Vestas: Organise, debate, unite in action: Building the broader campaign

Submitted by Newcastle on 20 August, 2009 - 9:15 Author: By Martin Thomas
Vestas

Chairing a Vestas workers’ rally in Ryde, Isle of Wight, on 15 August, Mike Godley, one of the workers who occupied the Newport factory from 20 July until evicted on 7 August, read out web postings which attacked “outsiders” in the campaign.

The postings claimed that socialist and other activists who have come to the Isle of Wight from the mainland had manipulated the workers.

To great applause, Mike Godley refuted the attacks. The socialists and environmental activists have been welcome, he said, and they have provided valuable help to a struggle which continues to be the Vestas workers’ own.

Before the Vestas campaign started, no socialist or environmental-activist groups were visible on the Isle of Wight. Activists from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty arrived on the island on 15 June, to leaflet and talk with workers at the Vestas factory gates, and to make contact with the not-very-strong local labour movement. (Vestas had blocked union organisation in its factories). With other Workers’ Climate Action people, the AWLers built a public meeting, jointly sponsored by Workers’ Climate Action and Cowes Trades Council, on 3 July.

From soon after that, as discussions among workers about a factory occupation developed, members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) from the mainland started spending time on the island.

From the first hours of the occupation, on 20 July, the roundabout outside the Vestas Newport factory front entrance became a gathering-point for workers and supporters. Local people from a range of backgrounds joined the crowd.

A group of four Climate Camp activists arrived for a day on Wednesday 22 July, and made a very useful contribution. As time went on, more climate-camp and other environmental activists arrived, especially after the Big Green Gathering set for 29 July was cancelled. The biggest single influx of mainland supporters, a contingent of 25 socialists, anarchists, and environmentalists from London, was organised by Workers’ Climate Action on 7 August, the day the occupiers were evicted.

Five main elements (with many overlaps and exceptions) have made up the roundabout “community”: workers; local supporters; AWL; SWP; and climate-camp people. It has done well at combining diversity with unity in action.

The SWP at Vestas has been in a different mode from at the Codnor anti-BNP protest which you will read about in this issue of Solidarity. It has worked chiefly at proving itself the “best builder” of the campaign, putting much energy into leafleting and organising for demonstrations of support on the island, and using contacts through the Campaign Against Climate Change (where SWPers hold leading positions) and the unions to set up solidarity meetings round the country.

AWL members have done a lot of leafleting and visiting workplaces too. Climate-camp activists, on the whole, have been less interested in that sort of activity, but they have made a contribution which the socialist organisations, at our present level of development, probably could not have made.

It was the first four climate-camp activists to arrive who organised the first successful “rush” through the police lines to get food to the occupiers, on Wednesday 22 July. At that time the Vestas bosses and the police were trying to block all food supplies.

Climate-camp and other non-violent-direct-action people have organised many other successful actions, most spectacularly the occupation of the roof of the East Cowes Vestas factory from 4 to 14 August. Soon most of the workers active in the campaign recognised that prejudices about these people maybe being “eco-terrorists” were misplaced. The courage, imagination, and skills of the environmentalists are making an irreplaceable contribution, helping to enlarge the workers’ (and maybe some socialists’) tactical ideas — and doing it with very few arrests.

Such cross-fertilisation of workers’ and environmentalist struggle is one of the main aims of Workers’ Climate Action, a group in which AWL has been active from the start.

One of AWL’s chief concerns throughout has been to promote and help facilitate self-organisation: self-organisation of the workers initially interested in occupying; election and organisation of a committee by the workers outside the factory; organisation of a Families and Community committee; organisation of local support groups in the different towns of the Isle of Wight; general meetings of supporters, or supporters and workers, at the roundabout.

To our mind, organisation is not just organisational. It is political. The way the working class transforms itself from a scattering of atomised individuals, each one largely powerless in the market economy and in the workplace, into a force, is by organising, discussing, and establishing an independent collective purpose and will. Self-organisation does not happen automatically. Workers have to be convinced of it.

Organisation requires collectively-decided direction. So we have also tried to assess things, without defeatism but soberly, at each stage in the campaign, to deduce best policies, and to promote debate around them.

At the same time, we have tried to educate ourselves and others, with reading and discussions about lessons from working-class history.

None of that stops us from having friendly unity in action with activists who have other priorities.

When we proposed having general meetings at the roundabout, a couple of climate-camp activists first responded: “What’s the point? The SWP goes leafleting, we do the cooking. Everyone is happy doing what they want. Why have meetings?” But once the meetings started, the climate-camp activists were very constructive. There has been more of a problem with the SWP, often quick to say: “No more talking! There’s leafleting to be done! Let’s go!”

SWP

At Vestas, the SWP has made a good positive contribution. The deficiencies of the SWP here as a serious socialist group are not lapses such as any group is bound to make, but limitations of the SWP at its best.

It has been much more concerned about using its SWP machine to prove itself the “best builder” than to argue for or promote wider working-class self-organisation. Few of its leaflets and speeches at or around the roundabout have got much beyond a combination of a few populist ideas: capitalism bad, bankers bad, anger good, SWP brilliant.

The whole method is typified by the SWP’s current “big campaign”, pushed at Vestas as elsewhere, to get people along to a demonstration at Labour Party conference on 27 September which was originally called by the college lecturers’ union UCU as a lobby for “jobs, education, and peace” but has been re-branded by the SWP as “Rage against Labour”.

