Socialist Alliance Liaison Committee

Retreat from Coventry

A rotten compromise. That is the basis on which the Socialist Alliance will run its general election campaign. The SA Liaison Committee, meeting on Saturday January 13, endorsed the lash-up deal negotiated by the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, although there was little time for discussing its implications.

The deal, which effectively overturns the basis of the Coventry protocol, probably prevented the Socialist Party from standing all its candidates independently, but at too high a price. The Coventry protocol called for "the broadest, most inclusive and united" local Socialist Alliance campaigns possible. That has now - at least in a minority of constituencies - been abandoned.

Although the SP publicly claimed it was not happy with the outcome of Saturday's meeting its brinkmanship has delivered it what it wanted at practically no immediate cost to itself. It will have a complete monopoly over all aspects of the alliance campaign in 12 constituencies. But its intransigent sectarianism will not do it much good in the longer term. Dave Church, erstwhile ally of the SP, declared that this would be the last time he would be supporting such a deal.

Under the arrangement, "the SP will have political and organisational control over the campaign" where the SP has the candidate. In addition the SP "retains the right to stand under their own electoral name in Walthamstow and Hayes". In other words, the 'cost' to the SP amounted to standing down in two constituencies, only to be able to run the same candidates in neighbouring constituencies under the banner of the SP's electoral name, Socialist Alternative. The only concession made by the SP in terms of its territorial claims was to allow non-SP forces to spend up to £500 out of the £8,000 allowed for each candidate in expenses under electoral law to be used campaigning for the real Socialist Alliance in those 12 seats.

What has the alliance surrendered to achieve this 'unity'? The principle of democracy. All components of the SA voted on our electoral protocol in Coventry in good faith. The two main blocs were equally balanced. Given the support of the CPGB bloc, the SP won some votes, and lost some; for the SWP it was the same. The extremes of bureaucratism of the SWP were curbed. The extremes of the SP's anarcho-federalism were reined in. However, for the Socialist Party, and now the alliance as a whole, these votes amounted to nothing. The SP was going to take out of the protocol what it liked and defy the overwhelming majority on what it did not. The SWP and the bulk of the alliance has bowed to this brinkmanship.

In effect, this compromise fails on two counts: it fails to uphold the democracy of the Coventry protocol and, in reality, it fails to achieve unity. Have we avoided a split in our campaign? Only formally and only partially: the SP still retains the right to stand separate from the alliance in two seats. We have effectively incorporated the split into ourselves. This is not a healthy state of affairs. We needed to resolve this point on clear matters of principle, not bury the differences for them to arise later in potentially more opaque circumstances.

The showdown with the SP over its refusal to accept democracy has been deferred, not permanently avoided. When we come to judge the success of our election campaign, we will look at the organisation we have managed to build, the propaganda we have been able to make, the votes we have won, but also the political lessons we have drawn. Compromise against principle will not be seen as our brightest moment.

It is likely that the Socialist Party would have formally withdrawn from the Socialist Alliance campaign had the compromise agreement reached by the SWP and SP been voted down by the Liaison Committee. Instead we have a case where the SP is formally involved, but is actually outside the campaign.

Sometimes it is necessary to agree to rotten compromises. This was not such a time. If the withdrawal of the SP from the campaign would have led the alliance movement into a terminal decline or crisis, then such a rotten compromise would need to have been supported. This was not the case. The withdrawal of the SP would have damaged our campaign, no doubt. But it would not have killed off the Socialist Alliance. Therefore, such a compromise on principle was unacceptable.

In speaking to the Liaison Committee, John Rees of the SWP said that the compromise has two key virtues: it prevents a split before the election and resolves problems other than by guerrilla war on the ground. However, he accepted that there had been a compromise on the key issues of democratic selection and the democratic and unified control of propaganda. A principle was breached.

Of those involved in the discussions leading to the deal, Hannah Sell (SP), John Rees and the Walsall Democratic Labour Party's Dave Church, the independent observer, spoke. After that, only four speakers on this crucial issue were heard. Three amendments to the motion were disallowed by chair Dave Nellist.

In the end only Workers Power voted against the motion. There was one abstention out of around 50 in attendance.

Here, we must be critical of the CPGB representatives present. The three votes held by supporters of the CPGB were cast in favour of the motion, despite all that we had argued in the lead-up to this meeting; despite our aggregate discussions in January. Many present were surprised that we supported the motion, including this author. To this end, our Provisional Central Committee, meeting the following day, passed this motion: "Three members of the CPGB voted for the compromise agreement with the SP at the January 13 Liaison meeting of the Socialist Alliance. This agreement is a rotten compromise and effectively overturns the democratically agreed Coventry protocol for the general election. Jettisoning a fully united campaign was too high a price to pay to keep the Socialist Party formally on board for the general election. It was a mistake to support it. The PCC believes that the motion should have been opposed."

While John Bridge of the CPGB spoke critically of the deal, saying that "at cost was a central principle", he led the CPGB delegation to vote in favour of the motion.

The Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB believes this to have been an error and that for comrade Bridge to have "buckled before the brinkmanship" of the SP was regrettable. In its discussions, the majority on the PCC felt that this would only have been acceptable if the SP walking out would have dealt a terminal blow to the alliance. Comrade Bridge did, however, speak out at the Liaison Committee meeting against the violation of principle the majority of the Socialist Alliance had been forced to accept in order for the alliance to continue unified. He asked if all the votes we cast at Coventry counted for nothing.

This compromise raises some key issues for the future of the alliance. Will the SP attempt to influence the manifesto of our election campaign after they have stated their candidates will completely ignore such a manifesto? Will their special pleading be tolerated after the general election?

Throughout this farrago, the main priority of the SP has been clear. It has not been the number of candidates it stood, but its right to run campaigns completely independent of the alliance and to defend its own sect perspective. As an internal SP report stated in December, "... the central issue of contention will undoubtedly be our insistence that we will control our own election campaigns."

To this end, the SWP, and now by default the majority of the alliance, chose to stand firm against the SP over the wrong issue. It was not particularly important who the candidate was in places such as Walthamstow or Bootle or Tyne Bridge; what mattered more was the integrity of the alliance, the democracy of pre-selection, the unity of our campaigning and crucially the future of the whole movement. For the Socialist Party comrades, there is a serious lesson here: Socialist Alliance; there is a clue in the name.

The resolution passed raises questions about candidates such as Dave Nellist and Ian Page who have been selected by unified Socialist Alliances. Will the non-aligned comrades and the comrades in the SWP, CPGB and Alliance for Workers' Liberty in Lewisham now be welcome to take part in Ian Page's election campaign? Given that he was selected by a unified meeting of the local alliance, the campaign should continue in similar fashion.

With this shabby compromise vote behind us, the Liaison Committee got down to the business of discussing the details of our campaign. Home office compliance, fundraising, press, union and community appeals were all discussed. A number of secondary issues also emerged which are worth mentioning. First is the disturbing boycott of the meeting by two national officers of the alliance. Amazingly, both John Nicholson and Declan O'Neill refused to attend the meeting because it was in London. This childish parochialism is not acceptable and both comrades need to account for their actions.

Such an incident shows that annual election of officers is inadequate. They need to be instantly recallable by our assembled Liaison Committee. We need a system where our officers are elected from our ranks which are constantly being renewed, not permanent officers which stand above the development of the Alliance.

Also baffling was the response of the Scottish Socialist Party to our request to explore the possibility of a joint broadcast and invitation to attend our Liaison Committee meetings. The deliberate misreading of our letter can only be put down to nationalist petty-mindedness, not genuine confusion.

While these elements of the meeting were negative, and by necessity this has been the tone of this article, the potential of the Socialist Alliance arising out of the general election campaign is an exciting prospect. The mood remains overwhelmingly positive. We are already looking at standing an impressive 65 candidates in England. The possibility that the alliance will put down organisational roots for future struggle is real, and fulfilling this possibility is the central task for this election.

On other matters, we decided to adopt the red flag as our election symbol, thankfully leaving behind the 'red and green' nonsense many have argued in the past. The alliance will also launch a £100,000 election appeal - to be carried in the papers of all supporting organisations.

While the SP compromise is shoddy and unacceptable, we must make the best of it in order to move forward. We must now concentrate on the practical issues of outlining our programme, developing a general election manifesto, selecting our remaining candidates and fighting a strong campaign. The urgent necessity is to build the alliance on the ground.

Marcus Larsen

Statement from SP and SWP to Socialist Alliance Liaison Committee, January 13 2001

We understand that no two political organisations represent the SA, but in the interests of the united general election campaign we have tried to come to an agreement, which we hope others in the SA will agree overcomes some immediate difficulties in the run-up to the general election.

In the following seats, about 20% of the total number of seats likely to be contested by the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Party candidates are currently the most credible. These are: Bootle, North Tyneside, Stevenage, Leicester West, Deptford, Southampton Itchen, Bristol East, Coventry North East, Coventry South, Birmingham Northfield, Hull North and Wakefield. Therefore we support the SP receiving papers for these seats at today's Liaison Committee.

In addition we acknowledge that the SP retains the right to stand under their own electoral name in Walthamstow and Hayes.

It is clear that where the Socialist Alliance candidate is a member of the Socialist Party the Socialist Party will want to produce their own propaganda in support of the candidate.

We realise that the SP has a different position within the Socialist Alliance on the best way to run the general election campaign, which we would like to accommodate in the name of a unified campaign. In the above constituencies where the SP have an existing record of contesting elections the campaign material will reflect that fact. We accept that in the seats where the SP has the candidate the SP will have political and organisational control over the campaign; on the condition that they agree to prominently publicise the Socialist Alliance on all their electoral material.

In addition, in order to ensure that in these areas enough general Socialist Alliance material is produced to allow others in the Socialist Alliance to participate in the campaign without being made to feel that they are simply building the Socialist Party rather than the Socialist Alliance, the SP agent will authorise material to be produced up to a minimum [sic] allowance of £500, from the election expenses spending limits in each seat.