Greater Manchester Rally call
Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance's general election launch rally on October 23 attracted an audience of some 200, to hear speeches from the Socialist Party's Roger Bannister, the SWP's Theresa Bennett and John Rees, and GMSA convenor John Nicholson. Following the latest rail disaster at Hatfield, Peter Grant of the CPGB was also included onto the platform, in his capacity as chair of Manchester Piccadilly Aslef, the train drivers' union.
In introducing the speakers, however, the chair of the rally, GMSA steering committee member Norma Turner, did not refer to their political organisations, mentioning only the trade union or Socialist Alliance positions the comrades held. She also made it plain in her first sentence that the event was a rally and that speeches from the floor, other than reports on campaigns, would not be permitted: "There are forums for discussion in the Socialist Alliance, but this is not one of them," comrade Turner advised.
Roger Bannister called for the Socialist Alliance to be "big, broad and democratic enough to make a major impact at the general election". He cited the examples of the Tameside careworkers and Kidderminster campaigners against hospital closures, as well as Ken Livingstone's victory in the London mayoral election, to illustrate his assertion that a growing number of people were ready to support electoral challenges to New Labour from the left.
He rebuffed the objection that standing against Labour would let the Tories back into government. Blair's government was not merely identical to that of Margaret Thatcher, but in areas like higher education tuition fees it had gone even further in a reactionary direction than the Tories had dared. Just as it was politically necessary a century ago for the working class to break with the Liberal Party in order to build its independent party, now it was equally politically necessary to break with Labour, the comrade stated. We need to make clear that socialism is not just an alternative set of values, but is about building a different kind of society where capitalists do not run the show, he concluded.
Peter Grant told us that he had never been so worried about the safety of rail passengers and rail workers in his 30 years as a train driver. Rail privatisation had been a disaster quite literally and things had reached such a pitch that the head of Railtrack, Gerald Corbett, had himself now been forced to come out openly in saying so.
The Hatfield disaster was caused by the fracture of a rail on a curve which trains take at 115 miles per hour. Such incidents had mushroomed in recent years, at the same time as track inspections had been cut back from daily to something like three monthly. The Ladbroke Grove and Southall disasters could not have happened if the new technology Automatic Train Protection signalling systems had been in place. The government, however, was continuing to refuse to compel Railtrack to install this essential safety system because of its fears of the impact on profitability.
Aslef is committed to taking industrial action if ATP is not fully installed within the next two years, the comrade informed us: "But the only sure way to achieve a really safe and reliable railway is by getting rid of the commodity-mad capitalist system in favour of workers' control and socialism. That is why I'm supporting the Socialist Alliance," Peter concluded.
Reiterating a theme she had emphasised at the GMSA annual general meeting last month, Theresa Bennett concentrated on the massive 'disillusionment' she believed was rife in society. Many of the 50,000 people who had left the Labour Party since Blair's general election victory in 1997, had done so out of disgust at New Labour's pro-capitalist offensive, the comrade suggested.
"These people are recruitable to the Socialist Alliance and we should be talking to them," she stated. Turning to the workplace, here also most workers hate their jobs and, increasingly, they are beginning to grasp that there is no individual solution. Meanwhile, the union leaderships have sat back and allowed conditions to be worsened. The Socialist Alliance must respond to this disillusionment by putting working class demands at the centre of the political agenda, comrade Bennett concluded.
John Rees also repeated his main themes from the GMSA AGM. There is a growing mood for action against capitalism, as witnessed by the events in Seattle and Prague, he said. At the same time, Blair continues with his pro-capitalist offensive: "In the process he is beginning to achieve a miracle - he is making William Hague's Tories electable." The Labour landslide in the 1997 general election was based on a massive anti-Tory mood. We cannot allow Blair to let this be destroyed and see the Tories back in office, the comrade stated. It was the Socialist Alliance's job to ensure that this does not happen.
John Nicholson reported the GMSA's decision to stand a candidate in the Withington constituency in the general election. In what hopefully signals a move away from his advocacy of concentrated campaigning in a minimum number of seats, he also reported the decision to hold area meetings to explore the possibility of contesting further constituencies, and urged attendance at those meetings when they are arranged.
Widespread disaffection with the establishment political parties is creating a vacuum which could be filled from the far right if socialists fail to unite in order to fill it, he warned. Elections are not the be all and end all and other campaigning work must be built too, the comrade added: "Let's build the biggest possible challenge to capitalism. Let's be bold," he concluded.
Whilst rallies may have a place, the widest possible debate and discussion is the essential precondition for developing working class political independence and it is the latter type of meeting that will hopefully predominate in Manchester as the general election work gathers pace.
SP marks out its territory
October's meeting of Coventry Socialist Alliance received an enthusiastic report from the national conference and then got down to discussing its implications.
