Britain: England and Wales Socialist Alliance

On Saturday December 1, 2001 the Socialist Alliance (SA) held a national conference to agree a new constitution. The SA was founded by ourselves and others in the mid 90s with the aim of bringing together different socialist organisations and individuals on the basis of the maximum possible principled unity, whilst at the same time preserving the rights of all those who participated. Therefore, the SA adopted a federal, inclusive approach. However, in the last two years, since the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) joined the SA, it has become increasingly centralised and dominated by the SWP. The national constitutional conference marked the completion of this process. The constitution proposed by the SWP was passed with 52% of the vote. This constitution is based on one member one vote (OMOV). Given the SWP’s numerical dominance within the small forces of the SA, OMOV means that they now take all crucial decisions in the SA, as last Saturday’s conference graphically proved.

The SWP used their ’block’ vote to force through their constitution almost entirely unamended. Any hint of federalism was voted down. Even the modest proposal to limit the number of NEC positions held by any one organisation to 40% was voted down as ’institutionalising divisions’. The new constitution is also extremely draconian, especially for something that describes itself as an alliance. The SA executive now has excessive powers. It is able, for example, to "disaffiliate local Socialist Alliances and remove individual membership or refuse to ratify candidate selection." It is true that the SWP currently have only a small proportion of the members of the executive. However, this is window dressing, designed to disguise the real situation. The new executive was elected on a slate system at an SWP dominated conference. Therefore, those ’independents’ that are on the new executive are there only by the grace and favour of the SWP. What is more they will be watched over by an SWP-dominated national council.

The Socialist Party have made it clear, from the beginning of the constitutional debate in July, that we could not accept a constitution based on OMOV because, in these circumstances, it would transform the SA into a front for the SWP. The constitution passed on Saturday did just that, and as a result we were left with no choice but to leave. However, it is completely untrue, as is being claimed by the SWP and others, that the Socialist Party, in a fit of pique, "walked out of the conference after it failed to win its constitutional proposals" (Socialist Worker 8.12.01). This claim from the SWP is like something out of Alice in Wonderland, totally upside down and back to front. We made it absolutely clear that we were prepared to compromise in order to keep the SA project on the road.

Indeed our constitutional proposals were themselves based entirely on the need for compromise. Their starting point was a recognition that the SA is currently primarily made up of different left organisations but also includes a layer of individuals. Our proposals aimed to build on the federal nature of the SA’s foundations and to increase the rights of both the organisations and individuals within the SA. In effect we called for decisions to be taken at local level on the basis of the maximum possible consensus – this is the essence of an alliance. Agreement would have to be reached amongst a majority of individual members and every organisation with a base in that local area. This proposal meant that the SA would move forward on the basis of principled, open compromise, by all organisations – including ourselves. For example, we are the only national organisation in the SA with elected councillors. Currently, we have six councillors who are democratically accountable to the Socialist Party. If our constitution had been passed accountability for all they had done in the name of the SA would have been shared with other political organisations with a base in the area and with local individual members of the SA.

Not only was our constitution a compromise, we did not demand that it should be passed for us to remain in the SA. We recommended a second preference vote for a version of the existing constitution, which whilst insufficient, would have kept the SA on the road. We also made it clear to the conference that there was one proposed amendment to the SWP’s constitution (from the Leeds Left Alliance) which would have curbed the SWP sufficiently to allow us to stay in the SA. This amendment was voted down by the SWP. We only left the conference after the almost completely unamended SWP constitution had been passed and it was clear that compromise was no longer possible.

Whilst we made it abundantly clear we were prepared to compromise, the SWP made it equally clear that they were not. They did not recommend a second preference vote, in other words the only constitution which they were willing to accept was their own. John Rees, of the SWP executive, emphasised this when he replied to the debate on the constitutions. He made it clear that the SWP considered OMOV the minimum requirement to ensure democracy in any organisation in which they took part. Given the way OMOV was used by the right wing of the Labour Party to consolidate their control, it is bizarre to suggest that it is some kind of baseline for democracy. Rees also made it clear that it would not be acceptable for groups within the SA to do what the Socialist Party did in the 2001 General Election. That is to stand under the banner of the SA, whilst retaining control over their own campaign. In other words 3 of the 5 highest General Election votes received by the SA must not be repeated! They include the highest vote of any socialist in England in the 2001 General Election, that of Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist and, the votes of two other Socialist Party candidates. (In total the Socialist Party contributed a higher percentage of SA votes (15.5%) than it did candidates (12%), while other organisations, such as the SWP, contributed a higher share of candidates than votes.

