Boycott in Bedfordshire

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group gives his version of events which have seen a new leadership elected in Bedfordshire SA

On April 2 the Socialist Alliance national executive called a meeting in Luton, chaired by Liz Davies, the national chair. The meeting was convened under the authority of the SA executive for the purpose specified in their motion of March 9 - namely the election of a new set of officers. Before the meeting began the existing Bedfordshire SA officers handed in a letter of resignation. A token protest was organised outside the meeting. This condemned the actions of the SA executive in refusing to meet with the elected officers and for calling this unconstitutional meeting over their heads. Last week the BSA membership secretary had met Will McMahon, national membership secretary, and handed over the names of 28 existing members, who had rejoined locally, and their subscriptions. It had been agreed with comrade McMahon that names without individual addresses were acceptable for re-registration. The reason for this was that some BSA members objected to the Socialist Workers Party having their address and phone details after the infamous 'paedophile' scare story. In their campaign to oust the existing officers, it has been alleged that SWP members Ged Peck and Keith Woods, amongst others, had phoned some BSA members with a smear story about a gay member. However, at the 'handover' meeting, Will McMahon changed his mind and ruled the 28 members were ineligible to attend or vote. It is a moot point as to whether the 28 BSA members were excluded or simply boycotted the meeting. Call it a happy coincidence. Although they were excluded by the SA executive, they are unlikely to protest too loudly. The 28 would support their elected officers by boycotting the meeting. Without that, the McMahon 'ruling' disbarring the 28 members would have been seen as a classic 'stitch-up' and a number of resignations would surely have followed. The BSA officers' decision to boycott the elections had a number of aspects. The first reason was to protest against imposition of elections by the executive for which it has no authority within the national constitution. It was an unconstitutional act. Second, it was a protest at holding elections without a local constitution. This had been the key issue of the dispute. There were no constitutional provisions for quorums or methods of election or the representation of minorities, etc. The third reason was to protest over the refusal of the SA executive to recognise the officers that were elected at the AGM on December 9 2001. The boycott makes absolutely clear the view of the 28 that the elections were not legitimate. The executive-convened meeting therefore had only a restricted number of BSA members. In fact 20 turned up. Fifteen were SWP members and four were indies who had been allied to the SWP. There was one BSA officer who attended as an observer. New officers were elected - three of the four indies drew the short straw, along with one SWP member. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that a new local constitution appeared like a rabbit out a hat. None of the existing BSA officers had seen this before. Neither had any of the 28 excluded members. It certainly went beyond what had been specified in the SA executive motion. The BSA officers had been told that there was only one item on the agenda: namely the election of officers. A local constitution could not be discussed or adopted. Certainly the SWP opposed it and the SA executive motion did not include it. This had been at the very heart of the dispute. So the BSA officers and the excluded members had been lied to about the agenda. One of the main objections to the SA executive-convened meeting had been that it was not democratic to hold local elections without a local constitution. Low and behold, a local constitution descended from heaven and snuck in via the back door. And the SWP all voted for it. This was unlike the BSA officers' draft, which had been circulated in advance of the January 27 meeting so that members could propose amendments. It certainly should be read by all SA members because it may become the national model and appear in your locality. The BSA officers are now what the Weekly Worker called "former" officers. Last week they organised a meeting to launch a new platform, which clarifies the issues dividing the BSA. Only now are the real politics behind this battle coming out in the open. Let us examine the issues as they developed. The BSA held its AGM on December 9 2001and elected a new set of officers. At the first meeting called by the new officers on January 27 the SWP targeted three comrades they wanted to get rid of at all costs. These comrades had been instrumental in building the BSA and one of them was a member of the Revolutionary Democratic Group. The SWP organiser signed up 27 SWP members and supporters. With these votes in their pocket, the SWP demanded new elections. The problem was about the rules and procedures under which elections should take place and officers be made accountable. (Interestingly enough, under the new SA executive-sponsored BSA constitution the officers cannot be replaced except by a two-thirds majority!) Since its foundation in November 2000, the BSA had a democratic local constitution. But following the national decisions of the SA conference on December 1 2001 it became necessary to make constitutional changes. The officers recognised this and drafted a new constitution and circulated it to all members. The issue came to a head when the SWP rejected any local constitution. They voted the draft down, without proposing any amendments or making any counter-proposals. At this point there was the possibility that a whole section of the membership would refuse to work with the SWP without local rules. Given the past history of relations between the SWP and the rest of the BSA members, there was a danger of a damaging split over this issue. There was now no democratically agreed basis for new elections. Were elections to be first past the post? What was the quorum? Where slates allowed and what provisions governed these? Would minority views be included or excluded? The SWP, for example, had proposed an election slate. But half the slate refused to stand. The elections simply could not be run. The Bedfordshire SA officers were concerned to prevent a split. One 'solution' was to split into two SAs. Quite rightly the BSA officers rejected this and took the only democratic alternative course, which was to seek support and guidance from the SA executive on what constitutional arrangements should apply. Therefore the BSA officers took the necessary preventative action. They suspended business and called for support from the SA executive to help resolve the issues. Before proceeding further it would be necessary to get some agreement on what rules or constitution would apply to BSA members and govern any elections. However, this plan simply broke down. The SA executive refused to meet the BSA officers. A genuine democratic solution required cooperation