As other reports have indicated, the battle, which had been going on inside the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) for some time, came to its inevitable (and pretty discrediting) conclusion at the conference. The outcome was a fractious split between the Socialist Party, who’s members constituted about two thirds of the meeting, and just about everybody else present.
Behind the split was the destructive decision of the NSSN steering committee’s SP majority, at the end of last year, to propose that the NSSN set up (yet another) anti-cuts campaign and to force this proposal through the NSSN steering committee and from there to a special conference of the NSSN. This must rank as the most divisive and sectarian proposal on the far left for some years, both in terms of the substance of the proposal itself and the way it was rammed through the NSSN structures.
The proposal split the NSSN steering committee, with every member of the SP voting in favour of it and every none-members of the SP (17 in all) voting against. A letter of protest published by the 17 against the way this had been rammed through the Committee by the SP cut no ice, although an intervention by Bob Crow resulted in an original proposal that such a campaign would also stand candidates in elections being dropped. The 17 were from diverse political backgrounds with many of them having served on the committee for the entire 5 years of existence of the NSSN. They included the national chair of the NSSN, Dave Chapple, a prominent CWU activist and political independent, who had been the chair of the committee since its inception.
There were, consequently, two resolutions on the special conference agenda. Resolution 1 from the ‘majority’, called for the launching if an “NSSN anti-cuts campaign” and the election of a 10-person steering committee to run it. The 10 candidates for which had been advertised in advance and gave the SP a built-in majority. Resolution 2 was from the minority (the 17) which called for the rejection of resolution 1 and instead for: “the officers and Steering Committee of the NSSN to do everything constructive, through discussions with the CoR, Right to Work and other groups, to build and launch a single national anti-cuts organisation early in 2011. The debate around these resolutions lasted for more or less the whole day.
The opening speaker for the majority resolution was Linda Taaffe, a leading member of the SP. She could hardly have made a more fractious speech, both in tone and content. She claimed that the real divide between the executive committee majority and minority was that the minority were not prepared to oppose all cuts and were soft on Labour councilors! They also, she said, wanted to downplay cuts by Labour Councils!
In this, she said, the EC minority were in line with both CoR and the RtWC neither of which were prepared to oppose all cuts and both of which were soft on pro-cuts Labour councellors. It was for these reasons, she insisted, that a third anti-cuts campaign was necessary a campaign which, unlike CoR and the RtWC, would oppose all cuts.
This tirade, from Linda Taaffe, was effectively the launch of a big lie which would be repeated throughout the day (and since the conference) by members of the SP no matter how many times supporters of CoR or of the RtWC or members of the steering committee minority protested to the contrary.
The movers of the minority resolution were George Binette (of Camden Unison and PR) and Pete Firmin from the CWU. Having protested about these false allegations they argued that whilst, of course, the NSSN should get involved in fighting the cuts, particularly by organising within the unions, what was needed was not a third anti-cuts campaign but a single united anti-cuts movement which could embrace the whole of the left. (Apparently during the debate at the Steering Committee SP speakers called the cooperation which was developing between CoR and the RtWC ‘an unholy alliance’.)
The first speaker from the floor for the minority resolution was Dave Chapple the NSSN chair. He said that he was addressing his remarks directly to the Socialist Party and he hoped they would listen carefully. His main problem, he said, was not so much the launching of a third anti-cuts campaign (which he thought was just plain daft) but the decision making process within the NSSN itself. He said that the proposal for a third anti-cuts campaign had originated in the SP and was rammed through the NSSN steering committee in total disregard for all none-SP members and the role they had been playing in the NSSN since its inception. This raised the question, he said, as to whether it was now the NSSN or the NSPN — the National Socialist Party Network.
He went on to say that if the majority resolution was rammed through today’s conference in the same way every member of the steering committee minority would resign.
Another promoter of the ‘big lie’ in the course of the debate was Dave Nellist who repeated the mantra that neither CoR or the RtWC were ‘opposed to all cuts’. He went on to denounce both CoR and the RtWC for having Labour councellors on their platforms who might claim to be against the cuts but would probably (he claimed) end up voting for them. He ended with the patronising (and workerist) assertion that another noticeable thing about the supporters of the minority resolution was that they ‘lacked shop floor experience’.
The objection to having such Labour councellors on anti-cuts platforms is a lurch to the left by the SP. It is self evidently not only right but important to have such councellors speaking. We need to build a broad campaign, draw them in, stiffen their opposition to the cuts (if it needs stiffening) and urge them to vote against all cuts in the Council Chamber.
The big lie that neither CoR or the RtWC are prepared to oppose all cuts continued to be put forward even after the chair of the RtWC (Paul Brandon I think) spoke and insisted to the contrary. He made an appeal for unity and then went on to say that the RtWC opposed all cuts, had always opposed all cuts and moreover called on all Labour Councellors to vote against all cuts. He said if people here will not accept this from me they should go on the RtWC website and see it in writing there.
The riposte of the SP speakers to this was to say that just because the RtWC say that they are against all cuts of their website does not mean that they actually are against all cuts or that they actually call for Labour councellors to vote against them. As someone who is wary of invoking the Life of Brian in such circumstances I have to admit that it was difficult to get the People’s Front of Judea out of your head.
Unfortunately the two RMT officials who were present (Alex Gordon and Steve Hedley) gave complete support to the majority, which seemed to be related both to the fact that the standing candidates had been taken out of the equasion and a long standing hostility to the SWP. In fact Alex Gordon, who was a guest speaker at the start of the conference, used his speech to give unequivocal support to the majority.
After two hours of debate the vote (which was never in doubt) was taken. There were 305 for the majority resolution and 89 for the minority resolution. As the conference closed most supports of the minority resolution (about 70 or 80) retired to a nearby pub to discuss their future activity which would not include any further involvement with the NSSN. They have since issued a statement setting out their reasons for breaking with the NSSN and appealing for continuing contact and coordination.
In the course of the debate the SP had argued that the proceedings of the conference had been democratic because an equal number of speakers had been taken from each side of the debate — and indeed they had. The problem with this argument, however, is that whilst the debate was democratic the outcome was predetermined in advance by the Socialist Party. They had an overwhelming built-in majority, created by all accounts, by SP full-timers drumming up delegates by any means necessary.