Bedfordshire First step taken
Around 30 socialists - members of the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Revolutionary Democratic Group, and Labour Party, together with non-affiliated trade unionists and a lone anarchist from Class War - attended the launch meeting of the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance in Luton on Sunday October 22.
On the platform were speakers from two local campaign groups - Defend Council Housing and Defend Asylum-Seekers - a Rover carworker and Steve Freeman of the London Socialist Alliance steering committee, Republican Communist Network and RDG (Weyman Bennett from the London Socialist Alliance and the SWP was also invited to speak, but unfortunately did not make the meeting).
Because of the various political traditions present in the audience, there were obviously some differences in political line (as well as on the platform), but despite these differences, after a fraternal debate, we were all agreed that there needed to be an electoral challenge to New Labour. The desire for left unity against New Labour was made clear when a Socialist Party member received a warm round of applause for saying that any alliance we formed had to unify around the 80% of points of agreement, while continuing to debate the 20% of differences.
The potential for left unity between those present was concretised when a show of hands was taken over the attitude of both the reformists and revolutionary socialists towards the monarchy - all in the room voted in favour of its abolition.
A key issue also raised was that of democracy within the alliance. The meeting was clear that all within the ranks of the alliance would be able to continue to promote their own publications and political positions.
Although we need to firm up the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance (election of officers, constitution, programme, etc) this was an important first step in the process. It was agreed to form a steering committee, the first meeting of which is on November 5, when it is hoped that we can build on the refreshing, non-sectarian atmosphere that was shown at the launch.
Cambridge's mixed bag
Eastern Region Socialist Alliance's conference took place on October 28 in Cambridge. The first thing that was noticeable was the low attendance - only 19 in total. This was disappointing, especially as this gathering was to have a prominent role in determining the future direction of ERSA. The Socialist Party was the biggest group with nine present, while the Socialist Workers Party only mobilised six. It was pleasing to see a comrade from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, which adds to the list of strong organisations involved.
Things opened with a debate on 'election and campaigning work'. A motion from the CPGB called on ERSA to establish that it would stand "in at least five seats" in the general election. In moving the motion, Derek Goodliffe outlined the importance of linking up with the national network and building political credibility.
Our motion was passed without opposition, with a period of consultation of local alliances now following to establish which seats ERSA will contest. There seemed to be a genuine mood for mounting a wide-ranging challenge in the region, especially given that there had been talk of only one seat in previous discussions.
However, the real reason for this unexpectedly easy success soon became clear. There followed a debate around a motion from the SP which sought to push the SP's anarcho-federalist approach. It stated that ERSA "would have a role in trying to prevent socialists standing against one another in the same seat, but is essentially the umbrella in whose name we want to encourage opposition to Blairism and capitalism to stand". This was a clear attempt to water down the ongoing process of unity. It also left plenty of room for the SP to stand separately while maintaining an SA presence.
The fact that this won the day (10 for, eight against) put the previous motion in a more sombre light. The SP had informed us at an earlier meeting that it would be contesting Stevenage (preferably as Socialist Alliance) and we can now expect it to confirm this and put all its own resources into backing its exclusive campaign there - and perhaps in Ipswich.
It is all very well letting through a motion in support of a wide-ranging challenge on the nod if you have no intention of putting it into practice. The SP comrades will now be able to claim that their refusal to work jointly for other candidates is in line with the decision just voted through. It was, of course, achieved through "force of numbers", to use a phrase the SP normally directs against the SWP.
This led on to the debate around the proposed constitution. The CPGB's Darrell Goodliffe emphasised the fact that this ought to reflect the stage that ERSA was at, while providing a framework which could be built on in the interests of closer left unity. Those present were treated to a revealing moment when Dave, an SP comrade, questioned the need for a constitution in the first place: "Let's not bother," he said. This comrade cited the anti-capitalist movement and its lack of organisation as something that was attracting young people, though a later SP contributor claimed his remark had been "tongue in cheek" - for understandable reasons.
An amendment from the SWP proposed that half the members of the steering committee should be elected from the 'independents' - the London formula. This scheme was rather effectively refuted, when the only unattached comrade (he had been voting with the SP) had to leave during the break. Darrell Goodliffe commented that it was a recipe for paralysis. To attempt this form of direct democracy was clearly to depart from the reality of the alliance as it exists at this stage.
Despite this comrade Jim Jepps, on behalf of the SWP, insisted the formula ensured "maximum accountability of the steering committee". The SP voted for the original CPGB draft - a system of one delegate per political/working class/campaigning organisation and one per county alliance - ensuring the defeat of the amendment.
