Thursday, February 16, 2006

United in Liverpool, time for a party

Fellow-blogging comrade Dave Renton commented recently on the return of Robbie Fowler to Liverpool FC. I'm off to Liverpool myself this weekend, and though I'm not going to the Liverpool-Man U. match there is a connection.

On 29 September 1995, Liverpool dockers refused to cross a picket line and were dismissed by the Mersey Docks and harbour Company. For two and a half years the dockers fought for re-instatement, winning support around the world and seven seas, and from all kinds of people in Britain, notably youngsters such as those around Reclaim the Streets who respected their stand for justice.

But here in Britain the dockers' need for solidarity was up against the Tory government's docks casualisation and anti-union laws, which union leaders were reluctant to challenge. They also faced a media blackout. Dockers who travelled abroad to win support found people in other countries had heard more about their struggle than many people in England.

During the strike some tee shirt were designed to raise funds and show support, incorporating the Calvin Klein 'CK' into the word dockers. It was young Robbie Fowler who scandalised BBC commentators and FA bosses (who fined him), but won the hearts of his fellow-scousers, by scoring in a Cup Winners Cup game in 1997, then lifting his Liverpool shirt to reveal a dockers tee shirt before the TV camera. (That year, he also won a UEFA Fair Play award for proving he was a good sport by admitting he had not been fouled at Highbury after a penalty had been given). I'm no good at football, but I've got the same tee shirt.

In February 1998, having seen the back of the Tory government only to have a Labour government do nothing for them (notably not using its "golden share" in the dock company to help them win re-instatement), the dockers were forced to settle. But they have not gone away, and their struggle has not been forgotten, even if the Blair government and some union leaders wish it were.

The sacked dockers aren't the only bunch of scousers who have stuck around to embarrass supporters of this government. On March 12, 1987, despite massive support and demonstrations of upward of fifty thousand on the streets of Liverpool, five Law Lords upheld the decision of an unelected district auditor to surcharge and expel 47 elected Labour councillors from office . During their period in office the 47 left-wing councillors had tried to put their socialism into practice, and help those who put them in, by building 5,000 homes, creating thousands of jobs, and opening more nurseries than any other city. Unlike wealthy Tory Dame Shirley Porter in Westminster, they had not sold off council-owned cemeteries for peppercorns, or tried to used house sales for gerrymandering; but they refused to pass the burden of Tory policies on to working people. For this, they and their city were penalised. Faced with imprisonment, bankruptcy, and victimisation, they could not shift themselves and their money abroad out of the way, as Dame Shirley did. Nor did they get loyal help from their party. Quite the opposite.

Labour is due to celebrate its centenary this year. In the 1906 general election nearly 30 Labour MPs were elected, helped by a pact with the Liberals. Operating as a team they influenced the Liberal government to the extent that that year it passed the Trades Disputes Act (setting aside the Taff Vale judgment which had rendered unions liable for strikes by members); a Workmen's Compensation Act, and an act enabling local councils to provide free school meals for deprived children. In 1908 the Right to Work Bill was introduced, requiring employment or payment for the unemployed. It was not utopia, nor revolution, but it meant unions had entered politics to win their rights, and asserted themselves, not just for their own members but for the whole working class.

It was after the First World War and Russian Revolution that Labour adopted the famous Clause IV, part 4, to its constitution, aiming (4) To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

When I joined the Labour Party as a teenager it was still possible to believe that , despite what my dad told me about Ramsay MacDonald, and the postwar Attlee government, Labour stood for reforms and public ownership, to benefit the working class, and that it ultimately aimed at socialism and equality. There it was in black and white on your Party card, and the 1960 Labour Party conference fought off Hugh Gaitskell's attempt to get rid of the Clause, just as it pledged that Labour would rid us of nuclear weapons.

Whatever the arguments now about what Labour was, no one can pretend it is the same. Clause IV went, and no one can believe that's just a matter of words, as the Blair government takes privatisation into places even Thatcher did not reach, treats trades unionists with contempt, and wages war on restrictions safeguarding workers' rights in the EU as ruthlessly as it does on civil liberties, and on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Trade unions like the TGWU, which swung the party to the Left in 1960 have little say any more, but are expected to swing their members into line.

