Step forward for unity

Will McMahon is secretary of Hackney Socialist Alliance. He spoke to Marcus Larsen about the unfolding crisis in Hackney council, the role of the LSA and the prospects for the Socialist Alliance nationally

Can you update us on what is happening with Hackney council's financial crisis and the response of the Socialist Alliance in building resistance to the Tory-Labour coalition administration?

The most recent move is to introduce what can only be described as a structural adjustment programme. The government has offered to extend the council a line of credit if they slash services over the next six months.

Over the past four weeks there has been a broad-based campaign against the proposed cuts which has to some extent pushed the council back. Parents occupied nurseries and the council was forced to re-open them, and the original £22 million worth of cuts actually turned out to be £4 million. But they are clearly coming back for more and the role of the Socialist Alliance will be to help Hackney Fightback build a community and trade union campaign against what the council is trying to do to the working class population of the borough.

How does Hackney Fightback fit into the picture? You describe it as a community-trade union alliance. Who initiated Hackney Fightback and what forces is it pulling in under its banner?

Hackney Fightback was initiated by London Socialist Alliance supporters. Our aim is to build a broad united front against the cuts: not necessarily a socialist campaign, but led by working class people.

What are the current demands being put forward by Hackney Fightback?

Quite simply, the demands are that the council reverses all the cuts and stops the structural adjustment programme the government wants. That instead of implementing government policy, they should stand up for the people of Hackney which they have really failed to do up to now.

What are the demands of the Socialist Alliance?

Hackney Socialist Alliance says that the councillors have lost all political credibility and should resign. We are prepared to stand in elections right across the borough to replace those councillors on an anti-cuts programme.

Given that Hackney Fightback was set up by Socialist Alliance activists - specifically the SWP - is there any doubling up of work between the two organisations, or has Fightback been successful in broadening out beyond the activists of the SA?

You have to understand that Hackney Fightback and the LSA are two entirely separate things. The Fightback is a united front around the issue of 'no cuts' which is led by working class organisations: trade unions, tenants organisations and others. It is not a specifically socialist campaign, but socialists have played a key role in building it and by doing so have created an environment where people can be won to the politics of the LSA.

Given the nature of the complete debacle of Hackney council, how central do you think issues of political democracy are as a mobilising factor?

The democratic question and the issue of accountability is very important. People in the borough recognise that the councillors are not accountable and that they do not represent the interests of the majority. The call on them to resign is about posing a governmental question to working class people at a local level.

How long have you been active with the Socialist Alliance?

I've been involved in trying to get an alliance of left groups and individuals together in London for the past three years. I was initially part of the Independent Labour Network which became involved in discussions around the failed LSA intervention in the European elections. I have to say that 10 years ago I worked on the Socialist Conferences, which people may remember were led by Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and others from the Labour left.

There is a significant difference between the Socialist Conferences and the SA. In London, from my experience the conferences were an idea and just conferences, but the LSA is actually delivering and doing things that relate to the class properly. This represents an extremely important development.

What were the issues that prompted your move from the Labour Party, first to the ILN and then on to the Socialist Alliance?

There were three issues which made me decide to leave the Labour Party. A key question was the coalition that was built around the anti-war movement over the Balkans conflict. There we saw a crystallisation of forces - the SWP, different left groups, the Labour left - which showed that the basis existed for a united front around other issues.

Secondly, it is now clear that the traditional routes that socialists and Marxists had for influencing developments inside the Labour Party had been effectively cut off by Blair. There is no route through to the leadership any more. Blair learnt the lessons of the 1970s and has ensured that working class demands and working class interests could no longer have any reflection inside the Labour Party. Myself and others left because that became very self-evident after the 1997 general election.

The third issue, on a very personal level, the cut in lone parent benefit signalled to me that the Labour Party was no longer a home for people who wished to defend working class issues.

If I could move on to the nature of the Socialist Alliance. There are different views on this from the different constituent organisations and different individuals. The SWP think it is a united front waiting to happen, with them as the already existing revolutionary party. Others think it is just an electoral bloc. The CPGB sees it as a proto-Communist Party formation. Others see it as the beginnings of a 'party of recomposition'. How would you see it?

The different views reflect different possible material tendencies in how it could develop. At one moment it is an electoral bloc and it works very effectively as that. At the same time and at different moments it can be the basis of a united front between revolutionaries, socialists, people who can't quite make up their mind, and people who are in the left of the Labour Party.

The one thing I don't think it is at the moment is anywhere near a new workers' party. People who are suggesting that are wishing for more than is possible at the moment. It may be possible for a large united organisation to emerge in a decade or so if unity between the different socialist organisations and sections of the Labour left is built over time through united campaigns involving electoral work and other issues. At the same time, revolutionary organisations should be working together to try to form a united Communist Party of some sort.

Do you see them as separate processes?

Separate but joined. The end point I would imagine would be a larger organisation and a layer of organised revolutionary Marxists within it. How one describes that we don't know. One of the worst things you could do in this kind of situation is to try and second-guess what's coming next. What we have to do is work for unity where possible with political discussion along the way.