Rage against Labour? The Tories and UKIP dislike Labour. Obviously this is meant to be a different “rage”. So the SWP clarifies, by stressing specific, reasoned objectives? No. The organised socialists, the SWP, are less specific about their aims and strategies than the UCU union bureaucrats! They just want to be the “best builders” of general “rage”.

The SWP has ventured distinctive ideas at Vestas on three main occasions. For 29 July, the first court hearing on the Vestas bosses’ move to get a possession order, they effectively advocated a general strike on the Isle of Wight: “every bus worker, every council worker, every worker on the ferries [to] show up at the courtroom instead of going to work”. Such talk just fills the space for proper strategic debate with unrealistic noise.

The Vestas workers and the RMT got talks with the Government on 6 August. Workers’ representative Mike Godley initially reported back, rather despondently, that as far as he could see the Government was sympathetic, doing all it could, but ineffective. SWPer Jonathan Neale told the factory gate rally that we were “halfway to victory” and needed only to clinch the commitments.

At a strategy meeting on 10 August, shortly after the occupiers were evicted, the SWP moved prematurely to shift the focus off picketing and onto a “long campaign” of meetings and demonstrations round the country.

In all three cases, the SWP soon retreated: explicitly recognising that illegal strike action would be difficult to get and should not be counted on; registering that the Government had actually committed itself to nothing; reaffirming the importance of the pickets. But no self-criticism, no direct and open discussion. Socialist Worker has airbrushed AWL and Workers’ Climate Action out of its reports on Vestas; and the SWP has quietly “briefed” its members with an inaccurate history (claiming AWL got “out of our depth” with local union officials, and needed SWP to rescue the campaign!)

The Green Party’s response has been poor. The Green Party Trade Union Group turned up with a stall for a day or so, and a few individuals who happened to be members of the Green Party have come to the roundabout, but that is it.

Socialist party, Lib-Dems, Labour

Smaller left groups (including some, e.g. Socialist Resistance, who make a big deal about their commitment to environmental politics) have done little about Vestas. Maybe you can put that down to lack of resources.

With the Socialist Party you cannot. Though not a large group, the SP has areas of strength in nearby Southampton and Portsmouth.

The SP turned up in some numbers for Vestas rallies and demonstrations for a short while, then quit. Like AWL and SWP, they promoted their own papers and leaflets. Fair enough. Unlike AWL and SWP, they showed little interest in leafleting and so on for the broad campaign.

Maybe the SP leaflets were so insightful that this matters little? On the contrary, they reflected the idea that “Marxism” means switching off your brain and using stereotype phrases like “mass action” as cure-alls. For example, when climate-camp activists got food to the occupiers, and thus forced the Vestas bosses to start providing food, the SP rebuked them. It should be done “not through short-term stunts, but by mobilising hundreds of people... to put pressure on everywhere we can”. Aha! Now we know the answer to the problem of no dinner in the St Cross factory! Mass action, “everywhere”.

Mostly, the SP leaflets were about urging us to vote SP, or for some coalition including the SP, at the coming general election. The cited grounds: that workers need a “political party [that] has sent its leaders to the picket and stands shoulder to shoulder with the Vestas workers”.

On that criterion, the SP comes out no better than the Lib-Dems. One local councillor — a maverick Lib-Dem, but a Lib-Dem — has been very active supporting the pickets. The local Lib Dem parliamentary candidate has turned up from time to time, offering vague sympathy. The Lib Dem parliamentary front bencher for Energy, Simon Hughes, came to the picket line, and (initially, at least: I think later debate swung opinion) got a favourable response from some workers and some climate-camp activists. One of the most active climate-camp people from the mainland at the roundabout is a Lib-Dem councillor in her home town.

Yet this is the same Simon Hughes that boasted when standing for London mayor that he would see off the RMT; the same Lib-Dem party that has policy to ban all strikes in “essential services”; the same Lib-Dem party that is positioning itself to form a coalition government with the Tories in case of a hung parliament.

Oddly, when workers’ committee members were questioning Simon Hughes, and local Tory MP Andrew Turner, they addressed them as representatives of “Government”, despite both representing opposition parties. Hughes and Turner did not contradict them much, since they do not disagree much with Government policy on Vestas. But that a view of “Government” as a sort of joint affair of all the parties, more or less indistinguishable in their distance from everyday life, seems plausible shows how far democracy in Britain has withered.

The Labour Party has never had a strong presence on the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight [IoW] parliamentary constituency has always been Conservative, Liberal, or Lib-Dem. The Labour vote there has dropped as low as 2.4% (1983), and has recovered only to 17%.

The local Labour Party has related to Vestas as if it is overwhelmed with shame about the Labour government. The most active among IoW trade unionists in support of the Vestas workers has been Unison local government branch secretary Mark Chiverton, constantly helpful, frequently on the picket line. He is also the local Labour parliamentary candidate; but he never mentions that when speaking to campaign meetings.

Richard Howard, the Portsmouth RMT branch secretary who has given tireless and vital help to the workers, especially in the first days of the occupation, is also an active member of the Isle of Wight Labour Party. You would not know that unless you questioned him closely.

Ryde Trades Council secretary Tony Kelly, also very active in support of the Vestas workers, is a member of the Co-operative Party, a shadowy “little-sister” party whose main political activity is to co-sponsor Labour parliamentary candidates (as “Labour and Co-op”). Again, you wouldn’t know it.

Geoff Lumley, the one Labour member on the county council, moved the motion on the council to back the workers. But then he accepted a Tory amendment to blur the motion. The local Labour Party has given a big donation to the workers’ fund, and brought its members to the demonstrations; but when the Labour Party banner was brought to the roundabout, it was quickly removed, apparently because of a hostile reaction. A Lib-Dem banner managed to keep its place there longer, though that too was eventually removed.

