Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/231/9254
The Socialist Party And The Socialist Alliance
ON 1 DECEMBER the Socialist Alliance (SA) meets to agree a new constitution. HANNAH SELL, Socialist Party executive committee, explains why this is the most critical conference in its history.
The constitutional questions involve fundamental political differences on democracy, the nature of the SA, and the role it will play in the socialist electoral challenges of the future. If on 1 December the largest component group, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), force through their proposed constitution, the SA will be reduced, in essence, to little more than an SWP front.
The SA was founded in the mid-90s as Labour was being transformed into an out-and-out party of big business. The vacuum created by the lack of a party which even only partially reflected the interests of working class people could, the Socialist Party argued, be filled by a new mass workers' party, which would come into existence primarily as a result of workers' own experiences of struggle.
The first foreshadowing of this process has been shown by public sector workers who have stood in elections, such as the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CATP), Hackney council workers and the Tameside care-home strikers.
Socialists, however, have a key role to play in speeding up the development of a new workers' party, by arguing for a socialist programme, standing in elections and campaigning on the issue in the trade unions.
The Socialist Party, the only force in the SA with elected councillors, has independently undertaken such activity. But we also helped to initiate the SA, small as its numbers were, as a force that could potentially play an important contributory role in the development of a future workers' party.
Key to the potential role of the SA, however, was its open, inclusive approach. The SA aimed to bring 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.
This meant that ourselves and others could appeal to local community campaigners and trade unionists to stand under the banner of the SA, without asking them to give up their own independent organisations and views.
In the last two years however, following the decision of the SWP to join, the SA has moved away from the inclusive, federal basis on which it was founded. Of course, we want maximum unity between socialists and welcome the decision of any left organisation, including the SWP, to take part in alliance work, provided that it is done on a principled basis.
the SWP have not taken a principled attitude to the SA. Instead they have sought to dominate it by using weight of numbers to ride roughshod over the rights of the other component parts.
Consequently many organisations and individuals (the Leeds Left Alliance, the Preston Independent Labour councillors, the Leicester Radical Alliance etc) have become disillusioned with the SWP's approach.
Unfortunately, where it has been dominated by the SWP, the SA itself has taken an equally arrogant attitude to forces moving into struggle, such as the Hackney council workers, the CATP, and others.
The SWP imagine that declaring the SA as the electoral alternative for the working class makes it so. They then accuse groups of workers of 'sectarianism' for failing to recognise the SA, with around 1,800 members, as the only legitimate voice of the working class.
On 1 December, the SWP are likely to again try to use their weight of numbers, this time to force through a constitution which will consolidate their grip on the SA. It is clear that the SWP already see the SA as simply a tool of their party. In their recent conference documents they talk about the central importance of building the SWP by working through different so-called 'united front' organisations, including "the campaign against the war, Globalise Resistance, the Socialist Alliance (and the SSP in Scotland), rank and file groupings in certain industries... the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, the Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Defend Council Housing and the Anti-Nazi League".
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 has been graphically confirmed by their attitude to the campaign against the war, during which they have largely ignored the SA. Instead they have put the SA on the 'backburner'; like an occasionally useful tool that they will dust off and use again at a later stage when it suits their interests to do so.
We do not object to the SWP's right to organise or to build their own party. On the contrary, we have fought for the rights of all organisations within the SA to do so, including ourselves. By contrast the SWP have accused anyone who dares to raise the rights of organisations within the SA of being 'sectarian', summarised in a constitution that does not even recognise the existence of different organisations within the SA.
Of course, the rights of the SWP will be protected because, in effect, they take the decisions in the SA. The only conclusion is that the SWP is not prepared to respect the rights of any organisation, including the SA, other than the SWP itself.
Consensus v domination
The SWP's proposed constitution can superficially seem democratic, because it is based on one member one vote (OMOV). The SWP claim this will give maximum rights to individual members of the SA who are not part of any organised group. Yet, in reality, the SWP constitution will take all rights away from individual members because, at bottom, the SWP are currently able to mobilise enough people to outvote all other forces in the SA.
This does not mean that the SWP want to numerically dominate the structures of the SA. For example, their constitution proposes that the executive should be elected on a slate system. In other words, the SWP will put forward a list of who they want on the executive, and use their weight of numbers to vote it through.
The new executive will undoubtedly include many non-members of the SWP but they will be put there only by the grace and favour of the SWP, regardless of their lack of a social base.
Once elected this new executive will have phenomenal powers. It will, for example, be able to "disaffiliate local Socialist Alliances and remove individual membership or refuse to ratify candidate selection". In other words power will be taken out of the hands of local SAs and put into the hand of an executive, chosen by the SWP and watched over by an SWP-dominated National Council.
By contrast, the constitution put forward by the Socialist Party sees local SAs as the key unit where campaigning and electoral decisions should be taken. Our constitution strengthens the rights of both organisations and individual members of the SA, by codifying our 'consensus' approach so that decisions are taken on the basis of the widest possible consensus between all organisations with a base in a local area, and with the support of a majority of individual members.
This ensures that no one organisation would be able to force through its own agenda with disregard for the rest of the SA. Instead discussion and, where necessary, open and principled compromise, would be the only way forward - the essence of an alliance.
IF THE SWP's constitution is forced through on 1 December it would mean the end of the SA as a genuine alliance. This would be a tragedy. The SA is a small force but it is nonetheless an important step forward that, for over five years, socialists have worked together under its banner. We are entering a period where potential support for the SA is increasing dramatically; the worst time for the SWP to shipwreck it.
The Socialist Party is enthusiastically in favour of the SA but not at any cost. In the same way we welcomed the launch of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1995 because we saw the potential it had to become a significant force. However, we were not prepared to participate in the SLP on the basis of the extremely undemocratic constitution that Arthur Scargill imposed.
We correctly argued that the SLP would be stillborn as a result of its authoritarian approach. Similarly if the SWP's constitution is forced through we will have no choice but to recognise the reality that the SA is no longer an alliance but, fundamentally, a plaything of the SWP. On this basis we would have no alternative but to cease participating in the SA.
If this setback does take place we would, of course, remain advocates of genuine alliance work - that is the maximum possible principled unity between socialists. We would call on the SA to open discussions with all other left forces, including ourselves, to try and ensure that socialists don't stand against each other in next May's local authority elections. If such attempts were blocked by the SWP's new 'Socialist Alliance Party', inevitably workers would find a democratic expression of their desire to maximise socialist unity.
The derailment of the SA by the SWP would undoubtedly be a setback, but we are confident it would not prevent the future growth of genuine alliances between socialists, anti-cuts campaigners, trade unionists and others.
In the struggles to come many thousands of workers will begin to draw the conclusion that they need to create a force to provide independent political representation for the working class. Unfortunately, on the basis of the SWP's approach to workers inside and outside the SA (summed up in the constitution) the SA would not be able to act as a conduit for the building of such a force. It could then even become a certain obstacle on the road to the development of a new workers' party. For this reason, above all, we appeal to all forces within the SA to mobilise to save the Alliance and reject the SWP's constitution.
In The Socialist 23 November 2001: