Bedfordshire Alliance to contest Luton
Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance steering committee tackled a number of important issues on December10. Both a draft policy document and our electoral strategy were up for discussion. The gravity of the issues being discussed meant that as well as the committee members all those who came to the launch meeting were invited to attend.
The dominant political trend was the Socialist Workers Party, though there were a few comrades present who were independent of any left organisation. The Socialist Party, yet again emphasising its disdain for the Socialist Alliance project, did not attend.
The first item up for discussion concerned the standing orders for the meeting itself, produced by the officers. The most controversial part of this document denied observers - i.e., all but steering committee members - not just voting rights, but speaking rights. The reason given for this was to "ensure that we do not have our meetings railroaded by a bunch of Tories, etc". The letter to supporters had acknowledged the implausibility of this situation, so why propose such a restriction? In reality all it would achieve would be to damage the alliance. Those comrades observing with a view to potential involvement are hardly likely to be convinced that we are inclusive and democratic when there is a denial of the free exchange of views on such spurious grounds. Thankfully common sense prevailed and observers were allowed to speak.
The meeting then moved on to the main business of discussing the draft policy statement prepared by a programme committee consisting of three of the officers. The policy statement itself contained reference to questions that extended way beyond the borders of Bedfordshire - abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, and civil rights issues. Given that the left traditionally ignores these questions or merely pays them lip service, it is to be hoped this will establish a pattern not just for other local SAs, but the national body as well.
A raft of amendments stood before the meeting. Most sought to clarify or develop points related to issues more specific to Bedfordshire. As the meeting progressed, it became clear there were divisions between those who wanted to keep the statement as broad and non-specific as possible and those who felt there was room for plenty more. The officer who presented the report on behalf of the programme commission - Joe Herne, a non-aligned comrade - stated his opposition to every amendment, not on political grounds, but because he felt the document should be as brief as possible. However, the committee voted to incorporate several amendments.
The Bedfordshire situation highlights the confusion that could arise as a result of having to wait until March for the national SA policy conference. By that time perhaps the majority of Socialist Alliances around the country will have codified some sort of policy statement. No doubt this will throw up renewed disagreement about the extent of centralisation as opposed to local autonomy. Bedfordshire SA decided to submit its own document to both the national and regional bodies as a contribution to the debate around the question of programme.
The other main issue was electoral intervention. Some comrades wanted a decision at this meeting committing the Alliance to stand in Luton South at the very least. Others were more keen on Luton North, though this was complicated by the fact that the sitting MP is a perceived Labour left, Kelvin Hopkins. Most comrades were reluctant to challenge this perception. A CPGB observer suggested this ought to be put to the test in the form of a minimum platform, which Hopkins could be called upon to support, but this was not taken up. The only firm decision taken was that Luton South would be contested.
The meeting then turned its attention to recommending a candidate. Comrades Joe Herne and Eric Karas of the SWP were put forward. However, comrade Karas withdrew on the grounds that he felt that the alliance could best unite around Joe Herne, a local trade unionist and activist. The comrade was duly recommended as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Luton South in advance of a full selection meeting.
Cambridgeshire SA steering group met on Monday December 11. By coming together weekly, the comrades are taking a serious approach to the project. This is in contrast to the regional body, Eastern Region SA, which has yet to meet since its October conference.
The first item on the agenda was a public meeting to be arranged in late January. Also a membership meeting was proposed. This was not intended in opposition to the idea of a public meeting: more an addendum which would cohere our base and enable decisions to be taken by our membership on issues such as the selection of our candidate for the general election and establishing a more coherent structure.
The other main issue that arose was the need for a draft policy document, and the formation of a policy commission to look at its formulation was agreed. Submissions are invited.
Making a start
East London Socialist Alliance candidate Maureen Stephenson polled 55 votes in the December 7 Custom House and Silvertown council by-election. Comrade Stephenson finished behind Labour, who won with 578 votes, and the Tories, who collected 329 votes. As in the Stratford by-election a couple of months earlier, only Labour, the Tories and Elsa contested the seat. Our share of the vote was marginally smaller on this occasion - 55 votes represents 5.72% of the electorate. As with Stratford, the turnout was poor: only 10.54% of those eligible to vote actually bothered to do so.
