SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 178 April 2014

Don’t mourn, but organise for real

Following the deaths of socialist fighters Bob Crow and Tony Benn columnist Owen Jones took the opportunity to denounce the socialist left. Writing in The Guardian (15 March) he repeated the witch-hunter’s trope that Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party, "infiltrated Labour in the 1970s and 1980s". Here JOHN MCINALLY, vice-president of the PCS civil service union (writing in a personal capacity), answers that lie.

For the record, neither I nor anyone I met in the 1970s or 1980s ever considered we were ‘infiltrating’ Labour – it was our party. Militant was a legitimate Marxist tendency which advocated extending public ownership, including nationalising the banks, opposed racism, fascism and imperialist war, and campaigned for the socialist transformation of society. Don’t forget the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist organisation, was a key component in the founding of the Labour Party. Marxist ideas have a long and important history in the ‘people’s party’.

However, Labour was infiltrated – but not by socialists. The early 1980s was a period of industrial militancy with a real thirst for socialist ideas, especially among young people. This was because of the introduction of neo-liberal policies by Thatcher. Big business, the political establishment and media, along with right-wing union leaders, demanded the ‘sanitisation’ of Labour as a major strategic aim to establish a political consensus around the new neo-liberal orthodoxy. New Realism was the ‘strategy’ concocted to justify the betrayal of the miners, print-workers and others which seamlessly morphed into the openly pro-market New Labour which famously, in Peter Mandelson’s words, was ‘intensely relaxed’ about people becoming ‘filthy rich’.

The Labour Party had won massive concessions for the working class and its transformation into New Labour was a historic defeat. Today the Labour leadership supports arbitrary benefit caps and, if elected, is committed to Tory spending plans. Rather than seriously addressing this catastrophic situation, Owen Jones repeats the big lie that Labour’s woes stemmed from Trotskyists.

Owen ignores what does not fit within his pro-Labour narrative. He sneers at the ‘lost deposits’ of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) but fails to mention its successes and tremendous campaigning activity. Worse, he deliberately fails to mention that Bob Crow was not just a supporter but a major driving force in TUSC. Bob understood his labour movement history. He knew the Labour Party itself struggled electorally in its early days but prevailed because it advocated principled policies to improve the conditions of the working class and offered a genuine electoral alternative, not lesser evilism between the Tories and Liberals.

Over the last years, Owen has certainly articulated the impact of austerity. He has shown how socialist policies could work in improving life for the majority in society. However, when it comes to saying how these policies can be achieved all we get is ‘Vote Labour’. He actually precludes any other possible strategy.

Of the work of my union, PCS, in which the Socialist Party plays a crucial role, Owen makes no mention. Over many decades one of the strongest and most inclusive lefts in the trade union movement has been built. Owen neglects to mention the tremendous authority among workers won by our leadership, including general secretary Mark Serwotka. PCS has consistently fought the neo-liberal policies of the coalition government, but also those of the previous Labour one too. There is no mention of the twelve years of campaigning and industrial action to defend public services, or of our ‘There Is An Alternative’ platform which is now mainstream throughout the movement. No mention of our work on tax justice or welfare.

Owen does talk about the People’s Assembly. PCS is committed to making this a success. We believe it should campaign against austerity policies wherever they originate, including from Labour. As a union we will continue to argue within the People’s Assembly and elsewhere for the widest possible alliance in society to oppose austerity. We will also continue to press for the only real strategy to defeat austerity: joint, coordinated industrial action across the public sector, and in the private sector, too, where it can be delivered.

PCS’s strategy is not limited to industrial struggle. Following a major debate that reached branch level about the issue of political representation, PCS members voted for the option to stand candidates in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. This could be, for example, where no candidates represented the interests of our members and the public sector, and where the conditions on the ground were right for such an electoral campaign. Alongside Bob Crow and the RMT, I have participated in the TUSC steering committee – attempting to take steps in the urgent building of a mass political voice for workers.

PCS believes the People’s Assembly must be clearly and unequivocally committed to a full no-cuts, no-privatisation policy. But there is a real danger its role could be perceived as providing left cover for the neo-liberal Labour leadership. At its launch last year, only Mark Serwotka honestly put forward the absolutely critical necessity to galvanise the full power of the trade unions in building co-ordinated industrial action to defeat austerity. Owen and others claim the People’s Assembly should be a "non-sectarian space". Let’s hope that is not code for an effective exclusion zone for those of us who have consistently opposed all cuts, whether they come from Tory or Labour governments, or Labour councils for that matter.

Owen’s celebrity and influence places an important responsibility on his shoulders. Robust, even fierce debate is fine, but using the language of the red-baiting witch-hunter is not. This is not a matter of manners or sensibilities, it’s a class issue. Such language from ‘one of their own’ gives the green light to employers and right-wing trade unionists alike to attack socialists. Regrettably the real aim of Owen Jones’ article was to circumscribe the boundaries of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ criticism of Labour.

Dave Nellist writes:

It’s a shame that in an article of over 1,600 words Owen Jones couldn’t bring himself to seriously discuss the political projects that Bob Crow was actually involved in (Don’t Mourn. Organise, 15 March). But perhaps that fits a narrative Owen wishes to promote: that there is no future for any electoral politics outside Labour. Bob, however, saw the creation of a new political voice for working people, rooted in the organisations and communities of the working class, as an essential aspect of the struggle against austerity.

For the past four years we had worked together building the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in a project officially backed by the RMT itself. TUSC will stand hundreds of anti-austerity candidates in this May’s local elections in the biggest left-of-Labour challenge since the second world war.

Despite a number of approaches, Tony Benn didn’t agree with an electoral challenge to Labour (though he did appear in the 2009 electoral broadcast for No2EU). I think he should have left the Labour party, which had so clearly left him but, unfortunately, he disagreed. In his latter years, Tony was more a prisoner in New Labour, reduced to smuggling out notes through the bars. The socialist policies he stood for were killed off by successive Labour leaders from Neil Kinnock onwards, but they still exist in new projects, like TUSC and No2EU, co-founded by Bob Crow.

Dave Nellist, national chair, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

This was printed on The Guardian’s letter page on 16 March. But as we go to press there still hasn’t been a single article in the paper mentioning TUSC or its election challenge in May.

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