The SWP’s rule or ruin approach has not only forced the Socialist Party out of the SA. Many of the other genuine forces within the SA have been alienated and are currently considering their position. One leading Green summed up the attitude of many when he wrote: "I feel that the changes adopted by the SA conference were a step back from seeking broader, progressive alliances. The new organisation is likely to be left with the "front" model that has not proved attractive to other progressive organisations in recent years". Around the country those local SAs and other affiliates which are not dominated by the SWP are considering what to do in the wake of the conference. Some will decide to leave; others will, with deep misgivings, wait and see how the SA develops. We will continue to collaborate with all those that are interested in a principled alliance between socialists both inside and outside the SA. Although we have been forced to leave the SA, we are in no way turning our backs on alliance work. We have already written to the SA executive calling on them to initiate, alongside ourselves, a committee for electoral unity to try and ensure the broadest possible electoral agreement between socialists and other anti-cuts and anti-privatisation campaigners in the coming elections.

Our approach flows from our perspectives for the next few years. As we have explained for almost a decade, the Labour Party has been transformed from a bourgeois workers’ party (that is a party which is bourgeois at the top but has a working class base, and is therefore susceptible to pressure from the working class) into a fully bourgeois party. This has left an enormous space in society – there is no longer a mass party which is seen, in any sense, as a party that represents working class people. The ground will be prepared for a new mass force by a combination of big events and the intervention of active socialists. One of the critical tasks for Marxists in this period is to fight to speed up the formation of such a party by popularising socialist ideas, campaigning in the trade unions, and by standing in elections. The Socialist Party has done this successfully – we now have had six councillors elected and our members were behind two of the three resolutions calling for the loosening of links with Labour that were passed at national trade union conferences earlier this year. We also played a central role in the founding of the SAs, because we saw it as a force that could potentially play an important contributory role in the development of a new workers’ party. Similarly, we will take part in any future formations that represent a step towards a new party, be they alliances, electoral agreements or (providing they are organised on a democratic, federal basis) broad socialist parties.

However, a new mass workers’ party cannot be whistled into being by existing socialist forces, no matter how hard we try. The primary reason for the small size of the SA up until now is objective. A new mass workers’ party will come into being above all as a result of events. On the basis of their experience of struggle fresh layers of the working class – trade unionists, community campaigners and young people – will draw the conclusion that they need their own political voice. Initially this is likely to be on a local or single-issue basis; but it is out of this process that, at a certain stage, moves towards a new party will be taken.

The SWP’s undemocratic high-handed attitude to the SA is related to their utter failure to understand the nature of the period and the tasks that are facing Marxists. Whilst they do not accept that the nature of the Labour Party has changed fundamentally they, nonetheless, have a dim understanding that there is now a huge space to the left of Labour. They see the SA as the force that will fill that space (at least in the electoral sense). Incredibly, they seem incapable of imagining that there is more to filling a space than declaring that you have done so. Aside from this breathtaking arrogance, they have no comprehension about how events will unfold. Crucially, the fresh layers of the working class play an entirely passive role in the SWP’s schema for the future. The SWP imagine that winning important sections of the working class is simply a question of winning high profile individual lefts from the Labour Party to the SA, who will ‘represent’ working class consciousness.

Of course, subjective factors, including individual figures, can play an important role in speeding up this process. It is true that left Labour MP’s splitting from Labour and standing independently could act as a catalyst. However, this is not automatic. The Socialist Labour Party (SLP), for example, was launched in 1995 by Scargill, a figure with real authority among sections of the working class; far greater than that of any existing Labour MP. Because of this, if it had been launched on a healthy basis it could, by now, have attracted tens of thousands of workers. Instead it has been stillborn as a result of his undemocratic, bureaucratic approach. Crucially, whilst splits from Labour will take place, it is ruled out that a new workers party will be formed as a result simply of such a split (as happened, for example, when the Italian RC was founded as a result of a vertical split in the old Communist Party (Pci)). New Labour today is almost totally denuded of working class or socialist forces, so while MPs may split from the top they will not be able to bring significant numbers with them.