On the whole, given the fact that only three candidates were contesting the election, we might have expected better. True, no left candidate had stood in the ward for many a year and Elsa has not long been established. But in working class Newham, the third poorest borough in the country, we had hoped to provide a focus for the discontent which up to now has remained passive. Our campaign highlighted the ongoing cuts at Newham general hospital (workplace of comrade Stephenson) and attempted to give voice to the rumbling disputes at nearby Ford Dagenham. Although 55 votes may seem like scant reward, we were able to make a start in combating the demoralisation and apathy of local residents.
Acknowledging the slightly disappointing nature of the result is not to downplay the roles played by individuals from organisations involved with the Socialist Alliance in this part of the capital. It has to be said though that the Socialist Party was notable by its absence throughout the campaigning period. It seems that one individual turning up on one occasion over the past three weeks was the best the SP could do.
I was informed by an SP comrade that its east London members had been concentrating their efforts on the Socialist Alternative campaign to elect Sam Dias in Lewisham, south London. But the Pepys ward victory occurred on November 23, two weeks before polling in Custom House and Silvertown. Evidently, 'local work' does not appear to be such a priority for the SP after all - not when it means backing a campaign that is not fronted by itself, at any rate.
No debate, please
Internet discussion and information lists have been set by various local Socialist Alliances. This is a welcome move by members and will hopefully encourage the development of democracy.
However, if things in Hackney are anything to go by, the Socialist Workers Party has a long way to go before we can convince it of the importance of democracy. The list in Hackney was set up and is coordinated by Janine Booth, Alliance for Workers' Liberty member and London Socialist Alliance candidate for the Greater London Assembly. It met with the full approval of the other officers.
Everything seemed fine until Janine posted up an advert for an AWL day school and invited LSA members to attend. This prompted a terse response from leading SWP member John Rees, who sent a one-line e-mail complaining that this was not an LSA activity. Naturally other members reacted with anger at this attempt to stop component parts of the LSA from advertising their events. Support came also from independents such as Dave Osler, who complained that the SWP was being hypocritical in not wanting other organisations to advertise their events while the SWP had allegedly used the GLA campaign for its own recruitment purposes.
Some SWP comrades opposed the advertising of meetings on the basis that they did not want the LSA to be perceived as being composed of members of left groups. Bizarre as that may sound, it is an opportunist argument to shut down debate. Others have argued that disguising the nature of the LSA is obviously wrong from the point of view of openness and honesty. It serves only to dupe the working class. No response was forthcoming to this point and eventually the particular argument died down and talk of setting up another 'LSA information only' list was dropped.
Sadly, however, things have not ended there. Since membership was formalised in November, e-mail addresses have not been passed to comrade Booth so that she can invite the membership to join the list. This is because the SWP and its allies said they were unhappy about the fact that it included people from outside Hackney and also non-members of the LSA. While SWP officers quite rightly push for sympathisers and non-members to stick to meetings so that they can take part in the discussion, apparently these same people should not be allowed near a list consisting of "the left discussing", where "ordinary people will be put off". And, horror of horrors, "there might even be cross-posting from e-groups like the UK Left Network". So those poor, confused workers (and presumably SWP members) must be protected from leftwing discussion. After all, as one SWP officer argued, we already have plenty of debate once a month for two hours at the members' meeting!
At the end of a heated discussion at the last officers' meeting a compromise was agreed whereby a 'health warning' would be displayed informing visitors that the contributions do not represent the official views of the LSA. This is no problem for democrats within the alliance, but it appears to me that the SWP will want to go further than that and try to distance Hackney LSA completely from 'Janine's list'. Any such attempt must be resisted.
Debate and argument are healthy and necessary component parts of building the alliances. The SWP has a history of attempting to shut down internet lists, and of instructing its members not to subscribe, when they become forums for views that the leadership does not like. I hope this does not happen in Hackney.
Lewisham and Greenwich
SP proposes UKIP man
Flushed with the brilliant success of last month's Pepys by-election campaign, which saw Socialist Party member Sam Dias elected to Lewisham council, members of Lewisham and Greenwich Socialist Alliance met on December 12.
