Highlighting the differences

This report from the Socialist Alliance programme commission is required reading. Presented by its chair Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group to the February 17 Liaison Committee meeting, its specific recommendations on procedure for the March 10 conference were rejected. However, more mainstream submissions did provide the raw material for the executive committee's draft policy document. Furthermore the different programmatic approaches of the Socialist Alliance supporting organisations reveal the essential shades of opinion that exist within our proto-party and therefore the underlying battle lines of debate

By the deadline of February 8 the Socialist Alliance had received 15 submissions. These are seven from political affiliates, seven from local alliances and one from an individual member - Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Bedfordshire SA, Communist Party of Great Britain, Greater Manchester SA, Leeds Left Alliance, Leicester Radical Alliance, Merseyside SA, Phil Pope, Republican Communist Network, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Alliance, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, West Midlands SA, Workers Power.

These documents are submitted to the March 10 policy conference via the Liaison Committee. They show up both the strength and weakness of the Socialist Alliances. The differences in policy show we are not united. Each of us can look at these documents and see something which is 'beyond the pale'. At the same time they indicate a 'thinking' alliance with a wide variety and diversity of policies. We should be proud of our strength, whilst being open and honest about our differences and weaknesses.

The purpose of this report is to provide a democratic way of processing all these policies, so that members can identify the key issues and make the necessary choices and decisions at the March 10 conference. At the end of the report there is a proposed agenda for March 10 based on the methods and issues raised in the body of the report.

1. Preparing for the general election

The first problem is that there appears to be difference amongst us as to whether policy, and the debates and decision-making that go with it, should be given a high priority or low priority in the Socialist Alliance. It comes down to a practical issue of whether too much or too little time is devoted to programme and whether it figures high or low on the agenda.

At one extreme are those who think policy or programme is of minor or secondary significance and what matters most is the candidates. At the opposite end are those who believe that policy is primary and that the candidates are or should be an extension of the struggle for the collective policy of the membership.

The result of these differences may be that we end up with a lack of time, lack of preparation and information, making it difficult to be fully democratic. Worse if this became an excuse to say that we now lacked the time to have a serious democratic conference.

This conference should not be considered a diversion from the pressing task of organising for the general election. We enter this election with many weaknesses. But our strength should lie in the political consciousness of rank and file members. It is not technical training for candidates, but the political clarity of the membership that is the key. An agreed programme means the candidates are surrounded and supported by 'like-minded' comrades.

March 10 is not simply a policy conference. Policy debates should be a good way of educating all of us - candidates and members. A serious discussion of the issues and policies and a series of real and lively debates is the best means of raising consciousness and preparing for the general election. The last thing we need is for members to turn up, rubber-stamp some bland compromise composite and go home none the wiser.

2. Democratic method

The democratic method is the best way of dealing with the differences shown in these submissions. It begins with the pre-existing majority and minorities. It facilitates their evolution into a new majority and new minorities. It ensures an inclusive process in which all submissions are given due recognition and respect.

We must not tolerate a situation in which organisations that have made submissions end up feeling that they have been carved out or ignored in some way, for the sake of expediency. This will do longer-term damage to the reputation of the alliance as a democratic organisation, which respects the contribution of each and every member and organisation.

Differences over policy and programme reflect differences in the theoretical and practical experience of the socialist movement in a world that is constantly changing. The class struggle, and our understanding of it, can be found in differences over policy and programme. The democratic method enables us to learn most from these contradictions by bringing them into the full light of day.

Therefore the democratic method requires openness. The policy contradictions and choices must be made fully transparent. Through openness, argument and debate we should be a position to make better political decisions. Openness helps members to take sides. It brings self-education and self-development.

Even when the wrong policy choice is made, the democratic method enables us to identify where we might have taken a wrong turn and 'revisit' the issues. Minorities can thus grow into majorities by experience or wither away when it becomes clearer they represented a wrong turn.

The bureaucratic method has been associated with the left for many years. It starts from the assumption that differences and contradictions are dangerous. They are a threat, not an opportunity. They are not seen as seeds of development, but seeds of a split. Therefore the way to safeguard the organisation is to cover up or suppress differences. This cannot provide any solution. It will eventually produce the very split that such methods claim to avoid.

The Socialist Alliance programme is sometimes called '80-20' because it is supposed to represent 80% of what is agreed. As a way of constructing some unity when the SA movement began, it had some merit. But as a way of developing a serious programme it should be questioned. It is not based on any historical experience of the working class. As a method, it is pragmatic and more likely to produce the lowest common denominator rather than the best.