There are three parliamentary constituencies in Coventry, each with Labour MPs. The Socialist Party wishes to contest two of them. One of the two is the South where it has its three local councillors and where Dave Nellist stood in the last general election. In addition it had been reported at previous meetings that Christine Oddy, the former expelled Labour MEP for the area, wished to stand as a candidate against Geoffrey Robinson MP in the North West.
She got a similar number of votes to the Labour Party in Coventry in the European elections, and marginally more in the North West. Nevertheless Dave Nellist announced at the meeting that the SP wanted him to stand against Geoffrey Robinson. He would fight to be a workers' MP on a workers' wages against a multi-millionaire and on the basis of his national profile as chair of the Socialist Alliance. Coventry SA then discussed what to do in the circumstances of both Dave Nellist and Christine Oddy wanting the same seat.
Comrades may remember the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the 1999 Euro-elections in the West Midlands, where Christine Oddy and the Socialist Alliance stood against each other and the Coventry SA and left generally were split in their loyalties.
To me two main lessons should be drawn from that experience and they are quite simple. The first is that you do not stand against each other if you can avoid it. Second, you get organised well in advance of an election. From a standing start six months is hardly any time at all to get the money, the leaflets, the contacts, the campaign in any kind of shape. Like in The life of Brian we could be fine-tuning the programme and arguing over who stands where in the heated atmosphere of the back room of the local pub, while the election passes us by and the working class is none the wiser.
To be fair to Christine Oddy, she seems to have learned. She has made her position clear. She wants to stand in the North West as an independent, not as Socialist Alliance. However, she is prepared to hold joint press conferences and campaign meetings and to speak at SA events. Off her own bat she called a meeting with the SP in June to try to resolve the problem. The SA was called in to mediate. She also attended the national SA conference in Coventry in September. Nothing has been resolved.
Dave Nellist said that the SP would not be making its decision on where its two candidates would stand until its November meeting after which Coventry SA would be told - presumably at the SA December meeting.
Various points of view were put. Some comrades thought that Christine Oddy should not be supported unless she joined the Socialist Alliance. Some said that we did not know what her programme was, although it was pointed out we did not know what the SA programme was either. Some felt we were spending too much time on elections. Others were worried about building the Socialist Alliance since it looked as though the SP were going to stand in two seats, presumably on their own programme and organised by their own comrades, and the other seat would be Christine Oddy, who is not a member of the Socialist Alliance anyway. Where did non-SP members of the SA fit in?
At the end of the meeting three comrades were delegated to meet with Christine Oddy to resolve the matter - though quite how this could be done was not very clear. Meanwhile Geoffrey Robinson, Labour MP and former friend of Robert Maxwell, has been hitting the headlines with his serialised autobiography in the Daily Mail. There is no SA candidate in place to call on him to resign etc, etc. The Tory candidate has done so, but there has been a resounding silence from the left in Coventry. Plus à§a change!
Coventry Socialist Alliance meets on the first Monday in the month.
Nottingham Socialist Alliance's October meeting could best be described as a game of two halves. Initially a fair amount of positive business conducted in a fraternal manner seemed to bode well for the alliance, revitalised somewhat of late, following the Coventry September 30 conference.
However, towards the end of the proceedings things took a decidedly negative turn, courtesy of the Socialist Party and their by now wearisome and unwelcome sectarianism. But first things first.
Twenty-one activists were present. Besides a number of non-aligned comrades, the organisations represented included the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party of Great Britain and Socialist Party. The business was opened by a report from comrade Steve Glass (SWP) who had accepted responsibility for organising speakers to attend our launch rally on November 16. Comrade Glass also took on the production of the launch leaflet, which was now ready for distribution.
There followed a comradely discussion concerning specific areas of activity for the next few weeks with a number of novel suggestions thrown into the ring. Some differences emerged between comrades regarding where we work. One camp insisting we should start building in our own specific localities immediately and other comrades arguing that it was pointless just blitzing an area before we had selected constituencies. At this point the chair moved to the next item, which was to discuss where exactly the alliance would fight. Enter stage right the 'sectarian tendency', aka the Socialist Party.
Speaking for his organisation, long-term cadre and former full-timer Gary Freeman announced the SP's decision to contest Nottingham North, preferably under the banner of the Socialist Alliance - but when questioned by the SP's current bête noire, expelled local member Harry Paterson, comrade Freeman bluntly confirmed that, should the alliance collectively decide to give Notts North a miss, then his organisation would press ahead there on their own.
Comrade Paterson wondered how the rest of the alliance felt about "being presented with a fait accompli". Elaborating, he stated that objectively Notts North was a good constituency to contest, due not least to the consistent electoral activity undertaken there by his former organisation throughout the 90s, but that there were other equally fruitful areas to consider.
