Pooling our strength
Danny Hammill reports on the May 3 London Socialist Alliance election meeting
This meeting was characterised by serious debate and, on occasions, sharp disagreements. The fact that we can have such open and lively discussions should be viewed as “emancipatory”, said the chair of the meeting, Anne Murphy, London Socialist Alliance ad-hoc coordinator.
The LSA election meeting brought together members and supporters of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Outlook, the Socialist Democracy Group, the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Party and the Marxist Bulletin - along with the ex-Labour MEP Hugh Kerr and his political organiser, Pete Brown.
The first speaker, Julia Leonard of the Socialist Party, began by apologising for the absence of SP members. They were all busy campaigning, leafleting, canvassing, etc. All perfectly true, no doubt, but it has been noted that the SP is hardly ‘pro-active’ these days in its approach towards the Socialist Alliances - it sends only token representation to every event. For example, at the April 7 meeting of the LSA only one member of the SP turned up. This despite the fact the meeting was debating a resolution to boycott the May 7 London referendum - a course of action which ran contrary to the SP’s belief that Blair’s puppet mayor and weak Greater London Authority represents “some sort of advance”, to use the words of comrade Julie Donovan at the April 7 meeting.
Comrade Leonard claimed that SP members in Hillingdon were having a “really good response” from those they canvassed and talked to. A new workers’ party is needed, she concluded - or, to use her formulation, “a party of representation” for the class. As comrade Marcus Larsen of the CPGB later said, this SP soundbite is suspiciously Labourite and reformist. Is that not what the Labour Party always claimed to be?
The next speaker was Nick Long of Lewisham SA, a former member of the SLP and now a supporter of the soft Trotskyist SDG group. The comrade talked about the “tactical arrangement” some of the London SAs had made with the Greens, as part of the effort to build a “red-green” or “rainbow” alliance. (For all his commitment to this enterprise, comrade Long went on to describe the Greens who attended the national SA meeting in Coventry as an “obnoxious bunch”.) We start from our “modest beginnings”, comrade Long emphasised. However, Lewisham New Labour appeared “worried” by the challenge of the three SA candidates - so much so that, in effect, it tried to ban the first public meeting of the Alliance.
Comrade Stan Keable of Brent SLP/SA commented that, whether we like it or not, Blair is “extraordinarily popular” - still. The left has to start campaigning for the alternative we need, and the “sooner the better”, as the comrade put it. We should not get despondent about our forces. The local elections have proved that the Labour Party does not really have any activists on the ground. Put up a New Labour dog and it will get elected - at the moment.
Hugh Kerr argued that London mirrored the entire country - ie, the phenomenon of “mass apathy”. This represents a problem for the Blairites. New Labour, continued comrade Kerr, is desperate to get a ‘yes’ vote in the May 7 referendum - just as it was during the September 1997 Scottish referendum (for all of the conspiracy theories of some on the left to the effect that Blair really wanted to lose).
Therefore the Blair honeymoon would not last much longer, according to comrade Kerr. There are over 700 policy changes in the pipeline. Inevitably people will be angered by the Blairite administration. As for the ‘third way’ we have been hearing so much about recently, that will rapidly lose its sheen.
He thought that attempts by Blair and the CBI to seduce and incorporate the TUC bureaucracy would “come unstuck”. Public sector cuts, pay restraint, job losses, etc, would further disillusion all those who voted New Labour. After all, suggested comrade Kerr, “the middle classes and the rich are more happy than Labour Party activists”. To back up his case, he quoted a poll from The Observer in which 53% said they voted New Labour last May - even though it only got 44% of the vote. This demonstrates that many people are keen to be associated with the winning team, not that New Labour has a deep wellspring of support in society as a whole. Comrade Kerr claimed that 10% of Labour Party members have “consciously resigned” over the last year. “A bit of cynicism, a bit of alienation and a bit of disappointment” was how comrade Kerr judged the current mood.
