Catalyst for regeneration

Pete Radcliff, member of the Alliance for Workers? Liberty and Socialist Alliance candidate for Nottingham East, achieved an excellent result. Sam Metcalf asked him about the general election and the prospects for deeper unity

You won over 1,000 votes (almost four percent) in Nottingham East - the fifth best SA result. How do you account for this good showing?

We got 1,117 votes and, yes, that was good. But I remember when we were working for Lol Duffy, a member of our organisation, jailed for his leadership of the Cammell Laird?s shipyard occupation and standing as Labour candidate for Birkenhead in 1987. He got well over 20,000 votes and came within 250 votes of defeating Thatcher?s minister, Lynda Chalker, despite the neighbouring Labour MP, Frank Field, publicly denouncing him as a jailbird and a Marxist and calling on people not to vote for him. By comparison with Lol?s, none of the SA?s results were good.

In an election we have to explain how a vote for us might lead to the act of forming a government loyal to working class interests. And that is the reason why the best workers vote: a protest can be justified, but only if it can be understood to bring some sort of direct control over who governs us now or what government can eventually be brought into being. That was far more difficult for us than it was in Lol?s campaign.

The Socialist Alliance campaign mobilised those who know that the Lib Dems are electoral opportunists without an ounce of accountability to the workers? movement. The Socialist Alliance mobilised those who have already deduced that New Labour will not budge significantly through friendly persuasion from their union affiliates. But nationally no attempts were made to convince anyone of these facts or at least think them through.

There are many workers, a great many - particularly in unions like the GMB, TGWU and Unison - who are still fed bullshit from their union leaders, like John Edmunds of the GMB, that they have real influence. An example: a GMB shop steward in our constituency, in the middle of being victimised by the Labour council, I was unable to convince to vote SA. Why? Because he believes Edmunds that his union has real influence over Labour.

He is wrong - but if an experienced, committed and intelligent socialist like him is unwilling to vote SA, then that is an indicator of what we are up against. We have to patiently explain, persuade and argue that we are realists, not naive protest politicians. That we have attempted, and will continue to attempt, to use whatever influence unions have over Labour to stop Blair. But at the same time that we have seriously looked at what is possible, and that it is necessary through an electoral challenge to lay the basis for a political re-establishment for working class representation.

These are not easy arguments and they necessitate a campaign prepared to explain through dialogue rather than announce through proclamation. We in Nottingham had a marginally better grasp of this than the national campaign, primarily under the direction of the SWP, appeared to have.

How did the various left components and independents work together in Nottingham?

Far better than I imagined. It was refreshing on a personal basis that people were generally prepared to put aside party affiliations or previous hostilities in the interests of the wider objective. Despite very tense relations between the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, AWL, CPGB and supporters of the Scottish Socialist Party at the start of the campaign, all, I think, would acknowledge the contribution made by each at the end.

Can you tell me about your previous involvement in the labour movement and left politics?

I have been a Marxist and a revolutionary from my youth in 1968. After flirting with a number of Marxist organisations, I joined the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) in 1970, but was expelled with the Workers Fight tendency in 1971. I have been a member of the Alliance for Workers? Liberty and its organisational predecessors since that time.

After leaving university, I worked in the engineering and steel industries, where I got my real education in the 70s and early 80s from a number of disputes, strikes and occupations in which I was involved. I was a Labour Party member from 1972.

How optimistically did you greet the forming of the Socialist Alliance initially?

Although I have been a member of the Socialist Alliance for four years - like many, I consider the last year to be the important and exciting one. After tentative moves towards joint intervention around the Euro elections two years ago, it was clear during the London assembly elections that both the SWP and the SP were in a serious state of flux.

For most of the last 30 years the SWP has stood apart from serious political debates in the labour movement. The Socialist Party had only seriously started working with other sections of the left within the last four years or so. The arrogance that both of those organisations displayed to those outside their membership was suddenly and dramatically reduced from that evident throughout the 70s, 80s and most of the 90s.

Reasoned debate in earlier days was virtually impossible and outrageous characterisations of the AWL?s positions were allowed to pass as truths. When the Socialist Alliance was set up, such practices became increasingly difficult to get away with - as members of the SP and the SWP learnt that we were neither insignificant - as the SP portrayed us - nor were we pro-Nato, pro-Zionist, pro-imperialist rightwingers, as the SWP claimed.

Do you believe that the SA - as it stands now - is too localised?

If you mean that the Socialist Alliance has had an essentially localised development and needs a structure to be developed for a national democratic life, I?d agree. The biggest problem in the election was the absence of a widely accountable, day-to-day organisation.

The SWP used its own structures to substitute for weak ones in the SA. That might just be bad habits, convenience - or something less forgivable. But we need to ensure that we learn the lesson - organisational strength should not be allowed to substitute for political accountability and democracy.

What steps should be taken to rectify this absence of structure?

