Towards an SA pro-party bloc

Undoubtedly the Socialist Alliance has moved ahead in leaps and bounds in the couple of years since the Socialist Workers Party made its welcome turn towards elections. True, things began rather badly. The SWP decided to lift its siege mentality and embrace the Socialist Alliance ... but then momentarily and disastrously recoiled from the consequences. Fear conquered audacity.

Undoubtedly the Socialist Alliance has moved ahead in leaps and bounds in the couple of years since the Socialist Workers Party made its welcome turn towards elections. True, things began rather badly. The SWP decided to lift its siege mentality and embrace the Socialist Alliance ... but then momentarily and disastrously recoiled from the consequences. Fear conquered audacity.

The June 1999 European elections could have provided a brilliant launch pad. Proportional representation gave us a real opportunity. Both the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Greens won MEPs. Instead the elections proved to be a debacle. Apart from Dave Nellist in the West Midlands and the Communist Party of Great Britain in London and the North West, every principal element in the Socialist Alliance deserted the field (the Scottish Socialist Party also displayed courage and found itself well rewarded with an increased share of the vote).

To stand in the European elections was also to stand against Arthur Scargill. An Everest for some. Yet his Socialist Labour Party was no more than a red-brown molehill. It could and should have been ruthlessly exposed as such (the Socialist Alliance would have been better placed for the forthcoming general election and seeing off Scargill's 100 candidates if we had). After the SWP collapsed before the diminutive challenge the others fell like dominoes. Thankfully that fiasco is now behind us as little more than an embarrassing memory.

The crucial turning point was the May 2000 Greater London Assembly elections. With the SWP now taking a lead and throwing in its full weight, we managed to stand a full slate. The only fly in the ointment being the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Peter Taaffe's comrades stood with our constituency list, but, much to their discredit, against our all-London PR list.

Total support might have been modest in percentage terms. Despite that we suffered no humiliation. The result appeared credible - certainly in terms of absolute votes. More importantly the LSA's campaign illuminated the way forward for a left deeply mired in the interlinked crises of auto-Labourism and sect primitivism. Electorally this success has been systematically built upon. Socialist Alliance candidates routinely score above the five percent threshold in local and Westminster by-elections.

For many of the groups, however, theory trails far behind the practice of elections and growing left unity. In some cases attempts to catch-up can turn into their opposite and thus run against the grain of what is needed. An ever present danger. For example, for SWP leader John Rees the Socialist Alliance is a united front of a special kind - a stealth theory which in actual fact camouflages plans to build his confessional sect.

Such an essentially dishonest and self-serving approach complacently assumes that the revolutionary party already exists - its initials, for comrade Rees, being S, W and P, of course. Comrade Taaffe makes the exact same claim. Only the title is different. In both cases, arrogant sect nonsense. Misguided by its warped perspectives, the SWP leadership opposes the transformation of the Socialist Alliance into a fully-fledged party and offers only conditional or temporary support. Ominously comrade Rees writes of the Socialist Alliance being "relatively durable" (my emphasis International Socialism March 2001). The SA has an inbuilt time limit for the SWP.

A Socialist Alliance party would apparently preclude the unity of revolutionaries and reformists ... and thus block off the expected influx of disillusioned Labourites into what really matters - the SWP. Incidentally, as we have repeatedly stressed, the SWP leadership has a typically sectarian conception of 'party'. Agreement with, rather than acceptance of, the programme determines membership - the latter being Lenin's correct formulation, as the educated reader will know. Certainly we would expect any genuine party of the working class to contain within it a whole range of different shades of opinion.

Our left, right and centre are obliged to abide by majority decisions when it comes to common actions. Equally our left, right and centre must have the maximum freedom conducive with unity in action to express their views, and their criticisms, openly. With such a centralised but fully democratic regime we are confident that Marxism will win the battle of ideas hands down and secure all manner of new adherents. Not least those coming into the Socialist Alliance from a Labourite tradition who have rightly been repelled and disgusted by the bureaucratic centralist regimes of the sects.

But let us return to the main line of the argument. Since the GLA elections the Socialist Alliance, as an all-England network, has displayed an ever-upward trajectory. And at Birmingham, on March 10, comrade Dave Church reported that membership stood at 650. However, using this figure alone is to considerably downplay our functional magnitude.

Besides the six principal political organisations underpinning the Socialist Alliance's Liaison and executive committees there is also a layer active in, or financially backing, local Socialist Alliances which are only indirectly attached to the network. There are around 80 fully operational regional, city, town and borough alliances in England and Wales. Obviously numbers in each vary, but in most cases it does extend some significant distance beyond the narrow organisational and ideological borders of the SWP. No one knows the total membership of the Socialist Alliance counted in that, more accurate, way - apart from perhaps the SWP central committee. This 'outside' body, not comrade Church, could produce a rough estimate if asked. Suffice to say, we must talk in the thousands. Though not the tens of thousands - yet.

My guess would be somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 members. A figure, which implicitly questions the - hugely exaggerated - claims that the SWP contains 10,000 fighters for socialism within its ranks. Nonetheless even if we only have 2,000 members that is an impressive achievement.

