43. Socialist Alliance splits



In the aftermath of the 2001 general election, it was obvious that the Socialist Alliance was heading for the rocks. The organisation had made some modest steps in the general election. In England the Socialist Alliance received an average of 1.7% of the vote in the 92 seats where it stood. This included some very good votes, such as Dave Nellist in Coventry with 7.08% and Neil Thompson in St Helens, 6.88%. While the overall vote was a step forward, it was nevertheless an extremely modest step at that stage, particularly when compared to the mass abstentions.

One of the crucial issues upon which the Socialist Alliance broke its back was how to relate to the many community and trade union-initiated campaigns which were independent from the Socialist Alliance. It was not just the SWP who were guilty of sectarianism. An independent left, Mike Marqusee, from Hackney Socialist Alliance, justified opposition to Glenn Kelly standing with the backing of council stewards, on the grounds that Marqusee’s organisation was a much broader forum and had a much larger base than the Hackney Stewards Committee, which had organised seven days of strike action by thousands of council workers! Needless to say, Marqusee did not stay the course in the Socialist Alliance, leaving when his partner, Liz Davies resigned in October 2002.

Looking towards the future, we pointed out: “If we are to  maximise the number of campaigns and organisations that are prepared to join the Socialist Alliance, it is crucial that we have a federal approach. This means that we unite the participating forces on the basis of a common socialist platform, while allowing organisations, groups and individuals, to uphold their own political positions.”

We drew on the experience of the British labour movement. At the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, Keir Hardie argued that the structures of this new organisation should ensure that “each of the affiliated organisations would be left free to select its own candidates without let or hindrance, the one condition being that, when returned to Parliament, the candidate should agree to be one of the Labour Group there, and act in harmony with its decisions. In this way, it would avoid the scandal… of seeing trade unionists opposing socialists and vice versa.”1

This very good advice from the founder of the Labour Party himself was completely ignored by the SWP. Moreover, Hardie was speaking to an audience which represented almost 400,000 people, a much larger number than in the ranks of the Socialist Alliance. This put the tentative beginnings of the Socialist Alliance in England, when measured against the Labour Party’s progression, into a proper historical context. These arguments, however, were swept aside by the SWP and their allies who emphasised a rigid centralisation, in opposition to a federal approach, which was to ultimately wreck the Socialist Alliance. We, on the other hand, argued that the local Socialist Alliances were the key units where campaigning and electoral decisions should be taken. We were flexible but the SWP and their allies were unbelievably centralist, which was totally at variance with the needs of the movement at that stage.

We also saw the political diversity within the Socialist Alliance not as a hindrance but a big positive. Indeed, an examination of the experience of other parties and formations which developed after the demise of the Socialist Alliance in Britain – in Italy, Greece or Spain – revealed a form of federal organisation with the prevalence for internal discussion and debate. The PRC in Italy allowed platforms which were able to campaign openly against the position of the leadership when necessary. Syriza in Greece was extremely open and friendly in its first period, when it grew rapidly in popular support from 4% to 25% of the vote. This demonstrated that internal discussion and debate in a broad mass workers’ party can be a big help in building support for such a party. Only when a large part of the bureaucratic apparatus of PASOK collapsed into Syriza was the party leadership able to clamp down on freedom to organise and discuss within the party.

All the signs pointed to the SWP and their allies mobilising to bulldoze their proposals through against all opposition at the national conference scheduled for December. We warned that this would lead to a split in the Socialist Alliance because the Socialist Party was not prepared to effectively allow the SWP to impose their candidates in local Socialist Alliances. We had put in a great amount of work when the SWP were decrying the very idea of attempts to unify the left electorally.

This meeting was preceded by an organised debate between the SWP and the Socialist Party at ‘Socialism’, our national event, in November 2001. Chris Nineham represented the SWP. Nineham criticised the Socialist Party’s proposals, saying they amounted to a “democratic deficit” by allowing small groups to have a veto. Having quotas, he said, would put off people joining by “institutionalising” the power of minorities. Steve Score, from the East Midlands, made the point, “As soon as one party imposes itself on others then that Alliance will break down.”2

Individual members of the Socialist Alliance, not subscribing to either the SWP or the Socialist Party, could see the dangers in the SWP’s proposed constitution. One of these, Mark Edwards, wrote to us: “I believe that in practice this will lead to the domination of the Alliance by the largest member organisation… It seems to me that the Socialist Party’s proposed constitution would ensure that the rights of member organisations and the majority of individual members to have their views taken into account are safeguarded.”3

To no avail. With a narrow overall majority, the Socialist Workers Party and a handful of allies pushed through the new constitution that effectively transformed the Socialist Alliance from a federal, inclusive organisation, into another Anti-Nazi League type SWP ‘front’. Clive Heemskerk had submitted our proposals for a constitution which was consensus-based and enshrined the federal principle. One of our most experienced comrades, Judy Beishon – who has been both National Treasurer of the party and editor of our weekly paper – spoke for us. Her short speech was to the point: “The advocates of having ‘one person, one vote’ throughout the alliance are portraying it as the only fair and democratic basis for the constitution. Of course in some circumstances this method is appropriate, but it’s necessary to say firstly that there’s no principle involved in it as some have argued – after all, it was a tool of the Labour Party right wing in consolidating their position – and secondly, in this alliance, right now, it’s a disastrous proposal because it means trying to force organisations that have worked separately and have a history of mistrust towards each other, into unity purely on the basis of the voting power of the strongest organisation numerically – in this case the SWP.

