Socialist Alliance press launch Challenging Labour
The Socialist Alliance general election campaign has now begun in earnest. Last week the national press launch was held, and of course the vital conference to decide the content and thrust of alliance policy takes place this Saturday.
The fact that the Socialist Alliance is now standing or considering standing in 92 seats, with the possibility that the total will rise still further, certainly illustrates that the challenge of the left at the ballot box will be substantial. Coupled with the Scottish Socialist Party contesting all 72 seats in Scotland, this illustrates that the left can constitute a significant presence, and with maximum unity has the potential to become a mass force.
It is pleasing to see that comrades have moved a considerable distance from the meagre 20 or so seats that was being offered as a serious proposal not so long ago and have in practice accepted the CPGB's arguments in favour of a much bigger challenge.
The speakers at the press conference - Mark Steel and Theresa Bennett of the Socialist Workers Party, alongside Dave Nellist, the SA chair - launched a volley of attacks on the Labour Party. Predictably though, this was confined to Blair's New Labour with no mention of the party's past record. Comrades Steel and Bennett quite rightly pointed to the fact that the working class has suffered under the current administration.
However, as the event moved on to questioning around specific policies, comrades were left floundering a little. This did not go unnoticed by the primary representative of the bourgeois press present, The Guardian. Polly Toynbee was quick to remark on Dave Nellist's hesitation when questioned by a comrade from Workers Hammer about whether the SA was in favour of a revolutionary road to socialism.
Such things show the danger that is inherent in concealing our politics: the clear majority in the alliances are committed to revolutionary socialism and we should have no problem about openly stating this - even before representatives of the class enemy's media.
The other question which vexed the platform was over how to vote where there is no alliance candidate. Comrade Bennett plumped for unnamed left greens, citing Ralph Nader as a good example. Indeed Socialist Worker goes to great pains to show him in a good light in a bid to persuade us that the Green Party in Britain will be standing equally worthy candidates (March 3).
The Socialist Alliance should not be seen to endorse any bourgeois party. Where the SA is not contesting we can consider giving critical support to other socialist or working class candidates. In Hartlepool, for example, Arthur Scargill has declared himself to be the candidate of the Socialist Labour Party. Elsewhere we should demand Labour candidates endorse a socialist minimum platform - if they refuse, it would be unprincipled to vote for them.
We must move forward on the basis of providing an independent voice for working class politics, not tailing the politics of reactionaries like the greens.
Our main piece of business at the March 6 meeting of Cambridgeshire SA was consideration of amendments to the draft policy document which will be debated by the Birmingham conference this Saturday.
The only amendment on the table was from the CPGB. This proposed adding an extra bullet point to the document's 'internationalism' section, calling for the Socialist Alliance to adopt the policy of "not a penny, not a person for the bourgeois army".
The main opposition was disappointingly, but not surprisingly, from the Socialist Workers Party. Its comrade Nick Savage, said that he felt that "this motion did not reflect the stage that the alliance was at" - basically it was "too revolutionary" - it was "not where the class is".
The SWP is quite prepared to advance the slogan 'Refugees welcome here' despite all the evidence that this does not reflect the mood that is widespread within the atomised working class. Indeed those calling for the adoption of a different slogan, such as 'Refugees not to blame', have been informed that revolutionaries sometimes have to "swim against the tide".
But in Cambridgeshire, we were essentially told that revolutionaries have to "swim with the tide" - whichever way it is flowing. As we pointed out in reply, the issue at stake was that of principle, the principle of proletarian internationalism. Either you agreed with the principle or you did not: it is as simple as that. Most of the local SWP did not. The amendment was defeated, with four of the five SWP comrades voting against. However, our candidate for the Cambridge seat, Howard Senter, himself an SWP member, abstained.
There was the opportunity last week for the East London Socialist Alliance (Elsa) to stand a candidate in a Newham council by-election against the BNP, but the deadline for nominations was missed.
This was due to poor communication and a general assumption that everybody thought it wrong to oppose the BNP in elections. That, apparently, is still the job of the Labour Party. Splitting the Labour vote and inadvertently allowing the BNP to win a seat was the primary rationale for not standing. A BNP victory would, goes the argument, bolster the confidence of reactionaries and increase physical attacks on the large Asian community within the constituency.
