Sectarian childishness

The London borough of Hackney has been in crisis ever since the formation of the Labour-Tory coalition - massive cuts, occupations, demonstrations, strikes and prosecutions for huge electoral fraud. If the left were to unite an immediate breakthrough is possible. Unfortunately - though part of the Socialist Alliance - the Socialist Party in England and Wales insists on pursuing its own narrow interests. Hackney SA officers Will McMahon and Mike Marqusee, presented this letter to the Socialist Alliance executive meeting of Saturday May 12 exposing SPEW?s decision to stand in a council by-election in opposition to the SA

Dear comrades

We write as officers and activists in the Hackney Socialist Alliance. At the outset, we wish to stress that neither of us is now or has ever been or intends to become a member of the Socialist Workers Party. We are both independent socialists and former Labour Party activists.

Here are the facts regarding the three council by-elections currently underway in Hackney.

As some of you may know, two of these were caused by the convictions for vote-rigging of sitting councillors. As soon as the councillors in question were charged, the Hackney Socialist Alliance announced that it would fight any by-elections resulting from criminal proceedings. This was reconfirmed many times in the period that followed, and was raised and discussed at several HSA meetings. At no time did any member of the Socialist Party object to this decision. Indeed, our resolve to stand in these particular by-elections was simply an expression of our general policy to contest by-elections in Hackney. In the Wick ward by-election last autumn, we secured more than 11% (beating the Tories and coming third).

Immediately after the councillors were convicted we set a date for a selection meeting - May 9 - which was widely publicised among all local SA members and contacts, including on our website.

It came to our attention that Socialist Party members had subsequently proposed to a meeting of Hackney council shop stewards (held on April 19) that there should be an anti-cuts candidate supported by union members in the by-elections, and that Brian Debus, the chair of Hackney Unison and an SP member, should be such a candidate. This proposal was agreed by a maximum of 10 (some of those present say only eight) votes for, with seven votes against, and the rest of those present abstaining.

It was unfortunate that the SP members made no effort to consult with other Socialist Alliance members in Hackney before pursuing this initiative. It was also unfortunate that no effort was made to communicate with us after the stewards meeting. In contrast, a number of our officers did make repeated efforts to ascertain what was going on, what the Unison branch?s position was, and what the SP?s position was. During this period there was a lively debate within the HSA about the proposal for Brian?s candidacy, with many different positions advanced and considered. That the SP members failed to take any part in this debate is one of the central problems in this whole affair.

Eventually we were informed that Brian Debus would stand as an anti-cuts candidate in Northwold ward, and that the decision was already made, though it was not clear by whom.

By this time our selection meeting was approaching and had been widely advertised. On the day before the meeting the two of us, together with two local members of the SWP who are also prominent SA activists, had arranged to meet with representatives of the stewards? committee. In the event, three members of the SP (two stewards and one full-timer) turned up to discuss the situation with us.

We were told that Brian Debus?s nomination had been rejected that afternoon by the council officers (because he is a council employee). So they had got Glenn Kelly, the Unison branch secretary in Bromley and an SP member who lives in Hackney, to stand as an anti-cuts candidate, and they now had the names of nine stewards willing to back him.

We noted that this proposal had not yet been put to the stewards? committee that had originally agreed to support a candidacy by Brian Debus. We asked the three SP members about this. We were told that the next stewards committee would not meet until Thursday, but that approval was ?only a formality? and that they were putting in the nomination the next day (Wednesday) in any case.

We asked what party or campaign name Glenn would stand under and were told ?Hackney Against Cuts and Corruption?. Later it transpired that Glenn would in fact be described on the ballot paper merely as ?Independent?.

The three SP members proposed that the SA and what they called ?the stewards committee? mutually endorse each other in the by-elections: they would stand in Northwold and the SA would stand in the other two. They wanted us to agree this proposal there and then, but we insisted that only the meeting on the 9th - to which all local SA members had been invited - could make such a decision. We urged them to come to the meeting and submit and argue for any proposal they wished, and we made it clear that on our part we would accept any decision made by this democratic process. We suggested that they should consider nominating Glenn as the SA candidate in the Northwold by-election. We asked how any ?stewards? committee? campaign in Northwold would be run, and were told that it would be run by a committee with a majority of stewards on it. They made it clear that whatever the decision of the SA meeting on May 9, they would go ahead with Glenn Kelly?s campaign.

The SA meeting the next night was attended by more than 100 people - most of whom had come to help kick off Cecilia Prosper?s general election campaign in Hackney South and Shoreditch. We selected candidates for the other two by-elections, then invited the representatives of the ?stewards? committee? to make and argue for their proposal. A member of the SP did so.

We then moved to a debate in which four speakers were called for the proposal, and four against. All were given exactly the same amount of time - with the exception of John Page, the Unison branch secretary, who was given additional time to speak in support of the proposal. In addition, the mover of the ?stewards committee? proposal, an SP member, was given further time to reply at the end of the debate.