The Vestas campaign should feed into a broader battle for jobs, for workers’ rights, and for green policies, on the island. For that, a socialist organisation on the island is needed, one that can set itself to studying and educating as well as agitating, and one that promotes the self-organisation of a broader local labour movement and working-class unity in action.

Comments

Submitted by martin on Mon, 08/24/2009 - 21:39

Letter of Complaint

Dear Comrades,

I am writing in a personal capacity to demand you retract comments made in the article ‘Vestas- organise, debate, unite in action: Building the broader campaign’, by Martin Thomas, which regard members of the Socialist Party.

My complaint is specifically focused on the line: “The SP turned up in some numbers for Vestas rallies and demonstrations for a short while, then quit.” I am a member of the Portsmouth branch of the Socialist Party and I assure you that we have not 'quit' Vestas. Our commitment to the worker's campaign for jobs is as steadfast and unflinching as it has been since long before the occupation began.

We have constantly offered our support throughout this struggle and have consistently raised ideas which have been taken up by the campaign. Indeed we were the first group to raise the slogan of ‘nationalisation’ at the public meeting called by Workers' Climate Action weeks before the occupation began. I would suggest Comrade Thomas contact AWL member Edward Maltby to confirm this.

The notion that we have walked away now the occupation is over is absurd and is personally insulting in the extreme. Without wishing to appear flippant, we are a working class movement and as such our members have full time jobs to go to. Even though our time has been constrained we made great efforts to be on the picket line every single day and we attended every single rally. This has been consistent following the occupation and we have been in regular telephone contact with the worker’s committee before, during and following the occupation. We have also been busy organising solidarity events off of the Island across the country. So, perhaps to the students and activists who do not work and can afford to spend their holiday on the Island it may look like we lack dedication, but when they take full time work I will be suitably impressed if they demonstrate half of the dedication and solidarity of our branch members.

Further more when we in Portsmouth have not been able to attend anything comrades from across the country have come down in solidarity. These have included our elected councillor from Coventry, Rob Windsor and Linamar convener Rob Williams from Swansea to name but two.

Here I must also offer up my own personal view that if this campaign did not involve a ‘green angle’ some, if not all, of the climate camp or worker’s climate action group activists would not be involved at all. We on the other hand would demonstrate equal solidarity regardless of which 600 jobs were being lost and have done so in numerous campaigns across the region. I note that these are campaigns where I have not seen a single AWL member. I will be reminding Comrade Thomas of his remarks if and when I fail to see AWL members at future struggles in this area.

Whilst the ‘quitting’ accusation is my main complaint I shall now address and request corrections to other points made:

1) I wish for you to attribute the quote: “not through short-term stunts, but by mobilising hundreds of people... to put pressure on everywhere we can”. Please explain who gave you this quote, and if you canno’t attribute it, please remove it from your website and your literature.

Here I will offer my personal view that it is false to suggest climate camp members forced the management into giving the occupiers food. Instead it was the legal representation made by the RMT trade union. However, you are entitled to your opinion in this matter. We certainly celebrated the victory of getting food to the occupiers. My own criticism during this period of the struggle was that some activists were reverting to undisiplined, individual, ‘direct-action’ which was nothing but counter-productive and was condemmed by the worker's commitee. This is a tactical discussion for another time.

2) Please remove the line “they showed little interest in leafleting and so on for the broad campaign.” This is simply untrue. We distributed hundreds of the leaflets produced by the workers, in Newport, Ryde and also on the mainland. Throughout this campaign we have stressed that leafleting and engaging the public is important, but have prioritised the building of solidarity between this campaign, workplaces across the island and trade unions as only the organised working class have the power to win this struggle.

3) Finally I wish to offer a correction to the line: “Mostly, the SP leaflets were about urging us to vote SP, or for some coalition including the SP, at the coming general election.” Please provide evidence of this. I have seen most, if not all, of the literature produced by my party during this dispute and nowhere did I see a direct attempt to urge people to vote. While we are in the process of building our Campaign for a New Worker’s Party we have not yet put forward candidates and so are not in a position to start canvassing for votes. Please provide proof of this statement or remove the line from your website and your newspaper.

This is not a sectarian letter, indeed I would defend your right to your opinions and your right to challenge and criticise our ideas if you so wish. We will always be prepared to answer such challenges in an open and comradely fashion, as no harm can come from honest debate. I do however resent both the tone and the substance of these claims and as a trained journalist I believe the article was written in a glib and shoddy fashion. You are entitled to your analysis but you are not entitled to report a deliberate distortion of the situation with statements which, as a journalist, I believe are on the wrong side of defamatory.

In light of this I hereby formally request that a retraction is printed in the next issue of Solidarity making it clear that the Socialist Party have not ‘quit’ the campaign. I also request that this be accompanied by a formal apology from the writer or the editor to comrades from the Portsmouth branch. Please follow this up by formally sending me a copy of this retraction and apology forthwith. If you wish to seek further clarification of our points, as I would recommend Comrade Thomas should in future articles, please do not hesitate to contact me or any other Party member.

Pending a swift resolution of this issue I personally look forward to working with the AWL in this and future struggles in a comradely fashion,

Yours fraternally,

Ben Norman
Branch Secretary – Portsmouth Branch of the Socialist Party.


Reply

I can not agree that the article is inaccurate.