Appropriately the first item on the agenda was a report on the election. Bitter divisions which had preceded the campaign were, for the moment, seemingly forgotten, as comrades from the SP, on the one hand, and those from the Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and CPGB, along with non-aligned supporters, on the other, were fulsome in their mutual and self-congratulations.
The SP had of course refused point blank to allow comrade Dias to stand as 'Socialist Alliance', insisting that 'Socialist Alternative' would appear on the ballot paper. Nevertheless, the other alliance components had, despite our strong disapproval of the SP's sectarian pursuit of its own narrow interests, thrown our weight behind the campaign, sending in teams of canvassers, armed with SA leaflets. As a result, both sides were able to claim victory.
But the divisions soon surfaced again. The next item concerned a by-election in Marlow ward, expected early in the new year. Most of the 35 or so members in attendance were keen that the seat be contested, but for the SP the situation was totally different from the Pepys campaign. In Pepys there had been many years of work on the ground, which reached its culmination in the election of Ian Page, the SP's other councillor in the ward, last year. But in Marlow, it seems, we do not even have anyone living in the ward.
However, in one respect the SP's conclusion was the same: the Socialist Alliance should not stand a candidate. Rather it should encourage the intervention of a local pensioners' activist, who may well have the backing of the local tenants' association. Mick Suter, chair of Lewisham and Greenwich SA and an SP member, informed the meeting that comrade Page had asked Bob Gardner, who had stated his intention to stand as an independent, whether he would be prepared to contest as Socialist Alliance. But this approach had been rejected, as apparently he had never heard of us.
A different light was soon thrown on proceedings when an SWP comrade, who knew the prospective candidate personally, said that he had in fact wanted to come to the meeting, but had been put off by the bad weather. What is more, the SWPer reported, 'comrade' Gardner was, in formal terms at least, a member of the UK Independence Party.
A little thing like that was not something that would easily deter our SP comrades. The man may be confused on the issue of Europe, but if he stood as an independent, then he and his tiny band of supporters could be considered a spontaneous anti-Blair movement of the working class, worthy of socialist support.
Since several comrades voiced the opinion that Mr Gardner was an "excellent activist", Peter Manson of the CPGB proposed that the SA should announce its intention to contest the seat and invite him to attend a selection meeting. The SP's Jim Horton retorted that it was wrong to "pre-empt" discussions with our pensioner friend, while another SP comrade claimed that it would be "arrogant" to announce an SA contest.
The SWP was keen to "get out there and leaflet", and had produced a draft which stated that the SA "will be contesting" the seat. Clearly realising that they were on to a loser, the SP comrades finally agreed to comrade Manson's proposals, but managed to salvage some pride with an amendment to the SWP leaflet: "will be contesting" would now read "is intending to contest".
When it came to the third item on the agenda, it was the SWP that was put on the back foot. Comrade Page had been selected as our general election candidate for Lewisham Deptford at a meeting in the autumn, but a decision over the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency had been left on the table. Surely now was the time to make a decision, especially as SWP comrades had insisted that a meeting for the purpose should not be put off during the Pepys campaign (it was eventually deferred).
Yet no SWP comrade would venture an opinion on the matter. Again it was left to comrade Manson to propose that the seat be contested, a call for nominations advertised via the London Socialist Alliance and a selection meeting held late in January. The SWP went along with it, but without any conviction or enthusiasm - which is unfortunate, since if the comrades do not involve themselves fully, it will be difficult, to say the least, to mount an effective campaign. Guy Taylor, a senior SWP figure, assured me afterwards that they had every intention of standing, but the difficulty was finding a "credible" candidate. The room was full of experienced trade union representatives, anti-racist fighters and stalwarts from various campaigns.
The meeting ended with a call to defend Terry Liddle, long-standing Greenwich socialist, republican, anti-fascist and militant environmentalist, who has been smeared as a "fascist collaborator" and, even more absurdly, as a "state agent". Many comrades who knew Terry personally were shocked and dismayed at such ridiculous allegations. Comrade Liddle, who was unsure of the kind of reception he would receive in the light of such disgraceful accusations, had stayed away. The packed meeting agreed by acclamation that he should be informed that his presence would be more than welcome in future.