After the Socialist Alliance conference

ON 30 September 400 members of the Socialist Alliance met in Coventry to discuss organising a socialist challenge in the next general election.

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party National Campaigns Organiser

Three years of New Labour government has meant ever increasing cuts and privatisation. The need for the widest possible socialist challenge to New Labour in the general election is clear.

What is the Socialist Alliance?

SINCE ITS beginnings in the early 1990s, the Socialist Alliances have seen their role as attempting to enable different socialist, environmental and direct action organisations to work towards common objectives. They have recognised that there are political differences between the constituent parts of the Alliance but realised that this need not prevent us from working effectively together, provided it was on an open, consensual, democratic, federal basis.

The Alliance membership includes a number of important local campaigning organisations and alliances. However, at this stage the Alliance is overwhelmingly made up existing political organisations, the largest of which are ourselves (the Socialist Party) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP).

The conference

SATURDAY’S CONFERENCE was primarily to discuss how best to organise our general election challenge. The discussion was based on point-by-point amendments to an eleven point election protocol.

This protocol was a compromise which merged two previous protocols. The discussion at the conference can seem very obscure and organisational. Nonetheless, what lay behind it were important political issues about how best to build a broad socialist organisation.

In the run-up to the conference, a plan to introduce an extreme over-centralisation of the Socialist Alliance structures was raised and pushed by the SWP. This proposal was designed for a relatively homogeneous party, not a broad, federal Alliance.

If the Socialist Alliance takes the correct approach it may develop into a broad socialist party in the future. However, this would only be possible, if such a party is designed to encourage thousands of working class people to join and participate.

If the heavy-handed, centralised approach of the SWP had been implemented, far from drawing new forces into the Alliance, it would have resulted in the Alliance becoming narrow and, therefore, unable to attract fresh forces moving in a socialist direction.

Thankfully, due to Socialist Party members’ pressure and the majority of independent local alliances, this proposal was withdrawn. The resolution then put to the conference was a major improvement; nonetheless some remnants of the old centralised proposal remained.

The debate at the conference was between those, ourselves and several local socialist alliances, who wanted to remove these remnants of centralisation; and those, primarily the SWP, who wanted to further centralise the Socialist Alliance.

A democratic, federal Alliance

THE ARGUMENTS that the SWP use to try and justify their position is that all political organisations must put the Alliance first and not be “sectarian” and try to build their own party. They attempt to gloss over the political differences that exist between the organisations involved in the Alliance.

This is ironic, given the reputation of the SWP for invariably adopting sectarian positions and taking a high handed, dismissive attitude to movements of working-class people.

It is also not an honest approach and is unworkable. The Socialist Party has been involved in the Alliance since its inception and we are wholeheartedly in favour of building the maximum possible unity. However, it is only possible to do so on the basis of an honest recognition of reality; that there are numerous major political differences between the component parts of the Alliance.

For example, on whether or not New Labour is a big business party, and whether or not to call for a Labour vote in the general election in areas where the Socialist Alliance isn’t standing.

Our argument is that we recognise these differences and, therefore, that it is vital that the Alliance continues to organise on the principle of the united front. The means uniting the participating forces on the basis of a common platform, while allowing organisations, groups, and individuals the right to uphold their own political positions.

This is the only realistic way of building a genuine Alliance. By contrast, in reality, the SWP want to centralise the Alliance under their own control. Given that most of the groups and some of the individuals (who in most cases do not represent significant forces) support the SWP on most key issues, the protocol the SWP pushed would effectively give them control of the Alliance.

Wider Forces

IF THE Alliance organises on the democratic federal basis we propose then there will be an opportunity to mount a far wider election challenge than anything yet achieved. We should be aiming to involve the maximum number of political organisations, groups of trade unionists (such as the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation) and anti-cuts campaigners (such as the Kidderminster hospital campaign) in our election challenge. To bring such organisations on board it is vital to put the minimum number of obstacles in their path.

That is why we proposed that any organisation which agreed to a common Socialist Alliance Election Programme (to be drawn up at the Alliance’s February conference), and was prepared to advertise their support for the Socialist Alliance on their election material, should be welcomed on board. We argued that every organisation should be encouraged to stand with the name “Socialist Alliance” on the ballot paper but that it could not be a condition for taking part in the election challenge.

We ourselves, are willing to stand as “Socialist Alliance” but we want to make it as easy as possible for other organisations, with their own electoral record such as the Leeds Left Alliance, to take part in an Alliance campaign. Unfortunately, the conference voted by 200 to 174 to delete the clause advocating this position from the eventual proposal put to the conference.

This means that all organisations taking part in the Alliance campaign have to put Socialist Alliance on the ballot paper. However, we appeal to those organisations who feel unable to do this to remain part of the Socialist Alliance and campaign to change the decision.

The conference also voted by 220 to 171 votes to leave the selection of candidates solely in the hands of local Alliances, albeit on the basis of negotiation with political organisations.

This opens the door to the kind of manoeuvring that took place in Lewisham during the Greater London Assembly elections, where the SWP turned out 40 people to a local alliance meeting, which they had never attended before, in order to outvote local activists.

However, a potentially disastrous motion from the International Socialist Group, to remove all rights of political parties within the Alliance, was defeated.

Importantly, we also succeeded in improving the final resolution on the issue of what body will co-ordinate the election campaign. It was passed by 196 to 193 that it should be the liaison committee, which has representation from every affiliated organisation and local alliance, rather than a far narrower body.

What next?

DESPITE THE centralised elements of the proposal agreed by the conference, the final resolution was still a considerable improvement on the original, SWP-backed, proposals. However, it was clear from the conference discussion that the SWP have not given up on their plans to try and centralise the Alliance under their control.

The resolution that was passed included a clause stating that an election protocol was “to be developed by the Election Committee”. This is a blatant attempt to leave room to return to these issues in the future.

Undoubtedly, the SWP will try to reach their goal of centralising the Socialist Alliance under their control. However, they will not necessarily succeed. Publicly, the SWP try to ignore that the Socialist Party has had by far the most electoral success of any party in England and Wales. (We have four socialist councillors and are currently the only organisation in England with elected socialist public representatives).

In the last issue of their monthly magazine Socialist Review, they claim: “The best of the GLA [Greater London Assembly] votes for the LSA [London Socialist Alliance] were double the best votes that the far left gained in the 1970s, the last time there was a sustained electoral challenge from the far left.”

We have to keep a sense of proportion, the London-wide vote of the LSA was 1.6%. Nonetheless, some of the local LSA votes were creditable (the highest was 7%), but this outrageously ignores not only our councillors but the fact we have stood in over 200 council seats in the last four years and received an average vote of 8.3%.

We also stood in 19 seats at the last general election. In the 1980s, as part of the Labour Party, we also had three MPs – Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall – all of whom were Marxists and workers’ representatives on a workers’ wage.

However, despite trying to write others out of history publicly, privately the SWP realise we are an important force. It is this, combined with the opposition of many local components of the Alliance, which forced them to withdraw their original protocol in the run up to Saturday’s conference.

In the coming months we will be doing our best to ensure that we build on the best elements of the resolution agreed on Saturday to develop a genuinely democratic, federal and extremely successful election campaign.