Socialist alliances

Greater Manchester takes first step

It seems a racing certainty that there will be a Socialist Alliance challenge in Greater Manchester constituencies at next year's general election. The 30 participants in an open meeting, held on May 20, on the theme, 'Should socialists participate in electoral alliances?', were overwhelmingly enthusiastic at this prospect. This mood was undoubtedly a reflection of the boost to morale on the left which has sprung from the success of the London Socialist Alliance campaign in the Greater London Assembly elections.

The meeting had been convened by the officers of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance, which is presently an individual membership organisation (see Weekly Worker May 18). Approximately half of those attending were from the Socialist Workers Party. The other major organisations which have already come together in the LSA - the CPGB, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the International Socialist Group and Workers Power - were all represented. The remainder of the gathering comprised comrades from organisations involved in the North West Socialist Alliance - the International Socialist League and the Merseyside Socialists - plus a number of individual GMSA and NWSA members.

It was rather disappointing that, although the LSA had been invited to send a speaker, one had not been secured. Comrades in London must recognise that there is now a duty upon them to provide leadership in the construction of new socialist alliances on the LSA model. Thankfully, there were several comrades present who had worked in the London campaign. Apologies for absence were also presented from the Green Party.

Chris Jones of the ISG conveyed apologies and a message of support from the LSA secretary, Greg Tucker. Everybody who had been involved in the LSA election effort had come out of it with positive views, comrade Tucker told us. The LSA was to hold a conference on June 11 to discuss the future and it seems certain that the alliance will continue. It was encouraging to hear GMSA convenor John Nicholson add, at this point, that the officers of the national Socialist Alliance network (of which he is one) had resolved that they would attend the LSA conference.

Lindsey German, speaking on behalf of the SWP, began with a synopsis of the London election results. It has to be borne in mind, she said, that this election had been a uniquely confusing one for voters. There had been a shameful lack of official guidance on the voting system. As a result the number of spoilt ballot papers hit a record high. Turnout was low, reflecting the widespread disillusionment with the Blair government and with establishment politics. Nevertheless, where the LSA had been able to campaign, it had won votes. Indeed there was a direct correlation between the activity undertaken on the ground and the result achieved. The results generally, for socialists mounting an all-seats challenge for the first time in many years, were very encouraging, the comrade said. She referred in particular to the excellent results achieved in North East London, and Lambeth and Southwark, and to the solid achievements in other predominantly working class areas, such as Lewisham and Greenwich, Haringey, and East London. It should be noted as well that in some wards within these constituencies, the LSA scored from 15% to 20% of the vote.

Comrade German then turned to examine the performance of some of the other minor parties (although she did not mention the socialist splitters - the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, and the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation). The Green Party had polled well and this had undoubtedly been assisted by Ken Livingstone's call for a vote for them, against both New Labour and the LSA, in the proportional representation list. It was also an indication of the voter disillusionment with the establishment parties that she had referred to earlier. More worryingly, the "Nazis" (ie, the British National Party) had got large votes, especially in the East End and Essex. The frenzied attack by the government, the Tories and the press on asylum-seekers was clearly a major factor here, and this underlined that the LSA had been entirely correct to feature the defence of asylum-seekers in its electoral propaganda. The London experience will be part of rebuilding the left. The LSA should continue and socialist alliances should be built across the whole country, comrade German concluded.

Beginning to sound, by now, like a well worn record, Martin Ralph of the ISL repeated his claim that "the electoral intervention by the railworkers had been enormously significant" and that "some elements in the LSA had taken a negative attitude towards this initiative". He was referring of course to CATP. John Pearson of the CPGB, accused Martin of refusing to bow before overwhelming evidence. (The latter's motive, I think, is his unwillingness to renege on the ill-judged reports he has sent to his 'international'). There had already been extensive debate within the NWSA on this issue, as well as an e-mail debate and publication of relevant communications and resolutions of both the LSA and CATP. It was crystal clear that the LSA had held the door wide open to CATP and that the latter organisation had refused all cooperation. Significant in this respect was the fact that CATP is not a grouping of non-politically aligned railworkers, but that it was led by dyed-in-the-wool sectarians, such as Patrick Sikorski and his Fourth International Supporters Caucus. Moreover, leading tube workers and activists of the RMT union, such as Janine Booth and Greg Tucker, had not only supported the LSA and become candidates in the election, but had argued strongly for CATP to work with the united campaign.

