Fighting to win

Greg Tucker, secretary of the LSA and a member of the International Socialist Group, looks forward to the general election and uniting all revolutionaries into one organisation

I would like to start by discussing some of the things that led up to the London Socialist Alliance's successes in election campaigns over recent months, and then go on to deal more generally about where the left is going.

The Socialist Alliance as a project has been around for five or six years, originating as a method for the Socialist Party-Militant to break out of its immediate circle and work with other forces. Outside their major areas - Coventry particularly - the Socialist Alliance project did not grow.

The present LSA effectively began with discussions and preparatory work concerning the 1999 European elections. As we know, the decision of the Socialist Labour Party to stand its own slate led the Socialist Workers Party and others to abandon the contest, so the talks came to nothing. I think that was a mistake.

That was the end of the LSA until new discussions began about standing a slate in the Greater London Assembly elections. Eventually a basic programme - nothing exceptionally revolutionary, but a basic programme - was agreed. Probably no individual organisation was quite satisfied with it, but it allowed us to work together and still raise our independent views.

Clearly, everything changed with the SWP's electoral turn. From being spectators in the LSA, they became active participants. Suddenly, their considerable financial and manpower resources became available. From the standpoint of left unity, the process of assembling forces and then campaigning on the ground was a real eye-opener for many. It was a new kind of practical cooperation, whereby all of us learned about one another, and from one another. The first thing to be said about the LSA is that the way in which it fostered friendship and cooperation was certainly a positive thing.

The list result in the GLA election - just over 1.6% - undoubtedly reflected the split left vote. Taking all the votes cast for left candidates together, you are talking about the possibility of actually having had someone elected, but we did suffer through our disunity. In some of the constituency section voting - particularly in some inner London areas - we did get significant votes, saving deposits in some seats; getting between six and a half and seven percent in others - over 46,000 votes in aggregate.

The Tottenham by-election consolidated the sense of real progress having been made. Again the deposit was saved, in what I believe was one of the best five results since 1945 in terms of left-of-Labour candidates. Five percent is not going to change the world, but it was a significant step forward nonetheless.

For me, however, the key thing is the SWP's intervention. Wanting to ensure that the LSA did not develop outside of their control, they realised they had to take it seriously and get actively involved. Yet they still believed, I think, that the LSA would disappear after the GLA polls; that they could put it away and pull it out again when required. But the position changed.

Collective experience led them to understand that they had to work in a different way.

They will not admit to it, but the SWP made a concerted attempt in the last week of the campaign to recruit from the layer of LSA supporters. By all accounts they failed, finding that there were many who got involved because it was a united left alliance - ordinary workers who could not just be 'mopped up'.

The SWP rapidly realised that, as well as having an organisation, the LSA had to have something to do - at this stage the formal level of that campaigning activity fits in very well with the SWP's priorities, but is nonetheless independent of it. They have also come to understand that you cannot just have an LSA consisting of a monthly committee meeting in central London attended by 30-40 representatives of political organisations. They realise that we must build local organisations on the ground - a problem, because of overlap with their own local work. At the beginning they were reluctant to see real political discussions taking place at this level.

Next, our strategy towards the general election. There is now a debate, not just in London, but nationally, about standing a Socialist Alliance slate. The September 30 conference will make some key decisions. A dynamic has been set in train, which means we need to start building Socialist Alliance groups in every major area where the left has any forces.

What about the broader issues we need to discuss about reshaping the left? I think we must look at this on three levels.

First, building a mass socialist current within the working class; putting the arguments for socialism. Secondly, uniting the existing vanguard of broad left layers. Thirdly - a harder question to grapple with - building unity amongst revolutionary organisations.

It is the second task - uniting the existing left - that is the challenge faced by the LSA. Most of the independent activists who were won to the LSA project during the elections were not people who were new to politics. Many were either ex-Labour Party or ex-revolutionaries, who had got pissed off with the way people treated each other and the way left organisations operated. They saw in the LSA a different way of operating and a chance to get involved in politics again. In that sense the LSA was able to unite this layer. But that is still only a fraction of the socialist vanguard. The LSA did not really put down roots among broader activists, particularly trade unionists. Hence another task - to build a really united approach to trade union left organisations. The LSA must consciously implant itself.

Building revolutionary unity poses a different problem altogether. Joint work in the LSA has been on the basis of a minimum political programme. We have not addressed a whole range of issues, which were set aside for the sake of unity. Of course, we have learned to overcome some of our bad feelings about one another, some of our misconceptions about one another's politics. But that is not the basis for building revolutionary unity.

