LSA: different approaches aired

Tied vote: CPGB's indirect and inclusive democracy; SWP's direct elections

The London Socialist Alliance steering committee met on September 5. On the agenda were a number of important questions, not least our strategic approach to the general election now bearing down on us.

Rob Hoveman of the Socialist Workers Party presented an opening on this question that was broadly welcomed by Communist Party representatives. He reported a gathering in Walsall "a few weeks ago" of the officers of the national Socialist Alliance network that discussed the question and agreed to recommend some broad guidelines.

First, that an "alliance" be actively sought with both the Welsh Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party for this election. It remains to be seen what such an alliance will mean in practice - different groups may view its content in different ways. The CPGB will advocate the closest possible unity, a common organisational and political front.

Comrade Hoveman described the forthcoming SA electoral challenge as potentially the most significant left slate since World War II, with SAs fielding perhaps 50-60 candidates (not including the projected 72 seats the SSP will be contesting).

This is an encouraging development. Previously, there had been worrying signs that the SWP was veering towards the 'minimalist' end of the argument over the scale of our joint intervention. Figures as low as 20-30 candidates had been bandied about. National officers such as John Nicholson, a comrade whose stated criteria for 'credible' electoral challenges were painfully restrictive, encouraged this conservatism. With such an approach, we would have stood practically nowhere.

Similarly, the foolish idea that electoral contests were only permissible where the local alliance was able to muster 150 activists seems to have been diluted. Comrade Hoveman was explicit that no such restrictions came out of the Walsall meeting. He suggested that the broad criteria for a challenge under the banner of the Socialist Alliance should be that:

  • In general, the seats are safe Labour.
  • We do not stand against left Labour MPs, although there was some dissension in the meeting over what constitutes a 'left' Labour MP these days.
  • 150 activists are not necessarily needed, but local resources certainly should be realistically assessed.
  • The candidates should be "credible", preferably with a record of local work and activism.

However, comrade Hoveman was at pains to stress grassroots initiative rather than strict centralised control.

The debate that followed the report underlined that the steering committee is clearly divided between 'minimalist' and 'maximalist' poles. On the conservative wing, Jill Mountford of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - backed by Mike Marqusee - stressed the need for a 'sober approach' to the contest. This parallels the hopeless approach of AWL comrades in the Solidarity Tendency in Scotland, where they have raised penny-pinching objections to the SSP's commendable ambition of standing in every Scottish constituency.

Comrade Marqusee predicted that a serious challenge in any particular constituency would need to draw in outside activists and resources to have any chance of being effective. Picking up on this theme, LSA secretary Greg Tucker of the International Socialist Group told the meeting that he was "not convinced" of the ambitious 50-60 target. London's proportionate share of this national total would be around 15 seats, he told the meeting. "Concretely", he asked, "where are we talking about?"

The 'maximalists' emphasised that an ambitious campaign that captured people's imaginations had the possibility of generating substantial new resources. A limp effort would be likely to fall short even of its own modest targets.

Dave Osler - an independent steering committee member - recalled his experiences in the Socialist Labour Party. He stressed that while Arthur Scargill's politics are lamentable, his ambition is laudable. The man's bold approach to the 1997 election, when the SLP stood 63 candidates, was to be emulated. To be "credible", comrade Osler emphasised, "the least we need to do" is stand in enough seats for a TV broadcast.

The CPGB's Marcus Larsen, chair of the LSA, welcomed the overall thrust of comrade Hoveman's report. He emphasised that the liaison committee of the Socialist Alliance should play a central coordinating role, but its remit should be permissive rather than restrictive. Where a viable local group came forward with the finance, energy and will to stand, the network's job should be to facilitate our challenge. Clive Heemskirk for the Socialist Party expressed some concern that the slant vis-à -vis criteria should not be weighted towards stopping people standing. Whatever body has the final say, it must implement a "liberal authorisation" policy, he suggested.

Obviously, the September 30 Socialist Alliance network conference in Coventry will be an important forum to air and hopefully resolve some of these differences. In the meantime, the final approach of London remains open-ended. Political organisations and borough socialist alliances are now being encouraged to send their comments, suggestions and proposals for seats to the elections sub-committee of the LSA.

Two resolutions were presented to the meeting. The first - motivated by London Red Action - had been held over from the LSA's previous meeting on August 1. This addressed perceived problems with the LSA's approach on the issues of "race and immigration", areas where "the left is not winning the argument". Thus, the LSA's tactics are "in need of urgent review".

The majority of the meeting was hostile to the comrades' criticisms. In particular, the attack on the slogan 'Refugees welcome here!' was totally rejected. The LSA's candidate in June's by-election in Tottenham - SWPer Weyman Bennett - cited examples from the campaign that supposedly belied the RA analysis. He mentioned several meetings where he had "got a round of applause" for bringing out the 'welcome' slogan. The Tories were even "chased" at one point in the campaign by angry voters, outraged at their "racism".

