@ | 15.01.2002 11:29
TUESDAY JANUARY 15 2002
Red flag flies again
BY MICHAEL GOVE
Marxism is united, and aggressive, in a way that it has not been for a generation. Just ask the commuters who use South West Trains
The people’s flag was deepest red. But the last ten years tore it to shreds.
The story of socialism in the past decade has been a melancholy one. Written out of the Labour Party constitution, its adherents marginalised in the Blairite dispensation, the other parties that lay claim to leadership of the working class overlooked, red radicalism has looked like a beaten force. Until now.
In the past four months the hard Left has been on the march again. Those still proud to call themselves socialists have taken fresh heart, and recruited new allies, through a mix of skilful penetration of the media, vigorous protest against the war on terror and determined activism within the legal profession and trade union movement.
Britain’s hard Left still has problems to overcome before it ever again enjoys the profile it had when Tony Benn came within an ace of controlling the Labour Party and Militant screamed defiance from the Mersey. The habits of factionalism endure and popular support, even in the most deprived areas of Britain, proves elusive. But Marxism is united, and aggressive, in a way it has not been for a generation. Just ask commuters who use South West Trains.
The strikes that have crippled that rail company, and that are spreading, can be traced directly to the door of a Trotskyistdominated organisation that is giving the hard Left new muscle. The activist whose status is the core of the dispute, Greg Tucker, and his main champion, Bob Crow, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union assistant general secretary, are stalwarts of the Socialist Alliance.
Scarcely known to most voters, despite having contested enough seats at the last election to secure a party election broadcast, the Alliance is the most coherent fighting force in Britain across the territory that stretches to the left of Tony Blair.
The role played by Crow and Tucker on the Waterloo picket line could see them wrest control of the RMT. Both have engineered this strike perfectly to raise their profile and put them in place to secure election to the top jobs in the RMT elections next month.
The Socialist Alliance can already boast control of one union. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the biggest civil service union, the PCS, is an SA activist. But taking over the RMT would give the hard Left an even bigger prize — enormous disruptive power over our most conspicuously failing public service.
Although it contests seats, like any other political party, the Alliance is a very different organisation from its election rivals. For a start, it is not a party in the conventional sense but a coalition of previously feuding organisations and parties brought together, in the words of Mike Marqusee, one of its leading activists, “by the 80 per cent of things on which we agree”.
Marqusee, a cricket writer and former editor of Labour Left Briefing, is one of the many former activists from Labour’s Bennite wing who have found a more comfortable resting place under the Alliance’s umbrella. They include the barrister Liz Davies, stripped of the chance to stand as a Labour candidate in Leeds by her party’s NEC, and a slew of former councillors.
The Labour dissidents are, however, outnumbered in the Alliance by members of other, avowedly Trotskyist, groupings. The biggest component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), for long Britain’s biggest “out” Trot movement.
The distinction between “out” Trots and covert Trots lingers, and matters, because the one significant group on the hard Left which remains outside the Socialist Alliance, in England, is the collection of covert Trotskyists who used the Militant label as a cover to infiltrate the Labour Party.
The distaste of these former Militants for the SA is a lingering reminder of the hard Left’s ability to elevate apparently tiny differences into causes for fratricidal conflict. It has long been a cause for regret among Marxists and comedy for the rest of us. The Life of Brian parodied it to perfection with its rival Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea. But what makes the Alliance different, and potent, is its success in getting almost every Trotskyist group in Britain to march together under the same red flag.
As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Solidarity Network, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers International, Workers’ Power and Red Action.
What unites these groups, apart from membership of the Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government and hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action. Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Rams-gate is recorded.
The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. The images on the website’s home page are of Red Action members “in action”, aiming kicks at those attending a fascist rally. The website also records Red Action’s willingness to recruit combative streetfighters on football terraces and its association with Celtic Football Club hooligans alongside discussion of when Marxism began to go wrong in the Soviet Union.
Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select candidates and vote on pol- icy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.
For some Alliance activists it is precisely the breadth of organisations marching in harness that is helping the hard Left to translate agitation into action. In Scotland, the groups that form the Alliance united with old Militant warhorses such as the anti-poll tax campaigner Tommy Sheridan to form the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP runs at around 5 per cent in the polls and has, in Sheridan, the highest-profile MSP in Scotland outside the Scottish executive. Sheridan’s undeniable charisma, refusal to take his full salary and capacity to peel away support from the main parties on certain issues, acts as a gravitational drag to the Left for Scottish Labour.
The SSP has been in existence for longer than the Alliance south of the border and has benefited from the use of PR for the Scottish Parliament. But its success so far heartens English Alliance activists. “It shows how successful we can be in taking up the huge space to the left of Blair, even when a party like the SNP claims to be there,” argues Marqusee.
But even more than electoral breakthrough in Scotland, the coincidence of anti-war protest and industrial action on the railways has given the Socialist Alliance a sense of momentum.
The Alliance was instrumental in the organisation of the main anti-war rallies and protests across Britain, and supplied key speakers who set the tone. The broad Commons consensus in favour of the war on terror has allowed the Alliance to argue that it is the only significant political movement fighting against it.
The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights Movement run by Suresh Grover, spokesman for Sarfraz Najeib, the victim in the Leeds United footballers’ assault case. But it has been anti-war protest, and the platform it has given Alliance supporters such as Tariq Ali and John Pilger, that has given the Alliance a particular opportunity to advance its aims to a mass audience.
More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance, has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South West Trains has given Tucker and Crow the perfect opportunity to secure attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence and strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step into his shoes as the union’s number three.
Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America’s own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear.
Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties.
The ISG believes that social democratic governments such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class” and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over “broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front”.
Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election. Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.
The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30 strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises the class-consciousness of the rank and file”. The TUC fears that “if an extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways”.
Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated disruption.
It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.