London left unity
Around 30 comrades representing several left groups attended a meeting billed as a “relaunch London Socialist Alliance conference” on August 1. Called by Nick Long, coordinator of Lewisham Socialist Alliance, the conference aimed to begin the task of mounting a united left challenge in next year’s London mayoral and assembly elections.
The CPGB has always urged the left to stand as a united force in elections (see, for example, ‘Open letter to the left’ Weekly Worker October 22 1998). With the introduction of proportional representation a left intervention has been given fresh impetus. It was therefore heartening to see comrades from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Outlook, the Independent Labour Network and Workers Power in attendance. WP has now changed its tune and wants to join in - provided such an electoral bloc does not intend “presenting itself as an alliance - ie, an embryonic party” - that would be ‘unprincipled’ of course. WP has covered its line change by proclaiming any electoral challenge to be a “united front”.
Reflecting the Socialist Workers Party’s continued uncertainty over its participation in elections, once dubbed as ‘electoralism’, the SWP had just one representative, comrade Rob Hoverman. The CPGB sent two comrades because of the clash with our Communist University.
Hannah Sell of SPEW proposed the following motion to the meeting:
“Recent election results demonstrate the growing number of people disillusioned with New Labour. ‘Planet contentment’ has been exposed as a sham, as thousands of traditional Labour voters stayed away in the Euro elections in disgust. Tony Blair’s insults against public sector workers and clashes with the BMA are indicators of how more and more layers will feel betrayed.
“For large numbers of working class people, the disillusionment with Labour has meant a turning off from political parties altogether - the common refrain being, ‘What’s the point? They’re all the same.’ But the victory of the SSP in Scotland, Dave Nellist and Karen McKay for the Socialist Party in Coventry and, importantly for us, Ian Page for the Socialist Party in Lewisham show that where a credible candidate with a proven record stands, with a good campaign, a layer of people are prepared to vote for a socialist alternative.
“These victories will be a beacon and can be used to encourage others to also stand against Labour. We are likely to see more examples such as the Tameside careworkers, RASP campaigners in Killamarsh and victorious NHS campaigners in Kidderminster.
“These steps are all part of the process towards the building of a new workers’ party. Socialist Alliances, though at an early stage at the moment, are a part of that process.
“The relaunched London Socialist Alliance should therefore avoid any complicated structures or formal constitution. Rather, we need to ensure that the existing organised groups work together on areas where we can agree, to raise the banner of socialism in London.
“We propose the election of a chair and secretary to enable the day-to-day running of the alliance, with positions recallable at any time.
“The London Socialist Alliance should have as its focus preparation for the London assembly elections in 2000, to attempt to encourage a broad socialist challenge to Labour, including trade unionists, strikers, environmentalists and other campaigners and socialists.”
SPEW’s motion went down well with most comrades present. Personally I was left wondering why it was that the SA’s Euro challenge collapsed so dismally in view of workers’ “disgust” with Labour, especially when so many are “prepared to vote for a socialist alternative”. If it is correct to regard sacked strikers and NHS campaigners as “part of the process towards the building of a new workers’ party”, then so must be the willingness of the left groups to join together in order to present a united challenge to Blair. Unfortunately, as the EU debacle proved, for all the left’s ‘official optimism’, self-belief is hardly its strong point.
The AWL put forward an amendment, which read:
“1. That in any future election the Socialist Alliance will approach and work with trade union organisations to win support and attempt to get candidates from trade union and community bodies.
“2. That working class representation is a central plank in our platform.”
Both the motion and the amendment were passed overwhelmingly.
Despite the intentions of comrade Long, the “relaunched” LSA is a (temporary) election bloc with no connection to the national Socialist Alliance network apart from the name. This fact was epitomised by the welcome presence of comrade Hoverman. While the SWP’s commitment to electoral unity is by no means certain, it has no intention whatsoever of bringing its members into Dave Nellist’s network.
Although the SWP is the largest left group, in a sense, given the type of organisation it is, its size is also a weakness. Its internal culture is one where genuine debate is unknown, where the politically naive, constantly revolving membership must be protected from alien forces, particularly those to its left. So full participation in the SA is for it a high risk business. It may also expose its political frailty in another sense: if the working class is seething with frustration and open to socialist ideas, as Socialist Worker claims, then the SWP ought to expect large votes. Knowing this was not the reality, a section of its leadership was only too pleased to use the excuse of Arthur Scargill heading the SLP London list in June’s EU elections to pull out, provoking the collapse of the alliance.
For the politically fragile SWP criticism is not welcome. That is why, along with the ILN, it attempted to expel the CPGB from the EU elections SA bloc. In an apparent replay of his previous attempts at gagging criticism, he stated at this month’s meeting: “We must come together for unity, not bickering. We must not have any recurrence of what happened last time” - ie, open reporting and criticism of the SA in the Weekly Worker.
Adding to the sense of déjà vu, comrade Hoverman was backed by Pete Brown of the ILN, who said: “We can’t have people using their newspapers to attack other organisations” - that was “not on”. Any expression of difference was, for comrade Brown, the equivalent of “using our platforms to promote your own sectarian view”. In contrast WP correctly argued that each candidate should have the right to “argue for their own organisation’s programme”.
Will the SWP’s desire to ban criticism extend to the “trade unionists, strikers, environmentalists and other campaigners” the SA rightly wants to bring on board? Like Hannah Sell the SWP wants to achieve a new, genuinely mass workers’ party. How can such a party, the advanced part of the class, be built without the open clash of ideas?
Comrade Brown was defeated in the election for the post of secretary, gaining seven votes, as opposed to nine for Greg Tucker of Socialist Outlook, who was elected. Martin Thomas of the AWL won six votes. Comrade Long beat off a challenge from Julie Donovan for chair by a single vote - 11 to 10.
It is of course positive that the left appears to want to get down to serious preparations for next year’s contest, even though all the comrades present that an intervention by Ken Livingstone as an independent candidate for mayor would cause a rethink. If, however, Livingstone declines to make the break, then, as Pete Firmin of SO pointed out, it remains to be seen “whether the Socialist Party and the SWP mean they will build up a head of steam”. And whether the SWP/ILN alliance will succeed in silencing criticism.