I've been at the Vestas factory most days since 13 July. There were lots of SP people there for a while, but I haven't seen anyone there from the SP for some time now. There was no-one from the SP at the large "strategy meeting" on 9 August; no-one from the SP when we started pickets on the back gate at St Cross, on 10 August; no-one from the SP at the main rally on the 12 August day of action; no-one at the next main demonstration, in Ryde on 15 August; etc.

I'll take your word that SP members distributed "distributed hundreds of the leaflets produced by the workers". Hundreds of leaflets? That is a couple of hours' leafleting by one person. Given that there were quite a lot of SP members around Vestas at certain times, it is not very much.

All the solidarity contacts in other workplaces and unions on the island that I know of were made initially by AWL people, by SWP people, or directly by Vestas workers themselves. Many of them were made before the SP turned up at all. Maybe the SP made some more. I don't know. Certainly the main ones were made independent of the SP.

The quote: "not through short-term stunts, but by mobilising hundreds of people... to put pressure on everywhere we can" comes from the "Socialist Party Bulletin Number Two".

The management started feeding the workers on Thursday 23rd, straight after the climate camp activists got food in on Wednesday 22nd, and before the RMT got officially involved.

I know from conversations with them that some, probably most, workers' committee members changed their minds after the success of the climate-camp activists' action. The occupying workers immediately applauded the climate-camp activists' action (what the SP leaflet sneered at as a "stunt").

All three SP bulletins which I saw at Vestas concluded with passages indicating that for the SP the real interest of the Vestas battle was that it might encourage people to join the SP or vote for some election slate including the SP.

SP bulletin number one concluded by saying "workers need a new party", asking "which political party has sent its leaders to the picket and [stood] shoulder to shoulder with the Vestas workers", applauding the No2EU coalition, and saying that anyone who "supports the struggle of Vestas workers and the idea of an alternative to the madness of the market" should join the SP.

SP bulletin number two concluded on similar lines, saying that "we're hoping to get a workers' list together for the General Election... so workers have candidates... to vote for".

SP bulletin number three concluded: "The main political parties have been exposed in the eyes of many by not supporting Vestas workers... When it comes to the next election, why doesn't one of the Vestas workers stand?"

My comment - "mostly, the SP leaflets were about urging us to vote SP, or for some coalition including the SP, at the coming general election", seems fair. It is true that the SP cannot yet tell us what banner and programme it will be seeking those votes for, but that its leaflets were designed to flag up its appeal for votes as their main conclusion is undeniable.

There were many other faults in the SP leaflets. For one example, the fact that all three bulletins printed a list of points under a heading "Vestas workers demand", or similar, which appeared to be what the SP thought the workers should demand, rather than the demands the workers had actually decided. For another, the claim in bulletin number three that any moves to evict the Vestas workers "could" lead to the TUC being forced to call a general strike, as in 1972. You must know that this claim was just empty noise, calculate to confuse and demoralise any worker who took it seriously rather than to inspire realistic action.

But for now the points I made in the article will do.

Martin Thomas

Submitted by edwardm on Tue, 08/25/2009 - 02:42

The Socialist Party has at least ten times the members and sympathisers that the AWL has. The idea that they could not sustain any sort of semi-permanent presence on the Island in the way that the AWL has is nonsense, and to argue that the SP's failure to do so is somehow a badge of authenticity as 'more working-class' in its composition than the AWL is double nonsense.

The demand for nationalisation under workers' control was indeed mentioned by the SP at the meeting at the riverside centre. It's good that Ben and his comrades came along. But 'raising' a slogan in a serious sense means building and fighting for it, throwing organisational resources into this fight. Turning up at one meeting and mentioning it is not the same. And if you want to split hairs over who was 'first' to mention it... the demand for nationalisation under workers' control was first raised in a Workers' Climate Action bulletin written on the 24th of June, distributed on the 27th.

For those who are reading this exchange in despair, finding this sniping childish, I'll admit that it might well look like the SP and the AWL are engaging in petty point-scoring, each trying to look more 'serious' than the other. But there is something important at stake in this discussion. First of all, telling the truth is important: we should not play down or exaggerate the degree of involvement the SP has had. Secondly, the decision of how much in the way of organisational resources to commit to the struggle at Vestas is a political choice.

How important do you see this struggle as being, relative to the other battles going on around the country? What is the correct way for socialists to engage in it? Do you see the task of a socialist organisation as 'patient building', or as throwing itself with will and determination into the battles of the class? Should we accept the limitations of our organisations' size, or 'impatiently' push against them, trying to 'shout louder than our own voice'?

As far back as 1966, the founders of our group observed this sort of behaviour and these ideas, and called the forerunners of the Socialist Party 'manana [i'll do it tomorrow] socialists' (while they criticised us for being 'impatient'). It seems that the political ideas and organisational culture that gave rise to that label haven't quite gone away.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 08/25/2009 - 11:12

Comrade, a question. Has the Socialist, or any SP-produced literature, mentioned the role of AWL and WCA in initiating and sustaining the action? Or has your organisation, like the SWP and Socialist Worker, airbrushed it out of history?

The AWL prefers to be honest in noting the role played by others on the left (how we assess it is a different matter).

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 08/25/2009 - 14:26

Actually the AWL does have a branch in Brighton - but that's a very different bit of the South coast.

I'd like to join Joe in picking up on Ben's claim/implication that the AWL has been better able to mobilise for Vestas due to being less working-class. Well, the Socialist Party, being a much bigger organisation than the AWL, has more students; and it certainly has more students in Southampton and Portsmouth. It's true that it has been mainly our student and young unemployed comrades who have spent time on the island (though not entirely; a number of our workers have also made shorter or longer trips) - but the point is, what's that got to do with anything, since the SP also has such members?

