Preparing for the tests to come

Following the Socialist Party’s successful national congress, HANNAH SELL draws out some of the key issues that were discussed, particularly on the character of the developing waves of strike action, and also on the Socialist Party’s call for a new mass workers’ party.

The Socialist Party’s 2023 national congress took place from 25-27 February in London. Around 300 delegates and visitors attended. Longstanding Socialist Party campaigners were joined by many more recent recruits, some representing new branches of the party. There was a confident and combative mood, and agreement on the central political perspectives and organisational tasks facing the party. The main political statement presented by the executive committee (see Socialism Today issue No.264) was agreed with only one small amendment.

The high level of general agreement does not mean, however, that the congress resembled a ‘rubber stamp’. The discussions were very rich and helped to deepen the whole party’s understanding of perspectives for the next period and, above all, the role our party can play. In addition to the discussion on political perspectives for Britain, and a shorter discussion on the world situation, there were also important discussions on tasks for Marxists in the trade unions, the demand for a new mass workers’ party and preparing for the general election, fighting for socialist ideas among students, the role of party publications, plus sessions on finance and developing ‘party-builders’ in every branch.

The previous congress took place in May 2022, on the eve of the waves of strike action that have dominated the situation ever since. A new generation, across multiple sectors of the economy, has discovered the power of collective action. Strikes are at a higher level than at any time in the last three decades. Workers are joining trade unions that are fighting; with 32,000, for example, joining the education union NEU between their successful strike ballot and the first day’s action.

An important aspect of the congress was assessing the character of the strikes and perspectives for their further development, against the background of an economy in crisis and a very weak Tory government. By the time we met, it was already clear that, in the face of this rising tide of strikes, the government had been forced to abandon its previous approach of brittle intransigence and refusal to negotiate. However, the concessions offered so far have generally been extremely limited. Nonetheless, some unions have suspended action for talks, including four of the health unions. Meanwhile, a marginally improved pay offer has gone out to a ballot of RMT members on Network Rail, without recommendation, even while the attacks on terms and conditions continue. The Fire Brigades Union’s members have overwhelmingly accepted an improved – but still below inflation – pay deal.

However, the possible settling of some disputes does not mean that the upsurge in strike action is over. Some of the areas where action is currently suspended may be out again very soon if the small concessions by the government or employers are not enough. At the same time, a new wave of strikes is taking place. We are witnessing not one but multiple waves of action. While postal and rail workers have been fighting for over six months, school staff and civil servants have just entered the struggle. PCS strikers now include workers from the large HMRC group, who initially failed to overcome the legal turnout thresholds to strike but have now done so. Junior doctors have also joined the fray with an initial three days of strikes. Even more senior consultant doctors have held an unprecedented successful consultative ballot for action, and are threatening to move to a legal strike ballot next month.

The immediate trigger for the strike waves is the huge fall in real pay caused by inflation. This, however, comes on top of a prolonged period of pay restraint and savage cuts to public services. The feeling is widespread that services, particularly the NHS, are reaching ‘collapse point’. All of these factors are fuelling the strikes and the widespread support for them. One or other group of workers reaching a settlement is not discouraging others from joining the action, but rather adding fuel to the idea that striking works, even where the gains won have been quite modest. It is significant, for example, that the left-led Unison local government executive – which took no action over the 2022-23 pay deal and, in fact, recommended it to members – are now going straight to a strike ballot over this year’s virtually identical offer.

We have been through a historical period of retreat, where levels of union activism were low, and even left union leaders saw the 2016 anti-union laws, and their undemocratic turnout thresholds, as an insurmountable obstacle to large-scale national action. Year after year workers have endured real-terms pay cuts, with many public service workers suffering a 20% fall in their real incomes since 2010.

