All-UK challenge

The London Socialist Alliance set the scene last weekend for a united left challenge to Blair at the next general election across the United Kingdom.

The June 11 'Building on success' conference at the University of London Union, open to all supporters and attended by over 300 people, voted without any dissenting voice to prepare "to stand enough candidates (in conjunction with others) to secure a television broadcast ... The LSA would look forward to a national conference of socialist organisations to carry this out."

The successful motion - which also outlined LSA plans to intervene on behalf of asylum-seekers and trade unionists in dispute, continue to campaign alongside unions and others against tube privatisation, and build the September anti-capitalist protests in Prague - was strengthened by amendments put forward by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Mark Fischer, proposing these, made clear that the Scottish Socialist Party in particular must be included in a joint electoral challenge, and the motion was welcomed by John Nicholson and the Socialist Party's Dave Nellist - both of the Socialist Alliance (England) network.

Unfortunately, however, conference also voted to completely change the composition of the LSA steering committee. Up to last Sunday its decisions had been taken by a majority vote of the six affiliates - one vote for each organisation: CPGB, SP, Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and International Socialist Group. But all except the SP and CPGB agreed to recommend a new enlarged, directly elected, 36-member steering committee.

The recommendation, accepted by conference by a large majority, gave four places on the steering committee to the SWP and two each to the other five groups. In addition the Independent Labour Network, the ex-SP London Socialist Solidarity Group, the Socialist Teachers Alliance and Workers International were allocated a seat each. It was proposed that these 18 comrades take their place alongside 18 "independent delegates" and that all would have equal voting rights on the committee.

Conference descended into farce when nominations for the 18 'independents' were called for. An estimated 90% of those present at conference were members of existing affiliated organisations, with the SWP outnumbering the others by around two to one. Not surprisingly, only 15 'independents' willing to stand could be found and all of them were accepted on the nod.

Amongst them were defiant anti-Blairite Labour Party member Piers Corbyn; Mike Marqusee, an unaffiliated comrade who has already done sterling work for the LSA; and Jean Kysow, an LSA candidate on May 4. Other well travelled, but valuable, leftists such as Lee Rock, Dave Osler, and Nick Wrack found themselves elevated to our leadership alongside a raft of little known, often eccentric individuals. The vast majority of comrades in the hall had no idea who most of those they were voting for were.

The new arrangement means that theoretically the organisations that provided, and will continue to provide, the foot soldiers, hours of work and hard cash - for example in the campaign for the Greater London Assembly elections - could be outvoted by all these unaccountable individuals in alliance with one group. Clearly the idea that an atomised individual can somehow 'represent' other atomised individuals is ludicrous. These comrades have no political weight whatsoever and represent only themselves.

The reality though is that the SWP will remain dominant despite having only four steering committee members. It can mobilise its members for a conference to change the steering committee's composition - although, again theoretically, the steering committee might be able to delay this and temporarily take the LSA into uncharted waters. But the SWP has succeeded in reducing the influence of the other organisations centrally, while locally on the ground it will continue for the moment to have the capacity to dictate policy, should it so wish.

Nevertheless, the fact that the SWP has committed itself to a permanent alliance structure is to be welcomed. The CPGB had proposed a system of representative democracy, much more suited to the current status of the LSA as an alliance, whereby each component organisation and borough socialist alliance would have one delegate on the steering committee. New affiliates would automatically be represented too. This would have produced in all likelihood a SWP majority, but that would have reflected a definite reality. More importantly, as the balance of forces on the ground changed, so too would that of the steering committee.

It was, however, agreed that "new London-wide affiliates" could be taken immediately on to the steering committee with its agreement, and that the LSA would "encourage the building of borough alliances" - both seen as essential in our proposals. It was also "recognised that these are transitional arrangements". All in all, while not ideal, these changes are something we can live with.

That would certainly not have been the case with the SP's proposals. These required for decisions in local alliances to be based on "the agreement of all organisations" - giving each component a paralysing power of veto. As Pat Stack of the SWP pointed out, if this had been applied to the steering committee, the LSA would not have contested the GLA elections, since the SP itself "opposed us standing and proposed we stand down" in favour of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation.

Many of the SP's interventions were characterised by the anti-SWP whinging that has been so prevalent amongst its leading comrades recently. For example Paula Mitchell complained that the SWP had used "weight of numbers to push their own positions" in Lewisham and Greenwich, where local SP councillor Ian Page was the GLA candidate. The SP is so concerned with its own rights as a minority that it seems to believe that majorities have none. The dispute in Lewisham was actually about whether comrade Page should support the LSA or remain neutral between ourselves and CATP, leaving us without a voice in that constituency. Thankfully the majority saw to it that LSA material was distributed, not merely leaflets in support of the "local socialist alliance".

