Moving forward together
The final meeting of the Socialist Alliance executive before the general election took place in Birmingham on Saturday May 12. A full agenda saw the meeting run well over time as comrades came to grips with the final tasks before June 7.
In assessing the political context in which we enter the election campaign, both John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party and Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group identified a unique opportunity for the left. While Blair had gambled in postponing the election, his gamble has clearly played off. Foot and mouth is largely under control and, if anything, has spread to the Tories - mutating into foot in mouth disease. The Conservatives are in complete disarray. This will help the left vote to some extent, as voters have no fear of a socialist vote ?letting the Tories in?.
Comrade Nick Wrack outlined what he saw as a twofold constituency for the Socialist Alliance. Disillusioned Labour voters is one core area, the other being those who would not normally vote - people, particularly youth, who feel disenfranchised by the political system itself.
All present felt that by fielding more than 90 candidates in England we had far exceeded initial expectations. Comrade Rees pointed to the fact that the Weekly Worker was calling for 100-plus candidates back in July last year while others were much more cautious in their ambitions. But even the CPGB was being overly cautious, as our ?100-plus? was for all socialist candidates in Britain. With the SSP standing in all 72 constituencies in Scotland, the Socialist Alliances and the SSP combined will be standing one of the largest slates of leftwing candidates in British history.
Other positive aspects of the campaign were covered by the executive, including news of our party political broadcast to be shown on May 22 on six channels. We will also be broadcasting on five radio stations, starting today.
While our national finances are far from healthy, the story on the ground in the constituencies is much rosier, with most local alliances comfortably covering their election expenses. Nationally we cleared expenditure on our national office, our London launch on May 16 and on a Mori poll.
Despite being a new political force in this general election, our media coverage has been greater than many expected. The Guardian has the Socialist Alliance listed as one of the five minor parties, alongside the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and UKIP (May 12). Our success is in no small measure down to the sterling work of the media committee led by Anna Chen and Mike Marqusee. However, it is still difficult to break into the spotlight on our own terms. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme had invited Dave Nellist to go head to head with Arthur Scargill. Comrade Nellist declined. The executive backed comrade Nellist?s decision, though some, including myself, raised the issue of how we tackle the Socialist Labour Party.
Until now, most organisations in the alliance had hoped we could just ignore the SLP and it would go away. The CPGB has never had this view. Openly challenging Scargill and his sectarianism is the way forward, both for arming the broader working class and for arming Socialist Alliance activists. A recent e-mail on the Socialist Alliance press list expressed shock and surprise that the SLP was standing against the alliance in Bristol. If we do not equip our own people with the information and arguments about the SLP, then we are not fully prepared for the election.
To this end, it was welcome that the SA executive discussed a collective approach to the SLP. Scargill seems set to stand in 35 seats where there are alliance candidates. Some of these have been parachuted in on Scargill?s orders after local SLPers chose to stand elsewhere to avoid a clash. SA comrades should approach these people to ask them to reconsider their candidacy. Up to now, requests to discuss unity with the SLP nationally have not even been considered worthy of a response by King Arthur.
The remaining items on the agenda - on candidates and a resolution from the Socialist Party on Hackney - were controversial. In a positive development, while these discussions were held in a sometimes blunt and angry manner, the open airing of differences and commitment to reach a resolution was refreshing. A real collectivism is developing at the top of the alliance, pointing to the beginnings of a healthy partyist culture.
A difference over the minutes of the previous meeting emerged. Dave Church said that the final motion on Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance and the walk-out and subsequent complaint from the SWP did not reflect what he recalled. The motion called on the BSA to allow membership to anyone who accepted the general national policies of the Socialist Alliance. Comrade Church said that this was unacceptable and if this is what went through, it is not what he thought he was supporting.
I pointed out that much of the confusion came from the fact that most people thought that in order to join the BSA you had to agree with its policy document. This has never been the case. Acceptance of the majority position is all that has ever been required to join the BSA. This state of affairs is confirmed by a response to the executive inquiry from the BSA itself. The matter was noted and laid on the table, effectively ending the controversy. Both myself and comrade Rob Hoveman reported that cordial relations had broken out in Luton.
