Does the Socialist Alliance have a future?

Submitted by Anon on 18 August, 2003 - 6:51

A collection of contributions from members of the Socialist Alliance from all over the country:

  • Support this statement and conference!
  • What next for left unity?
  • The opposition should move together
  • Bring the different perspectives together
  • "A Titanic looking for an iceberg"
  • Don't throw away left unity!
  • Stick in there, try to make it work
  • We need unity
  • We can still be a broad, pluralist socialist party
  • Get back to basics

Support this statement and conference!

There remains an objective need for the unity of socialists in Blairite Britain. The Socialist Alliance has been the best attempt at achieving that unity in the immediate period in England and Wales. At the national council of the Socialist Alliance on July 19, the actions of the Socialist Workers Party put a question mark over the future of the alliance. By voting en bloc with the support of only a handful of others to scupper motions in opposition to its political coup against critical voices in the Birmingham Socialist Alliance, the SWP is in danger of overturning the founding principles of the Socialist Alliance: democracy, inclusiveness, transparency, unity and accountability.

The idea of socialist unity is not the property of any one trend in the workers' movement. The overwhelming majority of non-SWP members at the national council - and throughout the Alliance - oppose the heavy-handed anti-democratic approach of the SWP.

We call for the increased unity of all those in the alliance who support its original aims and methods based on People Before Profit. Those of us who aspire to the successes of the Scottish Socialist Party and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy wish to build a Socialist Alliance based on the founding principles of inclusivity, the rights of minorities, openness and democracy rather than packing meetings and bulldozing votes.

To this end we are calling a conference in September for anyone who wishes to support these aims and who wishes to effectively organise around them.

Mathew Caygill, executive member
Steve Godward, executive member
Margaret Manning, women's officer
Lesley Mahmood, vice-chair
Declan O'Neill, executive officer
Marcus Ström, nominating officer
Martin Thomas, executive member

Meeting for Socialist Alliance activists

Saturday 13 September 11 am onwards
United Services Club
Gough Street, Birmingham
(around 5-10 minutes walk from Birmingham New Street)

What next for left unity?

By Cathy Nugent

At the 19 July Alliance National Council oppositional resolutions were voted down. Those resolutions were: objections to the Birmingham "coup" where the AGM of the central Birmingham SA was packed by the SWP in order to remove some officers of the local Alliance who were not SWP members; criticism of the "Peace and Justice" platform.

Workers' Power has now left the SA. Others - independents, the AWL, the CPGB and some members of the ISG - who met immediately after the Council have agreed to convene a conference. This is set for 13 September in Birmingham and will discuss a way forward (see box on opposite page).

There are differences in the SA opposition and these need to be carefully discussed. The discussion will begin, but not end on 13 September. Some people want to "stay and fight" the SWP-led changes to the character of the alliance. Others, given the SWP's numerical dominance, do not believe it is possible. To help that discussion Solidarity prints here the opinions of a number of activists.

A rearguard fight within the SA and any pressure that can be applied to the SWP is a good thing. It will help clarify the issues and further shape the lines of principled political collaboration on the left. But as time passes, more and more SA activists will drift away, as they find the organisation is not a congenial or worthy one to be part of.

Differences of approach reflect the state of local Alliances: some are continuing to routinely organise, others are in a very moribund state. Not all are controlled by the SWP but this depends on the level of local SWP organisation. If the SWP decide to mobilise or relaunch local SAs that picture may change.

As our article on the centre pages argues, the SWP-led project, to relaunch the SA nationally around a series of new "broad" alliances is not going well. The Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) have rejected overtures.

Some activists in the SA argue that this makes the SWP more susceptible to argument - they will not want the existing alliance to break up if a projected bigger, broader alliance does not materialise. It is true that some SWP members are unhappy about the direction their leadership are taking the Alliance. Ex-members of the SWP in Birmingham have made a protest at the way the dispute in the local Alliance was handled (see Sue_Blackwell)

All things being equal - i.e., as long as the nature of the SWP's internal regime stays highly undemocratic and the attitude of their leaders carries on being intractable - the SWP are not going to back down. They will not accept the kind of minority rights and democratic functioning non-SWP people in Alliance want.

No one wants to throw away the positive things the SA has achieved - for a time a remarkable degree of left unity. And a positive response to Blair's hi-jacking of the Labour Party, an attempt to provide a workers' voice in politics.

Some activists in the SA want to organise around the concept of "a workers' party". A "Campaign for a Workers' Party" has been established and is discussing a conference in the autumn - more details in future issues. That group has started an - essential - discussion about "what kind of workers' party" we want to organise. Other activists in the SA may want to organise on a broader, more "ecumenical" basis.

