Hands off our territory

This report on the September 30 Socialist Alliance conference, issued by the Socialist Party executive committee to its branches, attempts to justify the SP's sectarian hostility to left unity and the SA project

1 The September 30 2000 Socialist Alliance conference in Coventry marked the start of an attempt by the SWP to alter the course of the Alliance nationally. The Alliance's constitution states that it is a broad, open, inclusive and flexible organisation, with the right of all parties, organisations and groups to keep their identity whilst participating fully within the Alliance. Our comrades have been involved from the start in the development of the Alliance on this basis. However, at the September 30 conference, the preparation of a protocol for the coming general election was the pretext for a major attack by the SWP on the previously agreed way of developing the Alliance.

2 Backed by several small political groups and a few individuals, the SWP are now trying to change the Alliance prematurely from being a broad federal alliance to being an interim formation between an alliance and their conception of a party, without this change being thoroughly discussed at all levels. They argue for a national committee to be in place that can exert control over all alliance participants, and local alliances that exert control over all local participants. If they continue with their strategy, which at present seems very likely, they will divide the forces which currently make up the Alliance, and new adherents will not remain for long.

3 We have tried to give an objective report and balance sheet of the conference in our paper and in this report to our branches. The SWP, however, have carried a report in their paper which does not even mention any of the differences at the conference.

4 There are very few genuine local alliances with a record of activity and there are many significant political differences between the Alliance participants. This does not mean that the Alliance could not develop its strength in the coming period. The Alliance could play a significant role in bringing together a wider and more united left challenge in the general election. It is possible to develop the Alliance by encouraging the participation of new forces on the basis of a commonly agreed minimum programme and the right of all groups to uphold their own identity and political positions. SAs, groups and political organisations should all be able to conduct their own election campaigns within the Alliance. It is not possible to develop the Alliance in a healthy manner with impatient moves towards a party structure without the necessary degree of discussion and unity.

5 Our party had a very good intervention on September 30. It was necessary for us to state our position clearly and to have a good number of our members present to show our strength of feeling and significant presence on the left throughout the country. Thanks to all comrades who attended. It was notable that our comrades were very united and confident on our position. Many comrades were horrified at the positions put forward by some of the political organisations, and by the blatant underhand manoeuvring of the SWP. However, it was worthwhile having the turnout we had, and it is likely that we will need to have a layer of comrades present at future conferences.

6 In the period before the conference, three different protocols were presented by individual Alliance officers. When the seven officers met on the Thursday night before the conference, they merged the three protocols into one.

7 The first protocol produced was from Manchester SA representative John Nicholson. It was backed by the SWP, amongst others. It stated that the officers would form an election committee, which would "act as a clearing house, in order to resolve any difficulties locally and to reach agreement on the seats which are proposed to be contested, so as to be able to endorse SA candidates formally". SAs, groups or campaigns wanting to stand a candidate would have to pass a series of tests, including proving "substantial level of activity/activists", "credibility of candidate(s)" and "appropriateness of local circumstances". There was no allowance for organisations or groups to stand under their own name as part of the Alliance. It stated that organisations would have "the freedom to describe their own backgrounds and their own party/organisation affiliations", but that a further protocol would be produced by the election committee on this "freedom".

8 Our position was set out in the second protocol, which was presented by Dave Nellist and intended as a minority officers' position for the conference. It was supported by two other officers. It stated that the national officers should play a coordinating role only regarding the local alliances and organisations (as well as taking initiatives regarding national profile and fundraising), that all SAs/groups and political organisations accepting an agreed minimum programme should be invited to stand under the name SA, and that SAs/groups and organisations would have responsibility for their own campaigns. It also proposed that organisations wanting to put their own name on the ballot paper and remain part of the national Alliance campaign should be allowed to do so.

This protocol was gaining support from the longer established alliances, and if adopted would most probably have won support from bodies not yet affiliated to the Alliance, such as the Green Socialist Network.

