36. The Socialist Alliances



On 5 September 1998 a meeting had been organised in Rugby to set up a national network of Socialist Alliances in England. Over 120 attended, including three Labour MEPs– Hugh Kerr, Ken Coates and Michael Hindley – who all spoke. Dave Nellist also addressed the conference: “Our task is to explain and popularise the ideas of socialism.” Jean Thorpe, on the NEC of the public sector union Unison, led a session on fighting against low pay. A campaign was launched to get a million signatures supporting a £6 an hour national minimum wage.1 This shows how little broad swathes of the working class have advanced in almost 20 years. There are still millions receiving the minimum wage, which will reach only £7.50 an hour in April 2017. It also shows the kind of political and industrial ‘Sherpa’ work undertaken by members of the Socialist Party and others on the left who heroically led struggles for a new political alternative for working class people. Our proposal to lay the basis for a new party provoked some resistance from those who wanted to remain in the calm of the New Labour bay. At another meeting in Doncaster Ken Coates stated: “We do not seek to create a new party, but we are anxious to compel the Labour government to return to its roots.”2

Many who were still members of the Labour Party and politically opposed to us were prepared, nonetheless, to work and discuss with us in left alliances. In some areas there were even votes taken as to  what such a body should be called: Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative or Alternative Labour List. This reflected the way in which the British working class movement has tended to move: in a rather ponderous and protracted fashion particularly before big historical changes were posed. This is underlined when we examine the way that the trade unions moved very slowly to disengage from the Liberal Party, a process extending over 20 to 30 years at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. It took a further period of time – encompassing the increasing crisis of British capitalism, the First World War and the Russian Revolution – before the Labour Party adopted a socialist clause in its constitution. In reality, having thrown the Labour Party up onto its shoulders the British working class, particularly its upper echelons, was reluctant to let it go.

Support grew, however, for left-wing candidates prepared to challenge New Labour after the experience of three or four years of Blair’s government. This involved a minority, but a quite determined layer of workers and youth who were prepared to work energetically to provide a real alternative to the discredited ‘Blair project’. Attempts at creating networks developed at this period but began to take on flesh in the run-up to the London Assembly elections. The Socialist Party had the only socialist councillor in the capital, Ian Page. There were two other socialist councillors elsewhere, Dave Nellist and Karen McKay in Coventry. We had been participating for five years in the London Socialist Alliance (LSA).

Belatedly, the SWP decided to throw its weight behind the LSA. Previously, like in the hokey cokey, it had been neither in nor out but, in effect, was actually opposed in the past to alliance work and denounced socialists who stood in elections. Its turn towards the was because it believed it could now benefit doing so and not as part of a process to build a new mass working class party. Unfortunately, alongside this came the methods of the SWP with the compliance of other left groups. They turned away from the previous democratic joint decision-making which was a feature of the alliances up to then. In Wales the SWP got involved in the Welsh Socialist Alliance (WSA) and only participated in the Assembly elections under the temporary moniker United Socialists. The SWP maintained its sectarian approach in the trade unions, consistently working outside of or even against broad left formations. The SWP had stood recently against Socialist Party candidates in union elections, winning fewer votes.

Outrageously, it attempted to expel us from the LSA notwithstanding the fact that we had been one of the founding members. Once in the LSA, SWP leaders arrogated to themselves the right to make public statements in the LSA’s name on issues as yet undecided by the Alliance. For instance, in an Evening Standard article, Paul Foot said that LSA London Assembly candidates backed Ken Livingstone for Mayor. This had not been agreed by us or others.

The Socialist Party remained committed to building the alliances even though collaboration with the SWP was extremely difficult given its approach. For instance, on the night of a Waltham Forest Socialist Alliance public meeting, a Socialist Party member and local health worker was told that he could not speak from the platform. The SWP later admitted that they banned him in case he criticised the LSA’s decision to stand candidates against the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CATP), which was supported by leading figures in the RMT, the rail, maritime and transport workers’ union. The Socialist Party was actively participating in both the CATP and the LSA, campaigning for a joint slate in the party list section of the Greater London Assembly elections. When co-operation failed to materialise we urged the LSA to withdraw its list in favour of the CATP and just concentrate on the constituency elections.