This simply avoids the issue. CPGBer Mark Fischer pointed to the social context in which we addressed questions such as the furore around refugees. In contrast to the nonsense peddled by the SWP, the political scene is not characterised by a growing polarisation between a hard right and a hard left.

Overwhelmingly, mass consciousness in Britain leans in a reactionary direction. One concrete manifestation of this is a widespread, deeply bitter hostility to refugees and asylum-seekers who are often seen - incredibly - as 'privileged' state-sponsored competitors for scarce local resources.

There were areas of agreement between the London RA's motion and the positions of the CPGB's comrades on the steering committee, but also important areas of difference. Thus, while we expressed sympathy with some of the ideas flagged up by the comrades for discussion, we abstained on the vote for the resolution itself.

Predictably, it was overwhelmingly defeated. On our initiative, however, the meeting did agree to sponsor the Anti-Fascist Action debate at the Lux cinema on October 1, where hopefully the vital issues raised in this truncated discussion can be explored more extensively.

Lastly, the meeting considered a resolution put forward by the CPGB on recent developments in Manchester. This stated:

"The London Socialist Alliance welcomes the September 2 AGM of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance. We see this meeting as an important step towards a successful election challenge for the Socialist Alliances nationally.

"However, the LSA is disappointed that the steering committee of the GMSA does not include automatic representation of affiliated organisations.

"The LSA reaffirms its commitment to automatic representation of affiliated organisations as a vital aspect of the inclusive democracy of the Socialist Alliances at this stage."

As a comrade from the SP pointed out, this was a re-run of the arguments on inclusivity that preceded the LSA conference on June 11. Then a hybrid arrangement was adopted that combines direct elections from an annual general meeting with automatic representation of affiliated groups. In Manchester, there is no right to automatic representation, just direct elections.

The CPGB is naturally pleased that its comrade, Peter Grant, has been included on the committee in Manchester. However, he and all other non-SWPers are there at the SWP's discretion.

Transparently, the SWP would like to quickly move beyond the situation where the SAs are primarily composed of left organisations. Nonetheless, that is what exists, and must exist, in the here and now. Affiliated organisations should therefore have the right to a real voice in the political direction of the SAs - otherwise, they may evolve from genuine alliances into mere fronts for the SWP.

Moving the resolution for the CPGB, Mark Fischer mentioned that we were prompted to put it forward by worrying reports from Manchester that local SWPers had referred to the London model - and specifically its feature of auto-representation for political groups - as a "mistake".

Opposing the CPGB motion, John Rees commented that as a general historical precedent, he was in favour of direct democracy. That might be the case for the SWP, but what about the indirect democracy of Russia's soviets and the right of proportional representation at congresses, and on the leadership itself, for minority factions in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Communist Party?

Despite such well known examples of the highest proletarian democracy comrade Rees and other SWPers seemed genuinely puzzled as to why our comrades were bringing this question up at all. Comrade Rees assured the meeting that "we want an inclusive structure" and he pointed out that it was on the initiative of SWP comrades that Peter Grant was put onto the GMSA steering committee.

All of which actually reinforces our argument, of course.

Comrade Rees's SWP (the "we" he refers to) may well want an "inclusive structure" today, but what about tomorrow? What if the SWP decides that such a structure is also a "mistake" in London?

With its numerical superiority, the SWP now effectively decides who is and who is not on board for the SA project in Manchester. Given the stage we are at as an alliance, direct democracy is not only premature, but wrong. It enshrines the principle of political control by one relatively large component: ie, a 51% bloc can democratically exclude the 49% minority. In our view majorities have the right to decide and to choose officers. But minorities must have their rights too.

There was some confusion over the vote, but our motion fell on a tie: 10 for, 10 against. It was supported by the AWL, the SP, the newly affiliated Revolutionary Democratic Group and Dave Osler. The two Workers Power representatives abstained, claiming ignorance of "the background in Manchester". Interestingly, its Manchester organisation voted against automatic representation, then did not even stand a candidate for direct election to the steering committee.

The momentum gathered behind the LSA in the aftermath of the GLA and Tottenham elections must be built upon. A general election looms and there is a huge amount to be done. Despite differences, the meeting approached its coming tasks in a business like and determined manner that bodes well for an ambitious challenge to Blair's Labourl

Mark Fischer

Appeal: The LSA took a brief report from comrade Hoveman on the state of our finances. Predictably, they are pretty dire. Indeed, our debts are being used by some as a justification for a minimalist approach to the number of seats we contest. This must be politically fought and defeated. As part of this the CPGB is donating £300 to help offset some of the bills, but we call on our readers to do more. The CPGB intends to raise enough to fully fund election challenges in four constituencies.

We urgently need your help! Send donations made payable to the CPGB, marking cheques and postal orders 'SA election fund' on the back.