Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/233/9269
Socialist Alliance conference setback
THE SOCIALIST Alliance (SA) conference on 1 December was a setback for socialist unity. With a narrow overall majority, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and a handful of allies pushed through a new constitution. This will effectively transform the SA from a federal, inclusive organisation into another Anti-Nazi League-type SWP 'front', which the Socialist Party can no longer participate in.
Potentially, the SA could have played an important role in bringing together different socialist organisations, trade unionists and community campaigners. As workers respond to the deepening crisis that Blair's second-term government faces - on public spending, growing job losses, the aftermath of the war on Afghanistan etc - a democratic and inclusive SA could have helped speed up the development of a mass alternative, a new workers party, to represent workers' interests.
Now however, far from being able to fulfil that role, the SA could, like Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP) before it, become another complicating factor on the road to an independent working class political voice.
A sense of proportion
WHILE THE outcome of the conference was a setback, there is, however, a need for a sense of proportion. The SA, with just 1,690 members nationally, has not established itself as an authoritative force.
In fact, the forces initially attracted to the SLP in 1995-96, including the figure of Scargill himself, were of greater social weight than the SWP and their allies who have succeeded in changing the character of the Socialist Alliance.
The early electoral successes of the SLP (Hemsworth, February 1996 - 1,193 votes, 5.4%; Barnsley East, December 1996 - 949 votes, 5.3%) compare favourably with the recent performances of the SA. Certainly, its electoral standing will not be enhanced by forcing out the Socialist Party, the most successful electoral component of the Alliance.
The Socialist Party, then Militant Labour, was also represented in discussions with Scargill on how the new party that he was proposing would be organised. Then we also argued for a federal structure, similar to the proposals the Socialist Party presented before the Socialist Alliance conference.
Our proposals were not accepted by Scargill, however, and consequently the Socialist Party declined to participate in the new party, warning that Scargill's approach would repel a new generation moving into political action, as proved to be the case.
Scargill's refusal to adopt an inclusive approach was a setback for the prospects of building a broad, socialist alternative to New Labour, as is the refusal of the SWP to build a broad SA.
But in reality, the debate over the future of the SA is largely a dress rehearsal for the tumultuous events that lie ahead in Britain and internationally, that will put a new workers' party on the agenda.
The Socialist Party will push for electoral unity and, at same time, will work in any new networks that may emerge as the reality of life in the new SWP-'Socialist Alliance Party' becomes clear. And while striving for socialist unity, the Socialist Party will re-double its efforts in the trade unions, in community and social struggles, and on the electoral plane, to build the forces of socialism and support all steps towards a new mass vehicle for working class political representation.
What happened at the conference?
THE CONSTITUTION debate was organised into two distinct sessions. The first, immediately after the opening rally, was a debate on six alternative 'stem' constitutions, one of which was to go forward into session two for detailed amendments to be moved.
This was the most critical debate in the conference. The Socialist Party never insisted that only our proposed constitution could strike a balance between the rights of component political organisations of the SA and individual members.
There were many amendments which, if our 'stem constitution' had been passed, could have substantially modified the details of our 'improved federalism' approach but which would still have enabled us to remain in the SA.
Moreover, while voting, obviously, for our constitution first preference, the Socialist Party explicitly recommended a second preference vote for a modified version of the existing constitution which was being moved by independent SA member, Pete McLaren. While insufficient, in our opinion, to properly protect the rights of both component organisations and individual members, it had kept the Alliance on the road up to this point and was the bottom line for us.
Our willingness to compromise, however, made no impact on the SWP or their allies. Their proposed constitution, based on one member one vote (OMOV), in reality, takes away all rights from individual members and minority organisations because the SWP are currently able to mobilise enough people to outvote all other forces in the SA. But they were determined to push it through.
What was implicit in the constitution, was spelt out clearly in the contributions. The new executive of the SA, under the SWP constitution, will now be able to "disaffiliate local Socialist Alliances and remove individual membership or refuse to ratify candidate selection".