The amendments proposed by the SP were very much in line with the pattern established at Coventry and around the country. The section in the CPGB's proposals which explicitly stated that the "minority has no power of veto" and emphasised that a majority could enforce decisions was obviously a prime candidate for hostility from the SP. Teresa McKay of Ipswich SP, a potential general election candidate, was clearly embarrassed at having to oppose this basic democratic clause. She stated that the SP actually agreed with it: it was just that it should remain unwritten.
The vote on this motion established a pattern which was to continue for the rest of the conference, with the AWL, CPGB and SWP voting as a bloc against the SP, the non-SP forces having a majority of just one vote (the SP voting contingent had now been reduced to eight, since one of its comrades took over the chair from an SWP member for the second half of the conference). Had the SP won, the absence of Cambridge SWP comrades, who were busy conducting a paper sale, might have had even more effect.
The deletion of the words "at ERSA events" from the clause permitting the sale of political literature was accepted by the CPGB on the basis that the original wording could be interpreted to mean that political literature was only to be sold at ERSA events and not in public. Needless to say, such an understanding had not been our intention. However, the clause which stated that all ERSA candidates would stand on a "democratically agreed platform" and not the "platform of one individual affiliate" was also earmarked for the chop by the SP.
SWP comrades stated that the Socialist Alliance platform, to be agreed in February, should form the basis of ERSA's intervention, with flexibility to add in issues that are relevant to the locality. They quite rightly stated that we stand first and foremost as Socialist Alliance candidates, although the SWP can take this to the extreme in seeking to totally deny the existence of the component political organisations in order to attract its elusive 'independents' and expected swathes of disillusioned Labourites. The SP claimed that the clause represented an "imposition of ideas" - refuted by CPGB comrades. We stated that the aim was to provide a framework for a united intervention, while allowing each component to distribute its own particular material and each candidate to issue their own statement as part of the election address.
But the SP compared the regime in the old Labour Party favourably to the "anti-democratic constitution" that ERSA was about to vote in. Instead of looking to the lessons of the Bolshevik Party one SP comrade preferred to draw out the lessons of the Labour Representation Committee, praising its federalism - as though a federal, reformist party should be the aim, not a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism. This speaks volumes about the kind of "mass workers' party" the SP wants.
In a final hotly contested vote comrade Jim Jepps of the SWP was elected as our delegate to the SA liaison committee.
Despite the sometimes provocative behaviour of the SP comrades, disappointed and angry at not being able to win every vote, this meeting represented a modest step forward, with the task of organising our coming electoral intervention now high on the agenda.
October 25 saw the official relaunch of the Haringey Socialist Alliance, although comrades from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the CPGB and the Socialist Workers Party have been meeting for the last few months.
The rally was well attended with over 70 people, most of them SWP members. As unfortunately a number of speakers did not turn up, the platform consisted of SWPers only. However, none identified themselves as such. As usual, they preferred to label themselves as "an activist from the Campaign to Defend Asylum-Seekers" or "a member of the Anti-Privatisation Campaign". This is absurd, of course, if you are sitting in a room with only SWP, CPGB and AWL members who know each other quite well.
Like most local Socialist Alliances the Haringey SA has not yet been able to pull in any significant number of non-aligned socialists or comrades from the Labour left, let alone 'ordinary workers'. The SWP of course knows this, but in public meetings it likes to act as though we are all new to politics, and need to be told how bad things are in Britain. Mark Steel, for example, told the meeting how, "We all jumped up and down when Labour got elected in 1997." Apparently after a while Mark discovered that "Labour wasn't doing anything for the working class". That must have come as quite a shock to the poor man. No, of course not. But I suppose the SWP feels it has to explain why it can no longer call for an automatic Labour vote everywhere.
Not everybody had been over the moon about Labour's victory, as Tina Becker from the CPGB pointed out. Labour delivered exactly what it promised: attacks on the working class and a close relationship with big business. If we want to fight for a socialist alternative that can take on the task of totally transforming the political landscape, we have to be honest, comrade Becker stressed.
Fortunately, 'behind the scenes' the SWP comrades do not pretend that we have to talk to each other like political newborns. Organising meetings have been very constructive, open and comradely and it looks as if Haringey SA is going to pull its weight in the forthcoming general election. There are two constituencies. Weyman Bennett has been proposed as candidate for the Tottenham seat, but no-one has yet been earmarked for the second seat in Hornsey and Wood Green. The SWP though is very keen to get Bruce Kent, former priest and once the leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to stand as the SA candidate. However, he seems less than keen and has yet to turn up to a meeting.
