Non-Respect left even on such a minimal basis is a move in the right direction. But if we have the same Labourite politics as Respect there will be little to chose between them. The new Socialist Alliance will have to sharpen up its act if it is to make any useful impact on the new situation.




April 2006

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