Of course, there are absolutely no guarantees that lefts leaving the Labour Party will choose to join the SA. In Scotland the entry of the SWP into the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has increased left Labour MPs suspicion of the SSP. If the SA is perceived as what it now is; an undemocratic SWP electoral front, it is very unlikely that left MPs would join it. There is no doubt that the SWP currently do see the SA as merely their electoral front. Whilst within the SA they emphasise the central importance of the SA, in their own material they argue that building their own party is the central priority and describe the SA, along with Globalise Resistance, the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, the Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Defend Council Housing and the Anti Nazi League as ’united fronts’ which they work through. They go on to say: "the ups and downs of the struggle mean that the importance of particular united fronts also rises and falls. A campaign that is absolutely central at one point may become much less so later on." This approach was confirmed by their attitude to the campaign against the Afghan war, during which they have ignored and bypassed the SA. In effect the SA has been put on the backburner; like an occasionally useful tool that they will dust off and use again when elections come around. We do not object to the right of the SWP to organise or build their own party. On the contrary, our constitution would have ensured that all organisations within the SA had the right to build their own organisation. However, the SWP do this on an entirely unprincipled basis. It is unlikely, if this continues to be the SWP’s attitude, that the SA will succeed in attracting those forces which do split from Labour.

However, the primary question is whether the SA will be able to attract significant fresh forces; moving into struggle for the first time. This is precluded on the basis of the approach and constitution of the new leadership of the SA. Their starting point is that, as they have decided they are the electoral alternative for the working class, therefore it must be so. This, by the way, is an organisation of 1690 members which received an average of 1.72% of the vote in the 92 seats where it stood in the last election! Flowing from this incredibly arrogant approach they have decided that all those looking for a left electoral alternative will automatically join the SA. Therefore, they simply dismiss those small groups of workers who have taken the decision to stand anti-cuts or anti-privatisation candidates. This is best summed up by the decision of Hackney Socialist Alliance to stand against an anti-cuts candidate supported by 27 local government shop stewards. Mike Marqusee, an ’independent’ who works hand in glove with the SWP, justified this by saying that, "the Socialist Alliance itself was a much broader forum with a numerically much larger base." To put it mildly, this shows a lack of understanding about the importance of a group of trade unionists moving onto the political plane. The SWP dominated SA has taken a similar approach to other groups of workers and community campaigners. These include the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation which stood in the 2000 London Assembly elections, and was supported by the majority of branches of the railway workers’ union on the London Underground, and which the SA stood against. Another example, although less radical, was the Kidderminster hospital campaign, which succeeded in getting an MP elected in the 2001 General Election. That campaign is dismissed by the SWP. It is true that it is very confused and its future trajectory is uncertain, the doctor who was elected as an MP is right wing on many issues. However, the campaign was fought against the closure of a local hospital and the introduction of privatisation in the NHS. We have to welcome such partial steps by groups of workers.

Our constitutional proposals were not, as the SWP claim, designed merely to consolidate "an alliance of existing left wing groups" (Socialist Worker 8.12.01) but also to allow groups of workers to join the SA without abandoning their own organisations and campaigns. The SWP constitution , by contrast, consolidates their centralising approach. There is no element of federalism left in the constitution. This means that groups of workers will have two choices when faced with the SA, either they give up all rights to continue with their existing campaigns or organisations, or they stay outside of the SA. This was graphically demonstrated when, some time after the new constitution had been agreed, Pete Brown, of the Green Socialist Network, had to get up to point out that, according to the new constitution, his organisation, along with the Leeds Left Alliance and the Preston and Leicester Radical Alliances, were no longer to be allowed to be part of the SA because they were not called ’socialist alliance’! In response one of the movers of the SWP constitution, a supporter of the USFI’s British section, the ISG, agreed that it might ’be a bit too rigid’. Unfortunately, this had not prevented the ISG campaigning for the SWP constitution to be passed unamended.

All historical experience demonstrates that a new mass party of the working class will be established on the basis of workers’ experience during major struggles. It is not possible now, in the abstract; to decide what form such a party will take. It is certainly not possible to declare as fact that any existing organisation will become that new party. In England and Wales it is most likely that a new party will not come from one source but from several different ones – from the struggles of groups of trade unionists, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, tenants activists etc. To be effective, any new formation would have to find a way of involving such disparate groups, without demanding that they give up their own organisation. No matter how healthy a SP led SA was, we would never be self-aggrandising enough to assume that it would be a conduit through which all workers will move. The most that we would ever have claimed for the SA was that it might play a positive role in the development of such a party. On the basis of the current constitution, even that is now highly unlikely.

In addition, in the post-Stalinist period, there is an understandable extreme sensitivity on the question of democracy amongst fresh layers moving into action. For example, the best of the anti-capitalists are only now, on the basis of their experience of May Day, Gothenburg and Genoa, drawing the conclusion that it is necessary to be organised in someway, rather than just acting ’spontaneously’. However, this layer still reacts very strongly against the slightest whiff of bureaucracy. When workers move decisively into action, the need for some level of organisation will be far more immediately apparent to them than it is to the anti-capitalist youth. Nonetheless, the importance of democracy will still form an important strand in their consciousness. This makes it doubly important that any new formation has an open, welcoming approach and allows organisations and individuals to join whilst maintaining their own identity. This federal approach does not hold true just for the small forces of the SA, but to future parties and alliances of more significance, numbering tens of thousands.