The SWP made a tentative suggestion of Ashfield, which has suffered a huge amount of job losses from the textile industry in the recent period and has also seen some fascist activity. Comrade Freeman allowed that this was an understandable choice, given that in addition to these points the SWP had a victimised union activist in the area who had recently conducted a principled struggle against his council employers. Nevertheless it was Notts North for the SP - with or without the Socialist Alliance.
Ex-SPer Paul Shawcroft was clearly unimpressed, pointing out that surely a new workers' party was a priority and that, as the Scottish comrades had shown, the Socialist Alliance could be key to this.
Responding, Jean Thorpe, national committee member and respected Unison convenor in the city, pointed out that the SP was committed to the project, but that "it consists of political organisations" who, at best, enjoyed only a "fragile unity". In reality the alliance was "an electoral agreement". Somewhat sharply the comrade reminded those present that she had been committed to the alliance when it consisted of "just three men and a dog". Although she "welcomed the SWP", she felt that they "had joined too late".
Comrade Paterson expressed his surprise that, given the SP's putative commitment to a new mass workers' party, it was not taking the SA more seriously. After all, he said, "We are called the Socialist Alliance, not the Socialist Non-Aggression Pact? He went on to point out that, whatever we might say about the politics of the Scottish comrades, they have shown that, if you are really serious about a new mass workers' party, "the Socialist Alliance is the nearest we have come in a generation".
Events, sadly, degenerated from there, with comrade Freeman indulging himself in the usual SP paranoia/sectariana concerning the SWP and "fronts". That things did not get worse was only thanks to the chair, comrade Slattery, calling time, as the room had to be vacated.
The next meeting is scheduled for November 6. Hopefully in the interim the SP comrades will reconsider their ill-fated intentions and turn away from the sectarian path followed by the party nationally.
Hackney council's announcement of £13 million cuts and a complete stoppage of all expenditure under section 114 of the Local Government Act has provoked a swift response to defend services and jobs.
Two nurseries, Fernbank and Atherton Road, closed on Friday by the bankrupt Labour-Tory council, were immediately occupied by angry parents. They have been getting widespread support: from free food and toys from the local Tesco and Woolworth's to sympathetic coverage in the media. In a significant move a solidarity stoppage by bus drivers across the borough is planned for November 6, the date when the cuts budget is set to be voted through.
Council workers have been holding mass meetings to discuss what action they will take to oppose the planned 1,000 sackings. There is talk of a mass walkout on November 6.
The council's website pointedly does not mention any of this. Since its press release announcing the cuts the site has been silent on the budget. The council is refusing to speak to the parents who are occupying the nurseries. Officials are, though, reportedly condemning them for being selfish in wanting to keep them open.
Clearly having put on the pressure with massive cuts, they have begun to negotiate with the government for a bail-out. The figure of £40million has been floated. In the meantime the people are being used as pawns.
Mike Marqusee, vice-chair of Hackney Socialist Alliances, has called for the council to resign: "No councillor has a mandate to bring in these cuts ... If they are not prepared to fight for proper services for Hackney, they should stand down and let the people of Hackney decide how we should deal with the crisis."
The LSA is committed to playing a leading role in this struggle and is prepared to contest every seat in Hackney. We communists are proposing a workers' budget. Obviously this should not be about attempting to balance the books, either for Hackney or the government. It must be based on what working class people need - not only to lead any kind of a decent life, but also to transform themselves into a class for themselves.
Calls for no cuts and closures should be linked in with demands for 24-hour nursery and care provision and a £300-a-week minimum income. The Labour-Tory coalition's ill-fated Transforming Hackney policy shows both the rottenness of the Labour Party and the crisis of reformism. It has been well and truly exposed. It is time to fight for revolutionary reforms, not just 'a little bit more'.
The Socialist Workers Party has certainly been out of sync with other LSA comrades. It has put out posters bearing the tame slogan, 'The council must fight!' Yet in Diane Swingler's election address for the Hackney Wick ward voters were told how rotten and corrupt the council is. How can the SWP then call for it to fight?
Equally the Socialist Party is unhappy that we are calling for resignations and preparing to stand ourselves. It also seems to believe that a rousing call for the council to fight back would be far more appropriate. The idea of the Labour-Tory council standing up for working class people is certainly incredible.
Instead of taking the lead themselves, the SP and the SWP resort to empty sloganeering. It is ironic, but not surprising, that Mike Marqusee, ex-Labour Party member and apparently the type of 'social democrat' that the alliances must make a comfy home for, has come out far to the left of both the SWP and SP.
We have been told again and again how we must not make ourselves too revolutionary because we will scare away the reformists that we all want to win from the Labour Party. It sometimes makes me wonder who the real reformists are.
The debate on the general election is also going to be influenced by the current militancy. Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has visited the nurseries and pledged her support. She is clearly determined to present a left face, but is also said to be worried about getting into trouble with Tony Blair.