In any case, we're not simply making a claim about numbers. The first two weeks I was there, at the end of August, the SP had more members present at various points than the AWL did, and yet played a less important role.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Wed, 08/26/2009 - 16:22

You're not doing yourself too many favours here, I'm afraid.

Firstly, despite assertions about your commitment to "serious" and "non-sectarian" debate, your opening gambit was to "demand" the "removal" and "deletion" of loads of stuff from our articles (and indeed all future material). That level of censoriousness isn't such a good look, mate. When someone else on the left writes something about me, my organisation or my ideas that I disagree with or is just plain wrong, I argue against it politically. I don't go around making demands about what they can and can't write.

Secondly, all this stuff about being "a trained journalist" and citing obscure elements of bourgeois law just makes you look a bit pompous.

Ultimately the point we're making here is that the SP is a relatively large organisation (perhaps as big if not bigger than the SWP now in terms of active membership) and yet has had a far less significant input into the Vestas dispute than we have (despite being ten times smaller). That's not about laziness, or the geographical location of members, or the relative levels of members who work as against members who are unemployed. It's about politics; we in the AWL decided that the Vestas struggle carried sufficient political weight for us to gear our resources around it nationally and make it one of our immediate central focuses. The SP clearly didn't make a similar assessment, or it would have brought its (again - far greater) organisational and human resources to bear.

If you really want a "serious" and "non-sectarian" debate about the politics, Ben, let's discuss why your organisation didn't think Vestas merited that kind of focus.

Submitted by martin on Wed, 08/26/2009 - 21:08

Hi Ben,

You don't dispute my list of the major gatherings of the Vestas campaign in the week or so from 9 August, or that the SP was absent from all of them, despite having been present in some numbers before that.

Despite Ed Maltby's claim, I don't believe that the SP has anywhere near ten times the numbers of the AWL. However, for a while quite a few SP members did come to the Vestas pickets and rallies. Then they didn't (note to Joe Flynn: not even to the "Saturday rallies"). "Quit" is a short, neutral word to describe that. I didn't hype it up by writing "deserted" or "stopped supporting the Vestas workers".

On Wednesday 22 July the climate-camp activists were not "calling for" food. They organised a very disciplined and successful action - involving AWLers, SWPers, etc., as well as themselves - which actually got food to the occupiers. That is what the SP leaflet sneered at as a "stunt".

Was the RMT pursuing a legal challenge on the food at that date, before it had any official involvement or any members among the workers, and before it had said anything about doing so? I don't think so. In any case, Ben, lawyers' phone calls and letters - useful in their place - are further than the climate-campers' initiative from the "mobilising hundreds of people... everywhere" which the SP bulletin so windily invoked, not closer to it.

AWL hasn't questioned that the RMT has played an important role at Vestas. (Read Solidarity 3/156). RMT is not above criticism, but AWL has been measured in our criticism, for example (successfully) advising those workers reluctant to join RMT because they felt the full-time officials were taking things too much into their own hands that they should join the union and raise those issues constructively from inside it.

As my quotes show, the "grand conclusion" bit which was similar in all three SP bulletins did frequently talk about voting in the next general election. That is rather different from the call for a new workers' party, which is for sure not going to emerge this side of that election. Not that it would make the bulletins very good if the "grand conclusion" had always been the epochal project of a new workers' party.

In the 1966 document which Ed cites, our comrades had occasion to quote Lenin: "You must be able at each particular moment to find the particular link in the chain which you must grasp with all your might in order to hold the whole chain and to prepare firmly for the transition to the next link". Making the conclusion to every bulletin - whatever the stage of the struggle, and presumably whatever struggle the bulletin is about - either the general call for a new workers' party, or the catchpenny cry "vote for us or our friends", hardly matches up to that.

Best wishes,

Martin Thomas

Submitted by martin on Thu, 08/27/2009 - 12:04

Well, I've come across plenty of people who have quit smoking but returned to it. The SP was around Vestas in some numbers, and then not so. "Quit" means just that.

Yes, I know Richard Howard and Mick Tosh were there from early on. In Solidarity 3/156 we acknowledged their very valuable contribution, for example in getting a committee elected by the workers outside the factory. I don't know for sure, but I think Solidarity has been the only paper explicitly to acknowledge their contribution.

On Tuesday 21 July, AWLer Ed Maltby tried to gather a meeting to elect a committee, but had been unable to hold the crowd. I approached Richard Howard and put it to him that electing a committee was essential, and his "standing" and experience as regional secretary of a union might make him able to hold the crowd sufficiently. He agreed, and was able to do that.

If Richard hadn't been there, could someone else have done it? I think they probably could, though with more difficulty. That doesn't take anything away from the fact that Richard did it.

Beyond that, Ben, I think you are operating in a political world of tokens, where "calling for" something gets confused with doing it.

Since before the occupation AWLers, SWPers, and Vestas workers have been visiting workplaces and talking to union reps across the island.

That hasn't led to solidarity strikes - which is not surprising given the general condition of things in the labour movement and the greater-than-average weakness of the union movement on the Isle of Wight. It has led to messages of support, donations, presence at pickets and demonstrations.

