Media red scare shows alliance potential

Reading some of the recent inaccurate and sensationalist scare stories about the Socialist Alliance, one cannot help thinking, 'If only it was like that.' If only the SA was a coherent, disciplined force, capable of leading, nurturing and coordinating workers' struggles and channelling them politically to take on the system of capital itself. The past few weeks have seen a concerted effort by sections of the media to raise the spectre of a new 'winter of discontent' on the model of 1978-9: the "dark age" of strikes is back, we are told. And so, it seems, is the organised left. For reasons we discuss below, a great deal of this is standard press hypobole. But we can also detect genuine bemusement and barely suppressed anger in these commentaries. For a classic expression of class rage, we have Leo McKinstry in the Daily Mail: "Socialism was meant to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of market forces towards the end of the last century appeared to sound the death knell of this once powerful ideology "¦ Yet today in Britain, the far left is on the march again "¦ this creed appears to be enjoying a revival" (January 21). How mysterious. Reflecting its position as the most important grouping on the left, the Socialist Alliance has naturally attracted most of the attention. This is very pleasing, despite the ignorant nonsense the press has been writing about us. We look forward to more such publicity. Hitherto the SA has been largely ignored by the tabloids and often treated by the broadsheets as something of a harmless and anachronistic curiosity. In truth, despite the real step forward and the consolidation of leftwing forces that the SA represents, it performed modestly in the June general election. In real terms, it was hardly the sort of thing to cause Tony Blair any lost sleep. But now, in the wake of industrial action in which some prominent SA members are actively involved, the SA has to be portrayed as "an umbrella organisation of disparate extremist groups" that has "taken over from old Labour as the authentic voice of the far left "¦ rising unemployment, corporate excesses in the boardroom and the privatisation agenda "¦ have given the hard left the perfect issues on which to make their noisy protests" (Daily Mail January 21). Good. Leaving aside the compulsory references to left 'extremism', McKinstry of the Mail is spot on. The Socialist Alliance does indeed constitute, even if only potentially and in embryo, a real fighting organisation of the working class and the only existing socialist alternative. It is for this reason that the media felt compelled to take their gloves off and indulge in an old-fashioned bout of red-baiting. Not usually noted for its interest in political affairs, Murdoch's The Sun devoted a whole double-page spread to denouncing the "new breed of militant union bosses" who are emerging "to take command of the country's workers"; leaders whose activities "send shivers down the prime minister's spine as they threaten to dominate shop-floor relations for the next 20 years" (January 14). In what was soon to become a trend, the paper offered readers a sort of rogues' gallery of six men bent on creating "turmoil". Bob Crow (RMT), Mick Rix (Aslef), Billy Hayes (CWU), Andy Gilchrist (FBU), Dave Prentis (Unison) and Mark Serwotka (PCS) got the full treatment, with potted and sometimes unintentionally amusing biographies illustrating just how dangerous they are to the future of the country and - indeed - world civilisation . The Daily Mail, falling behind its competitors, belatedly adopted the same tactic in the McKinstry article, with mug shots of the 'culprits', extending the main 'wanted list' to include Bernard Regan (NUT), Geoff Martin (Unison) and, yet again, Greg Tucker of the RMT. Just for good measure, they throw in Lee Jasper - the "race warrior" and Tommy Sheridan - the "tartan pin-up". It is, however, in the refined, country-club atmosphere of The Times's leader-writing room that we find the ruling class's more considered ideological shift in response to new circumstances. The 'thunderer' warns its readers that "Britain's hard left forces have united as never before under the banner of the Socialist Alliance "¦ Its tactics owe a great deal to the insights of old Marxists, but their application has a very modern sophistication. The Socialist Alliance operates by a classic three-step process familiar to students of Lenin. First, it finds areas of discontent where the hard realities of the modern world compel leaders to take difficult decisions. Secondly, it places itself at the heart of any movement opposed to those hard choices. Thirdly, it ensures that the political direction of any opposition movement is increasingly dictated by its own, hard left interests" (January 15). So what is going here? The increase in militancy, while limited, is certainly important. But it is hardly the return to the 1970s being breathlessly touted by some media pundits. The fragility of New Labour's project has been exposed by what, in historical terms, is a very modest increase in the level of trade union activity, at present limited to a handful of unions. Its significant feature is that the potentially most disruptive of the current spate of industrial disputes is centred on the transport system. This explains the changed emphasis in the reporting of the SA, the escalating attacks on leading militants such as Crow and Tucker. The state of the public services in general, and transport in particular, at this time appears to represent the only serious threat to Blair's and New Labour's chance of achieving a third term. So initially the scare campaign was focused on the rails, with vicious personal attacks on leading rail militants. Since