Socialist View, No. 15, Spring 2006
England and Wales
Campaign for a new workers' party
EXACTLY 100 years ago in Britain, in the February 1906 election which saw a Liberal landslide, 29 Labour MPs were elected to parliament. This represented a huge breakthrough in achieving political representation for working people that was independent of both of the main establishment capitalist parties at that time - the Liberals and Tories. KEN SMITH reports.
The election of these 29 MPs with just over 5% of the national vote was the culmination of a process that had spanned decades to secure independent working-class representation. Even then, those MPs were not part of a national party structure but had been brought together, along with other candidates, through the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which had been established in 1900.
Those new MPs agreed to be bound by a common party whip in parliament, but in all other respects were able to pursue their own campaigning and political programmes. Not all of those new MPs were explicitly socialist and it was not until 1914 that the Labour Party with individual membership and affiliated trade unions was formed.
Despite never fundamentally challenging capitalism, the Labour Party was a vehicle for achieving working-class advances in the creation of the NHS, welfare state and, although incompletely, advancing working-class interests. Whatever its imperfections, its existence represented a historic gain for the working class in Britain.
It is ironic then that 100 years on the working class in England and Wales is having to go through a similar process to try and establish working-class political representation, independent of the establishment pro-capitalist political parties - of which the Labour Party is one.
From the witch-hunts against Militant supporters which began in the 1980s to the present day, the Labour Party has been transformed from a party which had roots amongst the working class at its base, with a pro-capitalist leadership at top, to an overtly pro-big business party, similar to the Democrats in the USA.
Tony Blair in particular has seen his role as undoing the work of previous generations and destroying any vestiges of independent political representation for the working class. He has declared that Labour should never have split from the Liberals and that he is "absolutely determined to mend the schism that occurred in progressive forces in British politics at the start of the century."
"I want a situation more like the Democrats and the Republicans in the US" he told the Financial Times in 1997. "People don't question even for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-business party. They should not be asking that question about New Labour."
Blair and his cohorts have succeeded in their mission. In the process they have transformed Labour into an empty shell, with a membership half of what it was in 1997. Even some of those who have been loyal advocates of the New Labour project have begun to despair at the terrible reality they have helped create. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, once of the right split from the Labour Party, the Social Democratic Party, declared: "Labour is in danger of becoming a phantom party - a self-perpetuating oligarchy given absolute power by only 25% of the electorate through a perverted voting system that will, with a swing of the pendulum, deliver the same power to an equally unrepresentative Tory clique."
Faced with this, a process has begun amongst trade union activists and socialists to try and break the trade unions from Labour and take the first steps to genuine and effective independent working-class representation in England and Wales. In this process, the recent conference called by the RMT railworkers' union and the Campaign for a New Workers' Party initiated by Socialist Party members are of significance.
The potential for beginning to build a new mass working-class party in England and Wales was glimpsed in outline at the RMT rail union discussion conference on the crisis of working-class political representation on 21 January.
The RMT leadership had made it clear that the conference was not going to found a new party, or take any concrete steps in that direction. Nonetheless, this was the first time that a national trade union had called a conference to discuss the question of working-class political representation. The Socialist Party welcomed the conference as potentially an important step forward.
Although there was a very limited trade union mobilisation for the conference, including from the RMT, the turnout could have filled the hall twice over. However, it showed that even though this is only the beginning of a process, there is a significant layer of trade unionists and socialists who would enthusiastically take part in any moves towards a new mass workers' party.
Contribution after contribution at the conference agreed with Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT's, statement that "the Labour Party can't be changed" and that a new party was needed. Even speakers who are still members of the Labour Party, such as John McDonnell MP, did not attempt to argue that Labour could be reclaimed. However, the key question that came out of the conference is what is the next step in building such a new formation?
The lessons of the false starts of the 1990s, such as Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and the wrecking of the Socialist Alliance by the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), were clearly present in the minds of many attending the conference. Contributors to the conference realised that a new political party could not be grafted onto the working class or any other sector in struggle from above. Instead, a new party would have to be forged out of campaigning and building together in struggle a unity based on an inclusive and democratic approach - in short a federal approach as the Socialist Party argued for at the conference.
Unfortunately this has not been the approach taken by Respect, the project led by the SWP and George Galloway MP. Respect was viewed with scepticism by many of those attending this conference. Even one of Respect's leading supporters, Greg Tucker a member of the RMT, said that we "needed something bigger and better" than Respect.
A process of clarification of how the first steps towards forming a new party can be achieved could begin from the RMT conference. The Socialist Party-initiated Campaign for a New Workers' Party conference in London on 19 March will be an important stage in pushing this process forward.
The RMT also have a special responsibility to take matters forward after their conference. However, Bob Crow, having correctly argued that trade union struggle was not sufficient and that a political alternative, a generalised struggle, was necessary, failed to draw the obvious conclusion that a new party is needed and that the RMT should initiate concrete steps towards founding one.
He put the main emphasis in his contribution to the conference on rebuilding a mass shop stewards' movement such as existed in the 1970s. Whilst this is an excellent objective, its achievement cannot be seen as a prerequisite before moving on to the creation of a new workers' party.
The shop stewards' movement in the 1970s arose out of the major class struggles taking place at the time. After the retreats of the 1990s, the layer of activists in the trade unions is still much thinner than it was then. It is being rebuilt as a new generation is drawn into struggle, and this is taking place more quickly in left-led unions such as the PCS and RMT.
