London Politics needed
November 14's meeting of the London Socialist Alliance began with an inspiring opening on the growing fightback campaign in Hackney. The Labour-Tory coalition has plans for £22 million cuts and this has unleashed a massive wave of opposition. As Mike Marqusee later said, the Socialist Alliance has taken a leading role, crucially setting the political agenda.
The London steering committee had a packed agenda and unfortunately a number of items were remitted or fell due to time. Dave Packer, a member of the International Socialist Group, reporting from the borough sub-committee, gave details of our local organisations. Combined development there is, but also extreme unevenness. Apart from Hackney, where events have pushed us forward, there is no doubt that the most advanced borough is Southwark. There are regular monthly membership meetings and crucially serious political discussions. Average attendance is between 35 and 40. As reported elsewhere in this paper, it has selected John Mulrenan, once a member of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, as its general election candidate after a full and democratic debate. Other boroughs are still operating on a much lower level. An obvious way to lift things is for the SWP to fully commit its local cadre.
Lewisham once again proved controversial. Clive Heemskirk, representative of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, insisted that their new recruit, Sam Dias, refuses to stand as a Socialist Alliance candidate in the forthcoming Pepys ward by-election. She would only countenance running under the SP's legal banner of Socialist Alternative. Anyway, said the comrade, what's in a name? That we were all pledged to unite in a general election as Socialist Alliance seemed to pass comrade Heemskirk by, as did the sudden anarchistic leeway given to individual SP members by its leadership. There was virtual unanimity amongst the non-SP comrades that the majority of SA members in Lewisham are behaving in an exemplary fashion in materially and logistically supporting Sam Dias despite the SP's sectarianism.
Rob Hoveman reported from the Liaison Committee's officers' meeting. New Socialist Alliances were being established in one city and town after another. There was room for optimism on the number of candidates we can expect to stand in the general election. The comrade gave a figure of 50-plus. That, it should be noted, together with the Scottish Socialist Party's 72, takes us over the government's 100 threshold needed to get a nationwide TV broadcast. All we must do now is to negotiate an agreement with the SSP.
Comrade Hoveman supplied a brief outline of the well known negative events in Leeds. The Leeds Left Alliance narrowly voted to remove SWP members' voting rights. This was condemned by the majority of Liaison Committee officers. The CPGB's John Bridge asked about the position of our national chair, Dave Nellist. Comrade Hoveman told us that comrade Nellist, along with John Rothery, had not signed the statement of protest and had still given no political reason. On the initiative of Revolutionary Democratic Group member Steve Freeman, the London steering committee unanimously agreed to condemn the anti-democratic purge of the SWP. Comrade Hoveman informed the meeting that there were moves afoot to reconstitute the left in Leeds on an inclusive and democratic basis.
The next full meeting of the Liaison Committee will be in Birmingham on December 2. The LSA decided to send our secretary Greg Tucker of the ISG as our delegate, with chair comrade Marcus Larsen of the CPGB serving as his deputy.
There was a short debate on the Ralph Nader campaign in the United States. The LSA's press committee had nearly issued a publicity statement backing Nader. As the meeting showed, there was no consensus between our main political components. The CPGB, a faction of the ISG and Workers Power stand for working class political independence as a principle. Nader was not a re-run of Livingstone. Comrade Bridge argued that while we can understand and have sympathy for those who supported and voted for Nader, he was neither a working class nor a socialist candidate. Nader is a bourgeois radical who opposes corporatism but stands for state rights and small and national capital.
The SWP's John Rees on the other hand, equated him with the spirit of Seattle. In the end in was agreed that there needed to be more political debate. The press committee, in particular Anna Chen, was congratulated for its hard work. Finally an anodyne motion proposed by comrade Marqusee was passed with a small number of votes against and one abstention. Essentially it welcomed Nader's candidacy and invited him to speak in London under the auspices of the LSA.
