SWP: London model 'a mistake'

Neither London nor Coventry, but Greater Manchester. This might have been the motto of the annual general meeting, on September 2, of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance. A new structure, for the period leading up to the next parliamentary general election, was adopted by the 70-strong gathering. This consists of a steering committee comprising five officers and five other members, wholly elected by the AGM, which reports to and is accountable to monthly general membership meetings of the regional GMSA. There are, as yet, no locally based SAs within the Greater Manchester region.

Neither London nor Coventry, but Greater Manchester. This might have been the motto of the annual general meeting, on September 2, of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance.

A new structure, for the period leading up to the next parliamentary general election, was adopted by the 70-strong gathering. This consists of a steering committee comprising five officers and five other members, wholly elected by the AGM, which reports to and is accountable to monthly general membership meetings of the regional GMSA. There are, as yet, no locally based SAs within the Greater Manchester region.

The London Socialist Alliance model, in which all affiliated organisations have an automatic right to a delegate on the steering committee, has been roundly defeated in Manchester. Indeed, that model was pronounced during the debate, by comrade John Baxter, the Socialist Workers Party's leading representative in the GMSA, to have been "a mistake".

The CPGB had proposed that the steering committee should be comprised of an equal number of recallable delegates from all affiliated political organisations, from local socialist alliances, and from other working class organisations which affiliate to the regional SA, and that the steering committee would then itself elect any officers deemed necessary.

However, our motion was bureaucratically excluded from the agenda by the outgoing GMSA officers. The reason for this unwarranted action, to the extent that a reason is at all discernible, is that the proposal was contained in a "lengthy" motion, rather than being presented as an amendment to the new structure put forward by the steering committee.

Debate therefore centred around an amendment submitted by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. This proposed a hybrid. Five officers and five other members, all elected by the AGM, would be joined on the committee by one delegate from each affiliated organisation. The committee would report to monthly general membership meetings.

Supporters of the amendment championed the principle of inclusivity. An enduring alliance of the revolutionary socialist organisations of the working class had to be built upon democratic structures, wherein each group had equal rights to be heard and which would through recallability be immediately responsive to changes in the class struggle and the balance of forces in local socialist alliances. Such a structure would provide the best bulwark against any bureaucratic totalitarianism by a numerically dominant group and would provide a framework within which trust and closer unity could be developed. We do not want socialist alliances which are just an SWP front under another name, John Pearson of the CPGB warned.

SWP speakers led the attack on the amendment. Under their favoured model the committee would be just a "working group". The general meeting would be sovereign. It was the latter body that could become the focus of growth in the pre-general election period. The comrades' contributions very much reflected the theme espoused by SWP national secretary Chris Bambery, in his address to the CPGB's Communist University (see Weekly Worker August 31). As the comrade said, "The most impressive thing in the LSA campaign was how we were able to go from being just an alliance of the far left - no mean feat in itself - to beginning to draw in wider forces from the labour movement."

Comrade Theresa Bennett, the SWP's LSA candidate for Lambeth and Southwark in last May's Greater London Assembly elections, gave a clear indication of where some of these wider forces were expected to come from. On the Labour Party's own figures, which are not up to date, she told the AGM, it had lost 100,000 members since its triumph in the 1997 general election. Clearly, these people had left Labour out of disgust at Blair's pro-capitalist offensive. They were surely open to be drawn by a credible socialist alternative.

The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated. Only the comrades of the CPGB, AWL and International Socialist League voted for it. Workers Power and the International Socialist Group voted against. The comrades from the Socialist Party in England and Wales could not be seen in the hall when the vote was reached.

In the steering committee election which followed, the incumbent officers, which include Chris Jones of the ISG, were all returned unopposed. Nominations had been received for the five ordinary seats from the CPGB (1), AWL (1), SWP (2), plus two independents. Workers Power and the SPEW made no bid to gain committee places.

Then, in a peculiar twist, and one which immediately and patently exposes the inadequacies of the freshly adopted structure, the session's chair, comrade Declan O'Neill, announced the recommendation of the incumbents. The conference should overlook the constitutional limitation to five places and elect all six.

This was agreed, with just a couple of dissenters. Two years of exclusion of the CPGB from the GMSA has ended with the election of our nominee, comrade Peter Grant, chair of Manchester Piccadilly Aslef, to the steering committee. This was though achieved in a highly unsatisfactory manner.

The organisational form which has triumphed in Manchester is not that of negotiation between allied working class organisations, but one of majority rule (and potentially a take-all monopoly). And the overwhelming majority within the GMSA lies with the SWP.

It was clear that the SWP had quite deliberately gone out to underline that it was that majority. Under the observing eye of leading central committee member John Rees, it mustered no less than two-thirds of those present. By comparison, and indeed absolutely, the numbers of representatives of the six other revolutionary organisations present were tiny.

Not before time, the GMSA, which had become nothing more than a proprietorial sect centred around the figure of John Nicholson, has been transformed. As I have outlined in previous Weekly Worker reports, the reaction of comrade Nicholson to the successful electoral interventions of the LSA and to the seismic changes within the SWP was to attempt to 'ride the tiger'. He offered himself as a mentor to the newcomers. Three SWP representatives were coopted to the previously officers-only GMSA steering committee in July.

The minutes of the July 18 committee meeting reveal a laughable attempt by comrade Nicholson to impress the SWP with his willingness to serve. Reference is made to the decision of the Socialist Alliances network (England) to convene a conference on September 30 to discuss mounting a Socialist Alliance challenge in the general election and to the agreement by the Coventry and Warwickshire SA to organise this.

The minute concludes, "If there are no signs of this being organised by mid-August, GMSA must be in a position to take this on ourselves, as previously noted." Reliable sources suggest that comrade Nicholson patiently explained how the West Midlands people around Dave Nellist are dilettantes notorious for not carrying out decisions.

Although the AGM ended with the Nicholson group re-elected unopposed as officers, this is no more than a formal continuity. GMSA is now an SWP fief in which - for the time being at least - smaller revolutionary organisations, together with the 'independent' left reformists are tolerated.

If anyone present had not perceived this reality it was made crystal clear in the manner in which the meeting was closed. The au revoir was pronounced not by any of the re-elected officers, but by John Rees.

The major achievement of the LSA had not been the inclusive steering committee, but the 1,000-strong public rallies, he said. We go forward to build a mass movement around Socialist Alliance candidacies in the next general election. The number of those candidates will depend on the extent to which that mass movement is built, was comrade Rees's message.

The first general meeting of the new GMSA will be a post-Coventry special conference on the general election campaign, on October 10. The major decisions on the foundations of the campaign in Manchester will be made at that meeting.

The CPGB intends to fully contribute to that process. We will argue around three main themes. Maximisation: a high-profile campaign, with the most seats practicably possible being contested. Involvement: the inclusion of all affiliated organisations in drafting the manifesto and standing and financing candidates. Free speech: the right of alliance partners - whilst being obliged to support all agreed Socialist Alliance candidates - to use their own propaganda and their candidates to express minority views from public platforms.

The perspective of forging democratic as well as centralist unity of the revolutionary left remains an essential and indispensable task. As the GMSA AGM has demonstrated, it is a battle communists have to engage on constantly shifting terrain.

John Pearson