Comrade Pearson went on to pose a practical objective - we should proceed from this meeting to launch a Socialist Alliance in Greater Manchester to contest the forthcoming general election. Every effort should be made to spread this movement to Liverpool and other parts of the North West. And if the general election were to be called late, the council elections next May could provide the opportunity for a 'practice run', he proposed. The comrade endorsed an observation made by Mark Krantz, of the SWP's Manchester district, in the May edition of the GMSA bulletin: "Thousands of working class activists in the Labour Party and trades unions are looking for a left alternative to New Labour." This is a correct perspective. The organisation we need to build is a working class party. Alliances of revolutionary socialists, as in the LSA, can attract forces from the class that are way beyond our own numbers. We have no need to seek a 'greening' of our politics: rather it should be reddened, comrade Pearson concluded.

The latter comment brought forth a riposte from Hilary Wainwright, editor of the left reformist, greenist magazine, Red Pepper. There is a significant left wing of the greens, she insisted. The proportional representation perspective makes it important that we use the present non-electoral interval to try to draw this element towards us. One way to seek to do this, she suggested, would be to campaign with the greens for democratic regional government, against the Blairite scheme to hand the whole of local government over to private contractor interests. Hilary appeared not to notice the complete absence of her left greens from this meeting. And of course, having made progress under their own banner, why should greens want to make common cause with socialists?

Bill Jeffreys of Workers Power stressed that the Socialist Alliance should not be limited to an electoral pact. There must be ongoing organisation and activity between elections. A structure should be adopted that permits individuals, as well as organisations, to join the Socialist Alliance.

Matthew Thompson of the AWL felt that the LSA experience was encouraging in terms of the movement towards left unity, as well as in the results of the electoral work. Most important of all was the fact that the LSA based itself on class politics, it oriented towards the labour movement. The comrade urged that a relaunched GMSA should adopt the style of organisation of the NWSA: ie, open debate and no dominance by one group.

Peter Grant, chair of Manchester Piccadilly Aslef, took on the arguments relating to the greens. The major factor in the growth of the green vote is precisely the lack of a working class party to the left of Labour. As to the Green Party itself, it is not only not working class, but anti-working class, in that it is anti-science, anti-progress and - especially now under the unofficial leadership of its new adherent, Charles Windsor - idealist. He cited the green opposition to expansion plans for the south of Manchester rail network. If we are to have dealings with left greens it must be on our terms. Even John Nicholson now felt obliged to express agreement with the latter sentiment.

Comrade Grant turned to the issue of the London election results. What no-one had yet said was that the results were a blow against left sectarianism. The tracks had come off Arthur Scargill's Stalinist tank, and CATP too had paid the price of refusing cooperation with the LSA. The project we now need to embark on is the building of a working class party. It is time for all of us to stop seeing our own organisations as the sole answer. Collectively we can make a move towards the answer, he concluded.

Many of the SWP comrades contributing to the discussion wanted to emphasise united front work in the non-electoral arena. The tactic of taking issues, such as defending asylum-seekers, into our workplaces was advocated by several of these speakers. This emphasis is unsurprising, given the recent, and top-down, nature of the SWP turn to united electoral work. It was nevertheless an SWP comrade, John Baxter, who repeated the call for a Socialist Alliance challenge in the general election. He stressed the urgency of beginning work on this, especially with respect to agreeing a platform.

As I predicted (see Weekly Worker May 18), the role of the GMSA officers in this meeting was that of trying to 'ride the tiger' in the aftermath of the London events. They long to bottle the genie within the exclusivist, closed constitution of the present-day GMSA. They had great difficulty. An ex-Socialist Party of England and Wales comrade, Steve Wallace, took the lead in suggesting that further discussions be devolved to GMSA's 'working parties'. These are individual membership talking shops. Chris Jones, very much on the conservative wing of the ISG, suggested revisiting the issue at October's annual general meeting, whilst anther ex-SPEW member, Margaret Manning, felt that the officers needed to negotiate with the organisations represented at the meeting. The meeting closed with these organisational issues unresolved.

Before serious progress can be made, the GMSA will have to be transformed. Its present exclusivist organisation and closed culture will be a major obstacle to the building of a genuine alliance of socialists organisations. The LSA model provides the answers and it falls to the Manchester contingents of the LSA partners to carry out this transformation.

An exciting period lies ahead, which opens up the possibility of the formation of a revolutionary working class party in Britain. I look forward to Manchester and the North West of England being a major theatre in this process.

John Pearson