There is to be a meeting of the European left initiated by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in early December in Paris. Most comrades who spoke felt that they were somewhat in the dark about the meeting's exact nature and representation. Nevertheless in line with the Liaison Committee's officers we elected two reps for the meeting, Greg Tucker and Marcus Larsen. The SWP has been invited in its own right.
All serious and genuine initiatives to coordinate the left across Europe deserve support. From a CPGB point of view it should also be stressed that to the degree the European Union becomes a state, so should the revolutionary left unite into a single democratic centralist party, a Communist Party of the European Union.
The last debate concerned Palestine. Mark Hoskisson of Workers Power tabled a longish motion which included the demand for the destruction of Israel and a "bi-national secular state". Jill Mountford for the Alliance for Workers' Liberty presented a set of three amendments. Time was very short. Comrade Marqusee hastily scribbled a much more reasonable and consensual alternative. Basically it calls for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories and solidarity with the Palestinian people. It was overwhelmingly carried.
Everything tells us that the LSA and the Socialist Alliance nationally need to adopt a whole series of definite positions on all manner of political questions. A general election looms, along with countless new and complex developments. We need centralism, politically and organisationally. The search for consensus, if it is taken too far, could silence and paralyse us. However, centralism must go hand in hand with full debate and the right of minorities to openly criticise and fight to become the majority.
SP keeps left waiting
The November meeting of the Coventry Socialist Alliance was attended by about 25 comrades, a larger gathering than usual. Recently comrades from the Socialist Workers Party and Workers Power have joined, as well as a number of independents. Comrades from Nuneaton SA also attended.
A discordant note was struck at the beginning of the meeting by Pete McLaren, the convenor of Coventry SA and member of the national Liaison Committee. He objected to people writing reports in the left press about Coventry SA meetings before the minutes had been agreed. Most comrades did not know what he was talking about. Since, however, it was clearly a reference to me writing a report for the Weekly Worker, I asked what the problem was: surely he was not suggesting that comrades had no right to voice an opinion? Someone suggested that the obvious recourse was to write a reply if he thought I had been inaccurate or mischievous.
Pete McLaren said that he did not want to give the Weekly Worker credibility by writing replies. Others made suggestions of various draconian measures to be used against anybody breaking the discipline of the group. A new comrade said, "I can't believe I'm hearing all this!" Pete McLaren dropped the issue, but he had made his point and warning.
The issue of who is to stand against Geoffrey Robinson MP in Coventry West - Christine Oddy or Dave Nellist - was raised again. The position of the Socialist Party was restated that they would decide at their next meeting who their two candidates would be, where these two comrades would stand (i.e., whether one of them would stand in Coventry West) and whether or not they would stand as Socialist Alliance candidates. A comrade then asked how the Socialist Party in Coventry saw its relationship to the Socialist Alliance. The reply was that their comrades had sweated blood night and day over three years to get their three councillors elected with little help from the Coventry left outside and they felt that they had earned the right to decide on who was to represent them and where. They saw this as being consistent with the protocol decided at Coventry in September, copies of which were helpfully on the table.
Comrades from the SWP proposed that Coventry SA hold a relaunch rally in the new year, given that so many new people were turning to the SA and that the general election might be in the offing. Dave Nellist had spoken at a number of rallies up and down the country and they had been very successful. Coventry was one of the few major cities not to have held such a rally. The Socialist Party was opposed to any such rally. Dave Nellist could not see the point. Most of the rallies he had spoken at were to launch Socialist Alliance groups where they had not existed. Coventry SA has been going for eight years.
A vote was taken on the proposal and overwhelmingly passed. When it came to arranging a committee to organise the rally, however, the SP refused to nominate a comrade until their branch had decided whether or not to support such a rally. In the confusion that followed the idea of a committee was dropped.
Brent and Harrow
Campaigns, strikes and demonstrations are not enough to challenge Labour. But when you stand against them, they hate you. The ballot box is where Labour lives," the CPGB's Anne Murphy told Brent and Harrow Socialist Alliance public meeting on November 9.