Comrade Clive Heemskerk of the Socialist Party reported that local socialists in Bolsover, Derbyshire (not SPers, he assures us) had inquired about standing against Dennis Skinner. This prompted a wide-ranging discussion about our attitude to Labour lefts. It needs be remembered that last year at a Liaison Committee meeting a motion from our most Labourite of comrades in the ISG, Dave Packer, urged a blanket ban on standing against any Labour left or in any marginal seat. This was thrown out, especially after Dave Nellist pointed out that his seat was marginal precisely because of his relative success there.
The discussion on Bolsover began with Alan Thornett of the ISG pondering over how leftwing Skinner was and is. I argued that this was completely the wrong method, a passive method and a method that fails to engage with workers in those constituencies. Deciding in committee rooms behind the backs of the class just who is and who is not leftwing is no way to raise politics among workers. In addition, it is worth reminding comrades that we must not only actively engage with traditionally leftwing Labour voters: we also have to attract the disenfranchised, often younger, voters, for whom Dennis Skinner means little or nothing.
I urged an approach that takes politics to these Labour lefts, which tests them out in front of the class. A reasonable litmus test for the alliance would be to present our 15 headline points to Labour candidates and ask if they could support them. Someone such as Jeremy Corbyn no doubt could, in which case he may actively deserve the vote of socialists. It is unlikely Skinner would hold up to such examination.
Comrades from the Walsall Democratic Labour Party expressed no love lost over Skinner, who had been involved in pushing them out of the Labour Party. John Rothery said that if what existed in Bolsover was a genuine alliance, then it was not the role of this committee to stand in its way: ?We are not a central committee,? he said.
John Rees conceded that an active approach to Labour lefts had its merits and that no doubt Jeremy Corbyn would have passed any approach by socialists. Comrade Rees said he could see no good reason not to stand. But Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers? Liberty was against opposing Skinner. He said it would create the wrong impression.
National chair Dave Nellist argued in favour, pointing out that we were only just over the threshold for a party political broadcast. He reminded comrades that it was a very safe Labour seat, giving by way of example CPGB candidacies against Labour lefts in safe seats before World War II. Comrade Nellist pointed out that during the Callaghan government Kinnock broke the Labour whip more times than Skinner. And while comrade Nellist said that older leftists may remember the Dennis Skinner of the miners? strike, he had been invisible in the current parliament and there was a completely different perception among younger voters.
Rob Hoveman of the SWP informed the meeting that it was possible that Skinner may not stand due to ill health. In which case Ken Coates had expressed an interest in contesting the seat. Comrade Hoveman argued that, such was Skinner?s reputation and record, it seemed that the further from Bolsover one was, the more leftwing Skinner appeared.
Throughout the debate, which was clearly going the way of supporting an SA candidate in Bolsover, comrade Thornett of the ISG was visibly uncomfortable. The painful divisions in this Labourite outfit as it moves further in the direction of standing independently of Labour, but not independent of its politics, have obviously had their costs.
The executive passed a motion ?noting the concerns? of some regarding a socialist campaign in Bolsover. However, the motion also states that we will support an SA campaign if the local socialists believe one should go ahead. It turns out that local activists have decided against standing. However, this decision marked another step forward for the executive.
The next controversy concerned Bolton. It seems that local activists, led by the SWP, went ahead and formed a Bolton Socialist Alliance without asking the permission of the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance executive. Bolton SA has already chosen ex-NUJ president Dave Toomer as its candidate. Comrades John Nicholson and Declan O?Neill stated that all candidates in the Greater Manchester area must be cleared by the GMSA executive. Comrade Nicholson is therefore claiming that there has been no actual selection and there is no alliance in Bolton because his committee has not approved it.
Comrades will remember that the executive of the GMSA was among the most cautious in terms of candidates for the general election. Comrade Nicholson originally wanted to stand only a handful in England. Apparently a couple of GMSA members in Bolton were not happy with a campaign going ahead, and raised the issue of ?due process? with the GMSA officers.
