Pat Strong of the Socialist Party

Comrade Taaffe's clumsy polemic

There are few things more deserving of the contempt of our movement than desperate sectarians attempting to give their opportunism legitimacy, especially when it descends into outright dishonesty. Such is the 'Comment' article issued as a statement on behalf of our party by the Taaffe-Mullins axis, 'A real test for left unity' (The Socialist March 5).

On one level, exchanging the narrow economism, routine condemnations of Blair's government, second-hand news items and Olympian commentary, which usually fill our press, for robust polemic, aimed directly at our opponents' stance on a key question of our time, is a tremendous step in the right direction for the Socialist Party. Such a polemic might, as a side effect, revitalise jaded cadre and stimulate thought and then in time coordinated rebellion.

Of course that is not the intention of comrades Taaffe and Mullins. No, what this unaccustomed foray into polemics represents is merely the most desperate attempt yet by the party leadership to provide, on the one hand, justification for lack of political focus - ie, whether to support Livingstone and the London Socialist Alliance slate - and, on the other, ammunition in opposition to Socialist Workers Party initiative and domination. However, like a couple of bungling burglars caught red-handed at the scene with bags inscribed 'swag' slung over their respective shoulders, comrades Taaffe and Mullins have merely exposed their sectarian guilt before the LSA and advanced workers everywhere.

As reported in the Weekly Worker (March 2), the mutterings of discontent from a section of our London members finally grew into outright opposition. The last aggregate resulted in a fudge - a victory for the rank and file. Honest debate should have resulted in a correction of our previously mistaken line to back the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation against the LSA. Alternatively, if our leadership's commitment to the CATP, though wrong, was the result of a sincerely held belief that this single-issue campaign represented a genuine mass movement of workers seeking to break from Labourism, you would have expected implacable resistance to the doubters and efforts to redouble our support for the CATP.

The fact that a 'free vote' is to be allowed - London comrades can back either the LSA or the CATP - testifies to two main things. Firstly, our original line carries no conviction. Secondly, the Taaffe leadership survives, Bonaparte-like, through a series of balancing acts - first it flatters the Dave Nellist faction; then it falls into the arms of Mullins and the opponents of unity; now it placates the London rank and file. This is what Peter believes is clever tactics!

So the real purpose of the statement carried in The Socialist is to ensure the durability of the Taaffe regime, not to provide leadership to the working class. However, in service of that end the loyalists are equipped with a quiver of poisoned arrows to shoot at the SWP, and others in the LSA.

Thus we are told: "The SWP now turn to the LSA because they believe it will benefit them. They don't view it as part of the process of building a mass, new, working class party." Well, this is hardly a blinding revelation and I must confess I fail to see how it in anyway excuses our own unprincipled contortions. And if the SWP does manage to recruit and sell more papers, well, good. Surely we would prefer workers to draw socialist conclusions and join the SWP, rather than remaining atomised - especially if it opens up the Cliffite organisation as a whole? The Socialist Party would also benefit if we energetically and enthusiastically threw ourselves behind the LSA. Yet not only has no money been donated so far and no printing done, but we are boycotting the LSA list and actually calling for people to vote against it.

In the same tone of righteous indignation the SWP's most heinous crime is revealed: "Outrageously, the SWP tried to expel the Socialist Party, one of the LSA's founding members, from the LSA in order to pursue their short-term objectives free from our opposition." Oh really? Where? When? Which SWP members specifically? "Outrageously", we are not told.

Perhaps though, I can shed some light. As I understand it, the other component parts of the LSA, quite reasonably, given our support for the CATP and against the LSA, did indeed question our continued involvement. But there has been no attempt to expel us. Moreover the SP's Ian Page featured as a speaker at the LSA's Camden Centre rally last month. Talking about expulsions, was it not we in the SP who joined in the failed attempts to remove the CPGB from the LSA and who successfully helped to kicked them out of the Greater Manchester SA?

The squeals continue unchecked. We are told that the SWP slyly tried to hijack the leadership of the LSA and swamp it with their comrades. In stark contrast to this unbridled paranoia, the SWP, commendably, have deliberately in many areas withheld their comrades to avoid precisely such a scenario.

Does that mean that the SWP comrades are saintly paragons of left unity then? Hardly. The article correctly highlights the organisation's previous inconsistency and comments on the, at times, Byzantine twists and turns that have characterised its behaviour in the trade unions generally and in Unison specifically. To this we could add its ignominious collapse in the face of Arthur Scargill, Britain's would-be labour dictator, and his Stalin Society slate during the run-up to last year's EU elections. This last point though, is not mentioned. Rather surprising, you might think, given the comprehensive and all-encompassing assault that constitutes the bulk of the text. Surprising though, only until we recall that we leapt on to the coat tails of the fleeing SWP.

Our method - on the question of socialist alliances, left unity in general and much else - is to say one thing and practise another. By slinging enough mud at the SWP, the membership, it is hoped, will be diverted from critically examining our own positions. It is, then, worthwhile examining in some detail our orientation to left unity and contrasting it with our practice.

"Socialist alliances," we are informed, "can play a role, providing workers' long-term interests are put before particular short-term gains." Nothing to disagree with there, but how, I wonder, are "workers' long-term interests" served by heaping opprobrium onto the heads of the LSA's organisers for failing to achieve unity with the CATP? The reality of course is that the LSA made repeated attempts to map out common ground with the CATP, only to be constantly rebuffed. Contrary to our own Jim Horton's assertion that the LSA had decided "to stand a slate against the CATP" (The Socialist February 11), the truth is that the CATP decided to stand a slate against the LSA.

"The LSA, involving collaboration on common aims, marked a step forward, but it can only be maintained on the basis of openness, recognition of differences and democratic decision-making."

Put like that, again, who could disagree? Unfortunately our practice has been to demand adoption of our 'programme', then to pick up our ball and flounce sulkily home when the rest of the left does not just fall into line - the CATP being the most obvious example.

"The Socialist Party was the first left organisation to propose the need for socialist alliances. We played a pioneering role nationally in developing this work." Yes, the SAs were originally set up on our initiative. But this only tells part of the story. They were brought into being in order to pull the rug from under Scargill's feet when he excluded us from his Socialist Labour Party. But the leadership soon lost interest and the SAs were dumped, apart from in a very few areas - most notably in Coventry, where Dave Nellist continued to play "a pioneering role". As to the LSA itself, it was of course set up through the initiative of the CPGB.

The reality elsewhere in Britain barely amounts to tokenism. In fact, when it comes to Scotland, our general secretary throughout Scottish Militant Labour's slow descent into left nationalist liquidation, railed long and hard, not against SML's further retreat from Marxism, but against the logical outcome of the efforts the comrades had put into the Scottish Socialist Alliance - ie, the SSP.

"The Socialist Party will remain committed to the London Socialist Alliance project long after the London assembly elections." Except of course when it comes to the current GLA election campaign - when this 'commitment' means our London comrades can support the LSA - if they like. Or not, if they prefer the CATP.

The one thing that is glaringly apparent in the midst of this undignified shambles is that our leadership has still not grasped what should be painfully obvious: there are no organisational get-well-soon cures for political ailments. Only a correct revolutionary programme can ensure political health and longevity. Such a programme can only be arrived at by open discussion and freedom of criticism throughout an educated, critical and independently minded cadre.