Socialist Party sabotage

In an astounding act of narrow sectarianism, the Socialist Party has succeeded in dissuading three independent leftwing councillors in Preston from declaring themselves as 'Socialist Alliance'.

After the October 4 launch rally of the Lancashire Socialist Alliance, Terry Cartwright, Joyce Cartwright and Paul Mallibrand - along with Andy Holder, an independent socialist on Burnley council - all agreed that they would make the announcement that they were now SA councillors at a press conference on October 12.

Unfortunately however, in the meantime the SP, in the shape of Preston member Max Neill, had been busy trying to talk them out of it. The SA, his argument went, should be viewed rather like a trade union centre, where affiliated unions promote only their own name and never describe themselves as acting on behalf of the TUC. The SA should be viewed simply as a broad umbrella and therefore it was positively undesirable for participants to give up using their own name.

While of course the CPGB is in favour of affiliated organisations freely expressing their views, we are certainly also in favour of promoting SA centralism. The two are not mutually exclusive. In the case of the Preston comrades, their organisation, if you can call it that, is 'Independent Labour' (all of them were former leading Labour Party members locally). But under electoral law they will be forced to relinquish this title in any case if and when they stand for re-election next May.

The press conference itself was not the disaster it could have been, despite Lancashire SA being informed of the three's decision just 30 minutes before it was due to begin. Comrade Holder spoke strongly in favour of the SA (see his interview with the Weekly Worker, 'Call for unity'), and the Preston councillors all stressed that they were individual SA members (Terry Cartwright is on the Lancashire steering committee) and supported the national network.

So why did the SP behave in this manner? It had not been excluded or ignored by those comrades - mainly members of the Socialist Workers Party - who set up Lancashire SA. Comrade Neill (apparently the only remaining active SP member in the whole of Lancashire) was himself elected onto the steering committee in his absence. He has not shown up at any of the five committee meetings held since, nor sent apologies, despite being sent all the minutes.

It seems the reason for this obstructionism lies in the press release sent out by Lancashire SA the week before its press conference. The four new SA members were described as "England's first Socialist Alliance councillors". Comrade Michael Lavalette of Lancashire SA, an SWP member, received two angry telephone calls from SP headquarters in London, accusing him of putting out misleading information: the SP, an SA affiliate, had four councillors in England who should, it seems, be regarded as "Socialist Alliance councillors", even though they do not use that description themselves.

So, while the SP feigns hurt at not being included under the 'SA councillor' category on the one hand, on the other hand it persuades the Preston comrades that the adoption of the title is not advisable! Using it would apparently aid the SWP's "sectarian" plot to centralise the SA under its own control.

Meanwhile in Lewisham, south London, the SP is determined that any of its members elected to the council will not be known as 'Socialist Alliance'. In Pepys ward, where the SP's Ian Page was elected in 1999, there is shortly to be a by-election following the resignation of one of the other two councillors, Labour's Margaret Sandra. The SP wants to put up its newest recruit, local tenants group activist and anti-privatisation campaigner Sam Dias, a young recently politicised black woman.

When the SWP's Guy Taylor first approached Mick Suter of the Socialist Party, who is acting chair of Greenwich and Lewisham SA, with a view to a united SA intervention, he was told that comrade Dias wanted to stand as an anti-cuts candidate and that the SA should not oppose her. There was no indication that she had any connection with the SP. At what stage she joined is not clear, but what is clear is that the SP is now proposing that she stand as ... Socialist Alternative. As comrade Suter told me, "Why should we throw away 10 years of hard work in Pepys ward?"

Certainly the SP has worked hard and built up a deserved reputation as working class fighters in this section of Lewisham borough. In no small part though it owes its high profile here to comrade Page himself, who was originally elected as a Labour Party member and whose name is more than a little well known in Pepys. Riding on the back of his success, it is definitely a possibility that another SP member could be elected - and comrade Dias seems to be an excellent candidate.

However, the comrades intend to use the situation not to advance the working class - and certainly not to advance the SA name as the general election approaches - but to shore up the declining fortunes of the SP itself. The election of a third SP councillor in Coventry earlier this year (building on the reputation, in this case, of Dave Nellist) was thrown in the faces of those like the CPGB who pointed to the continuing political crisis in the SP and Committee for a Workers International, manifesting itself in membership loss and defections.

Even in terms of promoting the SP's own narrow interests there is no real advantage in using the name 'Socialist Alternative' as opposed to 'Socialist Alliance' (like the Lancashire Independent Labour councillors and the CPGB, the SP is barred from using its own name on the ballot paper under the undemocratic provisions of the Registration of Political Parties Act). If comrade Dias stood as SA she should of course make clear that she belongs to the same organisation as comrade Page. To act in this way would hardly be to "throw away" the SP's previous work, but to use it to advance working class unity.

Thankfully, instead of pressing ahead without consulting the SA, comrade Suter has called a special meeting of Greenwich and Lewisham SA for October 24 to discuss the by-election - a sign that there are at least some in the local SP organisation who are in favour of left unity. The SP branch was due to make a final decision on its own attitude on October 19. It is time for the anti-sectarians in the Socialist Party to make their presence felt.

Peter Manson