Socialist Alliance general election challenge

Last weekend's conference of the Socialist Alliance network represented a considerable advance towards the aim of a united left challenge in the forthcoming general election.

Last weekend's conference of the Socialist Alliance network represented a considerable advance towards the aim of a united left challenge in the forthcoming general election.

The September 30 conference, held in Coventry's Methodist Central Hall, discussed, amended and, after some fierce and sometimes fraught debate, agreed by acclamation a protocol spelling out the broad outlines of our electoral intervention. There was a total of 417 members in attendance, of whom 167 actually joined up on the day. A further 252 had taken out a membership card, but were not present.

The Socialist Alliance individual membership now stands, therefore, at just under 700. The overwhelming majority are clearly not unattached independents, but members of existing left organisations - primarily the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales. This is a far cry from the original intention of the likes of John Nicholson and Pete McLaren, the founding officers of the network, who envisaged the coming together of a mass of atomised individuals wielding at least as much influence as the organised political groups.

But around 350 of those present on September 30 were members of existing organisations. The SWP had about 130, while the SP, if anything, had even more. A third trend was represented by the CPGB, with about 40 members and supporters. Also present were comrades from Workers Power, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the International Socialist Group and smaller organisations, who in total vastly outnumbered representatives of local alliances and non-affiliated individuals.

The biggest chunk of those who joined up on the day were SP supporters, while practically its entire national committee had sent in their membership forms en bloc a few days before the conference. This last-minute decision to mobilise for Coventry speaks volumes about the deep divisions within the Socialist Party leadership over the organisation's attitude to the SA. On the one hand, those around Dave Nellist, the alliance chair, wanted a firmer and more consistent commitment to the project, while, on the other, supporters of general secretary Peter Taaffe insisted on more stress on the SP's own independent electoral intervention. After all, the SP already has four councillors, so why not ignore the 'sects' gathered in the Socialist Alliance and concentrate on standing independently as Socialist Alternative, while simultaneously making abstract calls for a new "mass workers' party"?

Thankfully, it seems that comrade Nellist has, at least for the moment, gained the upper hand. But the sectarian wing stuck out for the decentralisation of the SA, whereby "organisations wishing to put their own name on the ballot paper" - as opposed to standing as 'Socialist Alliance' - would be considered part of the SA campaign. This led SP comrades at the conference to laud the rights of local alliances - at the expense of projecting a serious national political intervention.

For example, Steve Score stated that the Leicester Radical Alliance, of which he was a member, did not think that contesting elections was a priority at all, and it would therefore be wrong for the SA to stand in Leicester against the wishes of this handful of local activists. By contrast the SP "had a tradition" of fighting seats in the town. Similarly, Mike Foster of Huddersfield SA pointed to the Leeds-based Left Alliance, which, despite being an SA affiliate, has announced its intention of contesting the general election in Yorkshire and the Humber under its own name. "Don't alienate the local alliances," he concluded.

Comrade Foster did not of course know at this stage that the executive of the Left Alliance was about to vote for the effective expulsion of the SWP from the organisation at its meeting on Monday October 2 (despite opposition from SP comrades). Hopefully this will be overturned at the forthcoming Leeds Left Alliance membership meeting, which ought also to reverse the opposition of the current leaders around Mike Davies to full participation in the SA election campaign.

So instead of fighting to win over the minority to do what is necessary, the SP is abdicating to localist, 'anything goes' anarchism. Imagine, for example, that the SP's "mass workers' party" was actually in the process of becoming a reality. Would SP comrades in Huddersfield and Leicester refuse to join it if a tiny local group with whom they had been working was not inclined to do so? As the CPGB's Marcus Larsen pointed out, the SP was throwing up the smokescreen of "other" groups and campaigns who were not yet ready to join forces as a cover for its own desire to stand as Socialist Alternative.

The protocol recommended by the officers proposed that we should "welcome" as part of the SA intervention any groups standing under their own name, provided they agreed to "make their participation in the Socialist Alliance campaign clear on their election material". The CPGB put forward an amendment, deleting this. For us it is essential that we move towards the necessary centralised, but democratic, forms. Our amendment was carried by 206 votes to 174.

The SP's Hannah Sell insisted that her organisation's concern for the 'rights' of largely phantom campaigns who might be thinking of coming towards the SA was not motivated by the SP's own narrow interests. The SP intended to stand 18 candidates - "more than any other group" - but "we want to stand as Socialist Alliance". She went on to say that the SP would "put all our energies into the Socialist Alliance" and even hoped that a new party would "come out of" it. This was certainly a welcome statement, contrasting with the SP's previous downgrading of the SA as being of equal or perhaps of even lesser importance, compared with bodies such as the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, in advancing the cause of a new workers' party.

