Sunday transport problems meant that, as the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) conference began many people were still arriving for the meeting and were squashed into the back of an overcrowded hall. Others couldn’t fit into the hall, at all. They had to sit in an overspill cafe and listen to the conference over speakers - which, unfortunately, only worked intermittently!
Despite such organisational glitches - which came from having an oversubscribed conference - the CNWP launch was a resounding success. More than 450 people attended, most of who hold local or national positions in trade unions and community campaigns.
In opening the conference, Socialist Party Councillor Dave Nellist said there was a glaring need for a new party - that represented the millions not the millionaires. He added that the existing three mainstream parties (New Labour, Tories and Liberals) were so similar, with their sleaze and anti-working class policies, that it was more like one party with three wings.
Dave reported that more than 1,300 people had now signed up to the ‘Declaration for a New Workers’ Party’ from 25 different trade unions and community campaigns. He read messages of support to the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party conference from Brian Caton, General Secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, a NATFHE Executive and Labour Party member, Pat Sikorski, Assistant Secretary of the RMT (rail workers’ union), and Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the FBU (fire-fighters’ union), all of whom were unable to attend the conference.
Sultans of sleaze
Tony Mulhearn (Liverpool City Councillor 1984 - 87 and President of Liverpool District Labour Party 1979 -85) was the first speaker. He declared that revulsion and disgust at New Labour - the "sultans of sleaze" - had reached unprecedented levels. Tony explained that we needed to build a movement capable of translating the language of socialism into jobs and homes, just as Liverpool City Council had in the past. We needed to build a party that would act as a pole of attraction to the disenfranchised, as had been done by the socialist Labour council in Liverpool.
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the civil servants’ union, the PCS, began by congratulating the organisers on a magnificent turnout. He emphasised the need for a political alternative to New Labour - highlighting the one million workers who will be taking strike action to defend their pensions, on 28 March, the cuts and redundancies in the NHS, and the continuing brutal occupation of Iraq.
Mark went on to raise points on how a new alternative will be created. He emphasised that the majority of national trade union leaders still argue that they have to support New Labour as the ‘only show in town’. In the last six months, 14 unions had given £1,634,000 to New Labour - yet many of those unions are having to taking strike action to defend their members against the government’s attacks on their pension rights.
Mark argued that a new party is necessary and that we don’t want two or three alternative parties competing against each other. He welcomed the fact that the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) had held talks with Respect - and argued that the process should continue because more unites us than divides us.
Claus Ludwig, a member of and councillor for Socialist Alternative (SAV-CWI), in Cologne, Germany, and also a founding member of the new party, Election Alternative for Work and Justice (WASG), explained the important developments that are taking place in Germany. Against a background of vicious attacks on the living standards of working class people, the new WASG party - standing on a joint list with the PDS (Left Party) - received 8.7% of the vote, and got 54 MPs elected, in the recent general election. There are now 12,000 members in the WASG.
However, a debate is taking place over a proposal to merge with the Left Party (the former PDS) and, in particular, on what programme a merger would take place. Everyone agreed with the need for the maximum, principled left unity. However, the Left Party was part of the city government in Berlin and had been carrying out neo-liberal attacks on the working class, including lowering wages in the public sector and privatising public housing.
Talking about socialism on Sunday and carrying out cuts during the week was no way forward. Any joint election list should be around building a fighting, class struggle-based party and that would mean the Left Party leaving the Berlin city government first.
Hannah Sell, spoke on behalf of the Socialist Party Executive Committee, to explain why the Socialist Party had initiated the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party. She argued that New Labour’s latest sleaze scandal was the inevitable consequence of a party that was in the pockets of big business. Big business had been trying to buy off the leaders of the Labour Party since its inception, with some success, but had now clearly taken over the party, lock, stock and barrel.
She added that the Socialist Party would argue in any new party that MPs and other public representatives should only take the average wage of the workers that they represented, to help ensure they remain in touch with working people.