This must be our goal and, in my view, whilst key political differences remain, there is a large number of issues where division makes no sense. Even if one looks at some of the major 'dividing lines', such as state capitalism and the nature of the USSR, for such a question to constitute the basis of division only makes sense if it affects how we act. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, such questions do not actually make a difference in what we do. So they should not make a difference in terms of the organisations that we are in.

It is important that we have revolutionary unity; it is important that we see the need to be in the same one revolutionary organisation. To my mind that has to be one international revolutionary organisation, fighting for global solutions.

However, we should not confuse the Socialist Alliance - a necessary step towards revolutionary unity - with the process of revolutionary unity itself. And there is a real discussion that we have to have, a debate that has to be made, about a whole number of basic building blocks in terms of revolution. Questions about democratic centralism, the rights of factions, internal democracy and modes of working are not addressed by building the LSA.

Some organisations see the LSA as a potentially revolutionary party. I do not agree - at least at this stage. Nor can a revolutionary programme be imposed on the alliance, whether in London or beyond. However, revolutionaries within it should adopt the strategic aim of winning the alliance to revolutionary positions.

This project is not unique in terms of the Fourth International. Our comrades are working in similar projects across Europe. In Denmark, for example, they have been involved for 10 years in a red-green alliance which has had electoral successes in both the Danish and European parliaments. This alliance is not a party in the classic sense. While they want to lead it in that direction, neither the objective nor the subjective conditions are currently present. In regard to the Socialist Alliance in Britain, we should work on the basis that there are no preset limits on how far it can develop. But at this stage the subjective and objective conditions do not exist to transform the alliance into a revolutionary party.

In terms of the future of the LSA and socialist alliances generally, it is important to recognise that the relationship between the working class and Labour is changing. We have yet to see any upturn on the industrial level, but we are seeing a breakdown of loyalty to the Labour Party at the electoral level, which, combined with mass abstentions, has real potential. The Socialist Alliance is all about organising the working class break from Labourism. It is a project which I hope everyone can unite behind in terms of practical work and cooperation.

For example, the question of standing candidates even where you have not got a base needs to be addressed. Some argue that you can build a base through the electoral process itself; others think you should only stand a candidate where the base is already sewn up in advance. I think that is wrong. Of course, there are real objective problems of resources.

Some advocate carving up seats among organisations. I am vehemently against the idea that we should have candidates from individual groups standing in the election. We need to have a slate of Socialist Alliance candidates. I am in favour of ensuring that such a slate of Socialist Alliance candidates includes as many as possible of the organisations involved in the alliance. The LSA - as an alliance of socialist organisations - differs from the national structure, which functions as an alliance with a distinct, particular leadership. I am sure that - at the level of local democracy - there will be a demand that constituencies should be in a position to choose the candidate who is to stand for them. Such an approach obviously militates against the effective imposition of a candidate from outside by a national leadership. I would want to see every organisation involved in the process of the alliance actually finding some way that they could have a candidate which represents their politics as well as those of the alliance as a whole.

It is a question of political will and political goodwill at national level, to try to work these problems out. Our experience in the LSA was that we could do so. Whether we can do so quite so successfully at the national level is not yet determined. We must try.

If you look at the composition of the LSA steering committee, clearly by no means all of its members are revolutionaries. What has brought us all together has been unity on a non-revolutionary programme. And I don't think that at this stage even the revolutionary organisations would be prepared to unite in a formation which had a revolutionary programme. In terms of the LSA's development, even if it wished to do so, it cannot simply wish itself into being as a revolutionary organisation. Its success, and what makes it attractive to some of the political organisations involved in it, is precisely because it is able to talk to non-revolutionaries in a certain way. Such a position will not change overnight. It needs to be worked at.

I would agree with those who say that we cannot survive on an electoral pact strategy alone. If all that we are doing is just standing in the general election and other elections, that in itself cannot build a genuine Socialist Alliance, nor will it bring about a break from Labourism. We do need to engineer a fundamental turn, especially to try and change the terrain within the trade union movement.

It is easy to exaggerate the influence of the union leadership on Labour. The bureaucracy might get some crumbs, but that is not how it is perceived among the rank and file. There is also the feeling that the Labour government is trapped inside bourgeois politics. Therefore I think the battle to break the movement from Labourism can succeed.

To me the fundamental question is not about propaganda, and the formal policies which we present to the electorate. It is, more deeply, about how we operate as organisations and how we fight to change society. The election process is actually only part of that. It is fundamentally about fighting for concrete demands and about winning issues, actually winning our demands. That is how you transform and change the party organisation that you are trying to build.