The SA is neither a mass party nor a revolutionary formation. If it is to play a role in the creation of either, it needs democracy as well as a campaigning direction. The SA meeting in Nottingham a week ago, with about 100 people in attendance, reminded me very much of the Bennite movement of the early 80s in its breadth and openness. That movement failed because it was locked in its internal battle with the right in the Labour Party. Some of us argued at the time for an orientation to workplaces, taking up the proposal for factory branches of the Labour Party. We could have married the militancy around the miners? strike with a wider political and industrial militancy. But there was insufficient openness and democracy to make that reorientation possible. We can?t afford that mistake to be made again.

How can the SA build on the election campaign? How do you view our development in the long term?

The SA cannot pretend to be a working class movement, even in embryo, but it can be a catalyst for the regeneration of a political workers? movement. The AWL?s proposal is for the SA to have a serious orientation to breaking unions from Blair - not by each union disaffiliating piecemeal, but by articulating a common programme with other unions and fighting for that programme using the limited, but existing links with Labour.

In the context of that fight and the industrial battles against privatisation, redundancies and for the rights to solidarity action, etc, unions will have to link up and organise politically. That can be the base for a new mass workers? party. The SA, with its success in this election and with the activists around it, could seriously speed that development.

But it has to clarify an understanding 1) that a mass workers? party is a serious objective; 2) that simply ?upping-and-outing? of the Labour Party (or disaffiliation) is not a serious way to fight for this. There is going to be a need for maximum tactical flexibility in this project. There are still serious opponents of Blair in the unions who believe that a political fight by their union against Blair might bring at least some control back over Labour. They should not be hectored with demands that they ?break with New Labour?, but should be joined in battle against Blair whenever possible.

The other aspect of the SA is that it has brought together all the genuine organisations that consider themselves revolutionary. This allows us the opportunity, for the first time in a generation, to have an open and honest discussion of our differences - with the possibilities that some of these differences may be overcome.

Some, such as Mike Marqusee and the SWP, object that the affairs of the SA should not be preoccupied with the issues of the revolutionary left. There is an obvious need for sensitivity towards individuals here, and for recognition by revolutionaries that some of their preoccupations are indeed not serious class issues (as I would argue with the CPGB?s preoccupation with the monarchy). And I would also accept that the SA must be habitable to those who are not interested in all aspects of revolutionary theory.

But we should not accept the SWP using this argument to refuse to discuss the issues that divide the revolutionary left. For most of the issues that seriously divide the revolutionary left - Ireland, Israel-Palestine, the issue of a mass workers? party, what it can achieve, how it can fight through councils and parliament, etc - are important issues for any serious socialist.

The SA can only benefit from a culture of debate and democracy, just as the Labour Party did, at its best and in its time.

What are your views on standing against left Labour MPs?

It is a foolish idea and I?m glad that the Socialist Alliance hasn?t done it. The Labour Party has been and remains, although substantially reduced, an area of struggle.

The few existing left Labour MPs would never get through the Labour leadership?s present nomination and selection process. Blair clearly doesn?t want any people who consider themselves accountable to the working class movement in his party. Therefore MPs who are prepared to make themselves accountable to the policies of the movement, and not to Blair, should be supported, although we should avoid any claim that their policies - or those of the Socialist Alliance, for that matter - represent a rounded socialist programme.

In order to strengthen our challenge to Labour, shouldn?t we move as quickly as possible towards converting the alliance into a party?

That begs the question of how quick that can be. A mass working class party and/or a unified organisation of revolutionaries would be a fantastic, historic achievement. But neither of these will be declared - they will have to be worked for.

A mass party will be built by us persuading major organisations of workers to break from Blair. A revolutionary organisation will come about when the views and votes of those considering themselves revolutionaries will no longer be determined by uncritical loyalty to factional instructions. This can only come about by a raising of the political level of the revolutionary left.

Last weekend?s SA executive meeting decided to organise an autumn conference. What concrete decisions would you like that conference to take?

A serious orientation to assisting the reorganisation of the militant rank and file movement across unions. Discussing the possibility of SA workplace bulletins - in areas such as the post office, local government, etc. A united view on the need to campaign for a mass workers? party and tactical flexibility on how that can be achieved.

If agreement is unobtainable on these, then at least a preparedness to continue to discuss these issues openly. A serious journal of the alliance, campaigning, discussing and educating (with guarantees for minorities) needs to be considered.

A widely-based executive body at the head of the alliance that recognises that centralism, whilst it might be organisationally attractive, can be destructive whilst such divergent views exist within the alliance.

What do you consider to be the SA?s biggest strength and weakness?

Biggest strength - that the chronically divided left has been compelled to work together. Biggest weakness - that there is no clear understanding of the purpose of that unity. To some the SA is the basis for all future electoral challenges to Labour - to others it?s a proto-revolutionary party. My belief is that it can assist in the development of both - but if it remains a confused hybrid, it will do neither.