New step to unity

The March 10 national policy conference of the Socialist Alliance took another step forward towards closer unity. Over 350 comrades, belonging to a range of different groups, gathered in the Post House hotel, central Birmingham, and at the end of the day voted in support of the amended policy document, which will now be written up as the SA's general election manifesto.

This was the first time in many decades that the main strands of the left had come together to thrash out common policies. With discussion crammed into five short hours, each debate was restricted to two or four interventions of two or three minutes per comrade. Nevertheless we were all in the same hall, talking politics and in the main listening and learning.

The biggest single organisation present was the Socialist Workers Party with around 200 comrades, giving it a comfortable majority. The CPGB had around 50, but the Socialist Party, in contrast to the September 30 2000 conference in Coventry, when it mobilised everything it could, sent along only about a dozen.

Of course, since Coventry the SP has secured the right to run its own, separate general election campaign while using the SA as a banner of convenience. Fearing unity - or even close contact - with the rest of the left, the Taaffe leadership decided on a token presence. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Power had about the same number present as the SP, and the International Socialist Group slightly less.

The SWP was able to use its majority to ensure that our election manifesto will be of a left reformist coloration. In this it was backed up consistently by the ISG and won the support of the 40 or so unattached comrades on most issues. The AWL was a less consistent ally, while the CPGB, along with Workers Power and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, provided an uncoordinated revolutionary bloc.

The SWP, together with its ISG fellow travellers, consciously and openly argued that, in order to make a real impact in the election and attract non-revolutionary workers and Labourites, we must not stand on "too radical" a platform. The most important thing is to form a pole of attraction one step to the left of New Labour - in effect the old Labour model is the safest and most 'viable'. Only after some considerable time, following some future undisclosed chain of events, will our SWP/ISG 'revolutionary' friends deem it fitting to cast off their reformist camouflage and reveal their true nature.

So the SWP pulled out all their big guns to ensure that the CPGB/WP "ultra-left posturing" was soundly defeated. Nevertheless, it was clear who was arguing from a principled position.

The first sharp division came with the call from Haringey SA (minority) for the alliance to calculate our minimum wage demand, not on the basis of the European Union 'decency level', but on the basis of "what is required to physically and culturally reproduce a worker in today's Britain" (currently around £300 per week, or £8.57 an hour over a 35-hour week).

Responding to the CPGB's Tina Becker, Duncan Morrisson of the AWL condemned us for "setting out with our calculator to work out what the working class needs to survive on". Rather than demand what workers actually need, the SA should "set its figure at what is widely accepted by the advanced layer of the class". Clearly this meant tailing the TUC at around £5 an hour rather than risk "cutting ourselves off". But the SWP-led majority preferred to tail the EU and stick to £7.

Next, an amendment from Bristol SA changed the call in the policy document (drawn up by Mark Hoskisson of WP) to "raise the state pension immediately to eradicate poverty", instead fixing the figure at a pitifully low £150 a week for a single pensioner. As with the minimum wage, this would leave the pension at below subsistence level, but concerning ourselves with what people actually need to survive on is obviously misplaced, it seems.

It has to be said though that even these grossly inadequate figures represent an advance for the SWP, which has clearly been forced to shift a little purely through the pressure of working alongside others within the alliance. Socialist Worker's version of the SA budget talked of £100.

It was over the SA attitude to the bourgeois state that the question of reform v revolution was most starkly posed. Amendments from the CPGB and Workers Power called for opposition to the standing army and police and their replacement by working class militia and "community self-defence organisations". The SWP's Kambiz Boomla strode to the microphone to admonish the left for wanting to "put off" people such as "Sister Christine", a catholic nun who was on the point of being recruited into the alliance in east London. According to comrade Boomla, the SA programme ought to represent a compromise between the "minimum programme of revolutionaries" (like himself, of course) and the "maximum programme of people coming from Labour".

The idea that the "Sister Christines" of this world should be won over by compromising our programme is pure opportunism. The minimum programme should be based on principles: it is not a vote-catching exercise, but a road map to state power. But the SWP craves respectability. Sister Christine is more important than our principles because she will certainly show backward and average workers breaking from Labour that the SA is completely safe. Although why people - including sister Christine - who are looking for an alternative to Labourism cannot be won straightaway to Marxist ideas - which are strong because they are true - is a mystery.

The ISG comrades provided the most coherent fig leaf for this rightism. Dave Packer asked: "Do we want a revolutionary programme or a programme that challenges capitalism and can reach out to significant forces to our right?" We "don't always have to tell the truth" about our revolutionism, he asserted. We can't build an alliance on "our maximum programme".

Leaving aside the fact that the necessity for workers' militia must form an essential part of a Bolshevik minimum - i.e., immediate - programme, it was astounding to hear a self-declared 'revolutionary' not only oppose the disbandment of the police, but demand instead "more resources" for them.

What was needed, said comrade Packer, was neither a minimum nor a revolutionary programme, but an "action programme". It seems to have escaped the comrade's attention that by definition the only programme to "challenge capitalism" is a revolutionary one. But that did not stop comrade Packer from lecturing us that we ought to "read a bit of Trotsky", who, as we know, never tired of demanding extra "resources" for the bourgeois police.