It was accepted by all that we should initiate a campaign in the by-election in order to undermine the BNP as far as possible. Why could those resources not have been used to put forward a working class alternative on the ballot paper? As the CPGB in East London has pointed out, if we accept that the reason people are tempted to vote BNP is because they are deeply alienated from Labour in the first place, then why on earth should we plead with them to return to the Labourite fold?
Discussion at the Elsa meeting centred on what we should advise individuals in Newham to vote in our absence. I suggested challenging Labour with a minimum platform, but this was rejected by 12 votes to three in favour of a call to vote Labour. So Elsa have now ended up in a situation where, on paper, we want to build an alternative to the Blair's party but, due to the marginal BNP, we are now prepared to sow illusions in Labour.
It was a debate which had a certain overlap with the discussion at the March 1 membership meeting on backing some Green candidates, where the SA is not standing. Then only the CPGB, Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty emphasised the need for independent working class politics.
SWP member Paul McGarr correctly spoke of the importance of socialists taking a lead on environmental issues, but he backed the latest turn from his leadership towards the left of the Green Party. Presumably in an attempt to downplay the significance of uniquely working class politics he dismissed discussion on the kind of working class party we want to build as a "sterile debate".
The CPGB amendment to the SA draft policy section on 'socialism' was put to the March 1 meeting. It proposed an additional point: "At present, a majority of those united in the SA stand for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism on the basis of workers' councils of action." This was defeated by eight votes to five with four abstentions. Workers Power comprised three of the abstentions, squaring that decision by stating that it was unclear whether or not the majority of those in the SA did believe in a revolutionary overthrow ..., etc.
Interesting. So who specifically constitutes the majority in the SA? Yes, the CPGB, AWL, SWP ... and Workers Power. Other reasons for not backing the motion centred around the 'putting people off' argument. As I said, many people may be put off by many things in our policy document: abolish the monarchy, decriminalise all drugs, disarm the police, scrap all immigration laws - to name but a few. Our starting point should be one of principle and honesty. We should also be able to give a lead to and develop our class. Obscuring our principles means tail-ending the backward sections, not helping them to advance.
Peter Grant of the CPGB was chosen as the Socialist Alliance candidate for Salford at a hustings meeting, attended by 20 SA members on March 1. A local Socialist Workers Party member, comrade Bronwen, also stood, but Peter won with a large majority, after the SWP vote was split'
The February 26 meeting of Southwark Socialist Alliance debated two amendments to the programmatic document to be discussed at the March 10 national policy conference.
One amendment, proposed by the CPGB, called for the replacement of the clause on the minimum wage, which takes as its benchmark the European Union's 'decency threshold'. Instead our amendment called for an independent calculation as to the "level of what is required to physically and culturally reproduce a worker in today's Britain", which at present corresponds to around £300 net per week or £8.57 per hour.
This amendment was defeated, in favour of the status quo, with a number of comrades from the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Outlook and the Militant tradition arguing that the figure was "subjective" and "arbitrary". Yet the point being made was quite simple - it is not the figure itself that is crucial, but the method of arriving at it. In other words, the working class needs its own criteria, and should not restrict itself to the method of trade unionism (a form of bourgeois politics), tailoring its demands to what the bosses, even on a European level, say they can afford.
For the comrades of the majority, however, the 'decent' living standard proclaimed by the EU is endowed with some kind of objective significance. The low horizons of these political currents, who merely echo the aspirations of 'old Labour' politics, for a pre-Thatcher, French-style welfare system under the continued rule of capital, was clear. The amendment was therefore defeated, with only the two CPGB supporters voting for it.
The second amendment was proposed by comrade Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, and involved adding the demand for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales to the section of the document entitled 'How democratic is Britain?' The discussion was again quite revealing, with various comrades, mainly from the SWP, arguing against, partly on the basis that a federal republic was "insufficient", that what we should be demanding was a socialist republic. It was pointed out by comrade Freeman that the only way to concretise this was to argue for the formation of soviets now, and since no one was proposing any such thing, this demand had no practical application.
One young SWP supporter argued that it was wrong to call for such a federal arrangement between the constituent nations of Great Britain, as the Scottish Socialist Party was our sister organisation, and it stood for an "independent socialist Scotland". This is the unfortunate logic of the backroom dealing with the SSP leadership and accommodation to nationalism being practised by the SWP, which is apparently filtering down to the ranks.
The programmatic discussion was a real step forward for the alliance in Southwark, which has showed considerable dynamism in terms of activity in the last period, but has probably paid a bit of a price in terms of a tendency to play down internal political discussion.