Abbott has been invited to speak at the October 28 rally next Saturday organised by Hackney Fightback, a campaign initiated by the SWP and other local activists. Rumours abound that she will not turn up.
Unlike Hackney's Labour councillors, Abbott is seen as being on the left and is regarded by many workers as a defender of our class. It is must be correct to place a set of minimum conditions if we decide to critically back her re-election. Is she prepared to stand on a platform of support for the working class in Hackney, or will she stick with Blair's New Labour manifesto? That is the question she must answer.
Thursday October 26 10am: Unison mass meeting at Hackney Town Hall, Mare Street, to decide on response to cuts.
Saturday October 28 2pm: rally in Hackney Empire, Mare Street, to be addressed by Paul Foot, Gary Younge, Diane Abbott MP and local activists.
Monday November 6 6pm: demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall, Mare Street.
Wednesday November 8 7.30pm: Hackney SA members meeting, Chats Palace, Brooksby Walk E9.
Contacts at the nurseries: Atherton - Kim 07950 594 053; Fernbank - Doreen 07930 322 190
Hackney SA contact: Will McMahon 020 8986 8160
Lambeth Taking ourselves seriously
Tuesday October 17 saw 35 people gather at Lambeth Town Hall to hear pensions activist Martin Walsh open our general election campaign. He was joined by local GLA candidate Theresa Bennett, John Rees of the London Socialist Alliance steering committee and National Union of Students executive member Lee Sergent. Greg Tucker of the International Socialist Group chaired.
Comrade Sergent condemned the factory-fodder content of much of what constituted 'education' under New Labour and the hypocrisy of Blair's much-vaunted commitment to 'Education, education, education'. Refreshingly, in contrast to others on the platform, comrade Sergent baldly stated his political affiliations. A member of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, he stressed the importance of openness and political debate in the alliance while calling for left unity. "Read the left press," he urged.
It was a good year to start a new political organisation, comrade Rees told the meeting. Anti-capitalism was back on the political agenda - something which, this leading Socialist Workers Party member admitted, had come as "a bit of shock". He pointed to the rise in protests directed not at this or that particular issue, but at capitalism itself.
A quarter of the votes cast in Hackney in the Greater London Assembly elections went to organisations to the left of Labour, comrade Rees continued. There was a mood of resistance and a crying need for us to provide an alternative.
Next to speak was Theresa Bennett of the SWP who has been selected by the local alliance to contest the Vauxhall seat in the general election. She spoke of the "meltdown" in New Labour's support and widespread mistrust of Blair.
Echoing sentiments expressed by others, comrade Bennett called for the SA to "provide an alternative" for the 50,000 who had left the Labour Party in recent months. Disappointingly, she stopped short of declaring for a single democratic centralist alternative to the Blair project, and spoke in vague terms of "something to the left of Labour".
Speaking from the floor, one comrade present pointed to events outside the United Kingdom. Workers in Chile had "succeeded in putting ex-dictator Pinochet on trial", he stated. A female comrade - one of very few at the meeting - spoke of the "good people" who had left New Labour since the general election. The struggles that had been reflected in the Labour Party and the trade union movement now needed to find a place in the Socialist Alliance, she said.
An anonymous contributor from the floor also spoke of the need to give trade unions a role in the alliance. He pointed to the Labour Party as the historic product of workers' struggles, failing to make any reference to the founding of the Communist Party in July 1920.
Lambeth SA secretary and SWP member Paul Holborrow closed the meeting by calling on those present to "take ourselves seriously". Declaring his commitment to build the Socialist Alliance, the comrade spoke of the "huge well of bitterness" that existed; a bitterness which could go to the left or to the right. We faced an enormous responsibility, he concluded.
East London Strengthening unity
The Stratford by-election saw East London Socialist Alliance candidate Paul Phillips gain a respectable 60 votes (8% in a 16.7% turnout) on October 19. The Labour Party, who won with 465 votes, and the Tories, who gained 270 votes, were the only others contesting.
This result, while positive in that it demonstrates that the LSA is continuing to consolidate itself in this part of the capital, also shows that we have some way to go to make a real breakthrough. The absence of any Green Party or Liberal Democrat candidate in a working class area ought to have worked in our favour. Nevertheless, comrades from all organisations within the LSA, including three gallant Socialist Party members, participated in the campaign in a spirited and positive manner.
The result does though reflect the fact that a definite part of the electorate yearns for 'radical political change' - not only locally, but nationally. This reinforces the call for the LSA's politics to go far beyond the type of 'clean the streets' election address which was used by us both in Stratford and Hackney Wick.
Throughout, the CPGB continued to emphasise the idea that the Socialist Alliance must be much more than a reformist electoral bloc of revolutionary organisations. The experience over the past month confirms this: if the left can unite for an election, what stops us deepening and strengthening that unity by moving towards a single democratic centralist party?