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On 3 June, as the Spartacist League was getting ready to run an electoral candidate as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the TUSC steering committee informed us that our application had been rejected. The reason? A probation officer who sits on the steering committee (and who is a Socialist Party member!) objected to our running on the TUSC list because of our opposition to prison guards being part of the trade union movement. And since the steering committee functions by consensus, that was the verdict.

Our decision to support TUSC earlier this year flowed from the need to build a united working-class opposition to Starmer’s Labour, which is TUSC’s stated purpose. At its February convention, we made clear our disagreement with TUSC’s support for trade union rights for prison officers because it undermines that goal. We submitted an amendment to remove this point from its core policies. While we were defeated on this, we decided to remain in TUSC in the interest of building a united front against Starmer, making clear we retain our criticisms (see Workers Hammer no 252, Spring 2024).

TUSC agreed to admit us to its general election committee and we spent the following months actively promoting the coalition, urging other socialist groups to join in and initiating a public debate with the CPGB. We then mobilised our forces to run our own candidate as part of TUSC when the general election was announced. In informing us of the decision to sideline us, even the TUSC representative had to concede that we had acted in a totally principled fashion.

Unity with prison guards over unity against Starmer’s Labour. This is the real significance of the TUSC steering committee’s decision to exclude us from its list. When push came to shove, they preferred sabotaging the united front in order to maintain the alliance with the Prison Officers’ Association, the probation officers “union” (Napo) and other minions of the repressive apparatus of the state. Our exclusion was also an explicit statement that support for prison guards and cops is a condition for running on the TUSC ticket.

Why we oppose prison guards

For socialists, it should be basic. The job of prison guards is to lock up people on the order of the capitalist justice system. Those at the receiving end are the bottom rungs of society, the deprived rejects of capitalism — what Marx called the lumpenproletariat. They are also socialists, trade unionists, Irish republicans and other fighters against this oppressive system who are sent to prison precisely to be crushed. The job of prison guards is to brutalise convicts and break them psychologically and physically. And the purpose of their “trade unions” is to get them more power and money for this work.

Any socialist should know that getting thrown in jail is a real possibility and has happened countless times in the history of our movement. So, to defend prison guards, or worse, to include them in a “socialist” organisation is simply mad. Look at TUSC, a coalition which is supposed to stand for socialism but where representatives of prison guards and probation officers hold key leadership positions with veto power. What sort of socialist would want that?

It was argued to us that those “union representatives” could not justify to their members the inclusion of a group opposing cops and screws. Right. And what will these same “union representatives” say when striking workers are thrown in jail and beaten up by their “members”? Or when prisoners revolt against these “union members”, like in Strangeways prison in 1990? TUSC’s defence of these “trade unionists” means siding with the forces of state repression against the revolt of the exploited and oppressed.

TUSC’s support for prison guards and cops divides the working class, alienating millions who are the victims of state terror. As our comrade argued at the February TUSC Convention: “Rather than defending any so-called ‘right’ of brutal state henchmen, we should be for defending the rights of prisoners, especially in the context where Starmer and Sunak are arguing over who can be toughest on crime” (“No support to prison guards!” Workers Hammer no 252, Spring 2024).

The problem with TUSC

The main force behind TUSC is the Socialist Party (SP). Its support for prison guards flows from the SP’s political conception that socialism can be achieved as a gradual and peaceful process, starting with the creation of a new left Labour Party (with TUSC as its stepping stone) and culminating with the election of a majority in the House of Commons and the passing of an enabling act for socialism. This is the reason why they believe that the police and prison guards, these repressive agents of the capitalist class, can be won over. After all, these gentlemen enforce the law, and if the law becomes socialism, they’ll happily perform their duties under a new administration.

About this conception, which is the canon of the British left, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky had this to say:

“The brave spirits and wise men have firmly decided to conquer the bourgeoisie whatever the political combinations and at the same time maintaining the best relations with parliament, the law, the courts and the police. The only trouble is that the bourgeoisie does not intend to surrender the privilege of the legal expropriation of power to the lefts. By advancing the fascist wing more energetically, as the threat of civil war becomes more immediate, the bourgeoisie will find sufficient means of provocation, of a legal coup d’état and so on. In the final count the question is not who can best interpret laws and traditions but who is master in the house.”

Trotsky’s writings on Britain, volume 2 (New Park Publications, London, 1974)

What is rejected by TUSC and the SP is that behind capitalist institutions and “democracy” lies the brute force of the police, the courts and the prisons whose role is to defend capitalist rule. And what is rejected is that socialism can only come about as the result of a fundamental confrontation of the working class against the ruling class and its institutions.

This is the fundamental problem with the SP. Concretely, it means that they are building TUSC not as an organisation whose purpose is to rally the working class for a confrontation with the ruling class and their Labourite defenders. On the contrary, they constantly bow down to left Labourites (like Zarah Sultana) who speak for “socialism” while campaigning for a Starmer government, and are building TUSC as a respectable outfit for conservative trade union bureaucrats. And there is nothing more respectable than the smiling bobby and the “workers in uniform”.

In Where is Britain going? (1925), Trotsky wrote:

“In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population consists of proletarians the governing Conservative-Liberal imperialist clique would not be able to last a single day if it were not for the fact that the means of violence in its hands are reinforced, supplemented and disguised by pseudo-socialist ideas that ensnare and break up the proletariat.”

What is the idea that prison guards are allies of the working class, or that socialism can be introduced in His Majesty’s Parliament, if not the very rubbish that Trotsky talks about? The inclusion of screws in the socialist and trade union movement—and at the highest leadership level in TUSC—is nothing but a bowing down to bourgeois respectability and a guarantee to the ruling class that TUSC is no threat at all to their system, their property, their class rule. The fact that the words of a single probation officer proved sufficient to exclude the Spartacist League says it all.

The fight we waged in TUSC sought to challenge all of this. At its convention, we opposed its support to prison guards and denounced its bowing to pro-Starmer left-Labour candidates. The slogans we raised, and what our candidate intended to run on, were crafted precisely to prepare the working class for a confrontation with the ruling class: Free Palestine! Expropriate the banks! Down with NATO! Citizenship rights for immigrants! Down with the monarchy! All under the heading: Workers must run the country!

So, why should you still vote for TUSC on 4 July? The main task of socialists in this election remains to build a working-class opposition to Starmer’s Labour, and the success of TUSC candidates is a step in this direction. While support to prison guards remains a widespread position on the left, it must be defeated as part of the fight to build a working-class opposition to the coming Labour government. Our exclusion from the TUSC list in the name of unity with screws is a small but telling demonstration of how this thoroughly reactionary position undermines the fight against Starmer.