Comrade Murphy, chair of Hackney SA, is a CPGB SA parliamentary nominee for the forthcoming general election. In 1992 she stood in Brent East. The comrade was responding to Labour-loyal leftist Pete Firmin, who recently split from the International Socialist Group over its support for the Socialist Alliance general election challenge to Labour. Comrade Firmin, known locally as 'Livingstone's lieutenant', had complained - without foundation - that the SA was trying to claim a monopoly over local campaigns and the fightback against Blairism, the asylum-seekers rights campaign in particular.
"Does it make a difference" to those campaigns "if we declare for the LSA?" he asked. Yes, he responded to his own rhetorical question, it "undermines the fightback" by dividing campaigners. And in trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party, it "lets trade union leaders off the hook" in the struggle of the left for representation and influence to defeat Blairism and New Labour within the party. Given the low level of class struggle, he argued, it was not the time to break from Labour. We should downplay differences and patiently build mass campaigns.
Comrade Murphy spoke of the "growing discontent and disillusionment" with New Labour, combined with a lack of self-confidence which the SA challenge can help to overcome. In Hackney, the working class had given an "angry and swift response" to the council's vote for £22 million cuts and sackings. Hackney SA was calling on councillors to oppose the cuts or resign, aiming to force an election and stand SA candidates in every seat. In Brent East, New Labour prospective parliamentary candidate and Blairite, council leader Paul Daisley, had been talking left because he is feeling pressure from the left. "But there are people out there who want much more than New Labour is offering," said comrade Murphy.
The capitalist 'rationality' of Blairites Max Caller in Hackney and Daisley in Brent - 'Sorry, there is no money' - must be confronted with our working class rationality. We have a rational need for these services, argued comrade Murphy. "To hell with them if they cannot find the money. Our needs come first." Speaking to an audience of about two dozen revolutionaries - overwhelmingly SWPers, with a smattering of CPGB, ISG and independents - comrade Murphy declared that "reformism, as a project to change society, stands well and truly exposed. The SA is spearheading something new. It is not just about elections. It is a step towards a mass party. The fact that we revolutionaries are working together, despite our differences, is inspirational. Working people are not just concerned with bread and butter questions. They can take on the big issues - like how we are ruled, the BSE crisis, the UK's national question - and collectively provide solutions for humanity."
Comrade Weyman Bennett (SWP), speaking from the platform, illustrated the disillusionment with New Labour by recalling when he was chased along a Broadwater Farm corridor by a tenant - because they thought he was Labour. The SA must provide an alternative pole of attraction, he said. But he seemed to play down people's needs, implying that 'old Labour' had been acceptable: "People want change. They do not ask much, but they are not even getting what little they want." Comrade Brian Butterworth (SWP), on the other hand, countered Pete Firmin's jaundiced view by pointing out we are engaged in a "battle of ideas, for hearts and minds", and that our electoral challenge must be "linked to struggle, to the fight for a better society". Our error in the 1970s was "to provide no alternative, consigning people to despair and leading to 18 years of Tory government".
Comrade Stan Kelsey (CPGB) backed this by calling for the SA election platform to "raise our sights" by advocating a self-liberationist socialism which can be recognised by the electorate as totally distinct from both the Soviet gulags and the deception of Labourite reformism. This was echoed by the SWP's comrade Roger Cox, who said local campaigning was not enough. We must answer anti-capitalism with socialism. The Socialist Alliance is "part of that great revolt which is rumbling around the world", he declared. Far from us letting trade union leaders off the hook, he said, they do not fight because of their loyalty to the Labour government. "The SAs must begin to build rank and file movements inside the trade unions."