How to get beyond that? Aha! Just as the SP bulletin had the magic answer to no dinner for the St Cross occupiers - mass action "everywhere" - so you have the magic answer here too. "Vestas RMT branch [actually, Vestas workers are part of the Isle of Wight busworkers' RMT branch] should call, at the TUC, to mobilise the union movement to put their money where their mouth is and support a march for jobs [another march? on top of the several so far?] on the island".

A "call at the TUC" will crush the Vestas bosses and the Government! Ben, this approach maybe sheds light on why the SP in its bulletins at Vestas, trying to impress the workers with the SP's virtues, chose to highlight, as the SP's greatest merit, how many posts it holds on union Executives.

It is also reminiscent of the old Militant group's belief that a motion through Labour Party conference for drastic nationalisations would do the trick of changing society, and all "ephemeral" battles were of no consequence by comparison. I well remember the 1973 Militant headline: "Labour adopts Marxist programme". Delusory, wasn't it?

It is equally delusory to suppose that a new workers' party - in the proper sense of the word "party", a significant section of the working class, not "party" in the sense that the SP and SWP call themselves "parties" - can emerge before a general election. "Calling for" and resolution-passing will not do the trick.

Obviously not all the climate-campers are socialists. Obviously many of them wouldn't have been there if the battle did not have a green angle. But it's good they've been there, isn't it? They've made a valuable contribution, haven't they? It was wrong for the SP bulletin to sneer at their successful action which got food to the occupiers as a "stunt", wasn't it?

There were some other actions by climate-campers which were not so successful. But are you really saying that we should engage in activity (beyond "calling for" the TUC or whomever to do the trick for us) only when we have a guarantee of success? As far as I know only one activist actually got charged after being arrested, and he received no penalty other than being bound over to keep the peace for a while. There was nothing counter-productive or pointlessly self-harming - like the activities that some sorts of anarchists sometimes go for - in the climate campers' activity.

Submitted by martin on Fri, 08/28/2009 - 14:12

Hi Ben,

A Google search on "temporarily quit" gives 6,470 hits, and on "quit temporarily" another 1,110.

In my article I offered no prediction of what SP would do later in the dispute. And, as I've said before, I did not allege the SP had stopped supporting the Vestas workers, any more than I claimed that the smaller left groups who came to Vestas not at all or only once or twice were not supporting the workers. I just reported that for a while SP had come to Vestas in some numbers, and then it had ceased to do so. Or, to use one word instead of four, quit.

I didn't claim that RMT regional secretary Richard Howard "needed" me on Tuesday 21 July to tell him about the need to call the workers together to elect a committee. I recorded only that I did tell him, he agreed, and that is how the committee was elected. I do not want to diminish the credit due to Richard. (Perhaps, for the sake of readers not familiar with the detail, I should point out here that Richard is not an SP member. He is a Labour Party member).

If Richard hadn't been there, what would AWL have done when Ed Maltby's first attempt to call the workers together to elect a committee failed? I guess we would have approached some of the workers we knew, worked to convince them, one by one, and then made a more concerted effort to convene a meeting, with their help and perhaps also the help of a megaphone. I think we could have done it.

In relation to official union organisation, at the time we saw things in terms of the need to get a workers' committee elected and functioning before Unite officials turned up and tried to take charge. We expected Unite officials to turn up within hours. (The basis for that? Speaking to a Unite Executive member a couple of days before). In fact they didn't turn up at all.

What would we have done if Richard hadn't established the RMT as the alternative union on the spot? I guess we would have approached another union, perhaps the GMB (Barry Brittain's and Liam Cumming's branch, which has been very supportive). Is is better that we had RMT there? Yes. Would the workers have been incapable of organising themselves without the RMT? I think not.

You haven't replied to my points on the food. You write: "I don’t think it was 'their [the climate-camp activists'] successful action' which got food to the occupiers. I think it was the RMT. That point has been made".

It is plain fact that an action initiated by climate-camp activists (though involving many more people than them) on Wednesday 22nd got food to the occupiers. It is also fact that straight after that the Vestas bosses got fencing put up all across the front of the factory - to block further "food rushes" - and agreed to supply food to the occupiers themselves.

That was before the RMT had any members among the Vestas workers, or any official involvement.

I'll leave the rest of your comment, the stuff about "calling for" and so on, for other people to respond to. But I will say something on Militant's role on Liverpool council when it controlled it in 1984-5.

If building council houses (or rather, sitting in the office which administers building of council houses) is the measure of Marxist virtue, then Harold Macmillan, Tory housing minister 1951-4, was a better Marxist than either AWL or SP. The decisive measure of Militant's (the SP's forerunner's) role on Liverpool council is that it ended up by dividing and demoralising the Liverpool working class, and getting Militant itself evicted from the Labour Party with little resistance. Read the story!.

Best wishes,

Martin

Submitted by martin on Fri, 08/28/2009 - 19:03

Hi Ben,

The point about Google is that "temporarily quit" is ordinary English. It is not a contradiction in terms. In ordinary English usage, quitting may be permanent, or it may be temporary.

You do not comment on the fact on Wednesday 22nd that the food was got in by direct action, and that the bosses' decision to feed the occupiers followed directly, at a time when RMT had no members among the workers.

Possibly the RMT's plan to helicopter food into the occupation may have been talked about before the bosses' decision, and may have affected it. But that was a stunt, if there ever was one. A good stunt, in my view. But the SP's bulletin line - nothing other than "mobilising hundreds" "everywhere" is an acceptable way of getting food to the occupiers, and "stunts" should be sternly condemned - would leave the SP condemning the RMT, too...

