Deeper unity not break-ups

New Labour no longer rides high in opinion polls. Yet tragically there exists no viable, all-United Kingdom, leftwing alternative. It is the Tories who have benefited from discontent and staged something of a mid-term recovery...

New Labour no longer rides high in opinion polls. Yet tragically there exists no viable, all-United Kingdom, leftwing alternative. It is the Tories who have benefited from discontent and staged something of a mid-term recovery.

In the novel political conditions and with the unprecedented temptations created by the May 1997 general election landslide, William Hague unashamedly encourages those taking extra-parliamentary action - Countryside Alliance, Save the Royal Ulster Constabulary, fuel protesters, etc. The Tories owe their sudden lead not to the shadow cabinet's arcane skills at using Erskine May's Parliamentary practice, but to the Jacobin blockades of oil refineries by 2,500 farmers, lorry operators and self-employed taxi drivers.

The necessity of the revolutionary left leaving behind the wasted years of internecine sect warfare and creating instead a single democratic centralist party has never been clearer nor more urgent. A small but significant step towards that goal would be the mounting of the biggest, the most united Socialist Alliance challenge at the next general election.

On Saturday September 30 the Socialist Alliance network meets in Coventry's Methodist Central Hall. The general election is the principal item on the agenda. Everything tells us that things are set for some fierce arguments ... and possibly walk-out threats. We shall also see whether or not the Socialist Workers Party abides by its self-limiting pledge not to pack the conference with a majority.

The Socialist Alliance's six officers are split four to two. Affiliated organisations and individual members are in receipt of a majority and a minority set of proposals. The minority report is signed by the Socialist Alliance's chair, Dave Nellist, former Labour MP and a prominent figure in the Socialist Party in England and Wales. He warns that the majority could "severely undermine, or even break up, the Socialist Alliance general election electoral challenge".

Comrade Nellist's document was mailed out on the initiative of Pete McLaren. He is the other minority officer who, it should be mentioned, has expressed strong doubts about the advisability of standing in the general election. Undoubtedly a sincere man, he does, however, tend more towards the anarcho-green than the red. Comrades Nellist and McLaren make an unlikely couple.

It is no secret that the Communist Party of Great Britain is not alone in objecting to certain formulations and key passages coming from the officers' majority of John Nicholson, Declan O'Neill, Dave Church and Rob Hoveman (actually it was written by comrade Nicholson, but not properly discussed by the officers - comrade Hoveman of the SWP has actually been working overtime since to produce a better and more acceptable series of formulations).

Readers ought to be told moreover that motions submitted by affiliated organisations, including our Provisional Central Committee, were not distributed. Needless to say, such undemocratic behaviour is no way to facilitate informed debate at Coventry. Nor does it build trust. Obviously at present some are treated more equally than others.

The Socialist Alliance's officers were elected for a fixed 12-month term at a very sparsely attended AGM earlier this year. Even if that were not the case, they all need to quickly appreciate that those elected to positions of responsibility should act as the servants, not the masters, of the Socialist Alliance. Recallability helps no end. A healthy and long established practice in the London Socialist Alliance.

Two questions immediately arise. First, what are the differences between the majority and minority proposals and what politics lie behind them? Second, what is the CPGB's attitude to the majority proposals and how do we envisage making progress?

So what divides the majority and minority? According to comrade Nellist, the majority proposals "represent an extreme centralisation of our structures". Supposedly their recommendations "are designed for a party, not an alliance". The Socialist Alliance is made up of a wide range of individuals and organisations, which despite political differences can "work together for common objectives". It would be "a major error to change this approach now, without discussion, under the pressure of the impending election campaign".

Comrade Nellist holds aloft the prospect of involving "far wider" forces. He vaguely refers to groups of trade unionists and political organisations. Sadly he comes bumping down to earth with the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation and the anti-cuts campaign in Kidderminster.

It would be, suggests the comrade, "unreasonable and unrealistic to demand that, the first time they work with us, they have to adhere to a centralised party structure". Every organisation should be "encouraged" to put 'Socialist Alliance' on the ballot paper. However, provided they put 'Socialist Alliance' in their election material and "agree to" a minimum election programme, then we should be "prepared to welcome them on board".

Because the overwhelming majority of our members are in existing political organisations it is "vital to continue" to organise on the "principle of the united front", says comrade Nellist. We have dealt with what actually constitutes a united front many times before in the Weekly Worker. In the context of the Socialist Alliance it is certainly a misnomer. In the canon of Marxism - eg, the 4th Congress of the Communist International - a united front refers to a particular tactic, or set of tactics, designed to win over the majority of the working class from reformist and centrist misleaders to the side of communism. That hardly describes the Socialist Alliance network.

For the sake of furthering the argument here though, we must bear with what comrade Nellist himself means by a united front. Seemingly the principles of a united front include a "common socialist platform" and allowing organisations and individuals "the right to uphold their political positions".