"Official politicians have lost the plot 100%," declared the third platform speaker, Ford Dagenham steward comrade Berlyne Hamilton. Comrade Hamilton is front runner to be adopted as SA candidate for Barking - after 40 years in the Labour Party. Having worked at Fords for 29 years, and now approaching retirement, he declared he does not want the £24,000 redundancy money on offer. "When I came to Britain from the West Indies, I did not have 'Ford' written on my forehead. The job is not mine by right, and what is not mine I have no right to sell."
SWPer Suzanne said the key to the crisis of Labourism - "the 'profit before people' tradition" - was privatisation. She pointed to the urgency of providing a left challenge to Blairism. Disillusionment could take people to the right, she said. "Let us not forget the warning shot of the British National Party vote in the GLA elections." Painting Ralph Nader red, she said his challenge for the US presidency had made an impact, and "represents a movement to put ordinary people first". We must gear up for a credible general election campaign, she added, starting with a series of press releases supporting local campaigns from this meeting, and building for a candidate selection meeting in December.
Comrade John Kreeger, chairing, was pleased with the "very healthy" expression of differing views.
The mass protest last week outside Hackney Town Hall failed to prevent the council from voting through swingeing cuts. Fortunately for the councillors inside, there were hundreds of riot police present to protect them from their angry constituents.
Although the unions compiled a 26-page rebuttal of the proposed cuts, they were refused speaking rights. Not a single member of the Labour group would support their right to be heard. But with 500 job losses due by January, rubbish piling up on the streets and services being axed across the borough, the realisation of the actual impact of the cuts means that the struggle is far from over. A demonstration is being organised by Hackney Unison to take place on Saturday November 25 and a community conference will take place on December 3.
This conference will look at taking united action with union members, who are to begin balloting for strike action later this month.
Hackney LSA has called for the council to resign and we have committed ourselves to stand in every ward throughout the borough. The deep unpopularity of the Tory-Labour coalition augurs well for the December 3 conference taking up that call.
The second members meeting of Hackney LSA last Wednesday therefore began in an atmosphere of militancy and confidence. We are becoming known throughout the borough for our determination to take on the council. In the words of leading activists, we are becoming the 'third force in Hackney politics'. Shame therefore that the first debate of the evening - around the issue of our approach to Diane Abbott and the Greens in the forthcoming general election - did not reflect that confidence and militancy.
The SWP put forward a resolution calling for us to stand only one candidate in the election - against Brian Sedgemore in Hackney South. The CPGB countered this with a resolution that called for us to challenge Diane Abbott to stand on a minimum platform to defend the working class. We argued that this was an important tactic in winning the Labour left and those that put themselves forward as defenders of our class. Also it was important, we argued, to have answers for the working class both of Hackney North and Stoke Newington as well as those in the south of the borough. It is just not good enough to leave these forces who have previously supported us - with up to 20% in some wards in the GLA elections - with no tribune in the general election.
An open campaign can be launched among the working class of this area to pressurise Abbott to stand on a minimum platform. She has shown herself to be sensitive to pressure from her constituents over the last few weeks - with her call for government grants to bail out Hackney council and her support for the nursery occupations. If a petition was launched we would have no difficulty in getting thousands of signatures for her to stand to defend the working class at the general election. This would certainly make her think twice.
With Socialist Workers Party members constituting a majority of the meeting, it was predictable which way the vote would go. But the debate itself was interesting. Some SWP members thought that Diane Abbott was a socialist. Others said that clearly she had never been a socialist. Some like Diana Swingler, SWP member and candidate in the recent Hackney Wick by-election, said that her own experience had taught her the importance of a big vote. Therefore we should concentrate on Hackney South. Aside from the fact, as was pointed out, that no resolution had been put actually calling for us to stand against Diane Abbott, there were clear signs of electoralism here. While of course the biggest vote possible is desirable, the most important thing is to get over our working class message as widely as we can. However, other SWP comrades looked distinctly uneasy about the prospect of allowing Diane Abbott to go completely unchallenged: i.e., given a free run between now and the general election.