Combativity and organisation

The last year has marked a decisive end to that period, but an overhang from it remains in the low levels of organisation and high levels of inexperience when strikes began. However, workers up and down the country are discovering the methods of class struggle – strikes, but also the importance of picket lines, workplace reps, and democratic discussion on the way forward. In addition in some sectors – notably Amazon – workers are getting organised for the first time. Each individual pay rise won, or attack on working conditions halted, is an important victory. But the most important step forward from these struggles will be increased levels of working-class consciousness, combativity and organisation. Even if this is not reflected in a substantial increase in overall trade union membership, the unions will be enormously strengthened by the filling out of their structures with a new generation of activists.

Will this increased combativity result in workers’ ending exploitation in the workplace? Of course not. As Karl Marx’s co-thinker Friedrich Engels explained 142 years ago, in an article on the experience of Britain’s trade unions over their first sixty years of legal existence: “Have they succeeded in freeing the working class from the bondage in which capital – the produce of its own hands – holds it? Have they enabled a single section of the working class to rise above the situation of wage-slaves?” He goes on that “it is well known that they have not done so” but, nonetheless, trade unions are “a necessity for the working classes in their struggle against capital” and that “the great merit of the trade unions, in their struggle to keep up the rate of wages and to reduce working hours, is that they tend to raise the standard of life”.

Engels points to some sections of workers whose, “powerful organisation” had enabled them “to maintain a comparatively high standard of life as the rule by which their wages are measured” while others, “disorganised and powerless, have to submit not only to unavoidable but also to arbitrary encroachments of their employers: their standard of life is gradually reduced, they learn how to live on less and less wages”.

In these invaluable comments Engels summarises both the essential character of trade union organisation, as the first basic defence organisations of the working class in the workplace, and its limits. The Socialist Party, which has members across the trade union movement, at both leadership and rank-and-file level, fights for every possible step forward for the movement. That means fighting for victories in the current strikes, but above all to try to ensure that the trade unions come out of them with their organising ability strengthened wherever possible.

In many of the strikes our party caucuses are raising the need for escalation. This does not necessarily mean, however, proposing all-out, indefinite action in all circumstances. In every strike workers want to win the maximum possible victory with the minimum sacrifice in terms of lost wages and, particularly with public sector workers, the minimum disruption to the service they provide. Sometimes single days of action can be sufficient. For example, while escalation may prove necessary, up to now, the six single all-grades days of strike action on London Underground have stopped the management’s threat to implement attacks on pensions for a whole year. Where escalation is required, our members in the trade union argue for it, even if they are in a minority. However, we put our argument not in order to sound as ‘radical’ as possible, but in order to take the maximum possible number of workers with us. This can mean first escalating to two or three days before moving to all-out action, for example.

More generally, our demand for the whole trade union movement to launch a major strike fund to prevent any group of strikers being starved back to work is also part of helping to give workers the confidence to escalate action. Often unions are able to pay workers involved in local strikes higher strike pay. Unite, for example, generally pays £70 a day. We do not suggest that strike pay at this level is a prerequisite for effective action, which would rule it out for national strikes and unions with smaller strike funds. Nonetheless, the workers’ movement has to fight to minimise the fears of being unable to feed your kids, or losing your home, by making clear that no group of workers fights alone, and raising the need for collective financial solidarity. This approach, on an international basis, goes back to the dawn of the workers’ movement. The great London dock strike of 1889, for example, was enormously strengthened by financial support from the workers’ movement as far away as Australia.

24-hour general strike

Even more important than financial solidarity is coordinated action. The current strikes go beyond strikes against one individual employer for a wage increase. A central element, even of those that are in the private sector, are against the Tory government, and its attempts to make workers’ pay for the current crisis via forcing real wages down, and to introduce new, even more draconian, anti-union legislation. At the same time, other political demands, including increased funding for public services, and nationalisation of Royal Mail and the train network, are being raised by the strikes.

