Socialist Alliance Liaison Committee

Turnout at the December 2 meeting of the Socialist Alliance Liaison Committee was somewhat low. Barely 50 comrades were present, and that included not a few non-voting visitors. Birmingham had the honour of hosting the event. Nevertheless all significant nationally based left groups sent delegates, along with a wide range of the most important local and regional Socialist Alliances. Obviously there was an overlap. Many Socialist Alliances were represented by comrades from the organised left, above all the Socialist Workers Party, which is visibly, though still subtly, flexing its hegemonic muscles.

Turnout at the December 2 meeting of the Socialist Alliance Liaison Committee was somewhat low. Barely 50 comrades were present, and that included not a few non-voting visitors. Birmingham had the honour of hosting the event.

Nevertheless all significant nationally based left groups sent delegates, along with a wide range of the most important local and regional Socialist Alliances. Obviously there was an overlap. Many Socialist Alliances were represented by comrades from the organised left, above all the Socialist Workers Party, which is visibly, though still subtly, flexing its hegemonic muscles.

Lest that be taken in the wrong way, let me make clear that the CPGB has no problem whatsoever with democracy. If the SWP is in the majority, so be it. Its comrades from the various Socialist Alliances are elected and recallable. As long as the minority is not silenced and has the right to become the majority, we have no objection. We stand for unity in democratically agreed actions. Equally we insist on the freedom to criticise.

Business began with the two motions remaining from the September 30 Coventry conference. Though the feminist call from Anne Bannister and Cathy Wilson for an equal gender ratio at all levels of the Socialist Alliance found no mover - both sponsors being absent - the issue was discussed and debated at some length.

Neither John Bridge (representing the CPGB) nor Marcus Larsen (CPGB and LSA deputy representative) intervened. We were conscious of time and not interested in tokenism. However, many a "balding, middle-aged, male" comrade wanted to prove their anti-sexist credentials, while kicking the idea of a quota system into touch.

Dave Packer (International Socialist Group) proposed an amendment. The Socialist Alliance should "endeavour" to achieve an equal ratio between men and women. Quite right. Consciences salved, there was a unanimous vote and we finally moved on to the next item.

The Socialist Party in England and Wales sought to alter point 10 of the Socialist Alliance's election protocol adopted at Coventry. Instead of the election committee acting as a "clearing house in order to resolve any difficulties locally" and "formally" endorsing candidates, SPEW proposed a watering down. The election committee should have no role beyond mediation.

Pursuing his own narrow interests, Peter Taaffe is determined to reduce the Socialist Alliance to a loose and amorphous non-aggression pact. The SPEW general secretary champions the anarchist principle of federalism, not the Marxist principle of democratic centralism. His chief lieutenants in Birmingham were Hannah Sell and Clive Heemskirk. Notably, comrade Nellist, though acting as a SPEW partisan, did not compromise his position as Socialist Alliance chair.

The SPEW motion, while seeking to remove centralised control over who is and who is not a Socialist Alliance candidate from the democratic and semi-recallable Liaison Committee, would ironically have placed the final decision in the hands of comrade John Rothery of the Walsall Democratic Labour Party - our permanent national election agent. Though garnering some support from the localist and anarcho elements, the proposal was thankfully defeated. Overwhelmingly.

We discussed the various ramifications stemming from restrictive government legislation concerning the financing of registered political parties. A small team was appointed to investigate the various problems and possible solutions, led by Dave Church (DLP) and including Nick Wrack (ex-SPEW and former Militant editor) and Clive Heemskirk. There is to be a meeting with home office civil servants soon.

Next, the treatment meted out to the two CPGB motions submitted to the Liaison Committee showed how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

First motion. As readers will know (see Weekly Worker November 30), the CPGB proposed, in light of the projected 50-plus SA general election candidates we will be standing and the Scottish Socialist Party's commitment to fighting in all 72 seats north of the border, that we should initiate negotiations with the aim of securing a joint, all-Britain TV party political broadcast.

Introducing the motion, comrade Bridge pointed out to our allies that at our last Liaison Committee meeting back in July most comrades dismissed the CPGB's perspective of standing 50-plus candidates as ultra-leftist madness. Now the momentum and enthusiasm shown from below means we are well set to achieve that target. Excellent, and frankly something we fully expected.

Along with comrades in Scotland (and Wales), this means we have within our grasp an all-Britain party political broadcast which can reach millions of people. The government has set a 100 threshold.

Initially our proposal was subjected to savage attack. Dave Nellist's lieutenant in Coventry, Dave Griffiths, and a range of other comrades, including Dave Church, detected some sort of imperialist agenda. Scotland was being given an ultimatum. Scotland would have to prostrate itself before the CPGB's British obsession. Frankly such views come from comrades suffering from an apologetic version of English nationalism. Inverted chauvinism dictates that we must have nothing to do with either Scotland or Wales. A sorry position for socialists, if by that we mean internationalists.

However, once the SWP's John Rees spoke, the whole mood instantly changed. Anything proposed by the CPGB is evidently still viewed as automatically far to the left of lunacy and therefore to be roundly and robustly rejected. That was the fate of our proposal at Coventry for England-Scotland-Wales unity and that socialism be defined as international and working class. Even Workers Power voted against. But as soon as the SWP says a CPGB suggestion makes some modicum of sense, then it is another matter entirely.

