Alliances at crossroads

Since it was established in February at the initiative of Brent comrades, the London Socialist Alliance has taken some modest, though nevertheless significant steps forward. Brent apart, alliances have been set up or given new life in Lambeth, Lewisham, Hillingdon and Hackney. Evidently the top-down approach facilitates and in no way stands in contradiction to building borough alliances from below.

In the May 7 local elections the London alliances stood or actively supported dozens of candidates. Despite the continued, and historically unprecedented, popularity of Blair and the New Labour government they gained what must be considered respectable votes. With a democratic system of proportional representation we would surely have councillors. There is every reason to confidently look forward to the forthcoming London assembly and European elections. Labour’s strategists admit the real possibility of the socialist left winning a seat in the Euro elections in London.

The London SA has not only acted as an electoral front. On May 23 it sponsored a spirited picket of the Indonesian embassy in solidarity with the unfolding democratic revolution. It was addressed by representatives of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Party (all other groups present on the day - including those not affiliated to the London SA - were offered speaking rights). London SA has also staged a number of successful meetings which brought together individual socialists and a range of left organisations - eg, the SP, CPGB, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Socialist Democracy Group, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Outlook, Workers Power, Socialist Perspectives - as well as MEPs Hugh Kerr and Michael Hindley (the Green Party sent a representative to the debate on the London referendum - she urged us to vote ‘yes’ for Blair’s dictatorial mayor).

Sectarianism has been combated in the school of united practice. It has not been used as a code word for minority opinions which have to be bureaucratically silenced or excluded. On the contrary everything has been conducted in a spirit of principled democratic tolerance. Differences are considered natural and their open expression is positively encouraged. Thankfully the foolish attempt by the Socialist Party to stop the circulation of controversial views in London SA mailings was defeated.

The London SA is obviously at a very early stage of development - though clearly in advance of borough alliances or for that matter the national network. No one is, or should be, content with existing individual membership or level of support and activity. We have a long way to go. That said, it would be wrong to underestimate or dismiss, let alone jeopardise, what has been done thus far. Indeed there is every reason to build on our strengths.

At present the strength of the London SA derives from three main and mutually reinforcing factors.

Firstly unity. The London SA plays the role of a rudimentary united front of left organisations. The fact that representatives of the SP, the CPGB, Socialist Outlook and Socialist Democracy meet and discuss common actions every month is no small achievement. The appointment of Anne Murphy as coordinator and Ian Driver as chair took place in that spirit - the former from the CPGB, the latter from Socialist Democracy. The recent decision by the SWP to contest elections is a break from automatic pro-Labourism which creates excellent conditions for widening and deepening the London SA as a united front.

Secondly politics. In the midst of Blair’s de-Labourisation of Labour and his unashamed orientation towards big business we have the chance of providing an organisational and electoral alternative for masses of traditional Labour voters and trade union activists. That does not mean resuscitating Labourism, but renewing genuine socialism - both in terms of Marxist theory and as a class movement. Social democracy and all variants of national or bureaucratic socialism are reactionary and anti-working class. Our willingness to fight Labour at the ballot box, especially on a revolutionary platform, is therefore correct and needs to be developed. Again the SWP’s ‘Scottish turn’ is encouraging.

Thirdly democracy. The London SA is an inclusive project. Unlike Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party there has been no barring of communists or hounding of minority positions. Meetings of the London ad-hoc committee are open to all groups, tendencies and individual members - though it should be stressed that no organisation has used numbers in an attempt to dominate. For example, except for myself, Communist Party members have only attended as representatives of affiliated borough alliances. The Socialist Party has adopted a similar approach.

Obviously the London SA is part of a broader all-Britain project. That is why the London SA ad-hoc committee was delighted by Dave Nellist’s suggestion that we send a representative to the Steering Committee of the Network of Socialist Alliances in England - itself a very ad-hoc body. Our coordinator, Anne Murphy, was elected unopposed in March.

