Unity at last: London Socialist Alliance negotiations

Link with Campaign Against Tube Privatisation on the cards

London Socialist Alliance last week took a positive step forward towards a united working class campaign for the elections to the Greater London Assembly next May, as part of and alongside the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation challenge.

For more than a year, the LSA’s half-hearted moves in the direction of electoral unity were dogged by amateurism, sectarianism and fear of its own shadow. All hopes of a joint slate to contest the European elections were dashed when the alliance collapsed before Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. The Socialist Workers Party, deeply divided on its central committee, was paralysed for weeks before eventually deciding that an intervention was no longer “viable” in view of Scargill’s decision to place himself at the top of the SLP’s list. They were followed by the Independent Labour Network, Socialist Outlook, the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The CPGB was left to stand alone in opposition to Blairism and Scargillite sectarianism. Until last week, the LSA seemed intent on dithering towards a miserable repeat performance in the lead-up to the GLA elections next May.

Central to the crisis of these organisations has been their fear of taking a lead. The ongoing refrain has been for ‘real’ forces to front any campaign - as if the unprecedented unity of the socialist sects was a mere phantom.

In reality - particularly for the SWP - the hesitation was rooted in the understandable reluctance to put wildly inaccurate assessments of the supposed near pre-revolutionary anger towards Blair to the test. The ‘crisis of expectations’ thesis peddled by most of the left to excuse its ‘lesser of two evils’ vote for Blair in 1997 failed to materialise, yet none of the organisations have had the courage to honestly reassess their doctrine.

Yet for the first time we are beginning to see the first signs of rebellion against Blair - millions of Londoners have fond memories of the GLC and have no wish to see the underground deteriorate further with Prescott’s - Tory-style - privatisation (albeit no longer with Railtrack). This mass mood has found expression around the mercurial figure of Ken Livingstone and organised discontent within the London Labour Party and the London trade unions. In the process the claims of those such as the Socialist Party in England and Wales that the Labour left is finished and Labour is a bourgeois party with no working class content have been steadily undermined.

The mass mood is having an impact on the factional dynamics of the component parts of the London Socialist Alliance. At last week’s LSA meeting, this was particularly noticeable with the SWP. The balance of forces on the central committee has tilted towards those who wish to break from auto-Labourism and instead stand on a united socialist platform for the GLA elections. No fewer than four representatives - John Rees, Pat Stack, Weyman Bennett and Rob Hoveman - turned up on November 24, representing a clear upping in the importance the SWP places on the LSA project.

Late, but welcome. However, the stalling of the LSA left a vacuum and militants in the RMT union have already stepped in to fill it. The Campaign Against Tube Privatisation has committed itself to standing 11 candidates for the proportional representation party list slate. On November 9, the CATP made its decision to enter the fray on an oppositionist platform to the Blair-Prescott plans for a public-private partnership for London underground.

These developments in the trade union movement - spurred on by the Paddington disaster - and the growing momentum of Ken Livingstone’s campaign have focused the minds of all the serious forces in the LSA. The necessity to cohere a working class alternative to Blairism is forcing unity.

That the CATP has taken the first step is good. That a layer of militant workers have decided that they must go beyond mere strikism and into the field of politics is encouraging. Yet, as all those at the November 24 LSA meeting pointed out, a ‘stop privatisation’ platform is dangerously limited. However, it is precisely the indecisiveness of LSA which is to blame for a situation where a single-issue campaign has taken the lead. It would be the height of sectarianism to demand the CATP step down, and stand as the LSA regardless. The need is to combine the tentative unity of the left with the leap into politics taken by militant trade unionists. Last week’s LSA meeting was therefore a big advance.

Marcus Larsen, acting chair in the absence of Nick Long, a member of the Socialist Democracy Group, invited Oliver New of CATP and the RMT’s London region to open the LSA meeting. Comrade New presented the agreed position of CATP. While couched in the most comradely language, the essence of what he presented was that CATP was standing - and that was final - but that support of the LSA would be much appreciated.

Comrade New stressed the difficulty of taking rank and file RMT members even this far. In his view to re-enter into discussions for an open alliance behind the LSA would be a bridge too far. This was challenged as narrow syndicalism - again, very fraternally - by the SWP’s John Rees, who in effect suggested that the CATP contest the 14 local first-past-the-post constituencies, and join the LSA’s slate for the all-London party-list slate.

This was obviously the SWP’s set position, its divided but closely balanced central committee having at last made a firm decision. While the argument had some validity, the SWP cannot blame the CATP for acting while the sects waited for ‘credible forces’ to gallop over the hill.