Hannah reported that most of the press coverage for the conference had suggested a new party would be launched during the weekend. However, the Socialist Party was not proposing this. Nor is the Socialist Party proposing that an electoral coalition be launched as a step towards a new party - although the Socialist Party and others were standing in the local elections and she hoped CNWP campaigners would support these candidates.
She emphasised that it is precisely because the Socialist Party is serious about fighting for a new party that it was not arguing to launch one at the conference. After the false starts of the 1990s (such as Arthur Scargill’s SLP), we want to make sure that this time a new party is launched correctly.
The Socialist Party hoped that from the conference everyone would go away and strain every nerve to argue for the idea of a new party. As the early history of Labour in Britain demonstrated, the process towards the foundation of a new party could be complicated.
A mass party is needed - tens of thousands strong. But the Socialist Party did not suggest that we delay moving towards a party until those numbers were assembled. We want to draw into activity a significant number of trade union activists, young people, community and environmental campaigners and anti-war activists - a process which had already started with the conference. We should come back to the next conference and discuss they way forward.
Hannah also emphasised that the Socialist Party would argue that the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) should encourage and support any initiatives taken by trade unionists towards a new party.
On Respect, Hannah reported on the discussion that had taken place recently between the representatives from the Socialist Party and Respect, and the Socialist Party’s request to try and avoid electoral clashes and clashes of trade union conference fringe meetings. She emphasised that the Socialist Party, while it welcomed George Galloway’s election, as a Respect MP in Tower Hamlets, London, did not believe that Respect had solved the problem of working class representation.
Hannah briefly touched on the Socialist Party’s criticism of Respect. However, she added that, notwithstanding these criticisms, the Socialist Party had asked Respect to support the CNWP and hoped that they would do so.
Hannah commented that it would be a mistake to try and predetermine the structure and programme of a future new party at the conference. She argued that this would pre-empt the views of workers who will be involved in founding a new party. A programme and structure would come out of a process of democratic debate, leading to clear agreement amongst all the forces involved, at the time of a new formation being launched.
The Socialist Party believes it is crucial that if a new formation is to be successful it has to be open, democratic, and welcoming, not just on paper, but in practise. The Socialist Party believes that the best way to achieve this is by a federal approach (the approach adopted by the Labour Party in its early years) which would allow the coming together of many different organisations and trends, preserving the rights of all to organise and argue for their particular points of view.
Finally, Hannah emphasised that a party would have to represent a fundamental break with the big-business parties which currently dominate politics. It would have to stand up against privatisation, against cuts and for workers’ rights.
To be a party for the millions, it is necessary to stand up to the multinationals, which dominate every aspect of people’s lives. The Socialist Party would argue that a new party adopt a socialist clause calling for democratic public ownership of the vast conglomerates that dominate the economy.
The conference discussion began with the moving of resolutions.
Roger Bannister, who sits on UNISON’s National Exective Committee, the largest public sector union, moved the Socialist Party resolution, which detailed the points made in outline by Hannah.
Pete McLaren moved the Socialist Alliance resolution, which called for signatories to the ‘Declaration’ to be grouped geographically to contact local activists, to meet and elect local Interim Committees.
The Reading CNWP group moved a resolution calling for any new party to be open, inclusive, democratic and representative. It must appeal to anti-war activists, those that campaign on environmental issues, pensions and against racism. It called for no single group to be allowed to dominate, and mechanisms to ensure democratic policy making. All of these resolutions were passed.
Another five resolutions were defeated. They raised a number of issues; however, the central discussion was around the question of what the programme of a new party should be. For example, two of the defeated resolutions argued that a new party must be based upon "revolutionary Marxism" or a programme "to set out a strategy for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of working-class power".
Lois Austin explained why the Socialist Party could not support these resolutions. She said that to do so would pre-empt a discussion amongst those forces who would found a new party.