That decision was, it would seem, not to the liking of some. John Nicholson - coordinator of Manchester SA and the network steering committee - told comrade Murphy by phone that her election was possibly invalid. Unnamed persons had apparently questioned it. To clear up the matter the election of a London representative was put on the agenda in April. Again unopposed, comrade Murphy was confirmed.

Perhaps comrade Nicholson’s objection was entirely innocent. Perhaps garbled information is being circulated. That was my feeling at the April ad-hoc meeting. However, since then I have had cause to reconsider. Recent developments in Manchester and London present an altogether different picture and should be of great concern to all those of us who want to see the socialist alliances develop in a healthy democratic direction.

Let me first deal with the disastrous annual conference of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance on May 16. Comrade Nicholson ran the meeting in a way that would have shamed even Arthur Scargill. Originally billed as an all-day event it was arbitrarily cut in half by him. Naturally that did not mean reducing the speaking time he allowed himself. Nor that of the ‘guest speaker’ - Spencer Fitzgibbon of the Green Party. But it did mean ‘debates’ on motions and amendments were limited to one minute. The clock was also used as an excuse to prevent those standing for election from addressing the meeting (for a full report see the Weekly Worker May 21). Unfortunately the majority - including comrades from the SP, Socialist Outlook and the AWL connived with this travesty of working class norms - which eschew democratically silencing minorities, but on the contrary give the minority the fullest opportunity to become the majority.

Manchester SA is taking an extremely worrying course - the SLP shows where it leads. There was an unholy Nicholson-SP-AWL-Socialist Outlook alliance on May 16 which was formed against the SA contesting elections. Unholy, because the SP wants a free run, while the others actually still believe in voting for Blair’s party. The same bloc also allowed comrade Nicholson to get away with a constitutional coup. The structure of the Greater Manchester SA was in one fell swoop transformed.

All affiliated organisations had from the foundation of the GMSA the automatic right to representation on its committee. That is no longer the case. The newly adopted election-by-general-meeting clause was employed to exclude the CPGB and the Campaign for a Democratic SLP. Even worse, an ‘anti-sectarian’ ban was introduced which will be used against revolutionaries, to begin with the CPGB ... first they came for the communists.

The CPGB has never had a majority on the GMSA committee. Our comrades have from the start been nothing more than a small minority - albeit a vocal and active one. The CPGB accepts the right of majorities to form and take leading positions. But comrade Nicholson refuses to tolerate what he regards as a nuisance. For him there is no right of minorities to become a majority. Like Ramsay MacDonald, Tony Blair and Arthur Scargill he therefore turns democracy against democracy. Organisational methods are used to deal with political differences.

The Manchester events put comrade Nicholson’s strange objection to the London ad-hoc committee’s decision to elect Anne Murphy into another, altogether more sinister and unpleasant, light. His objection might have stemmed from a misunderstanding. But, as things appear at the moment, the odds are stacked against it.

Of course, comrade Nicholson is part of a definite trend within the SAs. Where the CPGB constitutes the extreme left, Nicholson and co constitutes the far right. Not only does this trend fear damaging links with Labourites by contesting elections, but it has a deep loathing for open debate and polemic. More than that, it longs to re-invent Labourism by painting it green.

Labourism has utterly and visibly failed. As to the greens, they are a petty bourgeois movement which contains a wide spectrum of politics, ranging from the critical-utopian to the overtly fascist. Its best minds have written savage indictments of capitalism which supply wonderful ammunition for the class struggle. Despite that most green ideas are confused, naive and at the end of the day irrational. There is a neo-Malthusian element which sees human beings as the fundamental problem. There is also a general prejudice against economic growth and technological progress. The solution to the world’s ecological problems is often seen in a return to nature - itself, of course, a social construct.