between the officers and the executive. But the SWP was calling the shots behind the scenes. The SWP national line was clear. They did not recognise the BSA officers. They opposed any talks with the BSA officers. They opposed any local constitution that would protect minority rights. The SA executive supported the SWP on all these points - although there was a minority, including Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Dave Church, opposing this. However, the SWP wanted to go even further. At the end of the January 27 BSA meeting a few SWP members stayed behind and declared themselves elected as new officers. Naturally the SWP wanted this totally undemocratic farce to be recognised as an 'election'. Even the SA executive would not go along with this and refused to recognise it. The prime concern of the SA executive was to be 'fair' to the SWP, whose votes had secured their national seats and whose credit was bankrolling the whole operation. Placating the SWP meant not recognising the elected BSA officers, not meeting with them and not involving them in any constitutional discussions. Put quite simply, the SA executive decided to boycott the BSA officers. In this respect the BSA's officers call for discussions with the SA executive fell on deaf ears. The SA executive simply decided to take over the BSA, remove all the elected officers, and convene a meeting for the purpose of holding elections. Like the US sheriffs of old they would to ride into town, impose a settlement and then ride off into the sunset, leaving the locals to sort out the mess. This 'solution' was so blatantly not a solution that it beggars belief. It simply did not address the question of what democratic rules should govern BSA elections, officers and members. The SA executive-convened meeting on April 2 was not constitutional. There are no provisions in the old BSA constitution for this. There are no provisions within the national constitution for this. Nobody has or will be able to quote any clause giving the executive the power to take this course of action. There is no democratic agreement as to how the elections should be run. Will it be with slates, first past the post, alternative vote or minority representation? What is the quorum? What officers' posts are up for election? There are many more unanswered questions. The SA executive decided to make it up as they go along. They will do what they think is opportune. As everybody recognises, the executive were elected by the grace and favour of the SWP. They now seem to want this corrupting system to be repeated at local level. The national constitution does not protect local minorities. The constitution has proved to be a fig leaf for the SWP. The SA executive boycott of the BSA officers was misconceived and ill-judged. It has much wider implications and ramifications. But it did make the position of the BSA officers untenable. Their letter explains in detail why they resigned. But they did not give up or resign from the SA. They decided to launch their own platform and come out fighting their corner. The provisional name of their platform is the BSA Democratic and Republican Platform. This identifies a number of key policy issues which the BSA has supported and which the SWP has opposed. The BSA officers are signing up supporters for the platform which will be open to all BSA members. The issue for the BSA officers is not and never has been about clinging onto power. It is and always has been about the politics necessary to build a democratic and effective SA, both nationally and locally. Turning the BSA into a periphery or front organisation for the SWP with its peculiar brand of reformism is not the answer. BSA Democratic and Republican Platform Preamble The following platform is based on the policy decisions taken by the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance since its foundation in November 2000 and the SA programme People before profit. The decision to form a platform was the result of the decisions taken by the SA executive at its meeting on March 9 2002. The SA executive refused to meet the elected BSA officers, despite repeated requests. The executive decided to take over the BSA and call new elections without any democratically agreed constitutional basis. The purpose of this was to engineer the handover of the BSA to the SWP and exclude all other minority trends unless they are acceptable to the SWP. The purpose of this platform is to identify the key political questions that have divided the BSA. Draft platform * For the unity of the working class. We stand for the unity of the working class in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This aim is inseparable from the struggle for democracy. The demand for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and an independent united Ireland is central to the struggle for democracy and working class unity. People before profit must be amended to include this demand and make it central to our political work. * For the unity of the left. The SA must become a broad and inclusive movement of the left throughout the UK. We must build unity with all the existing socialist parties, including the SP, SLP, CPB, SWP, SSP and the WSA. We must begin a dialogue with socialist organisations in Northern Ireland. We recognise that the exit of the SP was a setback. We call on the SA to adopt a unity policy aimed at reuniting the SA and the SP. We are for a united front between the SA and the SP wherever possible, including cooperation in the allocation of constituencies and wards during elections. * For the independence and unity of the SA. We seek to defend and promote the independence and unity of the alliance. We are opposed to the narrowing down of the SA, so that it becomes a periphery or support organisation for any one party. To strengthen the independence of the SA, we must: o (i) adopt the aim of becoming an independent working class party; o (ii) launch a weekly Socialist Alliance paper; * To build the unity of the SA we need a democratic, federal constitution to ensure openness of ideas and the inclusion of all political trends. * For local constitutions. All serious working class organisations have a democratically agreed set of rules which set out the rights and responsibilities of the members and how the leadership is elected, accountable and subject to recall. Such constitutions must be democratically accountable - that is, transparent and open to amendment. Such rules may vary according to local circumstances, provided they do not remove rights guaranteed by the national constitution. Members of local alliances have the right to a written statement of the rules and the right to amend such rules. * For a new working class party. The SA is not a party. It is an organisation of socialist and communist individuals, groups and parties. The SA must campaign openly for a new workers' party to replace Labour within the working class movement. We need a republican socialist party organised across the UK that can unite both the socialist Labour and revolutionary communist traditions, along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party.