John Rees, SWP central committee member, made it clear that this power would be used to prevent Socialist Party members running as SA candidates while retaining control over their own propaganda and campaign. In a bizarre inversion of reality, electoral campaigns which have won the most votes were deemed 'narrow and unsuccessful' while those with less votes were 'broad and inclusive'.
One speaker even demanded that there should be 'no more Lewishams' - i.e. a council which has two elected Socialist Party councillors!
All amendments with even a hint of 'federalism', however ineffective, were defeated. Even the modest proposal to limit the number of NEC positions held by members of any one political organisation to 40% was voted down as 'institutionalising divisions'.
A new organisation
THE CONFERENCE itself was proof of what 'one member, one vote' really means in the SA as it exists today. In the run-up to the conference 23 local meetings had been organised to discuss the SA constitution, attended by, at most, 380 SA members. (This in itself shows the limited base of the SA).
While there was not a majority for our proposals in many of these meetings, neither was there a majority for the SWP's constitution. The overwhelming mood was that the SWP, as numerically the largest organisation, had the responsibility to ensure that the SA held together.
This sentiment also explained the high vote (97 votes, 14.7%) for Pete McLaren's constitution at Saturday's conference which, together with the vote for the Socialist Party's proposals (122 votes, 18.5%), amounted to a third of the conference.
But with 345 votes (52%) the SWP won a narrow overall majority of 34 and pushed through their proposals almost completely unamended.
As the final constitution was approved and, in effect, the AGM of a new organisation was about to begin, Dave Nellist in the chair announced a recess.
The Socialist Alliance, he argued, was now a different organisation to the one that the Socialist Party had helped to found nine years ago, and the Socialist Party couldn't participate in the business of an organisation they were no longer members of.
Appeal for socialist unity
Letter from the Socialist Party to the Socialist Alliance national executive
"THE SOCIALIST Party deeply regrets the decision of the 1 December Socialist Alliance conference to adopt the constitution sponsored by the SWP and others.
As we made clear in the run-up to the conference, we believe that enshrining a 'majority-takes-all' approach into the SA constitution would seriously curb the freedom of action, including electoral activity, of organisations participating in the SA, and others who might have joined in the future.
On this basis, as we made clear on Saturday, we felt we could not, with any honesty or integrity, work under the confines of the constitution you adopted.
However, as we also made clear, this decision does not mean that we will not work for socialist unity where that is possible.
We note that the Socialist Alliance has, as recently as this June, approached both the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Greens to see if an electoral arrangement could be reached - if not to mutually sponsor candidates, at least to avoid electoral clashes.
In Hackney also, although the details are still a matter of contention, the local Socialist Alliance has discussed with the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the publishers of the Morning Star, the idea of SA-sponsored CPB candidates in next year's local elections.
In this light we urge you at the earliest opportunity to discuss with us the possibilities for establishing a committee for socialist electoral unity. In this way we may achieve, with any other socialist or trade union organisation that we can together involve, the greatest possible socialist unity in the May 2002 local elections and in any future by-elections.
Clive Heemskerk, on behalf of the Socialist Party executive committee
Sheffield Socialist Alliance
THE SHEFFIELD Socialist Alliance met on the Monday after the conference (3 December 2001).
A resolution was moved by Socialist Party members calling for early discussions, locally and nationally, between the SA, the Socialist Party, the SLP, and any other serious socialist or working class campaign "to try and achieve electoral agreement".
An SWP full-timer moved that the resolution be referred to the local Socialist Alliance steering committee but the meeting insisted on a vote and the resolution was passed.
Irish Socialist Alliance dissolved
ON 23 NOVEMBER, the Socialist Alliance in Ireland was formally dissolved, one year after the first discussions to get it established took place.