As for Scotland, comrade Kerr had high hopes. In his opinion, the SNP is “very likely” to form the single largest party in the Edinburgh parliament. Under the ‘alternative member’ system of PR to be introduced in Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Alliance/Scottish Socialist Party only needs around five to six percent of the vote to get a seat - Tommy Sheridan MSP? On Scottish Militant Labour’s proposed liquidation of the SSA into the separatist SSP, comrade Kerr implied that it was some sort of natural progression. Slightly circumspectly, he said the Scottish people “feel they want self-determination” and it was “probably right” to form an SSP. In other words, comrade Kerr effectively welcomes the growth of Scottish nationalism. (His ally, Pete Brown, naively maintained that the “SSA comrades do not have a narrow nationalist project” and insisted that SML’s Scottish Socialist Voice “decries Scots nationalism”).
Comrade Kerr pointed out that what goes for the Scottish elections also goes for the European ones. The left needs eight to nine percent of the vote to get a seat in the European parliament. This was a far from impossible task in London - if the left pools its collective weight.
“There is more that unites us than divides us,” concluded comrade Kerr. Therefore, what is required is “a coalition of the left”. Quite correctly, Hugh Kerr thinks there are grounds for optimism: “Prospects are not as bleak as some imagine” - a useful antidote to the instinctive ‘vote Labour’ pessimism which pervades the left.
Marcus Larsen commented upon the all too evident fact that one year into the Blair government and there has been ‘no crisis of expectation’ - for all of the predictions and hopes of groups like the SWP. Instead we have had New Labour’s seemingly permanent PR campaign and an “almost sinister depoliticisation of politics”.
Comrade Larsen implored the SAs not to drift aimlessly along - they “must not be passive”. The LSA, for one, must start asking hard political questions - what sort of opposition do we need? What is our goal, etc?
The comrade criticised the almost unspoken assumption amongst many that the Greens are our “natural allies”. The Greens are not a progressive or pro-working class organisation. As typical examples of their essentially reactionary nature, Green election literature in Stoke Newington promises to work with the local police - one of the most notoriously corrupt, brutal and racist police forces in Britain. The Greens also encourage workers to buy from small corner shops as opposed to supermarkets - ie, workers should buy inferior goods at higher prices.
Comrade Larsen was also worried that elements within the SA could ‘do an SSP’ and fall into nationalism. “I am not an English communist, I am not a member of the English Socialist Alliance,” he said. Rather he was an internationalist committed to the overthrow of the British state.
Ian Dudley - having just resigned from the International Bolshevik Tendency partly over its attitude towards the SAs themselves - thought it was correct for the SAs to form “electoral united fronts”. But there has to be an explicit commitment to debate out programmatic issues. In practice, this means “full freedom to struggle against reformism”: the SAs “must have room for political struggle”.
Comrade Dudley also poured cold water on the idea that we should enter into any formal blocs with the Greens which would dilute working class independence. As for supporting ‘Red’ Ken for London’s mayor, as comrades from Socialist Outlook had suggested, he pointed out that the Evening Standard is backing Livingstone as the safe ‘left of centre’ candidate. That fact alone should ensure that socialists steer clear.
Marxist Bulletin supporter Barbara Duke complained that it was “hard to work out” what the Alliances stood for. There were candidates standing on “different programmes” in the elections. Comrade Duke singled out the discussion draft produced by the CPGB as “lowest common denominator” stuff. There was no call for a workers’ government, for instance.
A South American comrade also felt the urge to criticise the CPGB. He ticked us off for not explicitly mentioning ‘socialism’ in election addresses - ignoring our manifesto. The comrade also objected to the CPGB’s demand to “nationalise unprofitable industries faced with closure”. The CPGB, in the view of the comrade should be demanding the nationalisation of profitable industries. This is of course to misunderstand completely the nature of the demand. Communists fight for what workers need in the here and now - ie, the bourgeoisie must pay for the failings of capital. We do not call on the ruling class to introduce state capitalism.
The comrade thought it was important that the SAs have “consistent tactics” towards New Labour, which he described as the “biggest party of the workers’ movement”. The implication was that standing SA candidates was all well and good, but really the left should be still voting for Blair’s party.