One non-aligned comrade argued that the proposal to challenge Diane Abbott was a concrete attempt to win the Labour left. Interestingly some speakers did not seem to be able to conceive of the Labour left being anything other than what they are at the moment. But our aim should be to win them to revolutionary politics. Having a tactic towards them in election time facilitates, not hampers, that fight.
The vote was overwhelmingly against putting Diane Abbott to the test. However, comrades from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Socialist Party, together with some non-aligned comrades, supported the CPGB resolution. There was a feeling that the argument is still not over.
The second debate was on an SP resolution calling for support for Hackney Unison. Disagreement arose over the fact that the SP wanted Hackney LSA to propose to the December 3 conference that it calls for the council to resign and asks "all the participating groups to draw up preliminary lists of genuine anti-cuts candidates prepared to stand on an agreed anti-cuts programme". Questions arose over the role of Hackney LSA in all of this.
It should be noted that the SP refused to distribute our material prior to the November 6 demo and then turned up on the night with their own leaflet calling for the council to resign and everyone to join the SP and - wait for it - no mention of the LSA.
It clearly emerged from a very heated discussion that the SP wanted to downplay the role of the LSA in the present struggle. As Becky Palmer of the SWP put it, "They want us to vote ourselves out of existence."
Other comrades stressed the need for candidates to be more than just 'anti-cuts'. It was argued correctly by SWP members that working class people could be both against the cuts and against the scapegoating of asylum-seekers. A more universal programme was needed. Some SP speakers responded indignantly that we were calling working class people racists!
The discussion itself was marred by confusion - mostly due to the fact that the SP were not being up-front about their intention to downplay the role of the LSA. However, some comrades also complained during and after the meeting about the loud and incessant heckling from the majority of the SWP when opponents were speaking. They are wrong. We do not want polite debating societies. The SAs must become workers' parliaments with real passion, real opposition. Look at Russia's soviets in 1917 - here is a model of workers' democracy.
In the end the SP resolution was amended simply to commit us to work with Hackney Unison in building the march and conference, and this was passed overwhelmingly.
Stop the cuts
Demonstration organised by Hackney Unison, November 25
Stoke Newington Common, Northwold Road
March to Hackney Town Hall
Raising the red flag
In a dress rehearsal for the general election, Haringey Socialist Alliance will be fighting a council by-election in the next three weeks.
A packed hustings meetings on Tuesday evening unanimously selected Weyman Bennett (SWP), battle-hardened candidate from this year's Greater London Assembly elections and Tottenham by-election, as its prospective parliamentary candidate for Tottenham in the general election. In his policy speech, comrade Bennett called for the Socialist Alliance to become the premier alternative to New Labour, "challenging Labour everywhere, raising socialism, raising the red flag".
A decision on a Socialist Alliance candidate in Haringey's other parliamentary constituency, Hornsey and Wood Green, was postponed to give time for likely potential candidates already contacted to consider fully their positions. Comrades at the hustings meeting were determined that the sitting MP, home office minister Barbara Roche, should be challenged - and that Haringey Socialist Alliance must have a candidate to carry our message.
As part of Haringey SA's preparations for the general election, comrades at the meeting, attended by more than 40 activists, agreed to contest the borough council by-election in White Hart Lane ward on December 14 and overwhelmingly selected Gary McFarlane of the SWP as its candidate (one vote against). Speaking upon nomination, comrade McFarlane semi-jokingly declared himself "the bottom of the bowl, because I am only an SWP member" and explained that SWP cadre had been very busy trying to find a candidate outside any of the affiliated groups. He expressed his enthusiasm for Nader's good showing in the US elections and for the millions of votes received by the revolutionary left in France, as well as for the recent fight in Hackney, where "those nurseries are open because we occupied them". Gary declared for "workers' democracy, where ordinary people decide", and stressed that SA comrades should now concentrate on involving the 800 who voted for Weyman at the Tottenham by-election earlier this year. Gary insisted: "We have to become the real alternative to New Labour, not the Green Party."