The Socialist Party in Ireland, which has a TD (MP), Joe Higgins, in the Irish parliament, consistently attempted to establish a broader unity on the left as a step towards the formation of a mass workers' party.
Joe was elected in 1997 as a Socialist Party candidate but worked in collaboration with other significant forces as part of a 'Justice in Taxation' coalition. Those forces, however, including the Tipperary TD Seamus Healy, decided not to participate in a Socialist Alliance at this stage, leaving the Irish SWP and the Socialist Party as the only significant organisations involved in foundation discussions. With no agreement reached, the Socialist Party declined to be formally involved in the Alliance which, however, the SWP and others launched earlier this year.
The experience of what happened next is instructive, particularly for the co-sponsors of the SWP's constitution at Saturday's conference - the International Socialist Group (ISG). In the words of some of their former co-thinkers in Ireland, the SWP "behaved as if the Alliance and its activities could be run in the same way as their own organisation.
"They fought against attempts to draw the Socialist Party into co-operating with the Alliance. This resulted in a situation where the Alliance was seen - rightly - as no more than the 'SWP plus a handful of others', and therefore many good socialists refused to get involved" (Report to the European Anti-Capitalist Left Conference, Brussels, December 2001). The inevitable denouement followed.
Preston lesson for SA
IN NOVEMBER 2000, the SA contested the Preston parliamentary by-election, polling 1,210 votes (5.7%) for its candidate - the Labour Independent councillor, Terry Cartwright.
This result was hailed then by the SWP as evidence that the SA had 'arrived as a national electoral force' but in the June general election the SA didn't contest the Preston seat. Fellow Labour Independent councillor, and Socialist Party member, Paul Malliband, in a statement issued for Saturday's conference, explains the reality of what has happened in Preston, and the lessons for the SA constitution debate:
"I have considered the proposals put forward by the various organisations in the pre-conference bulletins and have concluded that at this stage of development of the Socialist Alliance the best way forward would be to endorse fully the constitution put forward by the Socialist Party.
"The Labour Independent Group in Preston have consistently argued within the Lancashire SA (LSA) for a federal approach as per the original constitution, steadfastly retaining our own identity. As a group we would not support a move to a party structure at this time. We joined the LSA because it was 'an alliance', a forum of Broad Left groups operating through consensus on a united-front basis, with no one group dominating.
"We are only a small group and need protection from the larger organisations like the SWP who, through greater numbers at LSA meetings, have already turned it into what they now propose for the national organisation.
"In November 2000 we fought a parliamentary by-election in Preston. Terry Cartwright was selected by the LSA but then the SWP convenor tried to get the LSA to reverse that decision, even after we had released it to the press. I was appointed as the election agent only to be constantly ignored by the SWP faction during the campaign.
"Whilst they marched and flag-waved, the experienced campaigners got down to the serious business in what we viewed as our strong areas. The outcome was a saved deposit for the LSA.
"That the bulk of this vote came from our established roots was confirmed in the county council elections in June 2001, when the Labour Independent Group alone stood Terry in a county division which basically consisted of two of the 13 electoral wards that made up the Preston parliamentary constituency.
"Once again, as in the November by-election, but this time with the general election on the same day, we polled 1,200 votes. In comparison the LSA were busy in Blackburn yet, with all the resources of the organisation plunged in there and no help offered to us whatsoever, the LSA managed to poll just 532 votes (1.31%), getting beaten by a member of Scargill's SLP who only announced that he was standing at the close of nominations.
"The Socialist Alliance should work to its strengths and not the pipe dreams of a dominant faction. Experience of the local area should be embraced not shunned. The SWP do not have a mandate for what they propose within the Alliance and they certainly do not have any authority to speak on behalf of the Lancashire SA as they have not even attempted to consult the membership or called any meetings to air their views.
"Should the SWP proposals be adopted, the wider appeal of the Alliance to other groups and individuals will be lost and set back our cause considerably".
In The Socialist 7 December 2001: