Making a mass impact

Danny Hammill reports on the April 7 meeting of the London Socialist Alliance, where it discussed which position to take on Blair’s May 7 rigged referendum

This was an upbeat and positive meeting. It brought together supporters and members from a range of left groups - the Socialist Labour Party (albeit in an unofficial capacity), Socialist Democracy Group, Socialist Outlook, Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. There was also a representative from the London Federation of Green Parties.

The meeting reflected the mood of anger mounting against Blair’s anti-democratic, arrogant rule. His rigged, take-it-or-leave-it referendum on May 7 in London is typically New Labour - a dictatorial device which aims to gain the acceptance of Londoners to the absence of democracy under the guise of ‘bringing democracy’. Those who attended , whatever their view on actually how to vote come May 7, were all united in opposition to Blair’s ‘strong’, US-style mayor and a weak assembly. As said by a number of comrades during the discussion, the proposedpuppet mayor represents the further Blairisation of British politics and society - ie, the appearance of democracy but the actual rule of capital.

The mood among the local SAs is undoubtedly swinging towards a boycottist position. Brent SA has adopted this position. Lewisham SA is asking voters to spoil their ballot paper by writing on it, ‘Bring back the GLC’. Other organisations, not least the CPGB and the London SLP, have adopted a boycottist stance - demanding a democratic assembly and a republic.

Ex-SLPer Ian Driver gave a militant speech decrying Blair’s “sham” referendum. In comrade Driver’s opinion the old GLC, for all its faults, did “act as a redistributive mechanism”. The same could certainly not be said about the proposed GLA and mayor - which will be working hand in glove with big business. “There will be no genuine democracy,” said the comrade.

Indeed, continued comrade Driver, the whole process leading up to the May 7 referendum has been a textbook example of Blairite authoritarianism. Last year’s London conference of Labour Party members - intended explicitly to discuss the whole referendum question - was ‘mysteriously’ cancelled at the last minute. In other words, suggested comrade Driver, Blair got wind that the majority of local Labour activists did not want a mayor. Therefore, purely in the interests of democracy of course, no more conference …

Given these conditions, comrade Driver said there was no way he could vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on May 7. To vote ‘yes’ would be to endorse the Blairite project. To vote ‘no’ would be tantamount to saying the status quo is satisfactory. There was only one option left - spoil the ballot papers in protest.

Comrade Driver was keen to stress that any boycott campaign should be viewed as a positive step. That is why it was vital that there was a left slate for the the assembly if it happens - and to stand ‘anti-mayor’ candidates in the local elections which are to be held on the same day. In the elections, the left should campaign for a ‘peoples assembly’ - on a programme of local taxation. Tax the rich and big companies that will be ‘sponsoring’ the mayor and assembly.

The other platform speaker was comrade Julie Donovan from the Socialist Party. Significantly she was the only SP member to attend the meeting. The comrade sympathised with the comments of comrade Driver, however, despite her opposition to Blair’s plans, she could not see the wisdom of a boycott. In the view of comrade Donovan “there was a lack of mood” for a boycott. It was just “not possible to organise a mass boycott”.  She also stated that “most people do not care” about the referendum - there is an “apathetic mood” in general.

Those that can motivate themselves to vote on May 7, suggested the comrade, will see the London mayor and GLA as a “small step forward”. She strongly implied that socialists should always ‘be with the masses’, by which she means the majority - a hopelessly tailist perspective. The task of socialists, as the comrade put it, is not to get excited about the referendum as such but to highlight what she economistically called the “real issues” - transport, jobs, defence of the emergency services, etc.

For all this, the comrade left it dangling in the air as to what exactly is the position of the SP come May 7. Surely a very concrete situation deserves concrete answers. A comrade from Socialist Outlook interjected at this point: “So, how is SP going to vote on May 7?”

After much squirming, comrade Donovan finally admitted, “Well, the GLA will not be a quango - as such”. The comrade went on to say she would be voting ‘yes’ - something being better than nothing. Later, after some good-humoured taunting, she blurted out the classic ‘lesser of two evils’ view that Blair’s assembly will represent “some sort of advance”. As we know this was the stageist argument used by Scottish Militant Labour to vote ‘yes, yes’ in the September 11 Scottish referendum. (Interestingly, comrade Donovan’s views were strongly echoed by the Green representative, who maintained on behalf of her organisation that “any authority is better than no authority” and that a boycott is not “constructive” - that we “must engage in the process” of politics,” not step aside from it, despite that she personally would be voting ‘no’).

We were told by comrade Donovan that the SP has prepared a leaflet that will “explain” to Londoners what sort of authority they need. Hopefully, it will also clarify the SP’s position, which remains delphic. The leaflet, said the comrade, outlines how the SP favours a “large assembly with tax-varying powers”. It will also demand that there should be three separate questions on the ballot paper: ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a mayor, a London assembly and a London assembly with tax-varying powers.