The democratic method would record not only the 80% that we agreed with, but also the 20% we did not agree. In fact we appear to have no knowledge or agreement as to what the 20% is. Yet here is the source of our development. The secrets of the 20% are hidden from view. Within this are surely both the worst policies and the best. Some of these will be outdated and in the process of being left behind. Other policies represent a future which has not yet arrived and not yet won majority support. The democratic method means making ourselves fully conscious of these differences.

If the 80-20 method meant deciding a majority (80%) and giving full expression to the (20%) minority, it would be very democratic. But if it means a lowest-common-denominator programme and sweeping the differences under the carpet, it will only produce a bureaucratic form of unity.

3. Applying the democratic method

Amongst the 16 submissions is the Socialist Alliance programme (1997) with 13 sections. The West Midlands submission is based on it. The SA programme is the only democratically decided policy of the national network. It should therefore be given due weight as the pre-existing majority policy submission.

The remaining 14 represent minority points of view. At the start of the conference, these 15 submissions should be formally presented to conference and moved by a representative of each organisation. Then there should be a debate around some of the issues raised by these submissions.

This debate should then inform conference about the direction in which the Socialist Alliance programme should go when it is debated later. The minority submissions are therefore not wasted. They clarify our differences and have an opportunity to influence the final outcome.

The alternative is to organise a contest between all 15 documents until one emerges as the 'winner'. The difficulty with this is that it will not be possible to organise amendments.

Any organisation has a right at any time to withdraw its submission, for example as a result of compositing. It is possible that we might not be presented with 14. Equally any organisation has a right to refuse an offer of compositing and make its own submission. Compositing has to be a voluntary process.

In the democratic method the purpose of compositing is to remove the inessential in order to highlight the real political differences and raise consciousness. Bureaucratic compositing has the opposite objective. Its purpose is to hide differences and remove from the membership the democratic right to decide on the key questions.

4. A preliminary analysis

We often use 'socialist' as a generic term to encompass us all. But for the purpose of this report the term 'socialist' will be used to mean a left Labour or socialist-Labour tradition. The term 'communist' includes all those who call themselves revolutionary Marxists and Trotskyists.

The submissions from Bedfordshire, Greater Manchester, Leeds Left Alliance, Leicester Radical Alliance, Merseyside, Phil Pope, Socialist Alliance (80-20) and the West Midlands reflect both socialist-Labour and communist ideas. The AWL, CPGB, RDG, RCN, the SP, SWP and WP represent a communist tradition.

Most, but not all, submissions have immediate programmes to be put forward now, at this election for example. They also have some reference to longer term aims. This can be called a 'min-max' approach. In the socialist-Labour tradition minimum demands are for immediate reforms and the longer term aim is for socialism or a socialist society. This may be connected to some version or variation of clause 4 - full nationalisation or public ownership. In the communist tradition, the min-max may be modified so that the immediate programme is either minimum or transitional. The maximum programme is more likely to be formulated in international terms.

Here are some examples of a min-max approach. The Bedfordshire SA describes its immediate policies as reducing "the effects of the world capitalist system". But then says that a permanent solution lies in "replacing the capitalist system with socialism". Merseyside has a similar statement. Greater Manchester has a set of immediate reforms and a statement that in the longer term "it will be necessary to overthrow the existing system". The Leeds Left Alliance has a longer term "statement of aims" and a section headed "initial policies". Leicester Radical Alliance formulates its immediate policies in terms of opposing New Labour and the Tories and longer term aims along the lines of clause four. The Socialist Alliance (80-20) calls for a "socialist transformation of society" and has a 13-point set of immediate policies.

In the communist tradition the CPGB has submitted a min-max programme. Workers Power's immediate programme is transitional to a workers' government. The AWL has a similar aim. The RDG has submitted only a minimum programme for a federal republic. The SWP formulates a minimum programme of 'basic demands' and a maximum aim of a "socialist world". The SP has minimum demands and a maximum aim of a socialist society.

In the communist tradition a key demand is for a workers' or soviet republic, based on workers' councils, the dictatorship of the proletariat. This form of state is specifically referred to in the submissions of the CPGB and Workers Power. It is alluded to in the submission of the AWL, RDG and SWP. It is not mentioned in the submissions by the RCN, or the SP.

