For a united Socialist Alliance

The Revolutionary Democratic Group argues for a conciliatory attitude towards the Socialist Party

A very important debate is taking place in and around the Socialist Alliances about how to secure maximum unity and avoid a split. It is a debate focused on the main or principal political organisations of the alliance - the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Workers Power, CPGB and the International Socialist Group.

The issues need to have a wide airing. The CPGB have been debating what to do and how to deal with this problem at their recent aggregate. The Revolutionary Democratic Group has a slightly different angle on it. No doubt there are many more views. It is important that all the different shades of opinion are discussed openly in the Weekly Worker.

Unity does not really exist in the Socialist Alliance. We have no common programme to unite around. What we have is a desire for unity among the most politically advanced sections of the working class movement. This stems from the objective needs of the class struggle. The Socialist Alliances have come together to unite the left and make a more effective challenge to New Labour, particularly at the forthcoming general election.

The two major focal points in the alliance - the SWP and SP - are struggling for hegemony. At one time the SP was the vanguard of the SAs. Now the movement has gone forward and the SP has remained positioned in its old modus operandi. Consequently the Socialist Party has been outmanoeuvred by the SWP. The SP has not taken the SAs seriously enough, nor kept up with the movement and the most advanced, thinking activists in it.

Therefore, of the six main organisations, the SWP has grouped five around itself. The SP might seek solace by claiming that the others are toadies of the SWP. But that would be self-delusion. The fact is that the SP is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the SA. Its backwardness now appears as sectarianism. Either the SP moves up a gear and tries to lead the SAs, as it did in the past, or it falls backwards into deeper sectarianism and eventually sinks under its own contradictions.

If we are in a convoy and one of our ships is falling behind, what should we do? Should we try to bring them back into line with us? Should we slow down a bit and encourage them to catch up? Or should we say goodbye? You are on your own. It serves you right if you are sunk by marauding U-boats.

At this particular stage of development, we should be in favour of slowing the convoy down and helping to encourage the slow ships to catch up. Left unity is still very tenuous. It could go seriously pear-shaped at any minute. We need to keep our convoy united, even if that means we do not reach our destination quite so quickly. Our comrades in the CPGB seem to be going full steam ahead. Daily paper tomorrow, Bolshevik Party the next day and goodbye to the SP.

The comrades will forgive us for exaggerating their position to make the point. Steaming out in front and pointing a way forward is one aspect of leadership. Fighting to keep us united is another. Quite possibly we will be attacked as conciliators and compromisers. But we do not care. We have to do what is necessary to keep united, so we have the possibility of becoming even more united later and forming a party.

Both the SWP and the SP appear to be accusing each other of sectarianism. The SWP says that the SP is acting in a high-handed and undemocratic fashion. It is doing this by declaring its candidature in seats without local Socialist Alliance members having a democratic selection procedure.

The SP says it has only declared for 18 seats. It claims that the SWP is trying to stitch it up by demanding that everything should be decided at local level. Here the SWP will mobilise to oust perhaps one or two SP candidates. This would damage the SP and heighten internal tensions within it. This could lead to a split between pro and anti alliance factions within the organisation.

At the root of all this is the problem that the SA is not a party, but is forced to act like a party in order to conduct the most effective campaign. The tendency to act like a party is likely to grow as the election campaign struggle intensifies. This contradiction (not party/act like party) is the source of political friction. It is creating tensions which could lead to the growth of sectarianism and ultimately to a damaging split.

This danger was present at last Saturday's Liaison Committee executive. A possible acrimonious split would be damaging not only to the majority of the Socialist Alliance, but to the Socialist Party. The Socialist Alliance would be weakened by the absence of one of the major organisations of the left. Equally the SP would itself be damaged, if it appeared unable to work constructively with the rest of the left.

There will be no winners in this situation, except New Labour and the Tories. Everybody could waste considerable time trying to blame each other. But we should resist being drawn into allegation and counter-allegation, and concentrate on seeking to resolve this underlying contradiction in a progressive and non-sectarian way.

The Socialist Party is a significant minority in the SAs. We need to consider its position. As a party it had a pre-existing perspective, programme and record of independent struggle. In particular the SP is one of the few organisations that was already operating an electoral perspective.

It is unreasonable to expect that the SP would abandon its pre-existing work and perspective. Whilst this is a desirable result in the longer run, independent organisations will only wish to merge their perspectives if we develop a common programme and build trust and confidence between pre-existing party formations.

Equally the Socialist Party has a responsibility to build trust and confidence in its organisation and leadership. It can only do this if it does not use the pre-existing perspective as an excuse to treat the rest of the Socialist Alliance in a sectarian way. The SP is facing a serious test in front of the rest of the British left as to whether it can provide leadership to the SA by better politics and persuasion, not ultimatums.

The RDG submitted the following proposals to the SA Liaison Committee executive. We called it a procedure to help resolve disputes over selection of candidates. This proposal is not a solution, but a method by which we might find a solution. It has two essential aspects, which must both be operational for this procedure to work.

1. There should be immediate talks between the leadership of the SWP and the SP in order to seek an agreed list of seats. Other organisations which have interests in putting up candidates for particular seats should also be brought into these talks.

2. These discussions should lead to a recommended list of candidates for particular seats. This recommended list should be put before the Liaison Committee executive for discussion and amendment/agreement. It should also be put for endorsement before the broader Liaison Committee.

3. Factors that should be taken into account in drawing up the recommended list are suitability and experience of candidate, previous candidatures in the seat, and local base in the labour movement.

4. The recommended list is not a directive to local SAs, but merely a recommendation. It is for the local Socialist Alliances to determine who they will elect.

5. In order to safeguard the legitimate interests of non-party members of the SA and build the local alliances, all the political organisations with candidates on the recommended list must make a declaration that they will abide by local democratic decision.

6. Every candidate must be endorsed by an open democratic decision made by a properly convened selection meeting of the local SA. This means that any member of the SA has an equal opportunity of being selected if they can persuade the local SA that they are the best candidate. Southwark SA conducted an exemplary selection exercise and this could be used as a recommended model to other local alliances.

7. Where no local Socialist Alliance exists it is the responsibility of the political organisation with a candidate on the recommended list to take a lead in setting up a genuine local alliance and involving if possible local working class activists outside its own ranks. The Liaison Committee executive must ensure that that genuine local SAs are set up and that it is not a paper exercise simply to rubber-stamp the recommended candidate. The executive committee should appoint named comrade(s) to oversee this process and report back.

8. This special procedure is adopted only for this election. It is in recognition of the fact that the SA is not a political party based on solely individual membership, but includes significant political organisations which have their own perspective.