Most politically developed workers instinctively seek the widest possible unity in struggle and are dismayed that there is not often a united workers’ list to vote for. We blamed the leadership of the LSA and CATP for this situation. However, we decided that we would recommend a vote for the LSA in the Assembly elections, where we had Ian Page and others standing. In the party list section we also recommended a vote for the LSA – reluctantly and with reservations. This was because the CATP was restricting their campaign to one issue, rail privatisation, when workers were  looking for a broader challenge, particularly to Labour. Moreover, the LSA would be seen by many as offering such a challenge. We also declared: “For the LSA to be a socialist alliance in any real sense, it is a prerequisite that it is open and democratic. Unfortunately, this is no longer true of the LSA under the control of the SWP. The SWP has used force of numbers to push through decisions beneficial to its own narrow interests.”3

This was linked to a completely false perspective for Britain in general, but particularly in relation to the Labour Party. The SWP opposed the demand for a new party. It falsely compared developments around the LSA with the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee 100 years previously, which led to the formation of the Labour Party. However, the SWP failed to draw the obvious conclusions from that experience: the Labour Party was formed from the coming together not only of socialist groups but, more importantly, workers’ struggles and the new trade unions formed at the end of the 19th century. It was the position of the Socialist Party that it would take struggles of a similar scale to forge a new mass party, which was then and is now even more so desperately needed by working people.

For the SWP, the LSA represented the only left electoral alternative to New Labour at that stage. While opposing the SWP’s sectarian methods, the Socialist Party engaged in debate, hoping to lay the basis for the emergence of a bigger socialist force which could lead to a mass party. The different methods and approach were to some extent put to the test in the 2000 elections for the London Mayor and the gLA. The turnout was not great at less than 34% and the Labour vote plummeted, although there was no great rise in support for the Tories. Instead, left and Green candidates attracted 3-4%. A Green Party member was elected to the 25-member Assembly and the total left vote in the constituencies was 47,000, with the majority going to the LSA, Independent candidates or one of Ken Livingstone’s supporters. Unfortunately, matters were complicated for the party list section with four left-wing groups competing against one another. Between them, they won over 66,000 votes (3.9%). In other regions, the Socialist Party did well – for instance in Coventry and also in Carlisle where we won 24.5% of the vote.

The battle between left-wing organisations continued after the elections, primarily between the Socialist Party and the SWP and its fellow travellers. This became evident because of the likelihood of a general election in 2000 or 2001. The SWP manoeuvred frantically to ensure that its candidates got priority on the Socialist Alliances’ lists. It proposed that the officers of the Socialist Alliance should form a small election committee which would have the power to formally endorse local candidates, agents and material. We opposed this, pointing out that the LSA could suffer the same fate as the SLP which was in the process of disintegration. After some delay, this prognosis was borne out. The sectarian methods used by the SWP in the Socialist Alliances and later in Respect led to the disintegration of these organisations – and a significant weakening of the SWP following big splits.

An uneasy truce held, nonetheless, inside the Socialist Alliance in the run-up to the 2001 general election but political hostilities did not completely evaporate. In January 2001 at a Socialist Alliance liaison committee, the SWP launched an attack on the Socialist Party, demanding that our general election candidates should submit themselves to ‘selection conferences’ and have their campaigns vetted by local or regional alliances. We pointed out that we had never been afraid of putting our ideas before broad audiences. We had also stood in elections much more successfully than anyone else in the Alliance and in the selection of activists in trade union broad lefts. However, compulsory selection meetings would mean ceding control of our candidates and campaigns – and the finances to pay for them – to the SWP and its allies. This was not acceptable in an alliance which was a federation.

The SWP backed away at that stage. We also made compromises promising, for instance, to stand in two of the London seats as Socialist Alternative and not as the Socialist Alliance. This was because the SWP and its allies, regardless of the strength of socialist forces on the ground and the potential for the election campaign to  build up that strength, were not prepared to mount a challenge in seats held by ‘Labour left-wingers’.

A mass meeting of 400 Hackney Council workers agreed to continue the campaign against the council’s attacks on wages and conditions, and 27 shop stewards, branch officers and convenors agreed to support Glenn Kelly as an anti-cuts, anti-corruption candidate in the by-election on 7 June 2001. The SWP-dominated Hackney Socialist Alliance decided to stand against him in the selection contest. It continued to oppose Glenn even when John Page, Hackney Unison branch secretary, tried to persuade it not to go ahead with the original proposal. The 27 convenors and stewards maintained their support of Glenn in the by-election.