The SWP argue that the SA cannot grow on the basis of federalism. Yet, for the first eighteen years of existence the Labour Party had an extremely federal approach, it was not even possible to join as an individual member. Today, both the Portuguese Left Bloc and the Spanish Izquierda Unida are strongly federal. Even the RC, which has come into existence by an entirely different route (a vertical split from the CP) has moved away from a crude Stalinist model of organisation. It has more rights for minorities than the supposed alliance that is the SA. For example, the method of electing the national leadership includes an element of proportionality, to ensure that minorities are represented. A similar proposal was voted down by the SWP at the SA conference, arguing that it would encourage divisions and only a more centralised constitution would allow the SA to grow. The RC now has around 100,000 members, of which 10,000 are youth.

The SWP justify their approach to the SA by calling it a ’united front’. This is inaccurate from every point of view imaginable. In the first place a united front, in its classical sense, is a block between mass forces. For example, Trotsky argued for the German Communist Party to call for a united front with German Social Democracy against the fascists. Both were forces with the support of millions of workers. Trotsky described the tasks of the united front to be for the Communist Party to demonstrate in practise to the masses, " it’s readiness in action to wage battle in common with them for aims, no matter how modest". In the course of doing so the Communist Party, had they taken Trotsky’s advice, would have been able to demonstrate in practise to the Social Democratic workers that, "the common struggle is undermined not by the disruptive acts of the Communist Party but by the conscious sabotage of the leaders of the Social Democracy."

It is clear that this does not fully apply to Britain today, where there are no mass, or even sizeable, parties of the working class at the present. Although millions of workers still vote Labour, in general they do so, not out of support for New Labour, but in as a bulwark against the Tories. In this period we have a dual task – firstly to encourage workers down the road of creating their own party, and secondly to argue the case for a Marxist programme. Of course, big sections of the working class will only draw the conclusion that a Marxist programme is necessary on the basis of their own experience, having tested out, and found wanting, other programmes. While we recognise this, our duty is to argue a case for the programme that is objectively necessary, a Marxist programme, and to win as many as possible to that programme.

Whilst a united front in its classical sense does not apply to current conditions, nonetheless it is correct to apply the method of the united front in a number of fields, including for electoral challenges. Unfortunately, the SWP do not understand what that is. Trotsky famously summed up a united front with the phrase, "march separately, strike together". By this he meant that organisations retain their own programme, organisation and independence of action whilst coming together to fight for a particular demand. In this sense, the SA, prior to the SWP take-over, applied an element of the united front, although on a very small scale. Different organisations retained the right to their own organisation and programme yet came together for specific campaigns; particularly to form joint lists for elections, within which parties produced their own election material. But in no sense could the SA, as it is now constituted, be described as a united front. The right to ’march separately’ has been completed obliterated. Organisations can only take part in the SA if they are willing to subordinate themselves to the SWP.

The SWP simultaneously misunderstand the united front from the opposite point of view. For example, within the anti-war movement they insisted the entire anti-war coalition limited itself to the single demand "stop the war". We believed that the broad programme of the anti-war movement should include several other demands, such as ’no to terror’. What is more, the SWP utterly failed to argue for a socialist programme within the anti-war movement. Their speakers on anti-war coalition platforms, such as John Rees and Lindsey German, usually failed to mention capitalism, never mind socialism, even when they were speaking on behalf of the SWP. This SWP’s approach is not accidental. In an article by one of their leaders, Callinicos, entitled "The anti-capitalist movement and the Revolutionary Left" he explains their understanding of the united front in the course of attacking their former US affiliate, the ISO, saying:

"The ISO Steering Committee argued that it was the "duty" of revolutionaries, when building anti-war coalitions, to highlight the differences separating them from others opposing the NATO bombing campaign. In particular they should attack illusions in the United Nations as an alternative to NATO, sympathy for Serbian nationalism, and opposition to Kosovan self-determination. "It would" they concluded, "be unprincipled to ignore these questions within the anti war movement". This stance helped to explain why the ISO…was much less effective…than it had been [in the past]."

Callincos goes on to quote from the letter that the SWP Central Committee sent in reply to the ISO:

"you make concessions to the misconception that the way revolutionaries differentiate themselves within united fronts is by "putting the arguments" which set us apart from other forces within the united front. In our experience it is more often through being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question".