We repeat, all these issues will need to be discussed through carefully.

Solidarity and Workers' Liberty believes that activists in the SA also need to begin discussing opportunities for establishing a "new Socialist Alliance", a permanent regrouping of the left, an organisation that will continue the united-left campaigning which the SWP's Socialist Alliance has now abandoned.

If we accept that individuals and local groups may wish, for the time being, to remain part of the existing Socialist Alliance we can hope to forge the widest possible unity. Such a regroupment should look for electoral opportunities, but these should not clash with the work of the existing SA.

The political programme of the regrouping could be the SA's election manifesto, "People not Profit". The basis certainly would be independent working class politics and a commitment to free discussion of political differences combined with tolerance and respect for democratic rights.

The opposition should move together

Steve Godward, Birmingham SA

Right now Socialist Alliance members do not know what is going on in the Alliance. Hopefully it will be clarified soon.

For now the Socialist Alliance is my political home... for now. Whatever happens people who are independents, "independent minded", should move together as a group. Then if the Socialist Alliance does fall to pieces, something will be left.

The only way the SA is going to last is if the SWP make a major change.

The fascists are organising, really getting their act together. And what are we doing? Having political bun fights. It's a disgrace.

What's next? First we fight inside the SA to see whether we can't bring some democracy and accountability into what's going on. If that's lost we move to get together as quickly as possible. We need to start talking to each other about that.

The trouble is as long as this goes on we are losing more and more people.

Bring the different perspectives together

Dave Church, Walsall SA

The SWP is a centrally organised party and therefore the majority of the membership of the SA are disciplined by it. That's a fact of life, but the SA cannot, in the long term, carry on existing like this. In a federal structure you could build something in so that one large organisation would not totally dominate decisions. Right now we have the worst of both worlds. We have socialist organisations determining events but the constitution is based on individual members.

The non-SWP membership has got to become a grouping that is able to counter-balance the SWP, both in numbers and organisation.

There are three possibilities, the SWP leave the SA and it goes on to be more democratic, the SWP stay and the SA goes on to be what we want it to be - all of us come together, whatever our differences - or that the wheel comes off the SA, the SW takes it in a direction that the rest can't stomach. If we organise we can still be part of something.

The only thing that could impede us is impatience. What I'm arguing for could take a lot of time. People are fragmenting away. However, those people have nowhere else to go.

There is enough for us to unite on politically - on at least 80% of issues we can agree on. Beyond that we have to recognise that there is a value in the 20%, the things which we do not agree on.

Three different questions will come up at the meeting in September and these overlap. Do we come together inside the SA, outside the SA or straddling the boundary? We have to bring these perspectives together - even if it means changing a few words. For example, a campaign for a workers' party can be such, without having that title. We should not exclude anyone.

"A Titanic looking for an iceberg"

Dave Osler

The Socialist Alliance strikes me as a minaturised model of the Titanic looking for its very own pocket iceberg. I haven't seen such a bravura display of self-destructive behaviour since the last days of the Sex Pistols. As younger readers may need reminding, that band's drug-crazed bass player first killed his partner and then topped himself. In political terms, this is exactly the course the SWP seems determined to follow, with John Rees playing Sid Vicious and the rest of us cast in the role of Nancy Spungen.

The far left has been in a state of flux since 1995, when Scargill floated the idea of a new workers' party. Although the Socialist Labour Party rapidly degenerated into an Uncle Joe nostalgia cult, the Alliance seemed its logical successor, at least as a vehicle for regroupment. But the actions of the SWP have now pushed it to the edge of collapse, something that will set back the English far left by at least a decade.

I am not opposed to blocs with religious organisations on principle. But it depends on the content of the deal, and that the SWP is not deigning to make public. It's not even as if the Peace and Justice Party gambit has much chance of working out. Two such completely divergent outlooks cannot possibly sustain a stable political formation. If the Muslim community does decide to mobilise its latent electoral potential, thanks to its concentration in certain constituencies, it will realise soon enough that the Trots aren't bringing very much to the party.

What does worry me even more is the cracking down on internal democracy that flows from all this. As Rosa Luxemburg rightly put it, freedom is - always and exclusively - freedom for the one who thinks differently. Critics of the SWP's strategy, such as Martin Thomas, Marcus Strom and Steve Godward, are being dealt with administratively rather than through argument. That cannot be healthy.