No less an achievement is gathering support for the Socialist Alliance from well established organisations and a range of prominent freelance socialist individuals. On the one hand the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the International Socialist Group, Workers Power and the Revolutionary Democratic Group and on the other hand Louise Christian, Mark Serwotka, Nick Wrack and Liz Davies all represent distinct viewpoints and distinct traditions ... and will in the Socialist Alliance's fertile conditions of tolerance and democracy bring with them their own distinct contributions. From such dynamic unity comes social impact. As a result New Labour's ideologues recognise us as a burgeoning threat to their core constituency and have begun their counterattack in earnest. Note Polly Toynbee's barbed commentary in The Guardian.

Under these promising circumstances what is particularly conspicuous is the Socialist Alliance's rank amateurism. We have no common political paper, no full-time leadership, no trade union fractions, no unified all-United Kingdom organisation.

Presumably for ongoing publicity and propaganda the Socialist Alliance is expected to rely on our website, along with Socialist Worker, Weekly Worker and The Socialist. These small circulation rivals ... and, one expects, the uncanny ability of Anna Chen to get snippets into the bourgeois mass media. The All Red and Green is a misnomer of a title and in its present form no longer worthy of our rapidly expanding collective strength.

Elected officers such as Dave Nellist and Dave Church are doggedly determined to concentrate on their local constituency work and campaigning. Instead they should be taking a lead and shifting the centre of their operations to London: i.e., the capital city. When CPGB delegates on the Liaison Committee first suggested a London HQ we were told in no uncertain terms that it would be unnecessary. Supposedly the likes of us do not understand general elections. Localism dominated and clouded thinking.

There has been a change in heart. We are to have a London HQ. Thank goodness. Nevertheless the absence of our top officers from London and from the platforms of our rallies all over the country is of concern. To be a Socialist Alliance officer should mean being a professional. Running things from spare bedrooms and in one's spare time is no longer good enough.

What of trade union work? As London underground workers strike once more against privatisation, why has the Socialist Alliance not taken up the CPGB's urgent call for a railworkers' fraction and the AWL's generous offer of handing over its Tubeworker bulletin? What goes for the RMT, Aslef and TSSA applies no less to other industries such as the mail, steel, civil service, etc.

The dragging of heels over Scotland and Wales is particularly painful to observe. The SWP does not want to upset its plan for a Machiavellian takeover of the Scottish Socialist Party (Wales is part of that plot). As long as Tommy Sheridan occasionally nods in the direction of the Socialist Alliance, nationalism is said to be purely a Scottish and Welsh concern. Socialists and communists dwelling in England have no business poking in their noses. Unless you are Chris Bambery! Frankly all socialists and communists should as an elementary duty be fighting together in one centralised organisation against the United Kingdom state. And equally, in the meantime, everyone has a duty to speak out when they believe comrades are making profound errors.

What all this means is that there is a political lagging behind. Quantity we have in membership and votes. Quality we still lack in terms of leadership and organisation.

It also starkly shows that the arguments advanced by comrade Rees and those who want to limit the Socialist Alliance to an electoral united front are part of the problem. These comrades fail to grasp the pressing needs of the day. They cannot even say the words 'Socialist Alliance party' without shuddering with fear.

Once the Socialist Alliance declares itself a party they will be in a quandary. Do they advance revolutionary principles and fight for reforms in the most revolutionary way objective circumstances allow or keep advocating old Labour pap? Do they attempt to impose their travesty of democratic centralism upon us, or do they concede the right to open polemics and permanent factions? Do they carry on building a sect or set about the much more rewarding and exciting task of creating a genuine socialist alternative to Labourism?

A close relationship exists between the Socialist Alliance's economism, its sect primitivism and its amateurism. While the sights of our cadre are occluded by trade union-type issues - wages, anti-trade union laws, etc - instead of widened by high politics and the vistas of extreme democracy, while confessional sects are considered of greater value than the founding of a party, there is every reason to put the Socialist Alliance on the Procrustean bed of a united front of a special kind. That intellectual butchery excuses economism, sect primitivism and amateurism.

We, however, are confident that with the rapid growth of the Socialist Alliance such an artificial imposition cannot hold. Our trade union militants will unite together on the ground. Our members will freely and fiercely debate. Our cadre will soon come to despise and ridicule amateurism. And, ironic as it may appear to some, the greater exodus there is from the Labour Party, the more certain does the formation of a Socialist Alliance party become.

Comrades such as Dave Church, Mike Marqusee, Louise Christian and Liz Davies did not break with Labour in order to join a sect like the SWP, nor an SWP front. I believe that what these and other such comrades want is a party.

Communists have theoretical differences with the above mentioned comrades. That is no revelation. Yet the fight for a Socialist Alliance party is something we have in common. Once the general election has been fought and we have recovered from the celebrations, the party question will immediately assert itself. All pro-party forces must, and surely will, unite as one to bring to fruition that overriding aim.

Jack Conrad