My original point on the Labour Party was that it was delusory for Militant to claim in a headline in 1973 that the Labour Party had adopted a Marxist programme. As delusory as thinking that a "call" at the TUC will be a real factor in changing the relation of forces in the Vestas struggle at this stage; or as thinking that windy calls for "mobilising hundreds" "everywhere" were the best way of getting dinner to the Vestas occupiers on 22 July, the "Marxist" way by comparison with which actually getting food in was to be sneered at as a "stunt"...

I stand by that point. The number of council houses built in Liverpool in the mid-80s has no bearing on that question.

Since, however, you have chosen to take the discussion on to Liverpool...

If "the working class were in control" in Liverpool in 1984, why did they leave the miners in the lurch and accept a "separate peace" which was predictably going to bring back the Tories to defeat Liverpool the next year? And how can you deny that the Liverpool labour movement was left defeated and demoralised after 1986?

Read, from the reference above, what happened after September 1985:

"By Monday 30 September 3,000 NALGO members were on one-day strike and marching through Liverpool's streets against the [council's] redundancy notices. Teachers picketed the building where bundles of redundancy notices were due to be issued to local teachers, and the council sent them out by taxi instead. At least one college principal has been suspended for refusing to issue redundancy notices.

Local NUT members, with the support of their members, [took] the council to court to stop the redundancy notices...

On 22 November... the council backed down, with a deal which was (as Militant of 29 November put it) 'based on capitalisation of housing expenditure'. It got a £30 million loan from Swiss banks. The condition was attached that the council must stay legal in future...

And the workers soon discovered: (1) that these cuts had in fact already been made, by the partial rundown of services in the period when the council was running out of cash; (2) that the loan had been negotiated as far back as August. In other words, the retreat had already been made, under cover of blustering slogans about an offensive, before it was announced..."

And a year on:

"The Liverpool expellees refused to use their speaking time at [1986] Labour Party conference... This move further discredited them with the Labour rank and file. The only possible explanation of such stupidity seems to be that there were sharp internal divisions among the Militant supporters.

Yet Militant (3 October 1986) blindly proclaimed: 'The support for Marxist ideas, far from declining, is on the contrary, poised to take a huge leap forward'. They announced (once again) plans for a daily paper.

Marxists are tested not only by triumphs and great struggles, but also by defeats and retreats. Militant has failed this test too, both nationally and in Liverpool.

Liverpool's budget for 1986-7 set an overall expenditure figure implying cuts, but no specified cuts. Militant supporters explained that this was yet another 'device', and the cuts would be fought. But, beneath the bombast, there was no fight.

On 28 July Liverpool council's chair of finance, Tony Byrne, told a local Labour meeting that it would be 'necessary' to cut about £12 million. £10 million of this would be 'painless', but the other £2 million would not.

Militant supporters voted to endorse this plan, while Socialist Organiser supporters voted against and many abstained".

Best wishes,

Martin

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Tue, 09/01/2009 - 17:24

Ben -

The SP's initial mobilisations around Vestas - in which several members of your organisation were on the island on a regular basis - have now dwindled to next to nothing. Given that you are arguably the biggest group on the left with significant resources, this cannot be put down to problems of time or work commitments. Therefore - you have quit. That doesn't mean that you no longer support the workers or whatever, but in terms of involvement with the active campaign as it now exists (the necessary industrial focus of which is building the factory pickets), you ain't around. Ergo - you've quit.

You obviously disagree with the above as you've made clear several times, with supercilious journalistic aplomb. I think it's best for all concerned if we just make plain our differing interpretations of reality and leave it at that; your repeated demands that we "apologise" for what we wrote or "correct" our coverage (even though it's true and accurate) just make you look petulant.

On Liverpool - you brought it up, not us. You can't have your cake and eat it; if you want to use Liverpool as an example of your organisation's "proud record" then you've got to defend it when it's challenged.

Or you could just "quit"...

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 09/02/2009 - 12:15

Hi Ben,
But you haven't actually refuted - tried to refuse I mean - Martin's arguments about Liverpool. For the sake of a decent discussion, could you do so?
Sacha

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Thu, 09/03/2009 - 10:21

Ben -

The "allegation" is not going to be "corrected" because it's not an "allegation", it's an observation of fact.

So you can either engage in an actual political debate instead of arguing about journalistic semantics (from a position of no strength whatsoever, given that what we wrote is true), or you can just give this up.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 09/03/2009 - 15:54

Hi Ben,

No, I didn't write "temporarily quit". I had no way of knowing whether the quitting was temporary or permanent, and offered no judgement on that.

In fact, however, in terms of what I wrote: "The SP turned up in some numbers for Vestas rallies and demonstrations [i.e. on the IoW] for a short while, then quit", the quitting (i.e., the ceasing to turn up in some numbers) has been fairly permanent. No-one from the SP on the picket line for the last week, for example, as far as I know.

I understand, Ben, that you were at the meeting on Thursday 27 August. That's good, but your contribution there (if it's reported accurately) was not helpful. You urged the Vestas workers to focus on standing one of their number in the next council elections. That is in four years' time! (Anyway, there is, and can be, no common "Vestas workers' programme" on a vast range of political issues outside the immediate industrial dispute: what programme would the Vestas worker run on?)

The idea of a broader campaign for jobs on the island is good. However, AWL has been advocating it since well before the occupation began...

I didn't allege, and don't allege, that the SP has stopped supporting the Vestas workers. I do not doubt that the various small left groups who've been unable to get anyone, or anyone much, to the Isle of Wight all support the Vestas workers despite that.