In truth, a united campaign under the CATP banner, alongside a campaign to support Livingstone as mayor, could put an independent working class alternative on the agenda. The meeting, it ought to be noted, agreed that all organisations will be free to stand on their own programmes and make their own propaganda in support of any joint campaign. Another step forward and a blow against the previous intolerance and fear of criticism exhibited by the SWP, ILN, etc.

Of course, if the SWP had had the courage to stand in the European elections in June, the centre of gravity would now be with the LSA. A joint campaign under a socialist banner would have been much more likely - and more reasonable to insist upon.

However, it is clear that a compromise is needed. The position of the CPGB was that it does not matter what the joint LSA-CATP campaign is called. Even if we stand under the CATP banner, but with open LSA candidates on the slate, we can give the intervention a socialist content, backed up by LSA campaigns in the constituencies. Behind the scenes - though not mentioned at the meeting - the CATP is prepared to offer four positions to the LSA. This should be accepted as a basis to go forward when the LSA next meets on December 15.

The CATP’s platform is inadequate, to say the least. Prescott’s announcement on Tuesday that he will exclude Railtrack from the PPP on the tube is, of course, an about-face. Blair could still completely pull the carpet from under the feet of the CATP. That is why it is essential that the LSA input is as strong as possible.

A joint CATP-LSA campaign is also vital in the context of Livingstone’s mayoral fight. Whether or not Livingstone is the Labour candidate or an independent, the LSA must link up with his campaign. We must call for a vote for Livingstone … but a vote against all New Labour’s GLA candidates.

In a subtle, but important, departure from SWP propaganda, John Rees in effect backed what the CPGB has been saying: popular support for Livingstone is not about privatisation, but is a movement from below - a rebellion against Blair - and that it is this that we must relate to. Comrade Rees correctly pointed out that, even as Livingstone moves to the right to try to secure the official Labour nomination, his base in and around the Labour Party and the unions is shifting to the left. We must encourage and give consciousness to this through a socialist campaign - united organisationally in a CATP list - and as the LSA in the constituencies.

In the discussion on Livingstone, which is yet to be formally decided by the LSA, the ridiculous position of the Socialist Party in England and Wales was further exposed. Comrade Jim Horton raised his voice to insist that the SP had never said it would not vote for Livingstone as official Labour candidate. In fact there is a deafening silence on this possibility. After all, how can it vote for Livingstone if he stands as the candidate of an out-and-out “bourgeois party”? This definition was of course adopted soon after the Militant entryists were shown the door by Kinnock.

 The meeting also considered minor amendments to the LSA platform. Debate reflected the comradely and convivial atmosphere. For the first time comrades have begun to express a businesslike - as opposed to posturing - attitude to getting the job done.

Small shifts to the left were achieved. The absent Nick Long’s localist suggestions of more road humps were rejected. The proposal by Hyman Frankel - of the Green Socialist Network - to support only those refugees seeking “political” asylum was chucked out. This opened up an exchange on immigration laws. The CPGB amendment to replace “remove all racist immigration laws” with “remove all immigration laws” was passed with only the Socialist Party, the ILN’s Toby Abse and Hyman Frankel arguing against: ie, the extreme right of the LSA. While these shifts are welcome, the CPGB still holds that the LSA platform is woefully eclectic and economistic. Yet we as the extreme left are prepared to accept it in the interests of unity, given the agreed proviso that all organisations may criticise and campaign on their own platforms as well.

The next meetings of the CATP and LSA will be pivotal. While the CATP majority are honest syndicalists, the re-emergence of the disgraced Fourth International Supporters Caucus within CATP after their woeful SLP performance is a matter of concern. There must be no more anti-CPGB witch hunts. However, according to reports from RMT activists, Fisc is seen as a Johnny-come-lately. Neither is it completely united. Comrade Pat Sikorski is said to favour cooperation with the LSA.

Another factor is the attitude of RMT assistant general secretary and SLP member Bob Crow. His exact position on the CATP’s electoral intervention, with or without LSA’s involvement, is still unclear. However, if Scargill insists on a separate SLP campaign, it will place comrade Crow in an awkward situation. He will have a fatal choice. Stay with Scargill and lose his credibility in left union circles, or take a meaningful lead against Blair and New Labour.

The maturity and seriousness of the left will surely be tested in the coming months. For the first time since May 1997, a mass rebellion is beginning against Blair and his government. Communists will fight for a Livingstone victory, for a united CATP/LSA list and an organic working class split from New Labour.

Marcus Larsen