SWP comrades seem to be under the illusion that they can only contest the seat if they find something of a 'local celebrity', somebody who has 'got roots in the local community'. Apart from the fact that Bruce Kent is hardly known for his local work, his name is no longer as familiar as it once was - amongst those under 30 he is a complete unknown.
Comrade Bennett, by contrast, has become well known - precisely because he stood in the Greater London Assembly elections and then in the Tottenham by-election. Hardly anyone outside the SWP had heard of him before. There are many others on the revolutionary left who would have made equally good candidates. We do not have to hide ourselves behind a yesterday man whose politics owe more to the catholic catechism than Marx's communism. We should be proud of our revolutionary politics and proud of our comrades.
Most activists are very enthusiastic about the elections and have shown the right spirit. At the last organising meeting leading local SWP member Simon Hester expressed the SWP's view that both seats would be contested "with a probability of 98%" - even if Bruce Kent turns us down. The hustings meeting on November 14 in the Wood Green Labour Club will hopefully select our two candidates.
Lancashire Socialist Alliance will be fighting its first parliamentary by-election less than two months after its formation. This was confirmed at the 'other' LSA's second public meeting, in Blackburn on October 24.
The by-election, caused by the death of Labour MP Audrey Wise, is on November 23. Terry Cartwright, one of three left councillors in Preston's Deepdale ward who have joined the Socialist Alliance, will fight the seat under the banner, 'Socialist Alliance (Independent Labour)'.
Lancs SA has recognised that this battle has national significance for the Socialist Alliance, being the first opportunity to take on the Blair machine in the parliamentary electoral arena since the Tottenham by-election. Speaker after speaker urged the audience to mobilise workers from far and wide to assist in this fight.
The enthusiastic, 40-strong meeting was attended by members and supporters of the CPGB, the Socialist Workers Party, the International Socialist Group and several local trade union activists, as well as the phalanx of left councillors and their supporters who have recently joined the SA (see Weekly Worker October 19). It also indicated unanimous approval for a general election challenge to Blackburn's New Labour MP, home secretary Jack Straw.
Speaking from the platform, John Nicholson, joint convenor of the Socialist Alliance network, described Blackburn as "the constituency where the man who has given most succour to the right holds office". Speakers from the floor described their revulsion at Straw's authoritarian and reactionary agenda, and they made it clear that this goes beyond his well publicised series of attacks on one after another of society's vulnerable and powerless minorities - single mothers, the homeless, beggars, asylum-seekers, travellers - and his 'strong state' programme of eroding jury trial and other civil liberties.
Another SA joint convenor, Cathy Wilson of the ex-Socialist Party group, the Merseyside Socialists, also spoke from the platform. Ridiculing Tony Blair's latest 'big idea' - the business/green alliance to save the world - she insisted that only the construction, on an international level, of a truly democratic society, where "working people own, rule and control", can provide answers to all the dilemmas, both man-made and natural - that capitalism is increasingly finding so insoluble. Somewhat contradicting herself, I thought, comrade Wilson asserted that the Socialist Alliance was the place for all those who wanted to see a 'greening' of socialist politics.
Andy Holder, the Burnley councillor who is the first in the country to adopt the unadorned label, 'Socialist Alliance', made reference to his interview with the Weekly Worker (October 19), in reiterating his call for unity in a party-forming project. With an appeal for "massive support in the Preston by-election", Andy's contribution brought to a close what was a refreshingly open and comradely meeting, conducted in a genuinely inclusive spirit.
Andy's approach is right. Lessons should be learned from areas like Lancashire which can help in dissipating the residual exclusivist, cliquist and bureaucratic tendencies within the leadership that are holding back the Socialist Alliance project, especially in big cities such as Manchester and Leeds.
Lancs SA will be doing street work in Preston on every Saturday from now until the election, from its stall in the Flagg Market, from 1pm. On Sunday November 5, and then on every Sunday from the time the election date is named, canvassers are needed, meeting at 1pm in the University of Central Lancashire car park.
Details and further information on the Lancs SA campaign:
coordinator Michael Lavalette - 01772 462 095 (home), 0151 794 3018 (work), 079 3172 5633 (mobile)
publicity officer Peter Marsden - 01772 735 720 (home), 01253 477 512 (work)
secretary Peter Billington - 01254 391 423 (home)