There is a comparison to be made with the strikes for an eight-hour day law to be introduced that Karl Marx commented on as being, “a political movement. And in this way out of the separate economic developments of workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the object of forcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force. While these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are in turn equally a means of developing this organisation”. (Letter to Bolte, 23 November, 1871) We call for a 24-hour general strike as a vital step in developing the organisation of the working class – its sense of its own power and unity around common demands. Such a strike would terrify the capitalist class, but also help increase the consciousness of the working class of its ability, as Marx put it, to force its interests in a general form.

That doesn’t mean there are no obstacles to it being achieved. The coordinated action on 15 March has taken place primarily because of the strong urge for unity from below. At the tops of the trade union movement, however, even this day of strike action involved limited coordination. Rather than leaving it to the decisions of individual general secretaries, we are campaigning for an immediate meeting of the elected executives of every union involved in action to discuss out the next steps of coordinated action. At the same time, our congress pointed towards the role our members have been able to play in some areas via local trades councils acting to bring together the reps from every sector involved in strike action in order to discuss how best to build solidarity. In other areas the National Shop Stewards Network has been able to begin to play this role.

In addition to general coordination, clearly coordination within sectors is vital. The two main unions in the rail industry, for example, the RMT and ASLEF, are facing similar issues on both national rail and London Underground. On London Underground, the ASLEF leadership, having left the battle to the often lower-paid RMT members over the last year, have now joined the fray. Socialist Party members argue for coordination between both unions at the top, but also at every level, which can help ASLEF members to put pressure on their leaders.

New mass workers’ party

Our congress discussions on how to increase the level of working-class cohesion did not only deal with the trade unions’ battle in the workplace, however. As Marx pointed out, in a strike wave, “out of the separate economic developments of workers there grows up everywhere a political movement”, and how to take that struggle forward – the fight for working-class political representation – was also a central part of our discussions, along with how that relates to also building the Socialist Party as a revolutionary, Trotskyist organisation.

The basic reason we argue for a new mass workers’ party is to aid what Marx called the ‘political movement of the working class’. For the working class to have its own party would very clearly be a step towards sensing its own power as a class; beginning to see itself as a governmental alternative. As Trotsky said, in discussion with supporters in the US during 1938, “in the United States the situation is the working class needs a party – its own party. This is the first step in political education”.

In our view, the Socialist Party’s call for a new mass workers’ party is a particularly important part of our programme at this stage. The strike movement is posing broad political questions, but the leadership of the trade union movement try to keep it within narrow immediate economic parameters. Fundamentally, that is because even those on the left cannot conceive of the working class taking power; they see the limits of the trade union movement’s role as putting pressure on the capitalist class and capitalist politicians.

And capitalist politicians are all that is currently on offer. The party which was founded by the trade unions, and historically was seen by wide sections of the working class as ‘their party’ – Labour – is clearly in the hands of reliable representatives of the capitalist class. Even the most right-wing trade union leaders do not feel able to openly argue that a Labour government is a way of meeting the needs of the working class but only call for a vote for Labour as ‘the least worst option’.

This reflects how differently Labour is seen today – when it is an out-and-out capitalist party – compared with the pre-Blair era, when it was a ‘capitalist workers’ party’, with a pro-capitalist leadership but mass working-class support. Some would argue that this is still the case today, given that Labour is currently around 20 points ahead in opinion polls. The reality is different, however. The main reason for voting Labour is not support for it, but because, in most areas, Labour is seen as the only viable means to defeat the increasingly hated Tories. A recent poll published by The Independent shows that a majority – 61% – of people agree that “a completely new type of political party to compete with the Conservatives and Labour for power” is needed, an indication of the deep lack of enthusiasm for Starmer’s pro-capitalist policies.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership there was an opportunity to reverse the Blairisation of the Labour Party, but that was not taken. However, the potential was shown in 2017, when the Labour vote increased by the biggest amount of any party in a single election since 1945, and millions of workers voted for Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto out of enthusiasm, rather than because it was the ‘lesser evil’. With Starmer in the driving seat that is no longer true.