Mark Fischer of the CPGB remarked that whether or not we should tell the truth to the working class was becoming a "recurring theme" - which was ironic, since formally all the principal SA groups stood for its elevation into a ruling class. The present state was not reformable into an instrument for socialism, said comrade Fischer, and it was a "very old principle that socialists are opposed to funds for the very force designed to stop socialism". That is why we stood by the adage, "Not a penny, not a person" to the armed forces.

It fell to Chris Harman, editor of Socialist Worker, to instruct the SWP cadre that these revolutionary amendments must not be supported. "I agree with and have written about many times" what the last speaker said about the state, comrade Harman informed the conference. But the Socialist Alliance was "not revolutionary" and it was wrong to try to "smuggle in" revolutionary policy. In fact, said comrade Harman, putting on his left face, if the SA were a revolutionary organisation, then the CPGB amendment demanding "the right to bear arms" would not go far enough.

Both the amendments were clearly defeated, as was the motion from East London SA (minority) which wanted our manifesto to state the obvious: that, in formal terms at least, "At present, a majority of those united in the Socialist Alliance stands for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism on the basis of workers' councils of action." Surely nobody could deny that this statement merely represents "what the SA is today", as the CPGB's Bob Paul said.

Not at all. John Baxter of the SWP declared that he himself was "in a revolutionary organisation" (one that constituted an absolute majority at Birmingham), but argued that in the alliance itself revolutionaries should aim to become the minority. Certainly a united front of a special kind. Normally the revolutionary minority aims to win the majority to its side, comrade Baxter.

The SP comrades played a curious role. For the most part they went with the rightist flow, but occasionally voted with the left - such as when they opposed the successful SWP-backed amendment calling for the dropping of the call to "disarm the police".

But their own two amendments were distinctly rightwing. Speaking in support of the SP proposal to delete the reference to the scrapping of all immigration laws, Hannah Sell said the call for open borders was "utopian". Obviously "we do agree with" the demand, she said, but it was not a good idea to "write down what is blatantly true and we all believe", since even the "most advanced sections of the working class" are convinced that border controls are necessary.

The CPGB's Marcus Larsen slammed this as a "speech for spin". We have a duty to tell the truth, he said, no matter how unpopular it may be at first. The SP's Ken Smith got into an awful muddle trying to refute what comrade Larsen said. It was "not about spin", but about ... "presentation" , in order to "gain a hearing". This was a good opportunity for the SWP to outflank the SP from the left, and it too spoke and voted against the amendment, which was overwhelmingly defeated. But WP's Stuart King pointed out that the SWP, in its opposition to a militant anti-police policy, was just as guilty as the SP in seeking to disguise the views it claimed to hold.

The SWP also opposed opportunist calls from both the SP and AWL to remove the demand for British troops out of Ireland. For the SP the withdrawal of British troops could only be made if it was linked to "a socialist Ireland", while for the AWL British forces could only be removed "on the basis of ... a political settlement". So, despite the SWP's desire to dumb down on most issues, the calls to "scrap all immigration controls", and "British troops out of Ireland", not to mention "legalise cannabis and decriminalise all drugs", remained intact.

Comrade Larsen moved the Greenwich and Lewisham amendment which read: "For the maximum working class unity against the UK state. We fight for all socialists in Britain to stand under the same banner of socialism against Blair and the New Labour government." Given the ongoing courtship of the Scottish Socialist Party and the diplomatic sensitivities involved, the SWP felt it necessary to wheel out Chris Bambery to oppose.

He claimed that the amendment did not "respect the decisions" of the SSP, which had rejected a joint SSP-SA election campaign a few weeks earlier. Now the CPGB wanted to "sneak in" this policy "through the back door", which amounted to "short-circuiting" cooperation through "resolution-mongering". Comrade Bambery claimed self-determination meant that socialists in England had no right to call for unity with socialists in Scotland.

In reply, the CPGB's John Bridge pointed out that, "Not only do we have the right, but the duty to say what we think the way forward is." Proposing the CPGB/RDG composite in favour of a federal republic of England, Wales and Scotland, comrade Bridge said that without such a response to the constitutional crisis of the UK state, there would be a "huge gaping hole" in SA policy. Some comrades insist on seeing in the call for a federal republic an English plot to "impose" unity, but Steve Freeman of the RDG pointed out that, on the contrary, it was a call for unity on a voluntary basis. Again both amendments were soundly defeated.

All in all, despite the failure to win key principled positions, despite the adoption of a set of economistic "priority pledges", the conference was overwhelmingly positive. Despite time limits and the daft method used to agree our priority pledges there was a democratic spirit in the hall. There is also a brimming optimism. In Dave Nellist we have a worthy leader, we have agreed policies and seem certain to reach the 88 candidates needed to claim a TV broadcast in England. Most of all, the objective logic of events is pushing things forward and opening up a mass audience for the ideas of socialism, communism and revolutionary Marxism.

The CPGB is committed to throwing everything we can into the general election. While we will continue to criticise the inadequacies of the platform, our SA candidates will stand on what has been agreed as part of a single, unified campaign - a step towards a Socialist Alliance party.

Peter Manson