Unity rejected

Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance

Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance remains mired in organisational and political lethargy. November’s open members’ meeting, the first since June 1998, was attended by just eight people - representatives of affiliated organisations and individual members, plus an observer, Stefan Cholewka, secretary of the Campaign Against PFI and Privatisation.

This is the level on which GMSA ‘operates’ following the constitutional coup by convenor John Nicholson and his political allies at the May 16 annual general meeting. (He is still hoping to implement a similar exclusive national arrangement for the Network of Socialist Alliances). The coup succeeded in removing from the steering committee representatives of two affiliated organisations, the CPGB and the Campaign for a Democratic Socialist Labour Party, who were both committed to inclusive democracy and an active challenge to Blairism in the ballot box (see Weekly Worker May 21).

There were two items on the published agenda - the local council elections 1999 and the structure and rules of the Network of Socialist Alliances. In response to pressure from Margaret Manning of the Socialist Party and John Pearson (CDSLP) - who argued the importance of discussing the 1999 European parliamentary elections - comrade Nicholson explained that the Independent Labour Network was taking the lead on this issue and would probably hold a meeting in Manchester “before Christmas”. He did later concede that perhaps it was appropriate for a GMSA meeting and undertook to see that the steering committee considered this matter. Nicholson is incidentally a member of the ILN, although he has chosen not to disclose this within the GMSA, where he continues to operate as an ‘independent’.

After a rather one-sided and superficial debate the GMSA rejected, for the second year running, the idea of working for a united electoral challenge based upon agreement between socialist organisations on a minimum platform of working class demands and on the proportional distribution of candidates. This was despite comrade Pearson’s urging that such an approach had become even more necessary and desirable this year, in the light of the shift of the biggest left organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, on the question of opposing New Labour in elections. His views were swept aside. However, it fell to the observer to attempt any kind of political justification. Such a project was a “left front”, comrade Cholewka pronounced. This was not at all what either Lenin or Trotsky meant by a working class united front. The comrade did not elaborate, but it was implicit that the alternative proposal, by Noel Pine of the Socialist Party, did represent genuine united front politics.

Comrade Pine opened the discussion by summarising the experience of the first 18 months of the Blair government. He emphasised New Labour’s continuance of privatisation, through the private finance initiative, first in the health service and now extended to education, and through the ongoing enforcement of contracting out of service provision upon councils. This had led to a number of disputes in the public sector, the most recent local example being the mass sacking of 230 careworkers in Tameside. Comrade Pine suggested that there was a need for a new force in local politics. He referred to the intention of the Tameside careworkers to stand against Labour in the next council elections, if the dispute was still going on. The comrade proposed that the GMSA should put out a public call for local socialist candidates to stand against Labour in the council elections, where existing struggles/campaigns were going on. It was stressed that this was not a call for a socialist unity slate against Labour.

Comrade Pine’s proposal attracted support, with varying levels of enthusiasm, from fellow steering committee members, who - in the now well established GMSA ‘way of working’ - were extremely brief in their contributions. Mark Catterall of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty expressed the view that a ‘broad sweep’ campaign based on just distributing leaflets door to door was unlikely to be effective and that canvassing needed to be done in selected seats where there was a prospect of basing the campaign on real working class struggles. The Tameside careworkers’ dispute was a good example of where this could be done.

Chris Jones of Socialist Outlook sounded a note of caution. It was notoriously difficult, he reminded comrades, to achieve agreement amongst left organisations, even at the level of not standing against one another in elections. He agreed with comrade Catterall that any electoral activity to be supported by the GMSA should not be widespread. He was worried, he said, about “electoralism taking over”.

John Nicholson agreed that any socialist electoral challenge should be based on linking the campaigns and struggles that are already going on and announced that to this end GMSA had organised a ‘Unite the struggles’ conference to take place in Manchester on February 13 1999.

Although the European elections was not agendaed for discussion, the perspectives outlined for the local elections by the GMSA leadership bear a striking resemblance to the formulation in the ILN’s 1998 ‘May Day manifesto’:

“… for the elections of 1999, the ILN seeks to create an alliance, as inclusive as possible, which would enable pensioners, students, the disabled, and a multitude of environmental defence groups, to make common cause for electoral support.”

The ILN manifesto went on, of course, to state: “We do not seek to create a new party, but we are anxious to compel the Labour government to return to its roots, and to uphold its long-term commitments to these constituencies.” Whilst Nicholson and representatives of the Labourist organisations, SO and AWL, did not echo the latter statement, there is no doubt in this writer’s mind that this is their political position. It is interesting, moreover, at a time when the Socialist Party in England and Wales is undergoing a fragmentary crisis, that cadre such as comrades Pine and Manning should be supporting the Labourist position. Nevertheless, this is entirely consistent with the SP’s action, in this year’s local elections in Manchester, when comrade Manning moved to contest another seat, leaving a clear run in her long-standing Rusholme ward to a councillor identified by the AWL and SO, at a GMSA steering committee meeting, as “the only one of 70 City of Manchester Labour councillors to vote against cuts this year”. The approach suggested by the CPGB, of proposing a minimum platform of working class demands to the said councillor was rejected.

There were no surprises when it came to the second item of the agenda. Declan O’Neill, for the steering committee, proposed that the GMSA support a shortened version of the draft rules put to the Rugby conference of the Network by the Liaison Group. John Pearson instead proposed three amendments:

i) to remove the debarment from affiliation/membership of the Network of socialist organisations/individuals based or residing in Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland;

ii) to prescribe a Network liaison committee comprised of delegates directly elected by, and recallable by, affiliated organisations;

iii) to replace references to “green” organisations/individuals in the Network membership criteria by “socialist greens”.

This was not to the liking of the majority. Comrade O’Neill opposed comrade Pearson’s representation formula on the basis that it would lead to a committee that was unmanageably large. He was backed by comrade Jones of Manchester Socialist Outlook (in London Socialist Outlook proposed an additional non-voting delegate to the Network - in the spirit of unity the proposal was accepted).

Comrade Jones stated that John Pearson had made “mistaken” comments at the Rugby conference about GMSA having moved from an “inclusive” steering committee composition in 1997 to an “exclusive” structure a year later. The only reason there had not been an election at the 1997 AGM from those nominations received from affiliates was that a lower number of nominations had been made than at the 1998 AGM.

Comrade Pine rebuffed comrade Pearson’s argument for an inclusive Socialist Alliance and against the exclusion of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He rejected the idea that this was to pander to nationalism. The real nationalism, comrade Pine suggested, was precisely the insistence that working class organisations should mirror the capitalist state. He considered separated Welsh and Scottish working class organisation a gain in terms of democracy, as such separatism purportedly offers the prospect of a viable working class challenge in response to Blair’s devolution moves.

John Nicholson declared the steering committee’s recommendation on rules for the Network to be carried by consensus, with just a minor amendment to replace a reference in the section on objectives to the need for affiliates/members to “share a vision of socialism” with a reference to the need for the Network to promote united work to the end of achieving socialism.

John Pearson