The Network of Socialist Alliances is to make another attempt to agree a constitution on January 16 next year - but outrageously the ad-hoc Liaison Group wants to exclude most of the affiliated and supporting organisations from the preliminary discussions.
The Network’s September 5 launch conference in Rugby failed to reach agreement and decided to hold a recall meeting within six months. The conference voted by around 60:40 to adopt the Liaison Group’s constitutional proposals on an interim basis, but this was in fact meaningless, as the provision for electing a leadership was not implemented and the unelected Liaison Group continues to act as the Network’s coordinator.
The Rugby conference was split down the middle. On the right those who blindly supported the Liaison Group’s proposals for a party-type structure - whereby a leadership in the form of a Liaison Committee is elected annually, and from which minorities can be completely excluded. On the left there was the 40% minority who called for an inclusive structure more appropriate to a loose, federal network, with automatic representation for national affiliated organisations and local/regional Socialist Alliances. Worryingly the two principal advocates of such a delegate structure - Socialist Perspectives and, crucially, the CPGB - have not been invited to the January 16 meeting.
The national bulletin of the Network, The All Red and Green, tries to justify the exclusion of most supporting organisations with the incredible suggestion that they have not shown enough “commitment to the project” (winter 1998). Only the four groups that have taken out a £5 subscription to the bulletin are deemed kosher. The fact that leading CPGB comrades, do subscribe counts for nothing. The fact that the CPGB has submitted carefully drafted documents which clearly represent a serious attempt to resolve the impasse over structure, the fact that it took the initiative in setting up the London Socialist Alliance and its supporters are active in many local SAs - such realities are disregarded.
We could be generous and say that perhaps the Liaison Group is hoping to encourage more subscriptions to The All Red and Green by this device. The CPGB as a body has therefore sent a £20 cheque to the coordinators, hoping that fulfils their “commitment” criterion. However, we must say that people who repeatedly extol the virtues of inclusiveness ought to bend over backwards to ensure that all points of view are heard - all the more so when the question being debated is so crucial.
Despite the fact that we have tried on many occasions to explain that the delegate structure we advocate is intended to reflect the Network’s existence as an alliance, the anonymous writer of the front-page article in The All Red and Green repeats what can now only be wilful misrepresentation of our proposals. It states: “On the one hand, there are those who still want us to be a mass party with a central committee, based on the UK state; others want a looser federal structure, based on networking and mutual respect.” The organisation that supposedly wants to impose a “mass party with a central committee” is of course the CPGB, while the Liaison Group, we are led to believe, just wants people to be nice to one another.
As it happens, if you turn to the inside of the bulletin, you can find a rather more accurate description of what we advocate. Comrade Pete McLaren, one of the four joint coordinators, makes some implied criticisms of our original draft, but he does not blatantly misrepresent it. He states that under our proposals, “The Liaison Group/Steering Committee should contain one delegate from each affiliated organisation, and one delegate per 100 members of an Alliance.” How can a gathering of such disparate and varied affiliates be described as a “central committee”? Far from demanding that such a body be authorised to issue instructions or lay down a political line, we propose only that “The Liaison Committee shall be responsible for the day-to-day running and promotion of the Network” (clause 5, paragraph 4).
Last month, a conference of the London Socialist Alliance, attended by members and supporters of nine national political organisations and six local alliances, unanimously agreed a set of draft rules for the national Network based on the CPGB’s structural proposals. Several amendments were accepted by overwhelming majorities and have now been incorporated into the draft submitted to the Liaison Group by the LSA (see below). One of them, originating with Toby Abse of the Independent Labour Network, was to lower the threshold for automatic representation on the Liaison Committee to one delegate per 20 members of each Alliance. In our view such a figure should be quickly amended upwards as the Network grows.