“The Socialist Party has been accused of demanding a veto but it’s important to recognise that our constitution gives the right of veto at local level to all the main participants, including a majority of the individual members; whereas the SWP constitution gives a veto to one organisation only – their own.”4

We declared that we could no longer participate in such an organisation. This, we concluded, meant that the Socialist Alliance would be a repeat of history. Like Arthur Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party, it would end up in an historical cul-de-sac and would eventually disappear. This is what happened later, when the SWP unilaterally wound up the Socialist Alliance, in order to join George Galloway’s Respect organisation. Disappointing though it was, this would not be the end of attempts by the Socialist Party to create the basis of a new independent working-class force capable of offering an electoral alternative.

The Socialist Alliance desperately attempted to secure for itself a trade union base with ‘trade union conferences’. They were nothing of the kind, with the overwhelming majority attending from the SWP itself. We continued to press for trade unions, particularly the left trade union leaders like Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Bob Crow of the RMT, as well as Matt Wrack, who held a prominent position in the firefighters’ union, the FBU, to put forward an alternative.

Matt, an ex-member of the Socialist Party and future general secretary of the FBU, attached himself to the Socialist Alliance, which allowed the SWP to give the false impression that the trade unions were moving in their direction. This mutual support reinforced the false position both had in relation to the Labour Party. The SWP were not prepared to break completely from the Labour Party and Matt Wrack shared a similar position. He was the author of a Socialist Alliance pamphlet on democratising the political funds. When still a member of the Socialist Party he did not secure a single vote when he put forward his position of fighting for policies within the Labour Party at the Socialist Party’s 2002 conference.

As we have seen earlier, developments on the left in answer to the swing further towards the right of New Labour were contradictory. On the one hand, big opportunities were presented at least to begin to establish an electoral alternative to the left of New Labour. This was expressed in the attempts through the Socialist Alliances to bring together organisations and trends of opinion, some with serious programmatic differences with one another, in order to establish a common approach. This in turn held out the prospect of swinging over many workers who had no political ‘home’ to a new pole of attraction.

However, for this to succeed there had to be a certain political and organisational give-and-take, which was unfortunately foreign to the Socialist Workers Party in particular. They pursued a policy of ‘rule or ruin’, clearly demonstrated in their refusal to accept a federal form of alliance, which in turn led to the forcing out of the Socialist Party of England and Wales from the Socialist Alliance. This was in spite of the fact that we had been pioneers of the project. Prior to entering the Socialist Alliance, the SWP were still pursuing  a sectarian policy, including their historical virulent opposition to supporting the Labour Party in elections. This was at a time when the Labour Party still retained the features of a bourgeois workers’ party, a leadership that was pro-bourgeois but which rested on a worker base. Therefore it was correct to give a critical vote in elections for a Labour government. This approach allowed Militant, as we have seen, to successfully work within the Labour Party in alliance with the other genuine left forces in successfully pushing the Labour Party towards a more radical socialist position.

The emergence of Corbyn later did not invalidate our approach at this time towards a new party. While building our own independent party, our pressure for a new mass party prepared the ground for the Corbyn phenomenon, which came primarily from outside the party.

Unfortunately the SWP, while abandoning formally its previous sectarian approach, in effect carried on with the same methods in the Socialist Alliance, which in turn led to the split first in England and then in Wales. Shortly after our exit Liz Davies, one of the Socialist Alliance’s most prominent members, resigned from its executive and the position of national chairperson, which only served to confirm our analysis that the SWP’s domination made the Socialist Alliance little more than an electoral front for their organisation. In a resignation letter, she declared: “The premise of the Socialist Alliance was that individuals and groups from differing political backgrounds and perspectives could work together on a common political project. It was always clear that trust among the elements of the Socialist Alliance, and in particular trust among members of the executive and national officers, was essential to this endeavour. As a result of recent events, I feel that trust no longer exists.”5

Events in the Welsh Socialist Alliance (WSA) took a similar course. At a special all-Wales meeting in October 2002, Socialist Party Wales members unanimously agreed to withdraw from the WSA. Originally, all socialist organisations were invited to join the alliance in Wales but the SWP declined because of their “principled opposition to standing in elections”. When the SWP changed their position, and decided to stand in the 1999 assembly elections, they still refused to join the WSA. The Socialist Party and the majority of other members in the WSA subsequently did stand in elections with the SWP under the banner of the ‘United Socialists’. Eventually, attempts to work with the SWP became difficult as they sought to gain complete control of the organisation. They packed meetings and blocked Socialist Party candidates who would have a better position than them to make an electoral impact. The exit of the Socialist Party, following the disaffiliation of left nationalists Cymru Goch, led to the collapse of the whole project, for which the SWP were entirely responsible.6