However, the existence of a new party or pre-party formation, would undoubtedly increase the confidence of potential shop stewards and therefore actually help to speed the process up. And, indeed, it is through big struggles of the working class that the conclusions about establishing a new workers' party and the potential for such a new party will be realised.
The RMT significantly produced a special pamphlet for their conference about the Taff Vale dispute in 1900-01, which was a pivotal movement in the creation of the Labour Party. This dispute involved railworkers in a bitter struggle against rail bosses in south Wales in that period.
Despite forcing major concessions out of the bosses through strike action in a very bitter dispute, the employers went through the courts to extract huge fines from the union, nearly bankrupting it. All this was done with hardly a squeak of protest from the Liberals who trade union leaders had argued until that time were the friend of the working man.
The conclusion many trade union activists drew after that was there was no established party that would adequately defend workers' interests and a new party of the working class had to be established. In particular, they argued for increased support for the Labour Representation Committee.
Previous to that, major struggles of the working class in the 1880s and 1890s had given a big impetus towards achieving independent labour representation, with a few working-class MPs being elected as labour representatives. This had led to the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. Even then however, many of the big unions, including the biggest of the time the Miners' Federation, still supported Liberal MPs and other unions had a Lib-Lab approach supporting both Liberal and Labour candidates.
100 years on, there are some uncanny similarities, especially in the approach of the leaders of the major trade unions. They have donated over £100 million to Labour since 1997 and it has bought them zero influence, but there are differences as well.
Until now there has been no significant generalised major industrial action which has had the effect of radicalising the consciousness of large sections of working-class people. And, there is a hesitancy amongst some on the Left given the experience of the false starts towards a new party in recent years and the inadequacies of organisations like Respect. (Although there were similar false dawns in the years before the creation of the Labour Representation Committee).
But at the same time, there is an objective need for a new party or even a pre-party formation that could begin to represent working-class people.
The Socialist Party-initiated Campaign for a New Mass Workers' Party is an attempt to help overcome the confusion and hesitancy that exists over the issue of how to establish the beginnings of new party in the context of England and Wales - Scotland is a slightly different matter at this time given the existence of the SSP.
Already, the Campaign has won the support of hundreds of trade union representatives and activists who are not members of the Socialist Party. In Natfhe, the lecturers' union, for instance, nine members of its national executive have signed the declaration of the Campaign for a New Mass Workers' Party. A significant section of former Labour Party members, including the former election agent for the former leading Left MP Tony Benn, have signed up to the Campaign.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has agreed to speak at the Campaign's founding conference on 19 March - an event which is expected to attract hundreds of trade unionists, community and youth campaigners and representatives of various Left political parties.
The Respect Coalition, which until recently had the approach that it represented a fully-formed alternative for workers to vote for, has changed tack in recent weeks. This follows the backlash it has faced arising from George Galloway's time in the Big Brother House and, more importantly, the effect the Socialist Party and the Campaign for a New Workers' Party had at the RMT conference in January.
Most of the realities that pushed the founders of labour representation over a century ago into struggling for their own party -against enormous obstacles - are clearly present in New Labour's Britain. Perhaps the most important single issue is the attempts of big business to prevent working class people from organising to defend their pay and working conditions. The vicious legal repression of workers' democratic rights to organise and strike was one of the main factors that pushed trade unions to support the foundation of the Labour Party.
Workers who are organised in trade unions will play a key role in the formation of a new party. The fight for the repeal of the anti-trade union laws is likely to be central to the formation of a new party as it was in the early days of the Labour Party. However, a new party would also have to stand for the rights of millions of low paid workers who are unorganised.
There have been other significant sections of working-class people and youth that have begun to move into struggle in recent years over issues such as the Iraq war, campaigning against NHS cuts, the housing crisis and many others.
New party crucial
The Campaign for a New Workers' Party aims to bring together trade unionists, socialists, anti-capitalist young people, and community, anti-war and environmental activists. Its premise is simple - that the mainstream parties are all fundamentally representing the interests of big business - and that we urgently need to campaign for the establishment of a new party that represents the majority - the working class.
To that end, the Campaign will support and work with any genuine groups that stand in elections or campaign to advance the interests of working-class people. At the same time, the Campaign will support any steps in the general direction of the founding of a new party.
In Britain working class people, to some degree, still lack confidence in their collective power to institute change. Nonetheless, some important strikes have taken place.
In England and Wales, like many other countries, the foundation of a new mass workers' party is a crucial stage in the further development of the struggle. In the early 1900s, the socialist newspaper The Clarion described the Labour Representation Committee as "a cloud no bigger than the size of a man's fist". Nevertheless it led to the establishment of a mass workers' party.
Today's efforts may be the first drops of condensation contributing to that small cloud, but nevertheless, recent developments show the potential for advancing the process - which may be complex - towards a new mass workers' party.
Drawing on the historical lessons of over a century ago, the Socialist Party in England and Wales hopes to play its part in ensuring that the process of forming such a party occurs in a speedier fashion than it did in the late nineteenth century.
A clear strategy combined with a major upturn in the struggles of the working class could ensure that a new mass workers' party is created. Whatever the new party's imperfections - and there are likely to be many - this would represent a significant advance for the working class in Britain.