Regional revival

Vote Socialist Alliance' posters adorned the top table at the Latton Bush centre in Harlow, the venue for the first meeting in over a year of the Eastern Region Socialist Alliance (Ersa), indicating that in some areas campaigning for the local elections is well underway. However, before polling day on May 2 we have our trade union conference on March 16 to look forward to. This was the main topic of discussion at the meeting. Graham Noakes of the Fire Brigades Union, the first speaker, addressed the meeting on the question of trade union political funds. Comrade Noakes briefly took us through some of the features of the campaign to democratise the political fund in the FBU. The FBU changed its rule book in 2001 to allow for the sponsorship of non-Labour candidates, and other unions are also debating the issue. Given the contrast between their treatment at the hands of the Labour government and that of its business benefactors, this is hardly surprising. Enron, Bernie Ecclestone, Lakshmi Mittal, the Hinduja brothers - all seem to have been amply rewarded for their largesse, whereas in return for the millions of pounds given by the trade union movement unions are fed the same diet of cuts and privatisation. Touching on the core of the debate, comrade Noakes emphasised that, while there was growing dissatisfaction with the Blair government, there was also a feeling that the Socialist Alliance did not yet constitute a viable alternative. Kate Ford of Workers Power and the National Union of Teachers picked up on this theme. Privatisation is discredited by recent fiascos: infamously Railtrack; most recently the bailing out of air traffic control. However, the government remains dogmatically committed to privatisation as a universal panacea for every conceivable ill. For comrade Ford, a combination of cracks in the Blair project and increasing trade union militancy presents the Socialist Alliance with an excellent opportunity to make significant advances. While it is true that we are seeing unaccustomed industrial action in one or two sectors like the railways, in my opinion it is far too early to proclaim a generalised return to militancy. However, comrade Ford is not wrong about the opportunities presented to the SA by the current situation. All the more important then that we take steps to ensure that our political interventions in every sphere, including trade union work, are more professional. Encouragingly, comrade Ford was able to report that over one third of the delegates expected to attend our trade union conference are non-Socialist Alliance members. However, as Derek Goodliffe pointed out, the main question is how we take our trade union work forward from that date. As it stands, the conference is clearly not going to be a working one. If we are to be taken seriously, then set-piece events must be combined with day-to-day rank and file work within the unions. Comrade Noakes concurred. The Socialist Alliance needed to "make definitions of where it is going" to win credibility within the unions. With that thought in mind the meeting then moved on to discuss how to take Ersa forward. It has been kept ticking over mainly by the efforts of its chair, Jim Jepps. During the general election campaign comrades had rightly focused on their local branches. Now several, relatively healthy, local branches exist despite the departure of the Socialist Party, which has damaged some areas like Stevenage. This led some comrades to question what role a regional body could play. Darrell Goodliffe agreed that regular Ersa meetings were impracticable, but felt that a regional body could fill in the gaps that existing local SAs do not already cover. We have members who are not yet organised in any SA and, given the geographical nature of the region, Ersa could play a coordinating role. Where alliance branches do not already exist, it could step in and provide necessary support. And one branch often does not know what the others are doing - a by-product of the lack of an SA paper. Though no substitute for this, Ersa could at least begin producing its own newsletter to keep members informed of developments across the region. And, as comrade Jepps pointed out, next year's elections for the European parliament will be fought on a regional basis. A functioning regional body will then be needed to effectively fight those elections. It was therefore agreed that quarterly meetings of Ersa would take place and a regular newsletter would be produced. Derek Goodliffe