then, however, while these have continued to feature, it has broadened into a generalised assault on what the ruling class seeks to depict as the sinister resurgence of the Marxist 'hard left'. Red panics and witch hunts are back and we note a significant qualitative change in the attitude of the media towards the Socialist Alliance. Hence their concern over the fact that SA supporters like Greg Tucker and Mark Serwotka are "exercising an influence disproportionate to their numbers in the trade union movement". With a sideways dig at New Labour's supposed softness on questions of trade union legislation, The Times laments that, "Control of the RMT would give the Socialist Alliance the leadership role in framing discontent in the most conspicuously failing public service. It would also embolden others in their determination to revive union militancy, a process made easier by the EU's erosion of the employment laws from the Thatcher era" (ibid). Socialist Alliance activists are accused of controlling "classic front bodies" such as the Stop the War Coalition and Globalise Resistance, in what constitutes a "textbook case of the Marxist tail waving the united front dog". It is quite right for the Socialist Alliance to feel some satisfaction that it is beginning to acquire a real profile, and this publicity is itself an eloquent response to Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party and Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, who have all but wished the SA out of existence. But let us not be carried away. For all the media hype, the influence of the left is very small indeed. At the leadership level, the right wing is firmly in control of most unions. The ruling class wants to keep it that way, which explains the current round of red-baiting. Both Bob Crow (not, unfortunately, an SA member, as widely misreported, but a militant leftwing aparatchik) and Greg Tucker have a good chance of election to top posts in the RMT. Like Aslef it is a key union, capable by virtue of its position in the rail industry of upsetting government plans and company profit-seeking schemes. But the successes such as this - if they come - should not lead us to underestimate the vulnerability of the organised socialist left. Threats come from within our own ranks. Predictably, the TUC - supposedly the corporate embodiment of the industrial interests of our class - has been desperately engaged in measures to ensure that workers' leaders of the like of Bob Crow are prevented from winning leadership of their unions. Once again, the role of the trade union tops as traitors has been laid bare in documents recently published in The Guardian and Socialist Worker. As the class reawakens, it will learn the difference between those who are its real leaders and those whose highly paid function it is to mislead it and betray its fundamental interests. Your vote counts. We are at present witnessing low-level trade union actions that, as I have pointed out, bear no comparison to the mass militancy of the 1970s and 1980s. But the media have recognised that there could indeed be a resurgence and, as Socialist Worker points out, that there is the potential for "discontent with the government to feed in a leftwing direction" (January 19). Interestingly, Socialist Worker has this to say about the SA: "It has had some modest success, but much more needs to be done to establish the alliance as the voice of the discontented. That means the alliance being on the picket line supporting railworkers and others fighting back. It means campaigning on the streets over issues like transport and the NHS. And it means the alliance being rooted in workplaces and local communities." In one sense this is an advance on the Socialist Workers Party's conception of the SA as a purely electoral alternative to New Labour. For example, the SWP consciously sidelined the alliance in setting up the Stop the War Coalition (it is notable that anti-war work is missing from the "issues" Socialist Worker considers suitable for SA campaigning). Far from being "rooted in "¦ local communities", the SA has been invisible in many areas since the general election. This is because the SWP has not viewed it as the "voice of the discontented", but as just another 'united front' alongside the Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance and the Anti-Nazi League. As for being "rooted in workplaces", frankly there has not been the slightest coordination of SA union activists, who act overwhelmingly as members of their own group first and foremost. The March 16 Socialist Alliance conference for trade unionists represents a start in the field of union work, but it is long overdue. The SA needs to be the "voice" of the working class. Putting in an occasional appearance on picket lines or demonstrations will not make it that. We need to be in the forefront of every struggle, not just "supporting" those fighting back, but seeking to lead them. We need to speak out on every issue, demonstrating that we have answers, a political programme for the whole class. First of all we need a paper - that would really provide us with a "voice". It would also act as a cohering force, a coordinator for all our activists, who at present rely at best on their own factional journals or internal bulletins; or, if they do not belong to the SWP, CPGB, Workers Power, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, etc, are often left in isolation. The SWP, the SA's numerically largest component, needs to be clear on the alliance's role. Is it to remain one of many fronts acting as a channel into the already existing 'revolutionary party' or will it become the alternative for the class? The current media hysteria gives us the answer. Michael Malkin * www.socialistalliance.net