CHRIS BAMBERY talked about how a series of political issues have exploded over the past few months in Britain. This has exposed the bitterness against New Labour amongst two groups of people. ‘The first group would describe themselves as ‘Old Labour’ or centre left, but are now hostile to Tony Blair,’ he said. ‘The second group see themselves as anti-capitalist.’
He said there needed to be a ‘cross-fertilisation’ between those two groups. Chris continued, ‘Many of the Old Labour supporters will not join the Socialist Workers Party immediately, but will take Socialist Worker and want to be involved in common activities. Many of the people who describe themselves as anti-capitalist will join the SWP provided we are involved alongside them in campaigning over issues like the World Trade Organisation. Socialist Worker Student Society groups in the colleges should be wider than simply SWP members. They should be the place where students who are angry at the chaos of the world come to.
‘This is clearly not a time like May 1968, when the largest strike in history up to that point shook France. Politics today more resembles 1967, when many issues were radicalising people. Socialists were able to throw themselves into issues like opposing the Vietnam War, and convince people about socialism and how working class struggle was the key to ending such horrors.’
Chris argued that every SWP branch could build out of the political radicalisation by establishing a division of labour – one person solely responsible for organising sales and distribution of Socialist Worker, another for the finance of the branch, and so on.
In the discussion, a UNISON member from east London spoke of how people in her workplace were angry with Blair and the whole system. ‘There are some Labour Party members who are so disgusted with Blair they have ripped up their party cards. At the same time many of these people don’t feel confident to fight themselves,’ she said. ‘But there is also a new layer of workers who are fired up by issues like Third World debt. I had been selling about two or three copies of Socialist Worker at work each week. But after the Paddington crash I sold 20 papers in five minutes and went on to collect £220 for the Socialist Worker Appeal.’
A rail worker spoke of the mood after Paddington: ‘We could have shut down the rail and tube network if the trade union leaders had called for it. Instead they settled on talks with Prescott. But rank and file rail workers were angry, and we were able to organise a demonstration in London calling for renationalisation. That changed the political debate. When union leaders did finally call a demonstration they invited the editor of Socialist Worker to speak on the platform and talked about renationalisation.’
A delegate from Hackney in east London spoke of how, because her branch had built roots in the area, it was able to be at the forefront of the campaign for justice for Harry Stanley, who was shot by the police: ‘We were active in the defend council housing campaign and had organised anti-war meetings in the area.’
A Sheffield delegate told of how sixth formers at St Mary’s Catholic school, with a reputation for being right wing, had defaced a statue of the Virgin Mary and written a manifesto on the school chapel’s wall. ‘It said, ‘This school is run by hypocrites’, and that ‘all they care about is league tables’,’ reported the delegate. ‘We want those people at our meetings. Two weeks ago three sixth formers from St Mary’s joined the SWP.’
JOHN REES spoke about the campaign for London mayor: ‘Some people think that because Ken Livingstone supported NATO during the Balkan War we should now have nothing to do with him. But revolutionaries have to look at the totality of the situation. Livingstone has become a focus for tens of thousands of people who want to give Blair a bloody nose. They hate what Blair is doing to the Labour Party and to society in general.’
John talked about the united front, when workers and socialists of different views come together in common action against an enemy which threatens the whole working class. He said, ‘This always involves standing together with people who do not share our whole approach. This is what happened in the anti-war movement during the Balkan War.
‘It has happened before. In the 1930s in Germany, when the Nazis were pushing to come to power, the revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued for united action between revolutionaries and the SPD, the equivalent of the Labour Party. He said this even though the SPD leaders had organised the murder of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and had drowned the German Revolution in blood at the end of the First World War. It is crucial to identify who the main enemy is in every situation. The main enemy today is Blair. In the course of the campaign to get Livingstone elected we can help to shape its direction and to push for a broader socialist campaign.’
TONY CLIFF introduced a discussion about what kind of political period we are in. Cliff explained that we are not in a period of upturn, as in the early 1970s when workers were confident and on the offensive. He also argued that we are not in a period of downturn and defeat like the 1980s.
Rather, he said, we are in a period where ‘the strike situation remains very low, but people hold very political ideas. People’s ideas have moved to the left. But the class struggle doesn’t remain in the realm of ideas forever.’
In the discussion a delegate from east London talked about intervening in the recent walkouts at Ford Dagenham. ‘Workers were driven by the Stephen Lawrence campaign to challenge racism. We sold 44 copies of Socialist Worker around the Paddington crash to Ford workers. Our petition to defend Ken Livingstone went down really well. Things are paying off. Ford workers are contacting the party, thanking us for our leaflets and wanting more information.’
A worker in the print industry told how for five years he had tried to sell the paper with little success. But when he started relating to people’s bitterness and the political mood he began to pick up sales.
DAVE HAYES introduced a session on building the influence of socialist ideas in the workplace. He emphasised that previous discussions about relating to the ferment of ideas also applied inside workplaces.
Dave said, ‘Those who relate to the workplace just as trade union activists will be hopelessly at sea. We have to start from the ideological turmoil inside the working class. This can be over Stephen Lawrence and racism, or Indonesia and East Timor. We have to begin to dare inside workplaces and unions. There are signs of a bubbling mood inside the working class like the recent strikes at Ford and on the buses. We cannot predict how this will develop, but there is an urgency to build political influence now to prepare for those battles in the future.’
Among the 14 delegates who spoke in the discussion was a bus worker. He told of how the mood at work was much angrier than a year ago, and how he had increased his regular sale of Socialist Worker. ‘I took round petitions in the canteen around issues like Paddington. People didn’t just want to talk about how bad things were, but about what the alternative was.’
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