The best outcome would be for a chastened SWP to come back on side with the Alliance project, but of course there is a fat chance of that. I doubt that the Alliance will exist, at least in its present form, even six months from now.

Without the participation of what is overwhelmingly the largest far left organisation in Britain, any regroupment that does not draw in significant new layers right from the very beginning will be condemned to instant insignificance.

What could the AWL, the CPGB and the Indie SA crowd muster between them? About 200 people, tops. And with the two main organisations already at daggers drawn, I can't see such a lash-up looking very appetising to any anyone else.

I'm open-minded about the meeting on 13 September. In principle it sounds like a good idea. I suppose it can't hurt, anyway. But I doubt very much whether it will herald the dawning of the age of Aquarius, either.

The English far left remains clinically brain dead. If only that Tommy Sheridan had been born a cockney, we might have had a chance.

Don't throw away left unity!

Pete Bird, Sheffield SA

I'm not happy with the direction of the SA - specifically the electoral pacts with religious organisations. We have gone away from what the SA was set up to do. The SA is going to end up being not an Alliance. The SWP either have to go ahead as they are or draw back and look at what others are saying. I'm not sure what is going to happen.

Locally the impact of what is happening nationally isn't really felt. Our SA still meets and is doing useful things.

It will be a real shame if the SA splinters and fragments and nothing comes out of it. I've not been in left politics for that long. People tell me that 10 years ago people on the left would never speak to each other. So we have come a long way and it would be stupid to throw it all away.

The working class still needs representing and someone has to do it, even if it does, in the end, mean a split.

Stick in there, try to make it work

Dave Landau, Islington SA

I'm very unhappy about the "Peace and Justice" candidate idea, and the way the SWP handled the dispute in Birmingham. Nevertheless there is good local work being done by some branches. My branch is coming into a bit more activity, so I'm sticking with it. In the coming Euro-elections we will be working together with Hackney, which is a very strong branch.

The "Peace and Justice" turn threatens damage to the whole organisation. There are some deep questions involved here, that need to be talked though, in a more level-headed and thoughtful way. The questions don't lend themselves to polemical exchanges: how do socialists relate to religious institutions and progressive parts of those institutions? What do we mean by phrases like "the Muslim community"? John Rees [Socialist Worker 2 August] makes a parallel between the Muslim community now and the Jewish community in the East End of London in the 1930s. But that Jewish community was in conflict with its own establishment and religious leadership. Whereas in talk about the "Muslim community", some SA people seem to mean people around mosques. That is a different notion.

The SWP have got it wrong but some of their critics have been too polemical - "these people are accommodating to religion" - without acknowledging real questions and real opportunities in relating to Muslim people in various Asian communities and other black minority communities.

I can imagine a situation where we might support candidates, perhaps important figureheads, who were not put up by the SA, and were equivocal about issues like lesbian and gay rights. We might canvass for them. But as an SA we would not seek to create a candidate like that.

The Peace and Justice idea partly rests on experience of standing "Socialist Alliance Against the War" candidates in the local elections. The war issue was a priority, but we also needed to be candidates for the downtrodden and oppressed everywhere. If we are trying to get a community base we need to be against the war, and for lots of other things. Peace and Justice too focuses on one issue and doesn't help us build a community base. People fling the word "popular front" about too freely, but there a danger of the SA veering in that direction.

We can't make an alliance with any old person that agrees with us on "x" issue. We could be no longer fighting for working class politics.

I'm not tremendously optimistic about the future of the SA. On the other hand if the SA collapses or if someone goes off and creates a SA Mark 2, that would prevent people coming towards us, and could mean our enemies saying "you can't get the left to work together and stay together". The overall effect would be very negative. We've got to stick in there and try and make it work.

The SWP may be made to see the error of its ways. The SWP present a united front but that doesn't mean some people aren't thinking "this doesn't seem right". SA or not, we have to find a way of working with the SWP. They are the largest force on the far left. The collapse of the SA would not solve anything. The underlying problem of unity will remain.

We still need unity

Pete McClaren

I'm very concerned that the original concept of the what the SA is, has gone out of the window. You have to question whether or not there will be a SA in a few months time. The way the present leadership, the SWP in particular, are not listening to minority views is undermining the concept of an alliance.

Some leading members of the SWP will listen, but right now the Central Committee is determining things. That may change, but I'm not hopeful for the short-term.

People organising together is good. It shouldn't be a question of independents against the world, or the groups or vice versa. I thought that was what the SA was beginning to do. However since the SWP took control it has all gone rapidly wrong.