Since New Labour took office in 1997, many people could see the need for an alternative, but few could seriously pretend that any of the numerous left groups spawned in past decades provides it. Trades unionists shook their heads at the multiplying variety of rival paper sellers, each claiming to be the "vanguard". Young people see "politics" as irrelevant or corrupt, and either express their rebellion in unconscious and destructive ways, or if they do decide to get involved, its in the anti-war movement, solidarity campaigns, and causes like War on Want, which seemed to offer direct ways to help rather than waiting for some politician.

One attempt to overcome the weakness of the groups and meet the need for a credible alternative was the Socialist Alliance. It stood candidates (one councillor elected), got people working together who'd previously not spoken to each other, attracted disaffected Labour Party members, some union activists, rights campaigners and journalists. Its first election broadcast was impressive. But the Socialist Alliance was handicapped by the conservatism of "revolutionaries", each sect jealously guarding its own positions, putting off outsiders, and blocking anything like a joint journal that would suggest the Alliance was becoming a party. The Socialist Party (ex-Militant Tendency) had initiated the Alliance, but its supporters walked out when they saw the Socialist Workers Party(SWP) taking over, thus giving the latter a walkover.

Although SWP members were enthusiastic and hard working, their leaders saw the Alliance as just a temporary stop gap, while they pursued backstage negotiations with those they considered more important. From these dealings emerged Respect, for which the Alliance was scrapped and dumped. It was billed as "the party of the anti-war movement", but though the SWP also dominates the Stop the War Coalition (and kept Socialist Alliance speakers off its platforms!), they haven't been able to drag it behind this bandwagon. Just lately Respect looked more like a pantomine horse, with Gorgeous George Galloway cavorting at the front, and the SWP in undignified position at rear, with no influence on the direction it just has to follow.

Meanwhile in Liverpool, a couple of years ago, some of the sacked dock shop stewards began talking to some of the victimised left-wing councillors about the possibility of a political alternative to challenge New Labour. The discussion was joined by Socialist Party members and ex-members, and comrades who had opposed the liquidation of the Socialist Alliance. Mindful perhaps of what had happened to the Alliance, as well as what might make an impression on the doorsteps in Liverpool, they decided to move right ahead and form a party, without waiting till they had the perfect programme, and they called upon those joining to disband their separate parties and work together, with one paper.

The Socialist Party, once again, veered off to pursue its own "campaign for a mass workers party". With it stayed many of the Liverpool 47. Some of the groups who'd been in the Socialist Alliance also baulked at the idea of giving up their own papers, or claims to be the Party, for something based not on the "correct" theory which they alone possess, but merely on major workers' struggles. Some are now trying to rebuild the Socialist Alliance, others clinging to the backside of Respect.

But besides some of the 47 councillors, the United Socialist Party launched by the dockers has attracted some ex-Labour dissidents from the Midlands, and Socialist Alliance members including Trotskyists who worked with the dockers during their two and a half year strike, and kept up contact afterwards. It was aggreed that the occasional paper "Unite", a successor to the "Dockers Charter", become organ for the USP. (A new magazine, Socialist Studies was also started last month).

Because Britain was the first industrial country, trade unions had a head start on the political movement for socialism. Marxists like Engels recognised the vital importance of a labour party over mere sects. A century after the Labour Party began, trades unionists like Bob Crow have said we are at a similar turning point. His union, the RMT, whose London members already tested the political water standing candidates opposed to privatisation on the tube, has also opened up discussion on the need for a new party.

A future Socialist Party in Britain, replacing Labour, will most likely come from more than one source, including some socialists still in the Labour Party now. But the United Socialist Party holding its relaunch conference this weekend in Liverpool, where it is planning to stand candidates in local government elections this year, is a small but important step. That's why I'm off to be in at the start.

Come on you Reds!

More information:

TUSP, Eric McIntosh -

Liverpool 47 discussion -,319,342

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