Election bloc call fudged

The open meeting called by the Socialist Alliances Network in Walsall on November 29 was attended by 80 people.

They included contributing representatives of Greater Manchester, Coventry and Warwickshire, and Brent Socialist Alliances; and delegates from the Communist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Party, Socialist Outlook, International Socialist League, Socialist Movement, Campaign for a Democratic Socialist Labour Party, and Walsall Democratic Labour Party; the Green Socialists, and the regionalist Movement for Middle England.

Representatives from the Scottish Socialist Alliance (Allan Green), and the Welsh Socialists/Cymru Goch (Mike Davies and Tim Richards), gave fraternal addresses at the beginning of the meeting, having been introduced, in all seriousness, by the chair, John Nicholson of Greater Manchester SA, as “international guests”.

One of most interesting features of the conference was the support of some Labour leftwingers. Ken Coates MEP sent a representative to the meeting to show his support, while Michael Hindley MEP spoke. Both members of the ‘Strasbourg Four’, they argue that the Labour left will find itself completely pushed off the party list for the European elections. Hindley said he believed that a new party “would emerge”, but the left should not “strain too much to create one at the moment”. Instead this should be a period of “tolerance and listening”. Tony Benn also sent a message of support, as did former-MP Joan Maynard. Although these are just straws in the wind, they indicate a layer in the Labour Party which is beginning to look around for an alternative. While the SLP still has potential, it is certainly not a serious option. Given the links with the Socialist Movement, the Alliances may well be an attractive prospect for those wishing to jump ship in the future.

Speaking in a personal capacity, and reiterating the views he has recently published in Briefing, Lewisham West SLP’s general election candidate Nick Long suggested that the SLP remained the best vehicle for building a new working class party.

Acknowledging the problems caused by the witch hunts and Scargill’s bureaucratic methods, he insisted that it was still possible for SLP activists to work for socialist unity. He cited the continued existence of the Socialist Group (one SLP and one SP councillor) on Lewisham council, despite a stream of injunctions against it from Arthur Scargill. Predicting that he would himself receive a letter from Scargill after his contribution to the meeting, comrade Long suggested that, if defiance of Scargill’s edicts continued to grow, then it would become impossible for him to bureaucratically stifle the building of a united working class party.

John Pearson of the Campaign for a Democratic SLP agreed that the formation of the SLP had been a very positive development. However, the fight against the witch hunts and for democracy in the SLP was of crucial importance. The CDSLP called for the removal from Scargill’s imposed ‘constitution’ of the bans on affiliation of socialist organisations to the SLP, and the selectively applied debarment from individual SLP membership of persons who are, or are alleged to be, members or supporters of another political organisation.

Pearson deplored the electoral clashes that had occurred between the SLP and the SP in the general election and, more recently, between the SLP and the SSA in the Paisley South by-election. It was vital that the Socialist Alliances Network initiate national discussions to achieve an electoral alliance, he stated.

Socialist Outlook expressed the view that, for the first time since the war, the conditions exist for the creation of a new working class party. However, the SLP’s formation had been premature and non-inclusive. The movement had to come from the trade unions and this might not happen for another “two years or so”. In the meantime, SAs should be built in order to prepare the ground. The SP very conspicuously abstained from this discussion.

The Socialist Democracy Group - a recent split from Socialist Party - is, it is rumoured, interested in being involved in the Alliances. However, it is difficult to see what contribution its supporters will make, given their complete lack of partcipation in the debate on the day. They sat silently at the back of the meeting and sold their journal at the end. Hardly an inspiring debut - but then again their cowardly flight from the Socialist Party was not a good start.

Steve Riley of the CPGB posed the question, “Why do we need a party?” He answered: “To get rid of capitalism. That means revolution and therefore a revolutionary party.” Crucial to building that party is the tactic of challenging Labour, on its own ground - ie, standing working class candidates in elections.

This question was the key issue to dominate the afternoon debate. Although one of the stated aims of the conference was to “consider options, such as … a united electoral platform”, the motion put forward by the CPGB to stand in the 1998 local elections was remitted to the local alliances for discussion. Not surprisingly Socialist Outlook, Red Pepper and other Labourites were against standing. But other opposition came from unexpected quarters. Dave Nellist, ex-MP and leading member of Socialist Party, told the meeting that we should not rush to stand in elections - instead we should wait until we are stronger. This attitude is in marked contradiction to the actual practice of the SP, which has laid great stress on building its own organisation through the electoral tactic. It also stands in opposition to the experience of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which, despite its numerical weakness, stood in 20% of the seats in Scotland in the general election. This shows a sectarian attitude on the part of Nellist and the SP leadership, who want to pursue their own narrow organisational electoral ambitions rather than left unity. With the next SA conference not due until June 1998, and in the absence of any national policy, it is up to local alliances themselves to take the initiative on this question.

At the behest of the chair, and the Network’s de facto leadership, the liaison group, the meeting did not accept motions and did not take votes. It proceeded on the basis of ‘consensus’, a method which invested great power in the chair, whose job was to summarise the “feeling of the meeting”. The root of this anti-democratic approach lies of course in the method adopted by the Socialist Alliance Network in its formative meetings, whereby socialists are to unite in action on the 80% they agree on, leaving differences over the other 20% unresolved. Nevertheless the possibility for united action has been put off to some indeterminate future date.

The Alliances’ future potential is certainly no reason for doing nothing now. While Nicholson and other comrades may think that by sitting tight all will come their way, the opposite is more likely. The whole project could easily fray and fall away. In a period like this it is vital to keep pushing forward. By standing in elections the Alliances would galvanise left regroupment in practice.

Derek Hunter