Alan Thornett of Socialist Outlook boldly stated that it was “mad sectarianism” to stand against Livingstone - as had SLP candidate Stan Keable in May 1997 (on the political basis of supporting the CPGB manifesto). The implication of this, estimated comrade Thornett (incorrectly), is that the SAs should stand against all Labour lefts. “This would be incredibly divisive,” said the comrade. He was also strongly in favour of a red-green alliance - there are “sections of the Greens we must unite with”.
As for Scotland, if certain comrades want to liquidate the SSA into the SSP, who are we to say they should not? After all, said comrade Thornett, having the right to self-determination is meaningless unless you can opt for the road of independence. Comrade Thornett seemed to be suggesting that if you correctly call for the right to self-determination, you therefore adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards nationalism/separatism: ie, how it is exercised.
Fellow SO member, comrade Dave Packer, also condemned “sectarianism”. Sure, we do not like Livingstone - we know he is an opportunist. But, for comrade Packer, Livingstone can “mobilise left reformism” - ie, forces to the left of New Labour. “Those are the forces we want to connect to,” he said. Continuing on this theme, comrade Packer said he was out to gain “something substantial” - ie, tens of thousands of workers - not the small numbers present at the LSA meeting.
Like so many on the left, comrade Packer believes that the only possibility is a “process of recomposition within the existing workers’ movement”. A left reformist party “will emerge”, said the comrade with iron certainty. Like comrade Thornett, he thought the ‘English’ SAs should not stand in the way of the SSP, describing it as a “broad reformist-type party” - which must mean it is a ‘good thing’. However, until an all-Britain centrist party emerges from the depths of Labourism and the trade union bureaucracy, we presumably have to keep on loyally voting Labour.
There is a certain paradox in the words of Socialist Outlook comrades. Thirty years ago the antecedents of SO in the International Marxist Group were organising pro-Viet Cong/NLF demonstrations and demanding a student-led revolution. In those halcyon days the proto-SO comrades were bowing to spontaneous leftist radicalism. Now SO is bowing to spontaneity again - but this time to mundane rightist reformism.
Mark Fischer of the CPGB admonished the SO comrades. They were repeating the same mistakes as the CPGB when it was under opportunist leadership - ie, relying on the Labour lefts to … do something - anything.
“We must take ourselves seriously,” comrade Fischer declared. It is not predetermined that any future movement or party will be left reformist. History is made by people, not by ‘iron’ laws which rule out in advance other possible developments for example a reforged Communist Party. In essence, the SO comrades are accepting defeat before we even start.
“Ken Livingstone does not deserve our vote,” emphasised comrade Fischer. He represents nothing positive in the here and now. Communists test Labour lefts in practice. We do not give them automatic blank cheques. For organisations like SO its programme - and socialism - has become an ossified abstraction.
Even worse, said comrade Fischer, when it comes to Scotland comrades Kerr, Packer and Thornett seem to have forgotten even their ABC - ie, to oppose and attack nationalism, not accommodate to it. We are internationalists or we are nothing. In reality, according to comrade Fischer, the SSP is a prime example of a “negative party formation”. It is imperative that revolutionaries move against the “poison” of nationalism” that is gripping the SSA. Objectively, an SSP splits and divides our forces - we should oppose its formation.
Comrade Fischer’s contribution appeared to sting comrade Julia Leonard. In response, the comrade maintained that the Scottish comrades were “far further advanced”. Yes, comrade Leonard, but in which direction?Cryptically, she added: “What is the best way to get your message across?” Presumably, in the context of Scotland, this means going along with the nationalist tide.
Comrade Leonard announced that the Scottish question would be discussed at a London-wide meeting of SP members this week. Peter Taaffe and the SP leadership oppose the SML/SSP breakaway, albeit on purely technical grounds. Perhaps in the light of Taaffe’s opposition comrade Leonard enthusiastically backed the proposal from comrade Keable that the LSA organise a meeting to debate this crucial question.