9 Seeing that there was growing support for our position, the SWP produced a third protocol that climbed down from some of the positions they had supported in the John Nicholson protocol. They included our proposal of appealing to left groups to stand under the SA banner on the basis of an accepted minimum programme. They took out the proposal (of Nicholson) for production of a further protocol on the freedom of organisations to describe their positions, but instead stated that organisations have to "exercise self-discipline in promoting their distinctive political positions and identities within the Socialist Alliance. Only in this way will we attract candidates and active supporters beyond the existing organisations affiliated to the Socialist Alliance who will be vital to our success." They had backed down (temporarily, as it later turned out) on the issue of a further protocol, but we disagree strongly with the idea that suppression of the diverse political make-up of the Alliance will make it more attractive. The SWP's position reflects their opportunist turn, their lack of ideological confidence and their awareness that their own party positions often repel workers. They are also trying to keep us in check, while at the same time wanting to keep us involved in the Alliance so it can gain some credibility as a meaningful alliance.

10 They took out the John Nicholson clauses allowing the election committee to make judgement on the credibility of candidates, appropriateness of local circumstances, etc, and replaced them with an onus on local SAs to consider all relevant factors, including the nature of the sitting MP. We agree that all relevant factors should be considered, including the nature of the sitting MP; we should avoid standing against MPs who have a record of opposing the worst government attacks. So Dave Nellist agreed to amend his protocol to include this paragraph. However, we disagreed with the SWP's wording, as it placed the onus on SAs to take all necessary decisions, giving the SWP the ability in many areas to swamp an alliance meeting and overrule decisions of any participant organisation standing a candidate.

11 They conceded (again, at that stage only!) that some organisations may want to put their own name on the ballot paper, or stand in the name of the SA but not be under control of the local SA. However, rather than clearly stating the right for organisations to do one of these, they left it up to the discretion of the national election committee. We also disagreed with their wording, as it implied disapproval of organisations not complying with their desired method.

12 They proposed an undermining of the position of the present national officers (especially aimed at Dave Nellist, judging by an attempt later to prevent him from chairing the September 30 conference), by proposing that a new election committee would elect its own officers. The election committee would consist of the existing officers, one representative from six affiliated political organisations and four 'independent' individuals. They gave no representation to local alliances or other affiliated local organisations.

13 The protocol presented to the conference was a merger of the above three. The SWP had been forced to retreat further under our pressure, and at the officers' meeting, John Nicholson had incorporated parts of Dave Nellist's protocol into the merged version. But the merged text was also a manoeuvre on the SWP's part, as it clouded the issues, and they then tried to sneak their position back in through ambiguous amendments at the conference itself. We wanted to fight for the best possible outcome at the conference, so we drafted three amendments to the merged protocol to take to it.

14 420 people attended the conference, squashed into three adjoining rooms following a problem with the original hall reservation. Over 160 people joined the Alliance as they registered. We had well over 100 comrades at the conference. Of the others, a majority were SWP, and there were turnouts of the small political organisations: the CPGB, ISG, Workers Power and Workers' Liberty, all of whom brought amendments to the protocol. There were some non-aligned individuals and a few representatives of genuine alliances, but these categories formed a very small minority.

15 Dave Nellist chaired the conference. After he had opened it with a short speech, there were contributions from Simon Donovan on the Prague demonstrations, Mark New (an SWP member) on the Dudley hospital strike, and John Nicholson moving the officers' proposed protocol. The rest of the conference was taken up with going through the amendments one by one, apart from two fraternal addresses by representatives of the SSP and the Wales Socialist Alliance (both CWI members).

16 Having compromised at the officers' meeting, the SWP proceeded to try and regain some of their lost ground through moving amendments, and through supporting some of the amendments of the small organisations. They moved an amendment which was carried, bringing back the demand for political organisations to "exercise self-discipline in promoting their distinctive political positions and identities within the Socialist Alliance".

17 In their contributions they went further, with John Rees demanding that the voice of the SA must be "the only voice" on election platforms and activities, and allowing 'latitude for local campaigns but not for political organisations'. He was arguing that there should be different rights for different organisations, depending on whether the organisation is a political party or a locally based group. His arguments were clearly aimed against our party. The SWP want to submerge any organisations underneath the alliance banner who they see as threatening their domination.