Communists are not productionists - unlike Joseph Stalin, Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. We are for living, not dead labour. Socialism is by no means primarily concerned with economic growth - that is a calumny inherited from the experience of social democracy on the one hand and USSR-style bureaucratic socialism on the other. Our main goal is the growth of democracy and the steady reduction of the necessary working day. So like the greens, communists are for the end of production for the sake of production. But means determine ends. Even amongst those greens who describe themselves as socialists a reformist, pacifist and non-class political stance holds sway. Their socialism is not the dynamic, open-ended result of self-liberation by an armed proletariat. It is moreover decidedly localist, not universal. World revolution and the global reorganisation of production has no place in their thinking.

Nevertheless greens - individuals and organisations - who declare themselves socialists should be made welcome in the SAs. There we can work together and crucially discuss, argue and clarify. That does not necessitate the reds becoming green. Rather it implies greens aligning themselves with and really becoming reds. Watering down our principles in the name of a ‘red-green’ alliance will not and cannot achieve that. Quite the reverse. As argued above, we must renew and creatively develop our socialist theory and programme.

Comrade Nicholson and his intolerant version of ‘red-green’ politics now appears to have found itself a champion in London. At the ad-hoc committee meeting of May 19 David Lyons - a member of the heterogeneous Socialist Democracy Group - presented a motion which perfectly dovetails with comrade Nicholson’s aims and methods.

In the name of the SDG he told us that there were basic underlying divisions in the London SA and that officers had to reflect the political position of the majority - whatever that may be. Interesting enough, the only political positions adopted thus far by the London SA have been the decision to stand in the May 7 elections, the call to boycott Blair’s referendum and the May 23 picket of the Indonesian embassy - actions formally supported by the SDG. But what comrade Lyons has in mind is not the past, but the future. He dreams of splitting what he calls “our natural allies”, the greens, and presumably the price for that is doing a Manchester and ousting members of the CPGB - not least the coordinator, Anne Murphy (Coventry ‘recall conference’ report, March 21 1998). I imagine that is why he proposed a general meeting of the London SA and elections from it of a “representative committee” and “representative officers”.

The CPGB has no objection to nor problem with a general meeting of the London SA. After the May 7 election and referendum a frank discussion of the way forward is an excellent idea. However, we and a big majority opposed comrade Lyons’ insistence that the meeting take place within three weeks. That would allow no time for affiliated organisations to produce and circulate position papers, certainly no time for others to reflect upon them. The coup attempt was defeated. There was to be a fair timetable. Also defeated, on a tied vote, was the election of officers. Many non-CPGB comrades said they were more concerned with politics than positions. So the only discussion of positions will be on a London representative on the national steering committee. No bad thing.

The CPGB will be proposing a motion that confirms the right of the London ad-hoc committee to freely choose its own representative. We will also present a motion that aims to formalise the essential principles and structures of the London SA. The CPBG wants to emphasise that socialism is not an abstract notion, but a class movement. In terms of structure our proposal is to adopt the sort of flexible and combative democracy practised by the soviets - or workers’ councils - during the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Every affiliated organisation should have the right to send one instantly recallable delegate - that would include borough alliances, political organisations, trade unions and progressive campaigning organisations. In other words if a comrade leaves or is assigned to another role by their organisation they can be replaced without fuss or bother at a moment’s notice.

The same practice should be applied to officers. They should be elected not according to some popularity poll by an atomised membership. They should be held accountable to their peers. Hard workers and selfless fighters, not mercurial stars and lazy publicity seekers, are needed. The SAs should reject the mayoral or presidential system. Officers ought to be elected and if necessary replaced by those whom they regularly and routinely work alongside. Our proposals allow political changes at the base of the structure to be immediately reflected at the top. Furthermore those who fail to carry out agreed tasks can be speedily replaced without the need for cumbersome general meetings. Such meetings should only be called with proper notice and normally used for purposes of broad discussion, debates and decisions on matters of principle, not day-to-day organisational questions such as who sends out the minutes or who opens a bank account.

Clearly the SAs are at a crossroads. The politics of the secret caucus, the politics of bureaucratic deals and witch hunts pose a threat. But we are sure the politics of openness, honesty and working class democracy will triumph. There must be no more Manchesters.

John Bridge

CPGB representative

London SA ad-hoc committee