The SP also alleged that the SWP was using LSA lists of contacts to build its 'Marxism' school - vehemently denied by comrade Stack. In fact the steering committee had agreed that such lists should be made available to all component organisations. In any case the reality is that the SWP has no problem getting its members working in the LSA to pass on their contacts directly.

When the ISG's Greg Tucker announced from the chair that there was no time for the movers of the various structural propositions to reply to the debate, Jim Horton of the SP strode to the microphone to challenge this. The meeting upheld the chair's ruling - there were only 20 minutes remaining for all the votes to be taken. But comrade Horton protested that the decision "tells you a lot about democracy. We will not be intimidated by SWP blocs." In reality four SP speakers had spoken during the final debate and only three from the SWP. During the course of the afternoon SP members made 10 interventions (excluding comrade Horton's outburst), as against nine for the SWP.

But the SP was intent on painting itself as the victim, irrespective of the truth. It continues to give the impression of a sectarian organisation looking for the right moment to pull out of the LSA, using whatever excuse circumstances provide.

Another unfortunate decision was the acceptance of comrade Marqusee's 'Ground rules for election work' against the wishes of four of the six original steering committee organisations. Having lost on the steering committee, the SWP threw its weight behind comrade Marqusee's proposals, which also received the backing of the ISG. The ground rules laid down that LSA candidates must "refrain from promoting any particular affiliated organisation". Presumably this means that, for example, comrade Page must 'forget' that he is an elected SP councillor if he stands as parliamentary candidate for the LSA; or that Weyman Bennett, our candidate in next week's Tottenham by-election, must not mention his SWP membership, despite the fact that it is common knowledgeas a result of 15 years of activism.

In addition groups may not "distribute or sell ... their own material" while canvassing, although they may do so at "LSA events". Apart from anything else, this will be impossible to police. Mark Hoskisson of Workers Power described this as "prematurely dissolving our own organisations during some aspects of campaigning", while Mark Sandell of the AWL said it would mean candidates "canvassing one day, selling their papers the next - people aren't stupid". This ban smacks of attempting to legislate sectarian behaviour out of existence, when sectarianism can actually only be defeated politically.

An issue that recurred throughout the afternoon's discussions was the broader question of workers' political organisation. The SP put forward its usual abstract call for a "new workers' party", although this was not taken to a vote. But according to the SP's Clive Small, the LSA was "not an authoritative enough force" to give a practical lead - particularly in elections - in the formation of such a party. Alluding to the single-issue CATP, he declared that "we cannot give ultimatums - for example, to groups of trade unionists moving into opposition to New Labour" - as if the LSA had not bent over backwards in an attempt to form a common slate.

John Bridge of the CPGB replied that the LSA was part of the answer - indeed it was "the core" of the answer. He asked: "Does anybody suggest that CATP, the Socialist Labour Party, or the Communist Party of Britain will seriously challenge us again" - as they did in the GLA elections? This was backed up by comrades from the ISG and WP.

The nature of the "new workers' party" the SP was hoping for came under scrutiny - and brought conflicting interpretations by different SP members. Hannah Sell stated categorically that workers looking for an alternative "would not move into a revolutionary party - that will not be the case. In the initial period I would not expect a new party to stand on our programme." Nevertheless such a party would be "an enormous step forward", with "revolutionaries" like the SP comrades forming a minority.

Alan Thornett of the ISG declared, with just as much certitude, that, "There are not the political conditions at the present time for a new mass party - revolutionary or reformist." The best we can hope for, apparently, is a more modest formation - "something like the SSP".

Comrades from the CPGB and WP criticised comrade Sell for appearing to pose a social democratic formation as a necessary stage. Stuart King from WP said that, "We don't want to be sitting in a reformist party in five years time after all this hard work"; while the CPGB's Mark Fischer wondered why self-proclaimed revolutionaries, such as the SP and ISG, always "fight to come second" - the working class should look to the example of the Communist Party 1920, not the Labour Party 1900.

Astonishingly, SPers claimed that comrade Sell had been misinterpreted. Dave Nellist denied that she was "talking about a Labour Party mark II", while Jim Horton declared: "No one is suggesting a reformist new workers' party", but one where revolutionaries would be able to operate inside a new "broad formation". So it would be neither revolutionary nor reformist, it seems.

By and large comrades from the SWP did not deign to bring such pressing political questions into their contributions. Most preferred instead to talk up the GLA success or the plummeting popularity of New Labour. However, leading SWP theoretician Alex Callinicos did respond to the SP. He wished the Socialist Party "good luck" with its broad workers' party, remarking, however, that it was a bit like "first time tragedy, second time farce". He also commented, looking rather pointedly in the direction of the SPers, that there was "a difference between talking about the alternative and building it in practice".

All very well, but what does the SWP leadership itself hope will develop from the socialist alliances? Will it be comrade Thornett's vision of a type of all-Britain SSP, a permanent national alliance, or a democratic centralist Communist Party? Nobody is letting on.

Alan Fox