Podium: Room for a new mass workers' party

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The Independent Culture

From a speech by the joint convenor to the conference of the Network of Socialist Alliances in Rugby

IN THIS room today, we've brought together a significant number of active socialists together with MEPs, trades unionists, former Labour Party members and those involved in green and direct action. We already have several thousand members of our constituent bodies, but now we're here to discuss how to bring that number closer together in campaigning for socialist change.

With Clinton bombing Sudan and Afghanistan, the Russian economy in free fall and daily examples of the Blair government embracing the free market, this launch conference of the Network of Socialist Alliances is most timely. The developing British and world economic recession will cause more and more people to question the present order and to look for an alternative. For a growing number, the Labour Party is no longer a true representative of working-class families, and its abandonment of socialism means that it is wedded to the same economic policies as those of the previous government.

The only real difference seems to be that those policies are now carried out with a smile rather than a snarl.

But what has dogged previous attempts to build a fresh alternative to the big business policies of all the main parties has been a top-down, command organisation and exclusion rather than inclusivity. This network must learn from that. We could, in my view, have 80 per cent common ground on the key policies on the economy, the environment, the rebuilding of public services and action against discrimination, while agreeing to put into their proper context the 20 per cent of differences we have between us. Let us use that 80/20 rule to go forward to build an inclusive alliance that concentrates on the things that unite us, rather than those which divide us. Then we could offer a real alternative to the failed pro-capitalist policies of the three main parties.

There's in fact a growing disillusionment among key sections of the population about politics in general. In one opinion poll before last year's election, 23 per cent felt that there was no difference between Labour and Tory and 42 per cent felt that the election would make little or no difference to their lives. I do not see those percentages diminishing. That is a huge constituency for us to aim for. And already we can see modest success.

In this year's council elections there were a number of successful candidates from among our ranks, and one calculation shows that more than 250,000 people voted either red or green in May. One of our jobs today is to begin the discussion on common slates for next year's Euro-elections. Tony Blair has already said that those elections will be a mid-term test of his government, and we need to make sure that working people have a genuine electoral alternative to Maastricht and monetary union designed for big business's benefit.

We also need to campaign harder on domestic issues, for example, the minimum wage. The pounds 3.60 an hour proposed by the Government is woefully inadequate for the millions in low-paid work. In fact it is 5 per cent less than the average rate paid by the Wages Council before the Tories abolished it seven years ago.

I have often been accused of proposing confiscation when suggesting that salaries above pounds 100,000 a year should be taxed at 100 per cent. But the low-pay trap is just as Draconian. For a couple with two children living in rented accommodation, every pounds 1 rise in wages between about pounds 90 and pounds 190 a week means that family pays extra tax and national insurance, and loses family credit, housing and council tax benefits, to the tune of 97p in the pound. It's not until a minimum wage reaches the European decency threshold of pounds 6 an hour that that family will see real benefit, instead of the Treasury. The gross inequalities in wealth and income, greater now than at any time since 1886, call out for us to take up the mantle of repopularising the ideas of socialism. We should aim to collect through street stalls and public meetings a petition of 1 million signatures calling for a decent minimum wage, which we could link to the national demonstration on low pay which Unison is organising.

There's a vacuum in British politics that cries out for a new mass workers' party committed to fundamental social and political change. The Network of Socialist Alliances will seek to offer support to all those involved in campaigns against social and environmental injustice, but above all we will fight for an alternative to the global, unregulated free market, and for redirecting society's wealth to people's needs. We are establishing a broad organisation that is committed to those aims and open to all.