SA roundup

Greater Manchester Squandered opportunity

The amateurism that characterises so much of our Socialist Alliance project was amply displayed at a 'Take back the track' public meeting in Manchester on March 23.

Organised by the north west regional council of the Trades Union Congress, the meeting gave a platform to the three rail unions, Aslef, RMT and TSSA, which have come together to campaign for renationalisation of the railways. Three union general secretaries were accompanied by Louise Christian, the Socialist Alliance's general election candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green, in her capacity as solicitor for the bereaved families of the Southall and Paddington train disaster victims. At least half of the modest attendance of 30 was comprised of members of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance.

The union speakers described the methods of the campaign, which is primarily based around a petition, upon which they aim to gather a million signatures and on pressure upon members of parliament to support Tony Benn's 'early day' motion for renationalisation. One hundred out of 450 Labour MPs have so far supported the motion, we were told. Appeals were made for practical support with the petitioning and lobbying.

The call for nationalisation of the railways, under the democratic control of railworkers and passengers, is of course one of the demands of the Socialist Alliance general election manifesto, which was agreed at the Birmingham policy conference on March 10. Indeed, the SA has already organised street activities in several locations to popularise the demand. The Manchester meeting was therefore a golden opportunity to pose, in front of the national leadership of the railworkers, the question of breaking with Blair's pro-privatisation Labour Party and of supporting independent working class politics in the Socialist Alliance. Disappointingly, no such thing happened.

Firstly, Louise Christian omitted to make any mention of the SA's programme for the railways, nor of her position as an SA candidate. Describing herself as "a proud socialist", and urging the need to "fight for our rights, just as we had to fight for the right to form trade unions", her contribution was nevertheless purely rhetorical, lacking any suggestions as to the practical steps we need to take in order to achieve her objective of "public services that are accountable to the public".

The last 20 minutes of the meeting were dedicated to questions and contributions from the floor. This is where another pre-planned intervention on behalf of the Socialist Alliance could have taken place. Alas, no such initiative had been forthcoming from the GMSA steering committee, which is still the non-inclusive body that was elected by last September's annual general meeting.

Three comrades from the Socialist Workers Party succeeded in getting their raised hands noticed by the chair but, wastefully, all made basically similar speeches calling for strike action by railworkers, in counterposition to 'public sympathy' offensives. Such strikes certainly are essential, but the creation of a united working class party for socialism is even more so. None of the three made any reference to the Socialist Alliance project, nor to the challenge being mounted against New Labour at the forthcoming general election. Their contributions could have come from the lips of SWP speakers in relation to any number of trade union disputes in the last 30 years.

It was left to ex-Socialist Party member Margaret Manning to call for the ruling out of any return to the type of nationalisation epitomised by the former British Rail board. Instead we need democratic control by railworkers and passengers, Margaret at last was able to articulate. In their replies to the discussion, the Aslef and RMT leaders both expressed their full agreement with comrade Manning's sentiments. Although this was very much a 'let's all be nice to each other' meeting, these expressions nevertheless show that the terms of debate with the organised working class are becoming favourable to ideas of extending democracy and of workers' control and that the union bureaucracy - at least those in unions whose sphere of influence lies in the recently privatised utilities - are not immune from pressure from below on these issues.

The prospects for political realignments involving trade union forces should not be downplayed and the Socialist Alliance needs urgently to become more professional and centralised in its political and organisational work if it is to maximise the potential for realising these prospects.

John Pearson

Political will

Cambridgeshire Socialist Alliance, meeting on March 27, has endorsed the call from the CPGB for a weekly alliance newspaper in the run-up to the general election.

The meeting accepted the idea after hearing a report-back from the SA Liaison Committee meeting of three days earlier, even though at that forum the proposal had been heavily rejected. Howard Senter, who attended the Liaison meeting on behalf of Cambs SA, explained that this was on the grounds of the proposal's supposed "impracticability". The view of comrade Senter, the SA candidate for Cambridge and an SWP member, was challenged by Darrell Goodliffe of the CPGB, who pointed out that several organisations had their own printing press and could boast journalists of the calibre of Paul Foot. Surely they would be prepared to place themselves at the disposal of the paper for the duration of the election campaign?

Even the Cambridgeshire alliance produces a bulletin which is on the verge of going weekly. True, this photocopied A3 news sheet is hardly Pravda, but it is produced relatively competently. Yet it is claimed that the SA itself, with all the resources of the left groups, cannot manage it. Clearly we were dealing with "a lack of political will", stated comrade Goodliffe.

This was illustrated by Nick Savage of the SWP, who claimed that a paper would be a "distraction". A distraction from what was not clearly explained. This demonstrates a lamentable attitude, which seems to view a paper as some sort of whimsical indulgence, and not a potentially powerful weapon aimed at sharpening our electoral intervention.

Thankfully, comrade Savage was in the minority and only he and comrade Senter voted against the proposal. Everybody else, including the remaining three or four SWP comrades, backed the motion. This ought to send a message to the SWP leadership, whose representatives led the opposition to it at the Liaison Committee in Liverpool.

The motion will now be circulated to all officers in the hope that the executive will reconsider the decision.

Robert Grace

Second challenge

A second candidate will be fielded in the south London borough of Southwark.

The March 26 meeting of around 30 comrades voted unanimously, after careful consideration, to challenge junior employment minister Tessa Jowell in the Labour-held seat of Dulwich and West Norwood. A full selection meeting is to be held on April 2. This contest will supplement the candidacy of John Mulrenan in Peckham and Camberwell, challenging New Labour's Harriet Harman, the widely despised cutter of benefits to lone parents.

Southwark Socialist Alliance has grown dramatically in the last few months, and now has a firm base of support. This adds yet another front to a national campaign which offers the potential for the first time in many years for the emergence of a genuine working class party in opposition to Labour.

Ian Donovan