'MAKE NO mistake - we are witnessing a double crisis of the Blair government, and a turning point both nationally and internationally. The firefighters' strike is shaping up to be Blair's equivalent of the miners' strike of 1984-5. This is the most important few months for socialists since the 1980s. Bush is readying his troops in the Middle East. Blair is preparing his strike-busting plans.
'The Socialist Workers Party must also go on an emergency footing against Bush's war and in support of the firefighters. This is code red for every activist in Britain.' This was what Chris Harman, the editor of Socialist Worker, told hundreds of delegates from all over Britain at the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) conference last weekend.
The conference was the most exciting one for years. It looked different to previous ones, with many more manual workers, young people, and black and Asian people. It began three weeks after 400,000 people demonstrated in London against George Bush's planned war on Iraq, and the day after the announcement of the firefighters' overwhelming vote to strike. The buzz from those events ran through the conference.
Many delegates spoke of how important it was for the SWP to throw itself into building the movements against the war and in solidarity with workers. This means working with people from many different political backgrounds. The conference also agreed that today is the best opportunity to win people to socialist politics in a generation. The left is growing across Europe. But there is also a danger from the far right. Britain is no exception to this pattern.
In last week's mayoral elections the Socialist Alliance and the Nazi BNP both received substantial votes. The key issue internationally is Bush and Blair's drive to war. 'The core of the Bush administration is determined to attack Iraq,' said Alex Callinicos. 'This is a war to shape the future of US capitalism as the continuing dominant power in the world.'
Delegates also stressed that the war is a gamble for Bush and Blair. It is causing splits even at the top of New Labour, with former Labour chancellor Denis Healey talking about the war bringing down Blair.
Building the anti-war movement intensifies this political crisis. Protests against an attack on Iraq have brought the anti-capitalist mood to the streets of London. Delegates spoke of the way that the war drive had radicalised thousands of people.
'In Burnley we have three Nazi BNP councillors,' said Mary Black. 'People may think it would be hard to organise, but we are confident of building an anti-racist and anti-imperialist left. Around 350 people, Asian and white together, came to an anti-war meeting in the run-up to the demonstration.'
'The level of radicalisation is fantastically strong even in small towns like Blackwood in South Wales, where I live,' said Huw Williams. 'This term we have got 500 people to join the Stop the War Coalition at Manchester University,' Fergus Alexander told the conference.
'Labour MP Phil Woolas spoke at a Labour Club meeting at Liverpool University,' said student Kieran Crowe. 'He tried to justify war on Iraq in socialist terms. Our anti-war arguments won and made him leave in a huff. The Labour students came and talked to us, not him.'
The revival of working class struggle in Britain, seen in the election of left wing trade union leaders and the increase in strikes, shows the growing bitterness against Tony Blair. Delegates argued that the firefighters' strike was a key battle against the Labour government. The SWP should throw itself into building support for the firefighters.
Interaction between the firefighters and the anti-war movement is vital. Chris Harman concluded by saying, 'On the 31 October anti-war day of action we want student occupations against the war. We also want firefighters speaking in those occupations. We want hospital workers, postal workers, teachers, rail workers, council workers and many more to go to firefighters' picket lines. We want firefighters invited into as many factories, offices, depots, colleges and schools as possible. Socialists have been waiting 25 years for a situation like this. We have to seize the moment.'
Keep momentum up against war
THE SWP conference resolved to go all out to make the 31 October day of action the biggest show of opposition possible against the war. The Stop the War Coalition is one of the most successful broad campaigns Britain has seen.
Delegates recognised the important role the SWP has played in the coalition, and the need to continue to build the coalition and the movement against war. 'The 28 September demonstration was a historic protest,' said Lindsey German. 'It has inspired people internationally and had a huge impact in Britain. A mass movement is taking off. But to stop war on Iraq we need to build an even bigger movement than the one we have built so far. We can't let the momentum go.' Delegates spoke of their success in building the coalition and their plans for the day of action.
'In Birmingham 28 September was an incredible success, as we brought 102 coaches of demonstrators to London,' said Lynne. 'The challenge for 31 October is to match the numbers involved and go beyond it. We want to strengthen the movement in the workplace and among trade unions.'
'In Liverpool the coalition organised a meeting of 300 last November, 450 in September, and a film showing of 150 in between,' said Mark. 'My mobile phone has been red hot with people asking what's happening next week.' 'Scarborough has become a hotbed of political activity in the last year,' said Susan. 'We're attracting loads of creative young people who want to take part in direct action.' Hannah, a student at a north London school, told the conference of the success she'd had in the school: 'I organised an anti-war meeting which 30 people came along to. We've had an anti-war assembly. Loads of students, all between 11 and 18, came on the 28 September march. Now we're organising for 31 October.'
'There's been lots of activity in Walsall against the war,' said Azra. 'We have to sustain that.' 'When I went to my first Stop the War Coalition meeting I was a member of the Labour Party,' said Tom from Leicester. 'Now I'm a member of the SWP. 'Thousands of people will leave the Labour Party if there is war on Iraq. The Socialist Alliance and the SWP can offer them a political home.'