Grasping opportunities

An illustration of this process is what has happened in recent parliamentary by-elections where it was the Liberal Democrats that were seen as the best means to defeat the Tories. In the 2022 Tiverton and Honiton by-election, the previously Tory seat was won by the Liberal Democrats with 22,537 votes – a 38% swing – whereas Labour’s vote fell to 1,562. This contrasts with 2017 when, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour came second in the constituency with 15,670 votes, whereas the Liberal Democrats slumped to 4,639. Even more dramatically, in the Chesham and Amersham by-election the year before, the Liberal Democrats defeated the Tories with 21,517 votes, a 30% swing, whereas Labour’s vote fell to 622 – just a 1.6% share! Again in 2017 Labour had come second with 11,374 votes.

Another example of the process, given at the congress, is the increase in votes for the Green Party in some areas, such as Bristol, where they are now the largest group on the council. Undoubtedly, the motivation of many of those voting Green is that they see them as a more left-wing alternative to Starmer’s Labour. However, the Green Party accepts the framework of capitalism and, whenever it has come close to power, has implemented pro-capitalist policies. At the end of last year, for example, the Scottish National Party-Green coalition government in Scotland voted through £1.2 billion in cuts, the biggest cuts package since the start of devolution. The Green Party is not an expression of working-class organisation; the trade unions have no democratic say over its policies.

In the wake of Starmer’s blatant declaration that Corbyn will not be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate, and his invitation for lefts to take the exit door, the need for the workers’ movement to found its own party could not be clearer. Even right-wing capitalist commentators can see it. Tory Lord Finkelstein, for example, writing in The Times, pointed first to the unprecedented situation of someone who was Labour leader in 2019 being banned from standing for them in 2023: “There isn’t, I think, a parallel in British political history. It is true that Labour expelled Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 and fought him in the election of that year. But that was because MacDonald had formed a national government with the Conservatives. Expelling a former leader of a major party just because they repeated the view they held when they were leader is without precedent. The Liberal Party didn’t even expel Jeremy Thorpe when he was put on trial for conspiracy to murder”.

Finkelstein goes on to argue that “Labour doesn’t want Corbyn. Starmer’s party will be ‘a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system’ rather than one ‘seriously concerned with socialist change’. There will never be another moment like this for the left. Never another moment where they have, outside the party, such a prominent leader, a household name (for good or ill) with a personal following”. Someone, he goes on, “who can associate himself with big progressive trends, including social liberalism and green economics, just as British attitudes have appeared to turn leftwards”. If they have confidence in their ideas, Finkelstein taunts the Labour left, they would launch a new party now.

Finkelstein is wrong to argue that this will be the only chance for a new party. Given the woeful prospects for British capitalism a Starmer-led government will be a government that oversees far more attacks on the working class than it does ‘modest social reforms’. The urgent need for a new working-class party will be posed even if no steps towards it are taken before a general election. Nonetheless, he is correct to say there is a significant opportunity now, at a time when over a million workers are involved in strike action and can see that the Labour leadership is unwilling to support them. And a time when, in a reversal of tradition, 40-year-olds are more left wing than they were at 20, as a result of their experience of what capitalism means for them: insecurity and low pay.

A list of trade union-backed candidates, including Corbyn and, potentially, other expelled or deselected Labour MPs, would have a real chance of winning a bloc of seats at the next general election. This would require a serious campaign, fighting as a minimum on the main planks of Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto, and explaining to voters that, at least in the bulk of constituencies being contested, the choice was between a genuine workers’ candidate or New Labour, with no likely possibility of ‘letting the Tories in’. In Islington North, for example, in 2019 Corbyn won with 64% of the vote, while the Tories were third with 10%. Such a campaign, even where it didn’t win seats, would lay the basis for the development of a new mass workers’ party under the next government.