A couple of points. It might well be true that within SPEW, comrade Nellist's own "centralised party structure", for individuals there is no "right to uphold their political positions" in public. But that is bureaucratic centralism, a travesty of genuine democratic centralism. Apart from specific, democratically agreed actions, every individual must have the "right to uphold their political positions" openly. That must apply to factions and certainly the components of the SA - not least when we fuse together in a party.

Of course, we fully understand comrade Nellist's concerns and those of SPEW. In London an SWP bloc forced through an ill-advised ban on selling partisan literature while canvassing. However, comrade Nellist ought to have found partial reassurance in point three of the majority recommendations. It states that everyone has the "freedom to describe their own backgrounds and their own party/organisation affiliations".

The CPGB interprets that widely to encompass the manifestos of candidates, speeches made at rallies, personal statements to the media and canvassers - they are free "to describe their own backgrounds and their own party/organisation affiliations", including, when they think it appropriate, by selling partisan literature.

A final aside. Neither CATP nor the Kidderminster campaign is socialist in terms of programme. They are both determinedly single-issue. There is no indication that they would commit themselves to a "common socialist platform". Indeed in the Greater London Assembly elections CATP stood a slate of candidates against the LSA. Of course, we should be "prepared to welcome them on board". But we should not use them as a smokescreen.

The fact of the matter is that SPEW's general secretary Peter Taaffe and those closest to him have never been genuinely enthusiastic about the Socialist Alliance. From the beginning SPEW did nothing to build the LSA, everything to wind it down. No Scottish turn for them. Since the SWP decisively threw its lot in with the project, lack of enthusiasm has become fear. Fear of being dominated by the SWP's much larger numbers and - equally germane - much superior theory.

At a guess the SPEW national committee is riven with fault lines. Doubtless comrade Nellist wants the Socialist Alliance to succeed. At the same time he is unwilling, as of yet, to cut his umbilical link with Peter Taaffe. On the other hand, comrade Taaffe appears determined to manoeuvre the Socialist Alliance into a position whereby SPEW can find sufficient justification to "break up the Socialist Alliance general election electoral challenge" and stand under its own, legally registered title, Socialist Alternative.

SPEW says it will field 18 candidates in the general election. The intention seems clear. The candidates will be financed by SPEW, the campaigns will be run by SPEW, the constituencies will be exclusive to SPEW. For everyone else they are to be no-go areas. That amounts to a non-aggression pact, not a Socialist Alliance.

I just wish I could believe SPEW's Hannah Sell when she maintains: "We are keen to take part in a united Socialist Alliance election challenge" (The Socialist September 22). Her piece was virtually a word-for-word repetition of the Nellist minority report. Comrade, let us recall Peter Taaffe's 'Ken Livingstone and a new workers' party' article, in which he damned every other component of the LSA (Socialism Today April). Nor can we forget SPEW's miserable record in the LSA's GLA campaign.

Comrade Nellist is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. He and his Coventry organisation has consistently tried to promote the Socialist Alliance. Not that we have always agreed with him. However, instead of taking his cue from Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes in Scotland, comrade Nellist tries to defer things to the future.

He insists that he favours a new party - that is, a "broad" socialist party - tomorrow (presumably the word "broad" implies reformist, certainly not explicitly Marxist and revolutionary). But, far from actively taking a lead in order to decisively move the process forward in the here and now, the comrade says that there should be a "debate on the issue" in the Socialist Alliance. The Scottish Socialist Party's Frances Curran has rightly characterised such a lame approach as "passive propaganda" (CWI Members Bulletin May).

Do the majority proposals equate with a centralised party structure? No. That is an exaggeration. Nevertheless the proposals are overly restrictive, politically unbalanced and centralised in entirely the wrong way. In other words, while we are afraid that the SPEW majority might be cynically looking for an excuse to walk away from the Socialist Alliance general election campaign, the CPGB shares some of the same uneasiness as expressed by comrade Nellist.

The CPGB has submitted a raft of amendments to the majority recommendations - as requested. Of course the CPGB finds itself coming from a different angle as compared with SPEW. Firstly, we seek to promote the closest cooperation on the ground between comrades organised in different groups. Secondly, every candidate should have 'Socialist Alliance' on the ballot paper. Thirdly, as long as the Coventry conference is conducted democratically, in the spirit of inclusivity, and there is a willingness to take on board criticisms, then the CPGB is committed to abide by majority decisions. Nevertheless the CPGB is also guided by the view that no one should be given any excuses whatsoever to "severely undermine, or even break up, the Socialist Alliance general election electoral challenge"l

Jack Conrad

Note: Since this article was written we have received by email Rob Hoveman's proposals. On first reading we find them broadly acceptable as a basis for detailed negotiations. For CPGB amendments see 'What CPGB proposes'.