Welsh Socialist Alliance

Resignation and retreat

Adramatic resignation from the Socialist Workers Party by a leading member in Gwent during the middle of the Welsh Socialist Alliance national council meeting in Wrexham on December 9 has highlighted the imminent crisis facing the Socialist Alliance project in the principality.

The background to Richard Morse's decision to quit the SWP lay in that organisation's decision last month to submit a constitutional amendment for January's WSA annual conference proposing a major overhaul of its constitution (see 'Why I resigned from the SWP' below). Virtually identical in essence to the SWP proposals ratified at the December 1 London conference of the Socialist Alliance in England, the amendment submitted takes little or no account of the very different circumstances facing the WSA.

As reported in previous editions of the Weekly Worker, the WSA is the weakest link in the alliance project in Great Britain. Not only has it been unable to  achieve anything comparable to the Scottish Socialist Party; it also lags dreadfully behind the project in England, where some kind of momentum was built up in the general election campaign, even if it was allowed to fall away since.

Lacking a Tommy Sheridan or a Dave Nellist and not possessing in its ranks the calibre of the London-based leaders of the main political affiliates, the WSA was always going to face a more difficult task in mobilising the socialists in Wales to its banner. Without a national office or full-timer, the difficulties of trying to become an efficient, professional organisation are further compounded.

Yet this has only been one element of the WSA's problems. Although it emerged largely as a result of negotiations between the Socialist Party and the left nationalist grouping, Cymru Goch, in 1998, neither of these organisations has consistently backed the WSA project. Throughout the alliance's short history, the SP has been content to put the WSA on the back burner, always happier to build its sect project. At times the SP has played a profoundly negative role, fully deserving the contempt many WSA activists have for it.

Since the last conference in January 2001 Cymru Goch has also become a semi-detached member of the alliance, losing faith in the prospects of the WSA evolving on similar lines to the SSP. CG has been content to propagandise about a Welsh Socialist Party, but no longer sees the WSA as likely to have a meaningful role in such a process.

The decision of the SWP to enter the WSA in the second half of 2000 did, however, open the prospect of ending the paralysis that had already affected the WSA. The SWP is the largest left group in Wales, though relatively much smaller than in either England or Scotland, and the undoubted energy and dynamism that SWP members could bring appeared to offer the opportunity for the WSA to overcome its isolation.

This was certainly the case up to the general election. SWP members threw themselves into building the alliance, helping to establish branches where none existed before and energising branches already established. The fact that the WSA was able to stand six parliamentary candidates (despite opposition to this by the SP) and gain a party election broadcast was testament to the positive role played by the SWP.

However, since June 7, the SWP has played an increasingly negative role in the WSA, albeit not on the scale of the SP. The SWP has preferred to operate through its front organisations - the Anti-Nazi League, Globalise Resistance, Stop the War Coalition, etc - and relegated the WSA to a secondary pastime of some of its members. Thus SWP, not WSA, speakers have been billed to speak at public meetings against the war. Only where non-aligned members have some influence (eg, in Gwent) has this tendency to downgrade the WSA been counteracted.

Such is the current state of affairs in the WSA that it must now perhaps be the only political organisation on the face of the planet to have failed to take a stance on the events of September 11 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan. Branches of the WSA meet infrequently, the SWP only rekindling enthusiasm for the alliance when it comes to elections (as in the Swansea East by-election in September). One does not need to be a cynic to be deeply concerned about the WSA in the SWP's scheme of things.

So it would require a good amount of tact and persuasion on the SWP's part if its proposals for revamping the constitution were not to be treated by others with extreme caution. With current membership of the WSA counted in the tens and not the hundreds, even loyal SWP members were bound to wonder about the future of an organisation that, assuming the SP left as a result, would be little more than the SWP, a handful of Workers Power and CPGB supporters and some non-aligned members (given that CG is also preparing to leave if the conference does not support its demand for an independent socialist Wales).

Unfortunately, unlike in England, the SWP in Wales has not even bothered to try to sell its ideas to WSA members. Led by a new full-timer in Cardiff who must think that subtlety is a bourgeois concept, the SWP has of late been behaving with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Even before its constitutional amendment had even been sent out to WSA members, the SWP chair of the WSA, Martin Chapman, was already privately emailing certain people to invite them on to the SWP's slate for the national executive (a committee which does not as yet exist).

Yet whilst comrade Chapman was starting the private charm offensive, no attempt was made by the SWP to engage the wider layers of the WSA membership in debate about its proposals. No suggestions to have the debate take place in the branches, nor to produce a document, as in England, to raise awareness of the issues at stake. Not even on the official egroup of the WSA did any member of the SWP bother to explain and justify its proposals (despite comrade Morse's request that they do so). It does not take a genius to work out that the SWP machine in Wales was trying to avoid any debate at all with WSA members.

Clearly, this did not have to be the case. Unfortunately the SWP in Wales does not have the tactical acumen to recognise that WSA members cannot be treated like the SWP rank and file. Attempts made by comrade Morse to encourage such an approach within the SWP were not always met with a comradely response. Shame.

Thus, when the national council met on December 9 (attended by five - soon to be four - members of the SWP, two SPers, one member each of the CPGB and CG and three independents), it was obvious that the SWP proposals would dominate the meeting, especially given the SP's walkout in London the previous weekend. Little did we know though what was about to happen.