THE international reshaping of the socialist movement was shown by the fraternal greetings brought to the conference by members of European organisations. They included representatives from the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire of France, Rifondazione Comunista from Italy and the Scottish Socialist Party.
Forums in your area
MANY SPEAKERS stressed the need to set up new structures to help socialists rise to the challenge of the new situation. A delegate from Bristol said, 'I've been in the Socialist Workers Party for 30 years. This is the most exciting time I've experienced.'
People talked about the huge potential to build networks of socialists in many new areas. The conference agreed a method for putting that plan into action. This started with building Stop the War Coalition groups, activities for the 31 October anti-war day, and also firefighters' support groups.
The conference also agreed there was an urgent need to set up regular fortnightly Marxist forums. These are a chance to debate radical revolutionary ideas.
'People can attach themselves to these meetings and feel it is their home even if they have not joined the Socialist Workers Party yet,' said Chris Bambery. Delegates from Liverpool to St Albans reported that the Marxist forums were popular with a range of people, from new people to longstanding members.
Alongside the forums the conference agreed it was necessary to hold organising meetings in the weeks between Marxist forums. These could organise distribution and sales of Socialist Worker, and coordinate other activity.
Colin Barker from Manchester said, 'We need to be able to focus on activity and organise what we do. It is somewhere people can get connected to a network of members.'
The new spirit of resistance
'WE ARE seeing the beginning of collective working class action again. That is what is at stake.' That is how Dave Hayes stressed the crucial and exciting revival of working class militancy in Britain.
He listed struggles which had taken place through this year - ranging from South West Trains workers to teachers and council workers. 'This is already the best year for strike action in the last 13 years, and that is before the firefighters take action,' Dave said.
He stressed the importance of the election of the new generation of left trade union leaders, dubbed the 'awkward squad' by the government. 'Their election represents the desire of hundreds of thousands of activists for change.'
Dave argued that these union leaders had raised a political challenge to Blair. This wasn't just over defeating Blair at Labour Party conference on privatisation. Many have also come out against the war on Iraq. 'New Labour is forcing the new union leaders to take a stand,' argued Dave. 'But these leaders are under pressure from the top and the rank and file. That means organising among the rank and file. We have no time to lose.'
In an exciting discussion, a range of workers enthused about the new militant mood. London firefighter Neale Williams said, 'The mood inside fire stations is explosive. Everybody is wearing T-shirts in support of the strike, and the managers don't know what to do. This is the most important battle under New Labour. It could open up a pay battle for all public sector workers. It is creating political generalisation - outside Watford fire station there's a sign saying 'Make peace at home, not war abroad.'
'Years ago firefighters' protests used to be like military marches. Today they're like anti-capitalist demonstrations, with the whistles, flags and banners.'
Mick Saxby, a manual worker in east London's Newham council, said, 'Our strike in the council shows how you can make an instant impact on the picket line. There were mostly agency workers - who are normally fearful of going on strike - on that picket line, and I have become a shop steward for those workers. We have now created 46 jobs for those long term agency staff, and it has inspired the whole union branch.'
A worker from the TSSA rail union said, 'Things are changing. Imagine how demoralising this is for Richard Rosser, the pro-Blair general secretary of my union. He is due to retire, and completely unexpectedly the man he was grooming to take over has left the scene. The left feels it has a chance to make our union more militant.'
Conference loudly applauded a delegate when he spoke about his strike at Arriva Trains Northern. One London print worker said many trade unionists went with a delegation of workmates to the anti-war demonstration in London last month.
'This was the first time we've done anything like this in 16 years. At work after the demonstration many people asked me what it was like.'
Willie Black, a Scottish AEEU/Amicus member, spoke about 'the glow' union members still felt about Derek Simpson's successful campaign against Blair's favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson There were 89,000 who voted for him, but it cannot be just one success and no more. We have to build independent organisation beyond Derek Simpson that is based on rank and file workers,' said Willie.
Rank and file organisation, solidarity with firefighters
DONNA GUTHRIE, a council worker in east London, captured the excitement of the new mood in the workplace. 'The mood to the left among workers has meant things have shifted in my union branch, which has traditionally been very right wing,' said Donna.
'I went to the anti-capitalist protest in Genoa, which I thought was fantastic. Now it feels just as fantastic to be in the union.' Martin Smith emphasised the urgency to relate to this mood when he introduced a session about organising among rank and file trade unionists. He pointed to the success of papers like Post Worker, Red Watch and Across the Tracks.
These rank and file papers are written for and by networks of ordinary workers in particular industries. One postal worker delegate stressed the role of these papers, saying, 'It gives socialists the arguments in the workplace.
'Our branch has subscribed to Post Worker, and it is now distributed to every place in the area.' A postal worker from Essex also praised the role of Post Worker, saying, 'It's an independent voice inside the sorting offices.'
Delegates agreed to make it an urgent priority to build support groups in every area, town and city to raise solidarity with the firefighters. 'What we do will make a difference. There should be support groups in lots of places in every town and city. We have to think big,' stressed Martin Smith. 'The dispute could smash through the legacy from years of defeats.'
THOSE AT conference were also urged to send in reports and photographs of strikes locally so that Socialist Worker could reflect the new mood among workers.
SWP members can get a full record of decisions made at the conference from the national office-phone 020 7538 5821.