Leaving aside the vague and foolish remarks about a “central committee”, the only really substantive criticism that has been made of such a delegate structure is that it would result in too large a body. Comrade McLaren implies this in his article. Such fears are unfounded. The Liaison Committee would not necessarily debate every organisational detail and nuance. It would elect its officers and appoint sub-committees for specific purposes. Every member would represent a particular organisation or Alliance and would be answerable to and recallable by that constituency. It would be the very epitome of a “looser federal structure”.
Ironically the “enlarged meeting of the Liaison Group” called for January 16 will be similar to the kind of body we envisage (it certainly would be if all supporting organisations paid £5 for the bulletin and thus qualified to attend according to the coordinators’ petty-cash criteria).
At their first annual conference on November 7 the Welsh Socialist Alliances, while agreeing to elect key national officers annually, nevertheless accepted the principle whereby “affiliates are entitled to delegates on the national council”. In our view the Liaison Committee (or “national council”) should elect officials from its own number. This would ensure that an officer who drops out (for reasons of ill health, for example) could be replaced immediately without the need for a conference of the entire membership. Nor would there be a culture of elected dictators - officers would be subject to the will of a constantly fluctuating and evolving majority.
We believe that the Welsh Socialist Alliances, as well as any that develop in Scotland or Northern Ireland, should be entitled to affiliate and send delegates to the Network, while retaining their full autonomy (local and regional Alliances must of course be fully autonomous also). The same should apply to political groups based in Scotland, Wales and the Six Counties. It is utterly self-defeating to deliberately exclude comrades from outside England, while our enemy, the capitalist class, organises its rule on the basis of the UK state.
Comrade McLaren makes additional criticisms of the CPGB’s approach. He talks of changes we have proposed which would “weaken the significance given to environmental issues and the desire to create a socially just and sustainable society”. It is true that we want a Network of Socialist Alliances, but we believe that all greens, environmentalists and single-issue campaigners who say they are socialist should be welcome within it. The LSA draft, backed by the CPGB, calls for support for campaigns that seek to “advance the interests of the people - economically, politically and environmentally”. It should also be pointed out that at a meeting of LSA last July the CPGB took the lead in calling for “principled links” with greens - a proposal that was opposed by the Socialist Party.
Comrade McLaren continues: “These amendments would also have taken out ... our desire to be positive, cooperative and non-sectarian; our call for unity rather than discord; our encouragement of the notion of alliances; and our requests for debates to be conducted positively without personal attack.” The fact that we do not choose to use identical phrases to those of the Liaison Group is, it seems, used to imply that the CPGB wants to be ‘negative’, ‘non-cooperative’ and ‘sectarian’; that we prefer discord to unity; that we want to ‘discourage’ alliances; and that we believe debates should be conducted ‘negatively’, consisting entirely of personal attacks.
In actual fact it is clear that in the eyes of Pete McLaren’s comrades on the Liaison Group - John Nicholson, Dave Nellist and Dave Church - the definition of “positive”, “cooperative”, “non-sectarian” behaviour is meekly agreeing to everything they suggest. Such a ‘control freak’ approach certainly seems to inform their response to the CPGB. Those such as ourselves who propose alternatives are apparently lacking in the necessary “mutual respect”.
In a further irony, these same comrades now look set to abandon the very proposals to which they viewed opposition as evidence of non-cooperation, sectarianism or worse at Rugby. On September 5 they proposed that the Liaison Committee be elected by an annual conference by means of a cumbersome and frankly unworkable system of electoral colleges. Five members were to be elected by local SAs, three by national organisations, and two by unaffiliated individuals.
Thankfully, according to comrade McLaren, the Liaison Group is now “looking at devising a simpler version of its structure proposals ... This may include ... the straight election of five officers and 10 other members at an annual conference ...” This would undoubtedly be simpler, but no less inappropriate for a network of alliances. Clearly whole tendencies and organisations would remain unrepresented under such a system. Majorities could - and no doubt would - exclude minorities not to their liking.
If the comrades are serious about building genuinely democratic, participatory and inclusive alliances, they would not even consider structural proposals which exclude minorities. Let the majority determine who holds office. But surely we must provide a structure that ensures that all points of view are heard and represented.