The first bone of contention was the venue of the conference, to be held on January 20. A challenge was made over the way the decision had been taken at the previous NC meeting. The chair, non-aligned socialist Jack Gilbert, accepted that the decision had fallen foul of the bureaucratic rule stipulating that no organisation should have more than 40% of voting rights. Consequently, a new vote was taken, with three suggestions being made: the SWP proposed Cardiff, the SP Rhayader in mid-Wales and the CPGB Merthyr in the south Wales valleys.

Most in the room knew what was at stake with this vote. If the SWP got Cardiff, then they would easily carry the day. SWP members are not good travellers. And they would not need to engage the WSA in a debate prior to the conference about their amendment. The purpose of the CPGB proposal for Merthyr was to seek a compromise so that debate would then focus on the SWP's proposals and not backbiting about the conference venue.

At this point the meeting temporarily broke up. Given that the SWP contingent had over 40% of those attending (41.67% by my calculations!), one of the SWP's five members would have to abstain from voting. No need to guess whom the SWP selected - comrade Morse of course. Yet at this point Richard called his comrades' bluff. Disgusted at their attempts to foist on the WSA their amendment, he announced he would resign immediately from the SWP and vote as an independent. After the Merthyr option fell, comrade Morse - voting rights miraculously restored - cast the decisive vote in favour of Rhayader. The SWP contingent were none to pleased.

Later, discussion moved on to the conference itself. Steve Bell, an independent and WSA candidate in Torfaen, kicked off the discussion by stating that the SWP's proposals were ill conceived, given the tiny size of the WSA. Although disgusted by the SP's withdrawal from the SA in England, he felt it would be ill-conceived to offer the green light to the SP to repeat it in Wales. He asked the SWP to withdraw its proposals.

At this stage an SP member took offence at the notion that the SP had any intention of walking out of the WSA if the SWP amendment went through. He then flatly contradicted himself when he said he would have "great difficulty" staying in the WSA if the amendment was passed. At this stage the SWP comrades were still refusing to comment on their amendment, feeling that it was not the concern of the national council.

The CPGB contribution noted that there was much of merit in the SWP's amendment, even though it contained within it the seeds of future SWP domination. After all, majorities should have the right to be majorities. However, the amendment only made sense in the context where the WSA merged with the SA in a single organisation. This would be a good thing. Yet, without this commitment from the SWP to a united Socialist Alliance, then the virtual basket case that the WSA has become would have a constitution quite inappropriate to its stage of development. Whilst the SWP continues to dodge the national question, there would always be a problem transferring English solutions to a separate Welsh alliance project.

At this point, Julian Goss of the SWP brought a rabbit out of the hat. Aware that all his opponents, except the SP, are pro-partyists (although most adhere to the WSP model, rather than the CPGB model of an all-Britain party), he began a belated defence of the amendment by stating that by passing it we would be moving on the road to a party! An interesting interpretation, given that the SWP leadership has been most careful to avoid using this argument in England. Let us hope his central committee endorses it. It may be currently lost on his leadership, but Julian had a good point - there is a definite pro-party logic inherent in the Socialist Alliance project. We wait to see whether he continues to take up this theme.

Comrade Gilbert then proposed a compromise formula. He asked that the SWP withdraw the amendment at January's conference. Instead, the WSA would hold a constitutional convention in May where we could discuss the constitution in the context of the national question and the party question. The SWP refused to withdraw the amendment, but nevertheless the national council voted by nine to three to go ahead with the convention. One of the SWP contingent voted for this proposal, as did a non-aligned member who had actually seconded the SWP's constitutional amendment.

It is to be hoped that the SWP will reflect upon this vote. The WSA deserves to have a reasonable period of time where it can openly debate party, constitution and the national question in a fully rounded way. It would actually be tactically astute for the SWP to delay its proposals to avoid future accusations that it is shunning debate. Ultimately, however, if the SWP wants its constitutional amendment passed, then it will probably get its way. I hear, though, that the SWP leadership has been leaning on its comrades in Wales to withdraw their proposals.

The CPGB believes, in particular, that an open and honest debate on the national question is both vital and inevitable. The WSA officially adopts a curious position. In its document, Towards a socialist Wales, agnosticism on the national question (there is no recognition of the right of the people of Wales to self-determination) intertwines with a nationalist-reformist set of practical policies which seem to ignore the fact that Wales is part of the UK state: for example, the demand for "free travel on all Welsh trains, buses and ferries for pensioners". This amounts to an implicit concession to nationalism - neither the SP nor the SWP is prepared to openly and honestly argue for unity. Nor are they prepared to challenge the damaging division of socialists in Britain into national/royal units. For a start the WSA should take up the Socialist Alliance's offer of a representative on its leadership.

Unless the politics of the national question are brought out into the open, the WSA will remain at sea and risk paralysis. Undoubtedly, the struggle itself will decide. Communists must champion the right of self-determination for Wales and Scotland, but we will, at the same time, argue and work for the closest political unity of revolutionaries and all workers in Wales, Scotland and England against the UK state.

Our slogan, whether we be in the kingdom of England, kingdom of Scotland or the principality of Wales, is: 'One state, one Socialist Alliance party'.

Cameron Richards