The socialist-Labour tradition rejects the workers' republic. It supports a parliamentary form of democracy. The submissions from Beds, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Leeds Left Alliance, Leicester Radical Alliance, Socialist Alliance, Phil Pope, West Midlands do not go beyond parliamentary democracy. Neither do those of the RDG, RCN, SWP and SP.

Some programmes propose a programme of reforms without including the abolition of the existing constitutional monarchy: Greater Manchester, Leeds Left Alliance, Leicester Radical Alliance, Phil Pope, and the SP. As they stand, these are calling for reform within the present constitutional arrangements.

The AWL, Bedfordshire, CPGB, Merseyside, RDG, RCN, Socialist Alliance, SWP, West Midlands and WP call for the abolition of the monarchy. Amongst these the AWL, Bedfordshire, CPGB, Merseyside, RDG, RCN and Workers Power call for some form of democratic republic.

Abolishing the monarchy could be and usually is seen as a single issue. The call for a democratic republic is more than simply getting rid of the monarch. It is a slogan that can sum up a series of democratic reforms: for example, the abolition of official secrecy or the House of Lords, albeit still with a parliamentary system.

In addition to this the AWL, CPGB, Bedfordshire SA, Merseyside SA and the RDG call for a federal republic: that is, self-determination and unity between England, Scotland and Wales.

The Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and the Scottish Socialist Party enter the elections with the intention of winning and forming a government. Obviously, even if we won all our seats we could not form a government.

However, it is a question of political aims or intentions. Is the Socialist Alliance simply a protest movement, a pressure group making propaganda against New Labour or do we intend to form as soon as possible a Socialist Alliance government? Some submissions contain governmental slogans; others do not. The AWL and WP call for a workers' government. Leeds Left Alliance calls for democratic government. Implicit in the RDG's submission is the aim of a republican government.

What kind of Socialist Alliance? We can and should discuss whether we want the SA to be a communist alliance or a communist-socialist (or Labour left) alliance. This should be discussed because it has a direct impact on the type of programme we should adopt.

Should the alliance become a party? This issue has been raised with arguments for and against. However, this should not be debated on March 10, but await an assessment and debate after the election.

What may emerge democratically from this is an agreement to campaign for economic, social and environmental reforms. The political parameters of this depend on what kind of alliance we are. If we are a communist alliance we can and should go as far as the dictatorship of the proletariat. If we are to be an organisation uniting socialist-Labour and communists, then a very democratic parliamentary republic is the farthest limit we can go together. That is for conference to decide if we want to go that far.

5. Issues to be debated

Recommendation 1: We debate whether we are a communist alliance or a socialist-Labour/communist alliance.

This deals with the submissions from the CPGB and possibly Workers Power. The CPGB has submitted a full min-max communist programme. If the CPGB (and Workers Power) secures a majority then its programme wins a central position whilst the rest of the programmes fall. Otherwise its programme falls.


Recommendation 2: We debate the question of whether to include the abolition of the monarchy and/or the democratic republic.

As it stands at the moment, on one side are: Greater Manchester SA, Leeds Left Alliance, Leicester Radical Alliance, Phil Pope, Socialist Party (six submissions). The abolitionists are: AWL, Bedfordshire SA, Merseyside SA, Socialist Alliance (80-20), SWP, RDG, RCN, Workers Power (eight).


Recommendation 3: If the abolition of the monarchy and a democratic republic is carried, we should debate the question of a federal republic. There are four submissions supporting a federal republic: AWL, Bedfordshire SA, Merseyside SA, CPGB and RDG. The RCN is also likely to support this.


Recommendation 4: We should discuss the question of having a government slogan or not, as raised by AWL and WP.


Recommendation 5: My fifth recommendation is that this is not an exclusive list of recommended debates. There may be other issues in these submissions that equally merit discussion and can be added. The test is not my political preferences, which are well known. It is down to requests from submitting organisations about issues that can be highlighted as differences from within these policy submissions.


Recommendation 6: In deciding a national set of policies, the Socialist Alliance is not taking away the right of local alliances or organisations to vary their local policy statements as they democratically decide.

A draft agenda

  1. First session - policy submissions introduced. Debate on key issues which should inform later debate
  2. Second session - amending the Socialist Alliance 80-20
  3. Third session - five or six key slogans

The question of key slogans has been raised by the SWP. Perhaps we should invite submissions on this before March 3. I would suggest that we think of areas such as the constitution, economy, welfare state, trade unions, tax, Europe, immigration, environment, international, etc.