Unity crumbles before Scargill

Socialist Alliances in crisis

After several months of tentative and hesitant moves aimed at presenting a united socialist slate for the European Union elections in London, the fragile Socialist Alliance has finally collapsed. In the North West too the SA has been abandoned by its largest participating organisations.

The last rites were performed in the capital at a meeting earlier this week. With the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Outlook already gone, three of the remaining organisations - the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Independent Labour Network - decided to call it a day, with only the CPGB standing firm.

The socialist unity project, while clearly a desirable and positive development, was dogged from the start by the internal crises besetting its component organisations. While they were all reluctantly propelled towards unity by a combination of New Labour’s continuing rightward march and the introduction of proportional representation, previous contradictions, hidden by decades of auto-Labourism and sectarian exclusivity, were soon brought to the surface.

The group most immediately affected was the SWP. Since the 1970s it had contended that to stand at the polls was in itself a form of unprincipled ‘electoralism’ - much better to concentrate on the ‘real class’ issues like wages and workplace conditions and leave elections to the Labour Party. Its ‘intervention’ was restricted to ritual calls to “vote Labour, but ...”

However, the de-Labourisation of Labour forced a change of course. Yet standing itself would surely expose the falsity of the SWP’s propaganda that Labour’s victory had provoked a crisis of expectations and that the working class was ready to move into mass action. Lindsey German says that a single big strike can destroy Blairism. Nevertheless one wing of the leadership thought that its participation in elections was ‘premature’. When Arthur Scargill announced that he was to head the SLP’s list in London, that served to exacerbate internal tensions. The SWP was paralysed for three weeks, unable to decide whether to stay in or pull out of the Alliance.

Finally it announced that Scargill’s intervention meant that the SA was no longer ‘credible’. Yet half of the SLP general secretary’s London list is made up of supporters of the Stalin Society. Is the SLP slate more ‘credible’?

The remaining organisations had to decide quickly what to do. At this week’s meeting, attended by a representative from the CPGB, SPEW, AWL and two from the ILN, each group was asked to state its position. Richard Garside of the ILN struck a note which was to be echoed by the others: “Without the SWP we do not think there is anything viable.” Not to worry, continued comrade Garside, there are always the elections for the Greater London Authority in 2000: “Let’s put down what we’ve done to experience.”

Nick Long, also of the ILN, seemed to be expressing a slightly different viewpoint, claiming that, should the ILN receive a “fat cheque” or two that it was expecting from some rich supporters, it could yet stand. Marcus Larsen of the CPGB asked for clarification on this apparent contradiction: was the ILN withdrawing for political or financial reasons? Comrade Garside replied that it was because of both, although finance was “secondary”. He went out of his way to assure the comrades, just as the SWP had the previous week, that “the ILN is not split”. He added that the left could only move forward on a “broad unity”, which at present did not exist.

Jill Mountford of the AWL seemed to be relieved to hear that the ILN was withdrawing. There had been a “long debate” in her organisation and she was angry that the SWP had pulled the plugs. In fact she proposed that the remaining groups write to the SWP to complain at its behaviour. It seems that the AWL had eventually decided on a ‘wait and see’ approach, whereby it would follow the lead of the other groups.

Comrade Larsen’s intervention was in marked contrast. In reply to comrade Mountford, he said that it was pointless blaming the SWP alone. The other organisations were now showing that they too were not committed to the project. It now appeared that their attitude had long been ambivalent, to say the least. Nevertheless, he urged them all to reconsider: while New Labour was throwing itself into the Balkans war, should not the left be challenging Bomber Blair at the polls with its principled response? Or did the comrades think that this could be left to Scargill? He had to be exposed just as much as Blair had to be condemned. Surely it was insufficient to always look to other forces to provide a lead? When would the left have the confidence and self-belief to provide that lead itself?

Julie Donovan of SPEW stated that her organisation would not go ahead with what was left - ie, only the CPGB. She denied that SPEW was lacking in self-belief and repeated comrade Garside’s sentiments that it would be another matter altogether next year, when it came to the London elections. Comrade Larsen said he was not convinced. What would they do if Scargill announced he would stand as mayor?

Comrade Larsen stated that the CPGB would now have to seriously consider contesting the Euro-elections on its own platform, but he said that that did not necessarily preclude other comrades joining the ‘Weekly Worker’ list - a possibility in which comrade Long showed more than a little interest.

All the comrades wished the CPGB well if it decided to stand, but when comrade Larsen asked them whether we could expect critical support, not to say a recommendation to vote ‘Weekly Worker’, all were strangely reticent.

In the North West the SWP formal announcement of its withdrawal came a week later than in London. Previously comrade Suzanne Jeffrey had not held up the SLP or Scargill as its excuse, but the absence from the slate of what she dubbed “credible working class leaders”, such as the sacked Liverpool dockers. At the April 8 organising meeting of the NWSA, comrade Jeffrey had delivered an ultimatum: either the other participating organisations quickly come up with a commitment to stand from a leading ex-docker, or some other figure of similar stature, or the SWP was off. A cynical device.

The following week, comrade Jeffrey pressed for a report on the matter. Cathy Wilson, for the ex-SPEW Merseyside Socialists, reported that, as demanded by the SWP, she had indeed spoken to ex-dockers’ leader Jimmy Nolan, who is currently an inactive member of the SLP. Comrade Nolan had been unable to indicate his wish to join the Socialist Alliance slate.

Then came a moment of nervousness for our SWP representative. Martin Ralph of the International Socialist League, who is also chair of the Tameside Careworkers Support Group, announced that comrade Joan Ashton, one of the careworkers’ leaders, who is a member of the SWP, had stated unequivocally that she would stand on the slate if she could secure financial sponsorship.

Comrade Jeffrey responded firmly. No, unless a dockers’ leader like Jimmy Nolan was to stand, the slate was not credible, and the SWP would not sponsor candidates, whether of their own members or others. She graciously declared, however, that the SWP would support the NWSA’s candidates in its press and distribute the alliance’s leaflets. Very strange, since in London the SWP has all but committed itself to ‘critical support’ for Scargill’s red-brown slate, while in the North West it wants us to believe it will shun the SLP.

The SWP’s desertion was condemned in strong terms by representatives of the CPGB, the ISL, and the Merseyside Socialists. The comrades from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty were softer in tone. Whilst expressing disappointment at the SWP’s action, the AWL was concerned as to whether the alliance was now a viable proposition.

Representatives were not present at the meeting from either the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance or the SPEW, the latter organisation having announced its withdrawal as a participant, for no better reason than pressures on resources, the previous week.

The remaining participating organisations reaffirmed that the alliance will continue with the project of building a united working class slate for the European elections. It will aim to finalise its electoral platform this week. A motion was carried which called upon comrade Dave Nellist, chair of the Socialist Alliance network, to take the initiative in drawing together representatives of the SA slates with Ken Coates MEP of the East Midlands-based Alternative Labour List slate and Mike Davies of the Yorkshire and Humberside Left Alliance slate, in order to attempt to achieve a single banner under which to prosecute the challenge to Blair. However, the AWL voted against the motion, stating it had already spoken to comrade Coates to this end, without success.

It remains to be seen whether any of the remaining left slates will actually get as far as the ballot paper.

Jim Blackstock and John Pearson