The SWP are of course correct in saying that it is important for an organisation to prove itself as being "the most dynamic and militant force" in a broader movement. However, we see no contradiction between this and campaigning for our own programme within the movement. In the 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, there was an enormous pressure on Marxists to abandon the need for a genuine socialist programme and organisation in favour of ’unity’, this pressure still exists to a large degree today. Many on the left have capitulated to this, including some that have split from our own organisation, such as the current leadership of the SSP and some of the SWP’s favoured ’independents’ in the SA (The biggest single ’group’ on the new SA executive are the four ex-SP members!). Unlike them, the SWP are currently holding firm to the need for their own organisation. In fact, they can justly be accused of ’sectarianism’, because they put the narrow interests of their own party above the interests of the working class. Their attitude to the SA demonstrates this; controlling the SA is more important to them than its success. Therefore, they have been prepared to introduce a constitution which makes it impossible for the Socialist Party, by far the most electorally successful part of the SA, to remain part of the SA. However, while this is true on the one hand, they have nonetheless given into the pressures of the period politically. This is reflected in their upside down version of the united front, in which they control it organisationally, yet do not raise their political programme within it! This is just as true in the SA as it is in the coalition against the war. For example, in the SWP-produced SA general material the only mention of socialism was in the ’Socialist Alliance’ heading.

We understand the genuine urge for unity on the left that exists amongst workers, a natural desire to avoid unnecessary splits and divisions. What is more we actively campaign for the maximum possible principled unity. At a time when the SWP were still pursuing a policy of ’ourselves alone’ we were involved in building broad campaigns in the trade union broad lefts and elsewhere. This is crucial to building mass movements. For example, the struggle of Liverpool City Council in the mid-1980s was only possible on the basis of blocks with other forces. We (then called Militant) were widely understood to have led that struggle, but our councillors were only a minority of those who defied the Tory government.

However, we have to counter the idea that, in the post-Stalinist era, programme no longer matters. This approach was put at its most crudely by one leading SSP member, Eddie Truman, who responded to the SA conference by writing: "I often wonder whether Lenin did more harm than good to the socialist movement by writing all those bloody books…perhaps if they were all burned…then left unity might be a feasible proposition." For us it is not a question of abstractly arguing about what Lenin said to whom and when. It is about applying the method of Marxism, that is the method of Lenin and Trotsky, to formulate ideas that provide a guide to action today. This will not be done by merely agreeing to agree – prior to defining, debating and testing ideas out in action. The "stop quibbling just get on with it" approach may initially appear attractive to some activists. But synthetic unity, especially when imposed from above, is a recipe for a thousand splits, not for unity in action.

Therefore, whilst we will always fight for the maximum possible unity of socialist forces, we will also always defend our right to put our own programme. This is not in order to be sectarian, but in the interests of the working class. In the work we are involved in today, such as in elections, we have proved our capacity to achieve electoral victories for socialist ideas. In the trade unions we have also won electoral victories (we currently have 12 members on the National Executive Committees of different trade unions). More importantly, in many workplaces, despite the low level of strikes at present, we have led successful struggles. In the past, we led mass battles which won important victories, both against Thatcher’s Poll Tax and as the leaders of Liverpool City Council. These are modest achievements, but they compare extremely favourably to all other forces in the SA or elsewhere on the left in Britain. What we have achieved to date has been on the basis of our ideas. More importantly, we believe that we have the best available programme to arm the working class for future struggles, therefore, it is incumbent on us to argue for those ideas. This does not mean that we defend our programme blindly, of course we listen to others, and learn on the basis of experience and changing circumstances. However, we will not agree to abandon our ideas in order to reach a false, and therefore inevitably temporary, unity. For this reason, we could not remain part of a SA that has become little more than a front for the SWP.

We are confident that, in the coming months and years, we will see the working class move into struggle on a mass scale. The fight for a new mass workers’ party will form a vital strand in those struggles, and will dwarf all the small steps that have been taken in that direction so far, including the SA. The SWP take-over of the SA is one extra complication on the road towards a new party, but historically, like the failure Scargill’s SLP, it will prove to be a minor one. The Socialist Party will continue to support every step towards independent political representation taken by sections of the working class. Unfortunately, the only way we are able to do this effectively at the present time is outside of the SA. Alongside continuing to contest elections ourselves, we will support workers’ and community activists taking to the electoral plane. We will also continue to lead the struggle in the trade unions for the breaking of the links with Labour. In the immediate period we will fight for electoral agreements between socialists – ourselves, the SA, the SLP and others – to try and ensure we have the widest possible socialist challenge in coming elections.

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December 2001