At the moment, 95% of the Socialist Alliance comprises the revolutionary left. A concern we have is that these revolutionaries are uniting around what could be described as an old Labour left electoral platform. After years of condemning not only the Labour left - but of standing in elections per se - as being electoralist, is there a danger of the revolutionary left repeating those very same electoralist mistakes?

I don't think so. What revolutionaries should be doing is having a political discussion with the working class in Britain. If you want to build a new socialist organisation, you have to have a programme which leads towards the breaking of capitalism itself. Exactly what that programme is we need to debate.

But there are two things it isn't. It isn't a restatement of Bennism and it isn't the 'revolutionary' programme of any one existing group. The overwhelming bulk of the working class in Britain are non-revolutionary in ideology, so we have to have a programme which reflects their demands, but takes those demands beyond what capital can provide.

That seems similar to our method of a minimum programme based upon what the working class needs under existing social conditions. In a non-revolutionary period, we can only fight for reforms, but it is how you fight for them that counts. We need to fight for reforms in a way that trains the working class to fight for what it needs, no matter what the system says it can provide.

In this context it worries me how the SWP responded to the crisis in Hackney. It seemed as though it reacted in a way that it thought it ought to react in its version of a united front. Rather than acting militantly and calling for the council to resign, its initial reaction was to call on the council to fight. This placed it to the right of many of the reformists it is trying to attract. They seem partially trapped in the thinking that in the LSA they need to act like the Labour left. I am worried that this may impact on our electoral platform and the way in which they fight for reforms.

My experience of the SWP in Hackney recently is that, on reflection, they fairly quickly shifted from a 'stand and fight' to a 'resign' position. I've got nothing but good things to say about the SWP in terms of the united way they have worked. We all have to have the right to hold a position and change it in the face of facts.

I think that the SWP did this quickly and were quite flexible. Some organisations, such as the Socialist Party, said they didn't agree with the 'resign' slogan and stuck to it for some time. I wouldn't make too much of the first four days of the struggle.

Looking toward the general election, there is a discussion emerging in Hackney around the Socialist Alliance's position in relation to Diane Abbot. There seem to be three positions. Some are saying we should stand, others are saying we should definitely not stand, but a third position says that we should test her out in front of the electorate and then decide.

I think it would be wrong for us to stand against Diane Abbot. Despite what many of us think about her political line the working class in Hackney North see her as a socialist representative. It would be drawing the wrong line in the sand to stand against her.

If we look to the south of the borough, to Brian Sedgemore's constituency, it is very clear that there can be no argument. Sedgemore marks himself out quite clearly as someone who has separated himself off from the working class. You can't say that about Abbot.

There is also the pragmatic issue of resources. Do we want to do the maximum possible damage to a Blairite in Hackney South? My answer to that is yes.

Given the vote that the LSA received in Hackney North in the GLA elections, don't we have an obligation to do something there? We can't just give Diane Abbot a blank cheque. It is a tactical question. How do we engage with the working class in that constituency while leaving open the question of whether we stand or not? We can't just say, 'That's Diane's patch: we'll leave her to it.'

I don't think we should just leave her to it. If she stands on the programme that's presented by Blair I don't think we should endorse her. It's a tactical question to my mind. If we want to write her a letter saying she should stand on our programme, she probably won't reply. If we want to say that this is the platform Abbot should be standing on, then fine. But I'm not in favour of devoting a large amount of resources into clarifying that Diane Abbot doesn't agree with the LSA's platform.

In terms of the general election, how do you think the Socialist Alliance will fare and what do you think are our major obstacles?

We will be squeezed in the election and we should be ready for that. If we were to achieve five percent where we stand, we will have done fantastically well. We are attempting to break decades of voting and non-voting traditions. If we have our eyes on the prize in terms of elections as being platforms where we can reach millions of people with our ideas: that is the most important thing. The following general election we should attempt to emerge as a political party that achieves five percent plus.

I also have real concerns that our message may be fragmented if we do not have a clear field of Socialist Alliance candidates. Comrades have to understand that this is perhaps a unique situation. The unity of socialists and Marxists and people who are left social democrats around the Socialist Alliance is a really valuable gain. It is incumbent upon every organisation not to break that unity on the basis of their own interests. If they do they will be putting their own organisational interests above that of the working class, and that is unacceptable.

In terms of cultural-political shifts, how have you seen the development of relations between revolutionaries and socialists improve through the alliances?

The whole Socialist Alliance process is incredibly positive. The fact that comrades from many different organisations and traditions are sitting down and discussing political questions with each other, and reaching agreement on many of them, is a massive step forward. We should do everything that we can to ensure that that kind of unity grows and develops.

The source of it is clear. Firstly Blairism has clarified for many comrades the necessity for unity of the left above sectarian differences. We face big challenges now. They are trying to squeeze socialist ideas out of the political system altogether. Our challenge is to make sure that they don't succeed.

The other factor has to come down to a change in the political line of the SWP. It has shown great political courage in building a united bloc with a lot of smaller organisations. It is a risk for them. They've taken a gamble and I think their gamble has proved to be successful. It was a shame that they failed to take the leap leading up to the European elections in 1999. But what can you say? They did the right thing around the GLA and we are reaping the rewards.

The fact is, now we are here having this discussion, and that's a big step forward.