Comrade Sell also made a telling point against the SWP, noting that it had "mobilised its members" to the recent London Socialist Alliance conference in order to force through a motion prohibiting the use of left groups' own material when canvassing. There is certainly an unfortunate tendency on the part of the SWP to bureaucratism and control freakery. Whereas the SP represented the anarchistic, 'decentralised' pole at Saturday's conference, the SWP represented the flipside of bureaucratic centralism.

While it is now commendably committed to building the alliance (its own sectarian forces, which opposed the SWP's participation in the 1999 EU elections, being marginalised), it wants the SA's component parts to be all but invisible. No doubt it has calculated that the SWP will be the winner through numerical domination on the ground. In addition, by concealing the reality of the SA as an alliance of revolutionary organisations, it believes that the SA can - in the words of Weyman Bennett - "give a home" to disillusioned Labour Party members by creating new illusions in reformism.

The SWP backed an unsuccessful amendment from the ISG which would have deleted reference to "political organisations" from those invited to contest the general election under the SA banner, thus portraying our intervention as merely the coming together of "local Socialist Alliances/groups".

Nevertheless, the SWP has been forced to retreat from its LSA position. Its own successful amendment recognised affiliates' right to "produce their own political material", and merely called upon components to "exercise self-discipline in promoting their distinctive political positions and identities". The CPGB was happy to back this, along with a bland amendment from Workers Power which was overwhelmingly accepted: "All affiliated organisations within the alliance are free to publicise their own programmes in their own name."

The CPGB fought to combine democracy and the rights of affiliates with the need for centralised coordination. As luck would have it, we garnered sufficient strength to curb the worst excesses of both the SP and SWP. The resulting document is one that provides a sound basis for an energetic campaign with the full participation of all groups (an AWL amendment, ensuring that all "political trends which represent substantial components of the Socialist Alliance nationally" are included amongst our candidates, was also carried).

However, when it came to the inclusion of important issues of political principle, we were unable to make headway. The most obvious manifestation of this is the fact that the Socialist Alliance organises exclusively in England: comrades in Wales and Scotland have no right to participate in our decision-making process or find representation in our structures. Whereas the rule of our class enemy extends into every corner of the United Kingdom, the Socialist Alliance perversely disables our capacity to go onto the offensive against the state by insisting on institutionalising organisational bans against fellow socialists.

Thus the SP and SWP were united at Coventry in opposing our call for "the inclusion of delegates from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland" on the SA's Liaison Committee. Nobody bothered to come to the microphone to explain why they could not accept this, but it presumably derives from an unwillingness to 'offend' comrades who have succumbed to the nationalist tide. Ironically, Dave Warren, in his message of solidarity to the conference on behalf of the Welsh Socialist Alliance, suggested that the WSA would consider "detailed proposals" for cooperation in the election campaign, including participation on the Liaison Committee.

Catriona Grant, who spoke as the fraternal delegate from the Scottish Socialist Party, restricted her remarks on England-Scotland cooperation to an abstract expression of solidarity. She did, however, expose the timidity of those in the SA who want to limit our electoral intervention to 20 or 30 candidates. Comrade Grant restated the SSP's determination to contest every one of Scotland's 72 constituencies: "We won't win a single seat. We will probably lose most of our deposits. But we will gain a branch in every community."

The CPGB proposed a further amendment which, as our preamble stated, was intended to "give comrades drafting our manifesto clear guidelines". This read: "The following principles should be taken into account in the Socialist Alliance's general election statement:

Incredibly, every major SA component, apart from the AWL, opposed this amendment. The SWP's John Baxter explained that, while he "wouldn't disagree" with any part of it, it ought not to be our "starting point". You cannot go on the doorstep with statements such as the one the CPGB was putting forward, he stated. Instead you have to say that "the Labour government has betrayed people who voted for it".

Comrade Baxter's comments betrayed a complete lack of self-belief on the part of the SWP in its own professed revolutionary Marxism. Nevertheless, its opportunistic reaction was predictable, as was that of the SP. Mark Hoskisson from Workers Power, however, had earlier stated his organisation's intention to propose a "radical revolutionary programme" as the SA's election manifesto, yet he and his comrades also voted against our amendment, claiming that they believed it was somehow arguing against the need for a "revolutionary party".

Although the SP comrades voted against every substantive clause of the protocol where they had lost the vote on an amendment, they did, along with the whole meeting, agree to the protocol as a whole.

This was a real achievement. Comrade Nellist ended proceedings with the light-hearted remark that we were "still all together" (in fact many had suspected that if any group was going to walk out it would be his own comrades, led by Peter Taaffe). But comrade Nellist was right; and the agreement on a united campaign was a most encouraging step forward.

Jim Blackstock