What do we mean by a Workers Party?

Submitted by AWL on 12 August, 2003 - 7:50

by Gerry Byrne

It seems almost flavour of the month. Everyone is declaring for a Workers Party. But it could have two distinct meanings, and it’s important to distinguish the two and work out what is the relation between them.
It could mean a party that is organisationally and organically based on the working class, created from the trade unions and other working class organisations to represent the working class in the political arena. This says nothing about the politics of such a party. Inevitably, as a mass party, its politics will be disputed. Different political currents will fight for political dominance.

But there is another sense in which a party could be a workers party: in that its politics represent the distinct interests of the working class, i.e. a revolutionary Marxist, communist party. This says nothing about its actual class base, or whether it has a mass following.

There are obstacles in the way of both sorts of workers party. In the first sense, the problem is the Labour party. Formed out of the unions, a hundred years ago, in response to anti-trade union laws, funded by the unions, with the passive and increasingly grudging allegiance of millions of workers at election time, it can’t be just wished away. It is true that in its antiunion laws and its anti-working class policies it is all but indistinguishable from its Thatcherite predecessor. Its government is the most anti-democratic, dragging us into an imperialist war and occupation, against the hugest popular opposition in history. To declare for a workers party means having to say something about what to do about the Labour Party.

For a brief moment just before the war started, with an unprecedented Labour back-bench revolt, Labour MPs looking nervously to their seats, it seemed possible that the party would split. The new left trade union leaders, like Tony Woodley (TGWU) and Derek Simpson (Amicus) talk of ‘reclaiming the Party’, for the unions to exercise their long-neglected power. The reality, though, is that neither left MPs nor union leaders have the stomach for a fight. They have resolutely opposed any move to no-confidence Blair. None of the unions, even the RMT, have dealt with their members on the Labour NEC who have voted all along the line with Blair, against their union’s policy. The constituency parties are dead. The structural changes in the LP mean it is nigh on impossible for the democratic will of the members to affect the policy of the Party, even less so the government. It is the opposite situation from the early 80’s when activists from campaigns flooded into the Party and began moves to democratise it. Now the few remaining activists are tearing up their cards and immersing themselves in campaigns. But still any new mass party will have to win over sections of the LP.

So what of a workers party of the other type, the most conscious embodiment of independent working class politics? The biggest problem here is that all the little grouplets think they are already it! Sometimes explicitly, sometimes in practice.

The Socialist Party calls for a ‘new workers party’ by which them mean themselves alone. They take a sectarian attitude both to the Labour Party and the rest of the left. The Socialist Workers Party (the give-away is the name) believe they are it and have abandoned working class politics in favour of cross-class alliances. Their behaviour since the SA conference, their contempt for other forces in the SA, their explicit rejection of class politics as the basis for standing in elections, mean as an organisation they are diametrically opposed to building a party based on w/c politics.

So what’s left?

In Solidarity 3/26 Unite the Left to meet the new challenge, we wrote:
‘There are openings for the growth of the revolutionary left such as we have not had for two decades. The tremendous upsurge of opposition to Bush’s and Blair’s war on Iraq, together with the rise of the anti-capitalist movements and the as yet limited, but radically important, revival of real trade unionism in Britain, have combined to create this situation.

A united revolutionary left organisation could now hope to recruit and politically educate thousands of new people. We have opportunities—and also dangers, in the first place the pressing danger that this chance will be missed. It will be criminal if we let ourselves miss it.’

And in practice? ‘The Fake Left Continues to Rot’, ‘crazies’, ‘morons’, ‘loonies’. Is it any surprise that people who are described as some kind of human sewage are reluctant to unite with us? A good rule of thumb in politics, as in cards, is ‘follow the moves not the talk’.

Roughly a third of the SA conference voted for the ‘Workers party’ resolution and for a SA paper (a similar proportion, though not exactly identical, as voted at the Euro conference for an independent w/c ‘active boycott’ on the euro vote). Many stayed for the post-conference fringe meeting, wanting to take the first steps towards a workers party (as yet undefined). An opportunity was missed - criminally.

But the SWP handed us a reprieve. By their high-handed attitude in Birmingham, their contempt for the SA in pursuing secret negotiations (so far fruitless) with the mosques and the CPB, they have alienated further sections of the SA, who had voted with them at the conference. It is not only possible, but urgent, to organise these forces, on explicitly w/c socialist politics and a commitment to work democratically. On their own, these pitifully small forces do not form the basis of a workers party of the first type. But they are already (or can be) persuaded of the need of a such a party, organically rooted in the class. They can be a springboard to take that call into the labour movement, to begin the debate to articulate what are the necessary class politics to challenge the Blairite domination of the movement. And in that task, a paper would be an asset to unite these forces.

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