Merseyside Socialist Alliance

Taaffe's new ultimatum

Merseyside Socialist Alliance was relaunched at a two-dozen-strong meeting in Liverpool on July 6. Although this is a very welcome development and very clearly an important gain for the process of building an all-UK Socialist Alliance, the meeting demonstrated above all else the lamentable weakness of the left in this strategic working class conurbation.

In attendance were representatives of the CPGB, the International Socialist League, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and - at the top table - the ex-SPEW Merseyside Socialists. On the positive side, there was also a sizeable representation of non-politically aligned trade unionists, albeit apparently all from public sector workplaces, and activists from local campaigns against privatisation of council houses. The first indication of weakness, however, was the total absence of three of the organisations which have come together in the successful London Socialist Alliance - the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the International Socialist Group and Workers Power.

In the wake of the LSA's solid performance in the recent Greater London Assembly elections and the parliamentary by-election in Tottenham, it was appropriate that the agenda focused on the question of whether to mount a Socialist Alliance challenge in Merseyside in the next general election. However, in sharp contrast to the mood of a similar gathering held in Manchester (see Weekly Worker May 25), only the CPGB and SPEW were enthusiastic about such a project.

And SPEW's intentions were announced in a manner that can only be regarded as ultimatumist: "We will be standing in the general election and we are looking to agreement with other groups on constituencies," Pete Glover announced. This came shortly after a pronouncement from SPEW's Roger Bannister to the effect that, "There is a need for a new working class party. I am not interested if the Socialist Alliance is only an alliance of left groups."

This new line was apparently agreed at the SPEW national committee meeting on July 1. The Socialist reports briefly: "We also discussed the role of the socialist alliances in helping build a new mass workers' party" (July 7). It seems that Peter Taaffe's NC in fact decided to 'get hard' with the other left groups at alliance meetings up and down the country.

A Merseyside Socialists comrade, who is a shop steward in the Knowsley council direct works department, made a strong contribution to this debate. Expressing agreement with the position of the CPGB, he said that it is essential that the Socialist Alliance contests the general election, although he made clear that he was distinctly unenthusiastic at having to do so.

The comrade gave two reasons. Firstly, New Labour is "finished with" by the working class in Liverpool and many other parts of Merseyside and we would be handing an opportunity to the right if we did not stand. Secondly, direct action by the working class remains at a very low level and he agreed that electoral activity becomes an appropriate theatre of interaction with the class in such a period.

Bill Hunter of the ISL led the sceptical camp he said. Politics comes out of struggle. It does not always move from the general to the particular but often the other way. This is why the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation has been so important in London working class politics, the comrade opined. The same role can fall to the campaigns against council housing privatisation in Merseyside - we need to focus on how we go into the working class, he concluded. This was music to the ears of the Merseyside Socialists leaders, Ann Bannister and Lesley Mahmood. After a brief bout of enthusiasm at the prospect of a Socialist Alliance campaign in last year's EU elections, these two comrades have been consistent critics of electoral activity in the current period, preferring instead to champion a role for the left of lending a political character to spontaneous struggles.

But of most significance, in a negative sense, was the astonishing role played in the meeting by the two representatives of the SWP. Although your reporter was unavoidably half an hour late in arriving at the gathering, it did continue for a further one and a half hours. The SWP comrades made no intervention, except for an appeal for support for the anti-World Trade Organisation demonstration to take place in Prague this September. They seemed quite bewildered. If this approach was not some peculiar tactic (and I did recall the similar, but not quite so total, role played by comrades Rob Hoveman and Pat Stack at the annual general meeting of the Socialist Alliance network (England) in March of this year), then it can only betray a serious crisis within the SWP over the turn to the politics of left unity and fighting in the ballot box.

The meeting closed with a formal resolution to constitute a Merseyside Socialist Alliance and a declaration of the equality of importance of electoral and campaigning work. Discussion of a proposal made by the CPGB, and seconded by SPEW, that a steering committee be formed, comprised of delegates from each organisation affiliating to the alliance, was deferred to a future meeting. The next meeting, on August 10, will focus on the campaign against council housing privatisation, and a launch rally is to be planned for September.

John Pearson