The crucial thing is that a new party should involve the working class and pull in trade union and community activists who are looking for an alternative. It has to be a party that understands and takes account of the different moods and levels of understanding of those most combative sections of the working class who would join it.
Lois answered those that say the party should be clearly a "revolutionary socialist party" at the outset. She said that it is a big leap for people to go from being anti-privatisation, anti-capitalist and anti-war, to understanding the need for fundamental revolutionary change. Different sections of the working class would draw those conclusions at different speeds.
That is why a new mass party, which brought together workers in common struggle, and allowed an open discussion and debate on ideas, would be an enormous step forward and a crucial part of developing working-class consciousness, even if its programme is initially quite limited.
It is not a question of hiding our ideas or programme but rather of not imposing them on a new party being formed.
Judy Beishon also spoke for the Socialist Party, and explained why we would argue for a clear socialist clause in the programme of a new party. But even if this was not initially agreed, the party would be a big step forward if it was clearly anti-cuts and anti-privatisation and involved important sections of the working class.
Following the moving of the resolutions, there was a wide-ranging discussion on these and other issues.
In the course of the discussion Alan Thornett was invited to address the conference for ten minutes on behalf of Respect.
Speakers from the floor included Paul Sutton, a councillor in Stoke, Glenn Kelly, UNISON NEC, Rob Williams, Convenor of the Visteon car plant, Marion Lloyd, PCS NEC, a Green Party activist, and James, a health service campaigner from Cardiff.
(Note: all trade union representatives spoke in a personal capacity).
The following officers were elected for the campaign:
- Secretary: Roger Bannister, UNISON NEC (personal capacity) and Socialist Party
- Chair: Dave Nellist, Coventry Socialist Party councillor
- Vice-Chair: Kevin Kelly, Vice President PCS (personal capacity)
- Vice-Chair: Jeremy Dewar, Workers’ Power
- Press Officer: Pete McLaren, Socialist Alliance
- Treasurer: Fiona Pashazadeh, Socialist Party
- Trade union liaison officer: Glenn Kelly, UNISON NEC (personal capacity) and Socialist Party
- Assistant Secretary: Hannah Sell, Socialist Party
In addition a wider Steering Committee was elected.
Building the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP)
The following resolution, moved by the Socialist Party, was agreed at last weekend’s CNWP conference:
We will actively support any initiatives towards the development of a new party. In particular, we will encourage those trade unions and trade union leaders that no longer believe that New Labour can represent their interests to take active steps towards founding a new party.
We reaffirm our support for the declaration for a new workers’ party and will continue to use it as a means to build the impetus for the idea of a new party.
We aim to have at least 5,000 trade union, community and anti-war activists signed up by the end of 2006. We recognise that there are many important points not included in the declaration but we think it would be premature at this stage to start deciding what should, or should not, be added to the declaration. Instead it would be better to keep a minimal declaration and concentrate on building momentum for the campaign.
However, it is important to emphasise that any future new party, if it is to be successful, must be something completely different to the existing neo-liberal order. As we state in the Declaration, a new party would need to represent a fundamental break with the big-business parties which currently dominate politics, giving workers the opportunity to resist the neo-liberal capitalist agenda and fight for a socialist programme - including a living minimum wage, full trade union rights and for fully funded, democratically controlled public services.
We agree to establish affiliation to the CNWP. Affiliation for national organisations will be £50 and for local community, trade union and campaigning organisations £25. All national affiliated organisations with 100 or more members would have a seat on the steering committee.
We appeal to local community, trade union and campaigning organisations to invite CNWP speakers to their meetings.
We organise a CNWP speaking tour in May, out of which we aim to develop local CNWP campaigns in those areas where they don’t yet exist.
We organise CNWP fringe meetings at as many trade union conferences as possible.
We give support to genuine socialist and anti-cuts, anti-privatisation campaigns in the local elections.
We ask the steering committee to act to develop the campaign as far as possible and call a second national conference, by the end of March 2007, at the latest, to assess the progress we have made and look at how we take the campaign forward from here.