As long as the SA is the only show in town we have got to work hard to improve it. People leaving in dribs and drabs is not right. I hope that the SA can be reformed but if it can't be we need to carry on, and something new may emerge. Something that does not have the support of the largest political groups on the left - the SWP and SP - may be a step forward in some respects, but in the long term it is not going to succeed. The largest groups have to take a step back and accept that their programme is not necessarily going to be the one that everyone wants to fight on.

I hope the meeting on 13 September is large, and the SWP is involved as well. Without that you are talking in a vacuum. I would like to see some sort of blueprint come out of it which would enable to us to go away and continue the work locally - whatever the name we use.

We can still be a broad, pluralist socialist party

Toby Abse, Lewisham SA

The Socialist Alliance is at the crossroads. In my view it is still possible for us to become broad, pluralist socialist party along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party and Comunista Rifondazioni. Nick Wrack's prompt response to Bertonotti's article in the Guardian was a positive sign particularly as Nick didn't include any religious groups in the list of potential supporters. The secular categories of anti-racists and environmentalists were listed alongside socialists and trade unionists.

This confirmed the impression given at the recent regional SA discussion on organising for the European and GLA elections in London where the bulk of the discussion emphasised the need to build links with the RMT, FBU, the National Civil Rights Movement of Imran Khan and Suresh Grover and with left groups currently outside the Socialist Alliance, even if John Rees's contribution, predictably, seemed somewhat obsessed with the mosques.

Nonetheless, the Birmingham events have cast a shadow on the future of the Alliance both because of the specific policy being pursued by the SWP in Birmingham, the turn to the mosque and the consequent secret discussion with the Birmingham central mosque leadership about a Peace and Justice Party, and because of the willingness to resort to blatant gerrymandering to crush dissident voices, not just Steve Godward, who had already been attacked at the Socialist Alliance AGM, but a whole range of forces previously involved in the Birmingham Socialist Alliance Executive including the ISGers.

Whilst the specific policy, which as Lindsey German pointed out at Marxism would involve dropping our longstanding emphasis on women's rights and gay rights, is unprincipled, the unwillingness to tolerate opposition is even worse. It has already led to some independents leaving the Socialist Alliance, a mistake, leading to increased SWP domination.

Both the turn to the mosque and the excessive emphasis on negotiations with the Communist Party of Britain as opposed to the Socialist Party and others were rather desperate responses by the SWP leaders to our failure to win support or recruit members, on any significant scale, out of the anti-war movement. The way the SWP and to a lesser degree the other groups, used the 15 February demonstration to try to recruit to themselves rather than the Alliance was a major mistake and gave many ordinary protesters an image of quarrelsome, dogmatic sects playing "The Life of Brian", rather than a broad, open, pluralistic and welcoming socialist organisation which may have appealed to some of them. I hope that we can put this behind us and take our lead from Bertonotti.

Get back to basics

Steve Cox, Dudley SA

There is a grave danger of all sides talking the SA into an early grave. The tactical dispute over the "turn to the mosques" is threatening to become a dispute over dogmas. The SWP accuses its critics of "Islamophobia" and the critics are accusing the SWP of surrendering to Islamic fundamentalism. The question is should a secular party form an electoral front with religious organisations, or should it approach those organisations with its own agenda? This is where the SWP go wrong. They are trying to use the Muslim community as a bloc vote, rather as the Labour Party has done in city areas. But there are different stratifications in the Muslim communities: religious, class differences.

You can win votes in the short term with this approach, but it is not a strategy for building a working class alternative. We need to focus on issues of working class politics, putting aside prejudices that arise from religion.

We need to go back to the basics of the SA: for the welfare state, defending asylum seekers. The side issues - tactics - should remain as such. For this to work we need to have openness. We can't have leading members of the SA discussing electoral deals behind the backs of local SAs.

We can't see the SWP as a block. Local, ordinary SWP opinion could hold sway. The Euro-elections are eight months away, a lot could happen. The SWP may come round to the proper view that we have to build up the SA over a period of years, to gain any grounding. That's been shown to be true in Scotland.

The SWP have brought with them a concept of united front working which involves securing the support of "high profile" individuals. That was the case with George Galloway. I have a problem with surrendering the identity of the organisation to the needs of one individual. I have no problem with Galloway becoming a member of the SA. But we should not construct the organisation around one individual.

Locally we have a mixed group, the non-aligned include ex-Labour Party members and some ex-Greens. There is a good tradition there. The SWP members are trade union members and are older. They have a different feel for things, are used to working with people.

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