Supporting Gary's nomination, Tina Becker (CPGB) insisted that there is nothing wrong with standing trained revolutionaries in elections. We should be proud of our experienced cadre and honest about what we are at the moment: an alliance that is overwhelmingly made up of revolutionaries.
Speaking on our election material that will now be produced in a rush and very probably without being sanctioned by all the participating organisations, she warned that we must not make the mistake of two recent by-elections by giving undue prominence to calls for "clean streets", which just about any bourgeois candidate might raise; it was simply "not good enough to be just left of Labour". We needed to emphasise the big political issues, comrade Becker emphasised - issues that distinguish us as working class politicians with a global view.
From now until the day of the White Hart Lane by-election, Socialist Alliance comrades in Haringey will be busy in the ward. Other SA members and sympathisers are urged to get to Haringey from this weekend onwards: distribute leaflets, canvass, and help with information stalls in the locality. Contact election agent Sharon Geoghegan on 020 7254 8597 or just turn up this Saturday or Sunday for mass leafleting (for details, see below).
Saturday November 18: 1pm at the by-election committee rooms, 87 Tower Gardens, London N17 tel: 020 8352 0459
Sunday November 19: 12 noon at the junction of Great Cambridge Road and White Hart Lane, N17
At a meeting of around 40 comrades on November 7, former Socialist Labour Party parliamentary candidate John Mulrenan was selected to stand in the general election for the Socialist Alliance. Comrade Mulrenan will be standing against Blairite former social security secretary Harriet Harman MP in the constituency of Peckham and Camberwell, a solidly working class constituency in south east London with a high proportion of immigrant voters.
Three candidates were considered by the meeting: Alliance for Workers' Liberty member Janine Booth, a London Socialist Alliance candidate for the Greater London Assembly and active trade unionist on the London Underground; Mark Hoskisson, a long-standing member of Workers Power, and comrade Mulrenan, who, apart from his record as a leading figure in the south London SLP, has a long history of socialist and trade union activity.
He is a leading local Unison representative and president of Southwark Trades Council.
The selection took place in an exemplary democratic manner, with all three aspiring candidate given the chance to address the membership and answer questions. Comrade Mulrenan won the vote overwhelmingly, with 26 votes. Comrade Booth gained six votes, while comrade Hoskisson received only two.
The disparity of the voting figures in no way reflected the quality of the contenders - indeed it was noted that all three comrades would have made excellent candidates and, taken as individuals, this writer found it extremely difficult to be asked to choose between them as representatives of the alliance. Rather the large margin of comrade Mulrenan's victory undoubtedly reflected the political preferences of the majority of comrades present: particularly those of the Socialist Workers Party, who clearly consider a candidate with a left reformist background and political tradition to be positively desirable.
Comrade Mulrenan in his contribution made it clear that, while he could not describe himself as a revolutionary, he was open-minded about the direction of the Socialist Alliance project and where the necessary process of internal debate will eventually lead it. This appears to reflect the views of a number of comrades with a similar background who are joining the SA.
Unlike those such as the SWP, who are determined to play down their own revolutionism in order to attract elements like comrade Mulrenan, those elements themselves are not so easily frightened away by the views of revolutionaries, and indeed may well be ready to adopt such views themselves.
Greenwich and Lewisham
Tuesday November 28, 7.30pm
The Albany, Douglas Way, Deptford, London
Public meeting, Thursday November 23, 8pm
Withington Community Centre, Burton Road
Preston by-election rally, Tuesday November 21, 7pm
committee room 3, Preston Town Hall
Speakers: Terry Cartwright, Dave Nellist, Theresa Bennett, SWP, Munyaradzi Gwisai (Zimbabwean MP) IST
Members meeting, Sunday November 26, 11am
YMCA, Mount Pleasant, Liverpool