Workers’ candidates

The Socialist Party congress agreed to campaign for every possible step towards such a party, not least by supporting motions at trade union conferences to enable the backing of candidates who stand in trade unionists’ interests. In Unite, the largest Labour affiliate, our members will be supporting a motion to change the rules in order to allow this. In Unite, freeing up the funds, rather than disaffiliation, is the most important question at this point in time. After all, if disaffiliation from Labour meant a retreat from politics, it would not in itself be a step forward. On the other hand the RMT, under Bob Crow’s leadership, did not disaffiliate from Labour but decided to start backing other socialist candidates, which then led to Labour refusing their affiliation. Even under Corbyn’s leadership the union did not re-affiliate because it rightly felt that, unless Labour’s rules were democratised and union rights restored, it could better support Corbyn’s leadership from outside the party. At the RMT conference this year, Socialist Party members will argue that the RMT should support Corbyn standing outside of Labour, along with other socialist and trade unionist candidates. We will take a similar approach in other unions.

Even if no more authoritative steps are taken towards a new party before the general election, the Socialist Party will still campaign, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), to ensure there is the widest possible working-class challenge at the ballot box. In these circumstances, TUSC candidates would be likely to get quite low votes. Not because of enthusiasm for Labour, but because such candidates will not represent, at this stage, a means to defeat the Tories, whereas Labour will be seen as doing so. There will be many workers, therefore, who agree with what we are saying, but still vote Labour.

In addition, both in the run-up to, and even more immediately after, the next election, there will inevitably be a tendency to ‘hope against hope’ that Starmer will reveal radical policies once elected. It is likely that, under pressure from below, he will announce at least a few positive sounding policies. Unfortunately, the majority of trade union leaders will point to these to try and hold back struggle under an incoming Labour government. It will therefore take a bit of time for the real character of a Starmer government to become clear. Nonetheless, there would be no prospect of any prolonged honeymoon, and its ability to hold back struggle will be shallow and limited.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the ‘we’ve got to vote Labour to get rid of the Tories’ mood at this election should stop workers’ candidates from standing. After all, that argument will still be put under the next Labour government, just in a different form. Discontent with a Labour government implementing austerity will undoubtedly create space for the growth of the right-wing populist forces that will emerge – one way or another – from the wreckage of the Tory Party. A new mass workers’ party opposing Labour from the left will be the only way to limit that process, but that won’t prevent the argument being put that it is necessary to vote Labour against the ‘greater evil’ of the right.

In raising the demand for a new party we are not answering the vital question about what the programme of such a party will be. Nor can that be answered in advance. Above all, a mass workers’ party would provide a forum for workers to test out, discuss and debate different programmes. The Socialist Party would work to build a new mass party, at the same time as organising in order argue for our revolutionary programme.

There could be circumstances, particularly, but not only, in the neo-colonial world, where revolutionary forces could be in the leadership of new mass parties from the moment of their formation. In general though, the mass of the working class will draw revolutionary conclusions on the basis of experience over time, combined with the intervention of revolutionary Marxists. In Britain, given the relative strength of the Socialist Party, it is possible that there would be attempts to keep us out of a new party by other forces on the left, afraid of the influence we could wield to shape its direction. With our roots in the workers’ movement, and long record fighting for a new mass workers’ party, this would be very difficult, however. Even if this was achieved by undemocratic rulings from the top, it would not prevent us orientating to, and discussing with, the membership of such a party.

New mass parties could be quite unstable and even short-lived. Under the impact of capitalist crisis, they can quickly be faced with adopting a clear socialist programme or, if they do not do so, facing decline, splits, or being replaced by more radical formations. However, if they provide a forum to test out the different programmes on offer in the workers’ movement they can be a crucial step towards the development of future mass revolutionary parties.

In essence our campaign for a new mass workers’ party is part of a ‘united front’ approach, which is absolutely vital to convincing broad sections of the working class of the correctness of our ideas. Such an approach means seeking unity in action to fight for a vital immediate step forward for the working class, while, of course, continuing to put forward our own programme. It is the Socialist Party’s seriousness in adopting this approach in every field – industrially, politically, and among young people – which has enabled us to take important steps forward in the last year, preparing the ground for the much greater opportunities ahead.