Among the arguments made against the proposal were the following:

1. It was not a proposal from the ?stewards committee?, did not have real union backing, and was actually supported only by a small number of individuals. The Socialist Alliance itself was a much broader forum and had a numerically much larger base and indeed broader trade union support.

2. Single-issue approaches to elections are rarely successful and rarely leave anything of value behind.

3. It was vital that any left by-election campaign in Northwold tackle racism and anti-semitism; the written proposal for the stewards campaign mentioned only the anti-cuts/anti-privatisation platform. In the current context in Hackney, where a reactionary group calling itself ?Hackney First? and also claiming to be ?against cuts and corruption? is standing in the by-elections, that was a dangerous approach.

4. For the anti-cuts message to work in an election, it had to be placed within a socialist context (not least to explain where the money for local services would come from); that was what the Socialist Alliance was for.

We then took a vote, 14 voted for the ?stewards committee? proposal. Four abstained. The rest of the more than 100 present voted against.

We then proceeded to select a candidate for the Northwold by-election. Diana Swingler was agreed nem con. Diana is the chair of Homerton Hospital Unison, the secretary of Hackney Fightback (the umbrella group for anti-cuts campaigners in the borough) and as a parent was one of the leaders of the widely publicised nursery occupations last year. She was our candidate in the Wick by-election, where she performed admirably and established a profile across the borough. She is also a member of the SWP.

The following morning, the stewards committee met. The SP members turned up with their proposal to back Glenn Kelly and with a leaflet attacking the Socialist Alliance and also attacking by name Mitch Dublin, a prominent Unison shop steward, SWP member, and at the moment the SA candidate in the Queensbridge by-election (also coinciding with the general election).

We are told that their approach was not welcomed by the stewards? committee. The stewards ?committee did not vote to endorse Glenn Kelly?s candidacy. The SP members told the stewards they would proceed with the candidacy anyway.

So the upshot is that Glenn Kelly?s candidacy is not supported by the stewards? committee or any other union body. Subsequent claims that he has the backing of various numbers of stewards should be treated with extreme caution, as we have learned through bitter experience.

Glenn Kelly is well known in Bromley and among Unison activists, but he is not known among people in Hackney. That is not a criticism of Glenn, but yet another reason why his candidacy cannot be described as a locally rooted affair. The truth is that Glenn?s candidacy is now nothing but a rump SP operation, and it will end in disaster for all concerned.

We appeal to Glenn and the SP members in Hackney to withdraw this divisive nomination and to take part in the HSA by-election and general election campaigns. They have much to contribute, and we deeply regret that they have so far chosen to withhold that contribution.

It is unfortunately necessary here to add some further background. Despite repeated overtures, repeated attempts to facilitate communication and involvement, the SP members in Hackney have played absolutely no role whatsoever in the HSA - its electioneering, its many public events, its internal discussions and local meetings.

In relation to Hackney Fightback, instead of playing a positive role in this broad-based community campaign, strongly supported by the HSA, they sought repeatedly to set up alternatives controlled by themselves. We must stress that Hackney Fightback has repeatedly leafleted the borough in support of council workers? actions, has organised rallies attended by over 800 (at which national figures including Tony Benn have brought support to Hackney workers? struggle), has mobilised again and again for days of action and strikes, and has played a leading role in the nursery occupations and other campaigns to save local facilities. A leading SP member was asked to take one of the officer positions in HFB, but he declined.

We also have to note that the submissions from the SP to the executive contain numerous and serious misrepresentations of events, individuals and political positions. We have neither the time nor the inclination to dignify this sort of disingenuous rhetoric with a detailed reply.

The Socialist Alliance campaign in Northwold will be an efficient and high-profile effort, addressing cuts and privatisation, racism and anti-semitism, environmental issues, etc. It will be linked in to our intensive general election campaign, which is creating something of a storm in Hackney. We have no intention of abandoning working class voters in Northwold. They have the same right and need as anyone else in Hackney to choose a socialist option on the ballot paper.

Having left the Labour Party because of its undemocratic internal regime, it is vital to the two of us that we preserve our right to take part in the selection of candidates and formation of policies. We cannot accept that a small, minority component within the Hackney SA has the right to dictate to us who we should or should not support and on what political basis. That is a matter of principle for us, and if the SA abandons that principle, we would both have to reconsider our current roles in the general election campaign.

We remain flabbergasted that members of the SP in Hackney would behave in this manner in the midst of a general election campaign where public unity is so vital to all of us. On a personal note, we are both bitterly resentful that we have had to take precious time away from our urgent election tasks to deal with this matter.

Really, we?ve both had enough of this childishness and we expect our Socialist Alliance executive to put a stop to it.