I think the picket is central. The SP used to, too. When it was trawling for votes from Vestas workers, it stated its case in terms of a "political party [that] has sent its leaders to the picket and stands shoulder to shoulder [meaning literally, I take it] with the Vestas workers".

On the food - simply declaring it "the end of the matter" cannot undo the facts:

  • that the climate-campers' initiative got food to the occupiers;
  • that the SP was wrong to sneer at that as a "stunt";
  • that the SP was wrong to counterpose general blah-blah about "mobilising hundreds of people... everywhere" to the practical initiative;
  • and that it would also have been wrong for the SP to counterpose what you now claim did the trick, i.e. leaving it to the RMT's lawyers.

Best wishes,

Martin

Submitted by martin on Thu, 09/03/2009 - 20:47

Hi Ben,

In previous responses you've accepted that the SP was absent from all the major Vestas workers' gatherings (and there were several) between 9 and 15 August. Maybe longer: I didn't note exactly when after 4 August the previous relatively large SP presence ceased; I don't know of any large number of SPers returning to the factory at any time since 15 August.

You argued with the word "quit" not on the grounds that there had been no SP absenteeism, but that "'quit'... implies permanence", i.e. that your quitting was only temporary.

I responded that quit just meant quit, and I had no way of knowing, when I sent my article to press on 19 August, whether the quitting would be permanent or temporary. Now you say that there was no quitting, temporary or permanent?

Make up your mind!

And are you really saying that there are still large numbers of SPers on the picket line each day? That the SP carried on what it was doing up to 4 August, without ceasing?

From your comments about the picket line no longer being very important, on the contrary, it looks as if you think the quitting was politically right - there were better things to do than help the picket line and the rallies.

If so, argue the case: don't quibble about words.

Dear me, Ben! You think you bowled the 27 August meeting over with a flash of Marxist insight when you talked about "the need to make it clear that the occupiers have now been victimised and to make our stand against that a clear part of the demands"! Perhaps you also said: C-A-T spells CAT?

The food? You say cryptically: "The RMT did much more then deploy lawyers. I’ve no need to say any more then that". You do need to say more than that if you want to convince anyone.

The RMT did on 22 January propose a "stunt" (cue: booing and hissing and stern speeches about "mass action everywhere" from SP, but cheers from AWL) of staging a helicopter drop of food into the occupied factory. What else could and did the RMT do when it had no members among the occupiers or the other workers? Are you saying that the RMT "mobilised hundreds... everywhere", only in secret, so you can't tell us? What?

Best wishes,

Martin

Submitted by martin on Thu, 09/10/2009 - 00:49

Hi Ben,

You say "the question of how much time/resources the campaign spends on the site is a tactical question". In other words, the SP isn't there any more, and, with the odd exception, hasn't been there for the last month or so; but you think that is a good tactical decision.

Ok. Then explain why, and we can debate it.

But:

(a) I don't then see why you object to us saying that the SP has ceased to be there. Or, in one word rather than four, quit. The argument cannot be about the fact. That is indisputable unless SPers have for some weird reason been there disguised as climate-campers, selling Solidarity or Socialist Worker in order to go "under cover", or lurking in the bushes so as not to be seen at all. The issue in debate is whether it was right to quit or not.

(b) Still less do I see why your initial fuss was about the word "quit" implying permanence. I understood you to be saying: ok, the SP wasn't there for a couple of weeks, but the SP would be back at the picket line soon, and I had wrongly implied that the not-being-there was permanent. At the time I made no judgement about permanent or temporary. But in fact the not-being-there (or, in a word, quitting) was permanent.

Your claim that "no-one else" thought of the issue of the 11 occupiers being sacked, or "engaging local people on the issue of jobs", is surreal. If no-one else mentioned them at that particular meeting, it would only have been because other people - maybe because they had been at the picket line! - took these as so obvious and so often-discussed that they need not be said.

Ed Maltby has already pointed out that we raised the question of nationalising the factory in a 24 June leaflet, before the SP appeared on the scene at all. Yet you write: "you may claim to have supported nationalization from the start, but if you did you all kept it very much to yourselves". How is putting out a leaflet which pushes an idea "keeping it to ourselves"?

"The AWL/Climate campers who seemed to think jeering [at] policemen and security guards was going to win anything"? Excuse me, which "AWL/climate campers" were those?

The "stunt" which the SP so condemned, and to which it counterposed blah-blah about "mobilising hundreds everywhere", had nothing to do with jeering. It consisted of maybe 20 people walking, very calmly and quietly, through the lines of security guards and police, mostly getting to below the balcony where the occupiers were standing, and throwing food up to them.

They were using the fact that, despite everything, the security guards and police had no legal right to use violence to stop them doing that. The action was well-planned and effective.

To that you counterpose some secret activity the RMT undertook, which you can't tell us about...

Best wishes,

Martin

Submitted by martin on Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:38

Hi Ben,

I took part in a second action to get food to the occupiers, which involved about ten of us running into the grounds to distract the security guards (some of the anarchist comrades dressed up as vampires etc) while half a dozen local activists (some of whom were also in costume!) went through the hedge to the balcony and threw bags of food up.

Your claim about nationalisation is just bizarre. The demand for nationalisation *came from us*. It was the AWL and WCA members who, as you acknowledge, persuaded workers to initiate the campaign that first raised the idea. I know the SP thinks it has special widsom on the subject of nationalisation - and in fact we think that, in general, you make a fetish of it ("nationalise the top 100 monopolies" etc) - but this is weird. As Martin documents, we raised it from the very start.

Sacha Ismail