18 The SWP also backed a CPGB amendment, which was carried, removing a clause affirming the right of organisations to put their own name on the ballot paper and remain part of the Alliance campaign. The ISG put an amendment which tried to ban political organisations from standing candidates at all as part of the Alliance campaign, but this was defeated. Due to lack of time, there was either no discussion or very little discussion on all the amendments that were moved.

19 The officers had been split on the issue of the make-up of the election committee, and so had left this for the conference to decide. We argued for the election committee to be the existing liaison committee, as this body has a representative from each alliance and each political organisation. We won on this issue with a vote of 196 to 193, defeating the SWP's proposal, mainly because the CPGB voted against the SWP in this case.

20 Our first two amendments were defeated (the first by 199 votes to 184, the second by 220 votes to 171) and the third was not taken, as the conference ran out of time. The defeat of our amendment to clause 8 has left this clause with an ambiguous wording, which could be interpreted as denying political organisations the right to select their own candidates, agents and run their own campaigns. However, not only is it ambiguous, but the protocol is contradictory, as clause 11 states that the national agent will provide nomination papers for all local SAs/groups and others who agree with the minimum programme (our emphasis).

21 A few other amendments were voted through. One of them, from Workers Power, states that the conference planned for next February will finalise a national election manifesto as well as a short series of demands for leaflets. It is over-ambitious to believe that the degree of unity exists to enable sufficient consensus for a lengthy national election manifesto. The aim should be for the Alliance conference to formulate a fairly short minimum programme initially, and this can then be used as a basis for going further when and as appropriate. Another passed amendment, also from Workers Power, states: "All affiliated organisations within the alliance are free to publicise their own programmes in their own name." The obvious implication here is that they can't put any part of their own programmes on an Alliance leaflet!

22 Only two comrades managed to get called into the discussion during the day (four if the movers of our amendments are included), as there was little time for general discussion. Anyone wanting to contribute, had to fill in a 'speakers form' in advance (citing the clause/amendment they wanted to speak on) and send it up to John Nicholson on the platform. He then vetted the forms before handing certain ones to Dave Nellist in the chair. At least 15 of our comrades sent speakers forms to the platform, but were not able to contribute due to this procedure and the lack of time.

23 There was no time for amendments or discussion on clauses 7, 8, 9 and 11 of the protocol (amendments not moved were remitted), and as there was no vote taken at the end on these clauses or on the protocol as a whole, these clauses were not endorsed by the conference. As for the earlier clauses that were endorsed, the small size of the margin of victory on the controversial parts has sent a warning note out on the dangers of some of the policies being pursued.

24 We made it clear that we are willing to stand under the name Socialist Alliance, but explained that the Alliance will only develop in a healthy, inclusive manner if it remains at this stage as a federal alliance, and does not adopt or attempt to impose the structures of a centralised party. When Hannah Sell mentioned that we are planning to stand in 18 seats in England, rather than this being welcomed as the largest contribution to the Alliance election campaign, there were noises of disapproval across the conference floor from members of the SWP and the small sectarian groups. The SWP and their supporters resent us openly announcing our plans and not being willing to subject them to their centralised decision-making processes either on a local or national basis. We have made it clear that we are willing to discuss and negotiate with all others in the Alliance, but this does not mean that we can give them a veto over what we do.

25 There are very few genuine alliances that are not made up primarily of political organisations. Where genuine alliances exist, our participation has been welcomed, and the issue of 'control' over what we do has not arisen. This is because the participants tend to accept the alliance concept and the limitations it poses, and therefore understand the necessity for operating on the basis of consensus rather than compulsion. We have never sought to dominate others through packing meetings in any genuine alliance as the SWP have done in London and now seek to do elsewhere. There was derisory laughter in the conference rooms when a leading member of the SWP, Lindsay German, said that the SWP had tried not to dominate the London Socialist Alliance conference!