To my mind it is ridiculous to hold back the announcement of a former president of a national trade union to placate the petty conservatism of a handful of people. It is only the Liaison Committee - or the executive committee in its stead - that can approve or disapprove a candidate. However, to appease the feelings of the GMSA, the executive agreed to hold off announcing comrade Toomer?s candidature until the May 16 GMSA committee meeting had duly given its blessing. With the increasing professionalism and unity of the alliance, such petty displays of localist narrowness will surely disappear.
The CPGB raised the issue of Brent East. I expressed regret that the Brent and Harrow Socialist Alliance had decided against standing in the constituency. I pointed out the anomaly that the CPGB, one of the six principal supporting organisations of the alliance, did not have a candidate in London. I singled out the ISG for criticism: its comrades had opposed any contest in the seat and refused to back the selection of a candidate. But the CPGB would not pursue the matter further and would respect the democracy of the local alliance.
Comrade Alan Thornett of the ISG said that his understanding that the reason no candidate had been selected was down to resources alone - clearly not the case. While regretting the outcome in Brent East, the executive agreed that no action should be taken. Instead, we passed a resolution noting the necessity for more candidates and calling on Socialist Alliances to reconsider seats in their areas, even if they had previously decided not to stand in them.
The final controversial matter of the day was not about the general election, but about the by-election in Hackney, London (see pp2-3). This debate was triggered by a motion from the SP?s Clive Heemskerk and Dave Nellist calling on Hackney Socialist Alliance to withdraw its candidate in the Northwold ward in favour of the Socialist Party-sponsored ?anti-cuts? candidate. This motion was resoundingly defeated.
At the heart of this question is the future of the alliance. While the SP engaged in brinkmanship and won its way over its own 12 candidates in the general election, there is no mood to allow it to continue its sectarian wrecking. The majority on the executive said that if a real independent ?anti-cuts? candidate emerged, then the job of the SA components would be to try and convince them to stand as Socialist Alliance with our full backing. If we lost the argument, we could then consider backing the anti-cuts campaign. This is not what happened in Hackney. The SP consciously and deliberately sought to turn its advantage on the shops stewards? committee to run a specifically non-SA candidature.
Of particular significance in this debate was the admission for the first time from comrades Nellist and Heemskerk that the Socialist Party did not even try to argue for an SA campaign. Comrade Nellist confirmed that this failure was a ?deliberate strategy of the Socialist Party?. Comrade Heemskerk went further and argued that SP comrades could have used their influence among the shop stewards to win the argument for an SA campaign. They did not attempt this. What a contrast to comrade Nellist when he said that in a similar situation in Coventry he had argued for an SA campaign. Comrade Nellist will have to make his mind up some time.
All this raises the question of the SP?s role in the alliance once again. Its official position, for internal consumption, is that, with the SWP holding hegemony, the alliance project is a ?partial block? to the formation of a new mass workers? party. It is clear that the SP does not have the commitment to the alliance that other supporting organisations share - to put it mildly.
It seems that there will now be a split left vote in Northwold ward.
Our final discussion was on ?the future?. Central to this was the pace at which our alliance will become a party. All present welcomed Lindsay German?s recent article in Socialist Worker; in fact, what comrade German outlined as her preferred option (neither party nor present set-up) was described as a ?party in all but name? by comrades Mark Hoskisson (Workers Power) and Nick Wrack.
My call for a conference in October to take an in-principle decision to form a party was received positively only by Alan Thornett. Others thought this too early. However, with the end of the election campaign, we will need to keep up the momentum. A conference in spring 2002, as proposed by comrade Nellist, is in danger of dissipating our strength gained through the election.
The executive decided to call for a series of post-election local conferences to analyse our campaign. Further, we floated the idea of a discussion bulletin for the alliance about the way forward. And finally we agree in principle to organise a trade union conference to discuss Socialist Alliance work in the unions.
While the executive officially ceases formal existence on June 7, it was agreed that the officers and those who had sat on the executive meet together on June 16 to discuss and debrief our campaign.
In all, a positive meeting. While many contentious issues were discussed in a sometimes blunt manner, the spirit of collective work beyond the election - the spirit of partyism - is gathering force.