Constructive talks

Socialist Alliances prepare for March conference

Last weekend hopefully saw a step forward towards the agreement of an inclusive, democratic structure for the Network of Socialist Alliances.

Meeting in London, 15 representatives of national political organisations and regional and local Alliances engaged in useful preparatory discussions prior to a general meeting scheduled for March, which will hopefully adopt a set of rules putting the Network on a firmer basis. National organisations represented were the CPGB, Socialist Perspectives, Socialist Outlook and the Independent Labour Network, while groups from London, Coventry, Manchester, Leeds, Walsall, Preston and Kent were also present.

Pete McLaren chaired the meeting in a businesslike manner, allowing the expression of all viewpoints. This contributed to the breaking of previous barriers to mutual understanding erected by obfuscatory accusations: that the CPGB was intent on behaving in a ‘sectarian’, ‘non-cooperative’ manner; that our aim was to ‘expose’ others and to ‘impose a Bolshevik-type central committee’ on the Network.

None of them are true. We are well aware that we form the Alliances’ left wing, but we are seeking a positive engagement with those to our right. We have not set out to dominate the SAs - as a minority we could not do so even if that was our intention. However, we have demanded an inclusive structure that gives all participants, including ourselves, an equal status. We do not want a repeat on a national scale of what occurred last year in the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance (GMSA), where the CPGB alone was excluded from any meaningful participation. A similar move was unsuccessfully attempted in London.

The structure adopted must reflect the Network’s existence as an alliance. This can best be achieved by a system of automatic representation on the Liaison Committee for every affiliated organisation and local SA. Proposals previously championed by the Liaison Group for the annual election of officers and a committee are more suited to an established party and would guarantee the total exclusion of certain minorities. Such a structure was voted in “on an interim basis” at the September 1998 Rugby conference, but this was in fact meaningless, as no elections were held. The unelected Liaison Group - John Nicholson of the ILN and GMSA, Dave Church of the Walsall Democratic Labour Party, Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party and Coventry and Warwickshire Socialist Alliance, and comrade McLaren, also from Coventry SA - continued to operate as before.

To its credit the Liaison Group did not attempt to impose the unsatisfactory and unworkable structure voted in by a 60% majority in Rugby. After a few wobbles last weekend’s inclusive and constructive meeting took place. As a result there was little of the previous polarisation and none of the near-hysterical misrepresentation that we witnessed in September. This in turn allowed the achievement of something approaching a consensus around the need for a Liaison Committee consisting at least in part of automatically represented affiliates.

The most comprehensive set of draft rules incorporating such a structure originated of course with the CPGB. At a meeting of London Socialist Alliance last November the CPGB proposals were amended and unanimously agreed by its well attended general meeting. These call for the Liaison Committee to consist of recallable delegates representing every affiliate, and for this committee to elect its officers and sub-committees as necessary. This would allow for loose, flexible and all-embracing representation, permitting existing organisations to work together, while not excluding unaffiliated individuals, who would still be represented through their local groups. In other words, admirably suited for an alliance.

At the weekend Socialist Perspectives and the Radical Preston Alliance reaffirmed their support for a delegate structure, while the comrade from Kent announced that his group was now leaning towards the LSA proposals. The Manchester comrade offered to withdraw that part of the GMSA proposals relating to the Liaison Committee. He did, however, continue to back the GMSA proposals for individual subscriptions of a minimum of £5 per month, which, while by no means a huge amount for an established party, would hardly be feasible for the Socialist Alliances in their present tentative form.

While there now appears to be a consensus emerging around a delegate-based committee, some comrades were still arguing for the annual election of officers. Dave Nellist stuck to his idea of the election of “functional officers”, combined with “three or four open national meetings”, where delegates would determine policy. Clearly this would result in two rival centres of gravity. But another Coventry comrade, Dave Spencer, disputed the fact that this proposal had ever been agreed and spoke in favour of the new majority.

It seems likely that when the March recall conference - to be held in Birmingham - takes place, the remaining area of controversy around the nature of the proposed Liaison Committee will be over whether officers will be elected annually party-style by a general meeting or by delegates on the Liaison Committee.

There remains a marked division over the fundamental nature of the Network. Is it to be a Socialist Alliance or, will it, as the Manchester proposals for ‘aims and objectives’ state, strive “to promote locally based socialist/environmentalist alliances”? Although the LSA draft pledges support for “all campaigns that seek to advance the interests of the people - economically, politically and environmentally”, it does not call for alliances, as a matter of priority, with non-socialist greens, irrespective of their political coloration. While some environmentalists consider themselves socialists, many are openly for capitalism.

Another controversy sure to resurface in Birmingham is whether Network membership should be restricted to “anyone living or working in England” (Manchester draft), or “open to all within the United Kingdom” (LSA). In the name of support for Scottish, Welsh and Irish freedom many comrades appear to believe that working class organisations must be cleaved apart along national lines. In effect they are behaving like nationalists, weakening workers’ unity against the UK state. While we are fully behind local, regional and national autonomy, why should organisations like the Welsh Socialist Alliance or the Scottish Socialist Party be banned from joining with us? Why is there a need for a specifically English grouping?

Finally, there is the question of the fight for democracy. The LSA draft treats the struggle for “the maximum democracy under existing social conditions” as being of the utmost importance. While all last weekend’s participants paid lip service to such demands as the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords, and the right to self-determination for Scotland, Wales and Ireland, only the CPGB comrades spoke in favour of including them in the objectives. For comrade Nellist, renationalisation of the privatised companies or a campaign for a minimum wage ought to be the number one priority, but he “preferred” leaving out the lot - economistic calls as well as political demands against the bourgeois state. Obviously the debate must continue.

Anne Murphy