26 The few genuine alliances that exist are far from happy with the way the SWP are intervening. The Leicester Alliance representatives voted for our amendments. The Leeds Left Alliance has expressed outrage at the idea of being subjected to central dictates on where and who they stand in the general election. In a letter written the day before the conference, they wrote: "We believe that any proposal for a centralised electoral organisation with a mandatory common name is premature and divisive. We do not believe that such a proposal has the support of those, including the Left Alliance, with an electoral track record." They are discussing constitutional proposals to prevent the SWP from dominating their meetings. Following the decisions of the conference, the Green Socialist Network has voted not to affiliate to the Alliance.

27 It is incredible that the SWP is trying to impose its position on the Alliance election strategy when it is not so long ago that they dismissed standing in elections as 'bourgeois parliamentarianism'. There has been no recognition or political explanation for their change of position in their paper or journal. And now they are dismissing our long-standing electoral record by writing it out of history entirely. In the latest edition of their journal Socialist Review John Rees writes: "The best of the Greater London Assembly votes for the London Socialist Alliance were double the best votes that the far left gained in the 1970s, the last time there was a sustained electoral challenge from the far left." It is as if we don't presently have four councillors (three of them in the area in which the SA conference met!), and we didn't stand in 19 seats in the last general election, or have stood in over 200 council seats, or had three MPs in the 1980s and numerous election victories in Liverpool - all won by Marxists!

28 Unfortunately, in Scotland, the SSP is taking steps to welcome the SWP into their party on the basis of current proposals by the SSP leadership which severely restrict the SWP's right to maintain its own identity. The SWP are being asked to not sell their material publicly, and to severely downgrade the structures of their organisation. While we disagree with the ideology and method of the SWP, we support their right or that of any other left body to maintain their own organisation while participating in the broad SSP.

29 We intend to continue being part of the Alliance, and will argue our point of view using the strength of our ideas and not by the manoeuvres and intrigues used by our 'allies' in the SA work. The SWP appear to have a strategy at present of setting up so-called 'alliances' in every area where they have an SWP branch. In many of these cases, the local 'alliance' will consist mainly of themselves and maybe a few hangers-on, or struggling independents. There are signs that they will try and impose election candidate selection committees on us through these so-called alliances, and they have made it clear that they want to exert control over our election campaigns by subjecting them to alliance decisions. This would be farcical in many areas of the country at present, and is completely unacceptable to us. We are organising our campaigns on the basis of well established campaigning work, during which we have built bases of support and an electoral record. We won't simply hand over these election campaigns to another political party!

30 There are fundamental differences over perspectives, programme, tactics and method between us and the SWP. Otherwise, there would be no basis for our existence as separate organisations. We cannot therefore proceed on the basis that there is sufficient political unity to enable us to act as a single organisation during the general election campaign. While rejecting this course, however, we will always stress our support for the maximum possible unity on the left, our willingness to negotiate where it is important to do so, and our commitment to helping to build the alliances. We of course take a longer-term view as well, and argue the need at every suitable opportunity for a new mass workers' party.

31 We are prepared to make concessions in any genuine alliance that operates on the basis of principled agreement. This will be especially true in the future if Socialist Alliances or other such formations become a pole of attraction for workers and young people, and can therefore develop on a healthy basis.

32 For the time being, where we are asked to attend alliance candidate selection meetings, we should go to the meeting (or a meeting before it), say where we are planning to stand, and ask others where they are planning to stand. If there is a possible conflict in any area, then we are prepared to discuss and negotiate to try and avoid alliance participants standing against each other, but we cannot accept a veto by the meeting on what we do. The exact circumstances will vary in every alliance, and there may be some occasions where the above does not apply.

33 The next Alliance conference is planned for February 2001, and it is intended that it will agree a political programme for the general election. We have argued the need for a minimum programme consisting of points that are acceptable to all the main affiliates of the alliance. We will prepare a proposal for this programme, and will attend the February conference and any liaison committee meetings held before it, to present it for discussion.