Vehicle for struggle

Which way for the Socialist Alliance? Mike Marqusee, an independent member of the SA executive, argues for a permanent, democratic and representative structure

In the discussion around the future of the Socialist Alliance and whether it should become a ?party?, it is sometimes forgotten that in conventional terms the SA already is a party. To the vast majority of the population, when you stand candidates for election under a common banner, you?re a party.

What concerns many people, then, is what else is meant by ?becoming a party?, if we are not already one.

One proposal on offer is that the SA should become a revolutionary party with a democratic centralist form of organisation. Leaving aside for the moment the absence of any consensus about what constitutes either a revolutionary programme or ?genuine? democratic centralism, there are, for many of us already involved in the SA (and I believe for many more currently outside) some fundamental objections to this idea.

The political space for the Socialist Alliance has opened up because of Labour?s decisive shift to the right and the transformation of the Labour Party as an institution. I?ve heard this described as a crisis of reformism, but it seems a peculiar one - in which the crisis consists of the principal historic vehicle for reformism abandoning all previously known reformist tenets and practices. The question for socialists at the moment is not whether workers will break from New Labour to revolutionary politics: it is whether the working class will reawaken and re-engage politically.

Both a revolutionary programme and democratic centralism are in my view obstacles to this process; they fail to meet the needs of working class people in struggle, and offer them an all-or-nothing kind of politics that has failed in the past.

Even those many Weekly Worker readers who will disagree with that last sentence must concede that the track record of organisations calling themselves ?revolutionary? and/or ?democratic centralist? has been fairly chequered (to put it mildly). People have sound reasons grounded in real experiences for being extremely reluctant to commit themselves to anything that may smack of this kind of ?party?.

Working class people looking for an alternative to New Labour?s neo-liberalism are (in my view, logically) not seeking a revolutionary party - nor are they seeking a reborn Labour Party in the old mould. As someone who spent 20-odd years in the Labour Party, I would definitely not want to see it recreated - nor could that be done, even if we wanted to. The social forces which created and sustained the Labour Party have changed, as has the context - economic, political, cultural - in which they operate.

The Socialist Alliance should see itself, and behave, as part of the broader labour or working class movement. Trades unions and trades unionists will support the SA only when they believe it can offer an effective vehicle for representation and struggle. That will require a sustained and long-term effort. At the same time, the SA needs to work with and draw in a wide range of people whose struggles or activities are not centred in the trade unions, including anti-racist, community-based, peace, environmental and international campaigners, pensioner, tenants and, of course, anti-capitalist activists. Most importantly, it has to draw in people not previously engaged in any form of political activity - the vast majority of the working class.

We need a form of organisation that is inviting, flexible and straightforward enough to embrace and enfranchise all these people. Federal structures based on organised groups will act as a block to that, as will anything that makes participants feel they are merely campaign fodder for others over whose decisions they have no control. In addition, a federal structure may end up maximising disunity, and obscuring the real processes of debate and decision-making.

The SA should therefore be a single, national membership organisation - ie, you pay a sub and you acquire the basic rights of membership and participation. I can?t see any other way that individuals who are not also members of organised groups - the activists and newcomers referred to above - can play a full and democratic role.

We need to demarcate ourselves clearly from both the top-down bureaucratism of the Labour Party (?old? and ?new?) and the sometimes authoritarian antics of groups to the left of Labour. To do that, I am proposing we adopt a charter of members? rights along the following lines:

?All members of the Socialist Alliance shall enjoy:

Officers of the Socialist Alliance at every level shall endeavour to ensure that the rights of members are respected at all times.?

In addition, I think we need to adopt something along the following lines:

?All members of the Socialist Alliance shall:

These broad parameters will help assure the people we need to attract that their contribution will be useful and respected, however intensive or casual it might be. (I realise that any membership requirements imply some sort of mechanism of enforcement: ie, a grievance/disciplinary procedure. I would hope the SA could keep that as simple but also as fair as possible. The last thing we want is some kind of heavy-handed internal police.)

Although an individual membership structure is a prerequisite for the SA?s growth, there is still a need to ensure that minority rights are protected and that a plurality of views, traditions, etc are genuinely represented. Therefore I would support an executive for the SA comprised of people elected in a variety of ways, including direct representation of organised/affiliated groups (as well as any trade unions or independent campaigning organisations that might wish to become SA supporters in the future). However, the majority of the executive should be elected by individual members - nationally and from the regions - and the overall policies of the SA determined by an annual conference of all members.

The executive should be given those powers necessary for it to carry out basic organisational functions, to provide resources to and in general to enable and facilitate local Socialist Alliances, and to promote the national profile of the Socialist Alliance.

Despite my criticism of the calls for a revolutionary programme, I do accept that the SA has much work to do if it is to develop a rounded, convincing and coherent set of policies. The SA should have an annual national policy-making conference and the executive should undertake policy research and development under its direction. But local SAs should retain the flexibility to form their own policies and choose their own emphases and priorities.

If all this amounts to turning the SA into a ?party?, then so be it. However, for god?s sake, let?s not change our name to ?the Socialist Alliance Party?. Apart from the unfortunate acronym, it will sound pretty silly to most people not attuned to discussions within the SA. There is no reason why a membership organisation cannot also be an ?alliance?, unless the dictionary definition of the word is abandoned.

By retaining our identity as an alliance - ie, a coming together of people with diverse backgrounds and views, and unashamed of that diversity - we also avoid the connotations of enforced uniformity associated with the word ?party?, whether in its conventional (bourgeois) or Marxist usages.