Apart from a couple of inconsequential amendments - which our comrades willingly accepted - our motion was agreed. Unanimously. Negotiations with the SSP and the Welsh Socialist Alliance will be pursued. Seats on our Liaison Committee will be made available for the SSP and WSA. What was damned at Coventry has suddenly become common sense.

But let us be clear. This CPGB victory in Birmingham was won neither by convincing others of our lofty ideals nor even on the basis of crude expediency. The principle of working class unity against the UK state has not been recognised. Nor have the obvious advantages of a TV broadcast. It was simply SWP authority which won the day.

This was confirmed by our second motion, for launching a daily Socialist Alliance paper for the three weeks prior to the general election. The Socialist Alliance consists of many and varied local and regional formations, separated not only geographically but politically, and by organisational tempo and level too. Likewise the Socialist Alliance has a handful of principled affiliated trends and factions. But we are divided. Often bitterly so. Separately, and in rivalry, we are responsible for a heterogeneous press, which is, frankly, slow to very slow. The SWP, SPEW and the CPGB publish weekly papers. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty has its fortnightly. Workers Power and the International Socialist Group are stuck with monthly publications (which actually come out less than 12 times annually).

Everything must be coordinated and fused. This is the goal of the CPGB. To bind things together, to lift our whole general election campaign, to respond to day-to-day developments, to ensure that the bourgeois media cannot get away with boycotting or censoring our campaign, to show what heights unity can achieve - for all these reasons the CPGB proposed that we invest in a joint daily paper for the duration of the general election campaign.

Nonsense. Unworkable. Crazy. Unaffordable. Barking. A vote was moved. Apart from our own CPGB hand, we secured only one other vote. Steve Freeman of the tiny Revolutionary Democratic Group stood with us. Good on you, comrade. But even that must be qualified. His other RDG comrade, from Bedfordshire SA, evidently felt he could not go along with the CPGB's giddy ambitions for the Socialist Alliance. So Bedfordshire SA cast it vote against a Socialist Alliance daily press during the course of our historic general election challenge.

No problem. Objective reality poses the necessity of a widely read, educative, open and organising Socialist Alliance paper. And a general election in particular demands frequency. News, especially in such hothouse circumstances, is at the very least daily ... and so must be our response.

As with the proposal for 50-plus candidates, the CPGB reserves the right to raise the issue again and again. Till we inevitably win. In the meantime, communists must comprehensively and patiently explain the obvious advantages of pooling our ample printing and many journalistic resources during the general election (and beyond). We confidently expect a daily alliance press to win out over the sterile routine of simply publishing our separate weeklies ... not forgetting the fortnightlies and monthlies.

Next item: the SWP proposal for a Liaison Committee executive. It would consist of the present officers, plus Mike Marqusee, Nick Wrack and Margaret Manning, along with the six principal affiliates. Dave Nellist said this might be out of order. Coventry, he said, had rejected the idea.

John Bridge replied that the CPGB bloc was decisive in winning that particular vote against the SWP in Coventry. But the CPGB objection was merely to the Coventry conference directly electing such a leadership body. Indeed the CPGB supports any move which serves to centralise the Socialist Alliance - but we will simultaneously fight for the maximum democracy.

SPEW comrades were undeterred. Coventry had decided. Not that this had deterred them earlier from attempting to amend the protocol agreed in Coventry. Nevertheless, that was their excuse for the principle of federalism in this instance. Predictably, they gained various localist and anarcho allies.

The SWP willingly accepted a couple of amendments to their original motion. The first came from the CPGB. We objected to naming names. Which individuals should represent the principal affiliated organisations should be their own concern. Along with that the SWP instantly gave way to local sensibilities in a particular (actually inoffensive) formulation on our national manifesto.

Good. The SWP not only still displays its bureaucratic tendencies, but also its continued and perhaps growing flexibility. Even better, the motion was passed with a clear majority.

As a result, the day-to-day running of the Alliance will reside with a much broader and much more serious, indirectly elected (i.e., recallable) body, rather than the ineffective and unrepresentative hitherto existing body of directly elected (fixed) officers. Things move from amateurism and a Manchester-Coventry-Walsall axis to the national plane and professionalism. As consistent and militant democratic centralists, we in the CPGB welcome this development and greet it as a real, if modest, step forward.

Last, but not least. The Liaison Committee readily accepted the London Socialist Alliance resolution on programme and a general election manifesto. There will be a membership conference in March (not February). In the meantime the Socialist Alliance officers will circulate their eclectic 80:20 formulations as a basis for discussions.

The CPGB has never made any secret of the matter: where there is supposed agreement there is actually disagreement. For us as Marxists and communists it is in actual fact often 20:80 with our allies. Nevertheless we earnestly look towards the highest unity. So we will be submitting a full minimum-maximum programme to the March 2001 conference in order to facilitate the most honest and serious debate, and thus, we trust, an eventual arming of the Socialist Alliance with the perspectives needed not merely to defeat capitalism, but win universal human liberation.

John Bridge