In her final assessment the comrade sounded distinctly downbeat - if not miserabalist. Directly quoting from John Bridge’s discussion paper - submitted to the LSA on behalf of the CPGB - about concrete circumstances and tactical options. On this basis she attempted to justify her claim that there was “no possibility of a mass, active boycott”. In the spirit of “accepting reality” - a phrase we hear so often from the lips of the left nowadays - we have to recognise that it is “inevitable” that most Londoners will vote for Blair’s proposals. Indeed, said the comrade, it “does not make much difference what we do”.

In which case, as various speakers pointed out, why bother standing in elections? Also, if SP is so against boycotts, why did it not come in force to the meeting and get the LSA to adopt a ‘yes’ (critical or otherwise) position - we are told it still has some 30-40 activists in the London area. It would not be wild speculation to see this unwillingness to mobilise as evidence of faultlines in the ranks of SP over the referendum question.

Comrades from Socialist Outlook in their turn argued for a ‘no’ vote. Using the SP formula - but in reverse - they argued with undeniable logic that Blair’s mayor/GLA will indeed be a “stepping stone” - but to something worse. By voting ‘yes’ on May 7, the SO comrades thought, “We will be giving credibility to Blair”. Post-referendum, “life will be more difficult for socialists”, not easier, as the SP comrades seems to imagine. Do not let Blair “get away with it” in London, was how one SO comrade put it.

It therefore followed for the comrades that a boycott can only feed apathy, not combat it. “Always” telling workers to boycott “generates apathy”. Hence an “active boycott” is a contradiction in terms said one SO comrade. Unfortunately the comrades never really explained how voting ‘no’ with the pro-status quo sections of the Tory Party was going to activate the working class or present an absolutely distinct position. The fact that there will be left candidates standing in the local elections on the same day was also swept under the carpet by the SO comrades. It somewhat spoils their thesis that the CPGB in particular is developing a boycottist mania.

John Bridge of the CPGB forcefully outlined the boycott position. The London referendum is all part and parcel of Blair’s project to stabilise Britain from above - to make the workers “identify” with the institutions of the state. But for all Blair’s intentions, the referendum offers an opportunity for the left to “make a mass impact”, said the comrade. To vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is to actually make ourselves “inarticulate”.

Seeing how a “window of opportunity” was opening up before our eyes, maintained comrade Bridge, “we need a clear and distinctive argument”. The left can make a difference - if it draws clear demarcation lines. For instance, Ken Livingstone is railing Blair’s proposals. But at the end of the day he will vote ‘yes’ anyway. The left must not ‘do a Livingstone’ and merge into the Blairite/establishment camp.

Standing left candidates in the local elections shows something positive. Comrade Bridge thought it crucial to counter the almost instinctive pessimism of the left, which seems to think that they are “automatically irrelevant” - so why bother doing anything bold or imaginative? This gloomy mindset appeared to have gripped the SP comrades. On the other hand, comrade Bridge emphasised, the recent decision of London SLP to boycott the referendum shows courage - and the potential for an effective and determined left opposition to New Labour.

Mark Fischer, also from the CPGB, cited the example of Scotland and SML. By advocating what they thought was a clever-clever ‘yes, yes’ vote, SML virtually disappeared from sight during the referendum campaign. No doubt they thought they were being ‘with the masses’. But look where it got them - nowhere. In terms of publicity and general media impact, the CPGB and its boycott campaign made far more of an impression than SML - precisely because it was principled and thus stood out.  Unfortunately, it looks like the ‘English’ SP is in danger of repeating the same mistake as SML.

Comrade John Bulaitis of the Socialist Democracy Group agreed that SP was “avoiding the big question”. How are we going to “make our voice heard”, asked the comrade? By presenting what he termed the “third view” - ie, a boycott position as opposed to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ - the left can potentially gain access to the media. If the left is bold, then it makes its mark on society.

Comrade Bulitus, like other comrades, wanted to be clear that a boycott was only - at the end of the day - a tactic.

A comrade from the SLP - there as an unofficial observer - reinforced the view that a boycott campaign could help to unite the left. The SLP - encouraging - has adopted a boycott campaign. This puts it to the left of SP and has to be applauded. It also shows that there is fluidity on the left - even in the supposedly ‘dead’ SLP. An effective boycott campaign, said the comrade, has the chance to “connect with a layer of activists”.

Seeing how London SLP has a “radical position” - so should the LSA. The comrade made the case that adopting a boycott position enables the LSA to become a “party of protest” and offer a “positive alternative”. Fellow SLP member, Stuart Goodman - also at the meeting in an unofficial capacity - endorsed this sentiment. The left must engage in a “constructive boycott”.

In his summation. Comrade Driver admitted that there was “tactical divergence” on the referendum question. This is only to be expected, given that the Alliance represents a very broad spectrum of left opinion. But, without doubt, there was “absolute unanimity” that Blair’s proposals are “flawed, corrupt and wrong”. Like other speakers, comrade Driver thought that we now have a “unique opportunity to get the left together and strengthen the position of the Alliance”.

The meeting ended with a decisive indicative vote in favour of spoiling the referendum ballot paper and against the idea of a ‘no’ campaign. It also voted unanimously for the London authority to be made “more democratic”.