Debating Palestine and deepening union work

A truncated meeting in London of the Socialist Alliance executive committee on Saturday April 13 dealt with three main issues: Palestine/Israel, our trade union work and the impending local government elections on May 2. Not surprisingly, given the differences on the executive, the discussion on Palestine/Israel was sharp and heated at times, though conducted in a fraternal manner. From a CPGB point of view, the outcome was wrong, with the SA tailing the SWP's tailing of any movement against imperialism, irrespective of its politics. There is no criticism of political islam. No distinction drawn between the secular and democratic resistance to the Israeli aggression and oppression of Palestine, on the one side, and the religio-political programme of the islamist reactionaries, on the other. The problem of course is that the majority position on Israel basically denies it is a nation that has a right to exist. These positions will once again be debated out at the Socialist Alliance national council on May 11. Most time was taken up with our trade union work. After the success of the March 16 conference, the Socialist Alliance is in a good position to build upon this. The report from trade union officer Mark Hoskisson (Workers Power - pictured above), combined with a motion from Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, leaves us well placed to advance the whole Socialist Alliance project. Our union work will be vital in moving us beyond seeing the Socialist Alliance in purely electoral terms, and the decision to formalise SA union networks through the appointment of convenors is a step forward towards serious fraction work. (As yet the convenors are unelected. We agreed that the trade union committee - which is itself unelected, although accountable to the executive - should appoint them at this stage. This state of affairs needs to be democratised, as the process develops.) This very welcome move by the EC comes after the decision of SA railworkers to form a fraction made up of RMT, Aslef and TSSA members. I am pleased therefore that my earlier motion calling for fraction work - laid on the table at the previous executive - is now redundant. The main decisions relating to trade union work were to: * promote Matt Wrack's pamphlet on trade union political funds; * seek debates in unions and workplaces between the Socialist Alliance and Blairites on the political fund; * organise and publicise fringe meetings at union conferences; * use the contacts established at the March 16 conference to develop networks of SA supporters in the unions - and to put the names and contact details of the convenors of the networks on the website; * consider organising a demo or action around the TUC congress on an anti-privatisation theme; * convene an expanded trade union committee in the autumn; * examine ways of building a united union campaign against privatisation and for a major national trade union demonstration against privatisation and for public services - hopefully in cooperation with the PCSU and Unison; * write to the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions to seek further cooperation for a future rank and file conference; * build the broadest unity of the left in Labour-affiliated unions to campaign against 'extra' union payments to Blairite MPs and to New Labour centrally; * support the May Day demonstration for public services, for workers' rights, and against war, called by the Greater London Association of Trade Union Councils and supported by Unions Fightback, Globalise Resistance, etc (leaves Clerkenwell Green at noon); * support the rally for a workers' charter of trade union rights, called by the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws on April 27. Three suggestions were left for further discussion: campaigns for referendums on public services versus privatisation; local Socialist Alliance workplace bulletins; a follow-up trade-union conference against privatisation, maybe jointly with other bodies. On the idea of trade union- sponsored referenda, comrades Mark Hoskisson and John Rees (Socialist Workers Party) argued that pushing for them could be a diversion from direct industrial struggle. I feel that comrade Hoskisson had genuine concerns. He believes we should stick to what we know. However, I suspect that comrade Rees is trying to ensure that the Socialist Alliance does not branch out too much. As Alex Callinicos says in Socialist Review, the SA has a very "specific constituency" (April 2002). It is just a united front after all for Labourites. Using novel tactics is not in its remit. I strongly support organising referendums. The example from Wakefield, South Yorkshire shows that such referenda can be useful in mobilising the community against New Labour's privatisation plans. Further, they would help to politicise the fight against privatisation, taking it beyond mere strikism. Another aspect is that they would give all local alliances a national campaign to pursue that is relevant to branch-building on the ground. There is a real danger that the SWP majority could turn off the Socialist Alliance tap after the local elections, as they did after the general election last year. On workplace bulletins, some argued that they were beyond our resources. There were a lot of red herrings thrown up during this debate. Comrade Thomas's motion merely said that we should "encourage" such bulletins. Clearly, where they are beyond our resources, they will not happen. But it is incumbent on a leadership to point the way ahead. On the follow-up conference, there were worries about seeming to repeat the March success by just doing the same again, but maybe on a smaller scale. There are many events to fit into the alliance's agenda. It was suggested that we should not attempt another trade union conference this year, unless it is jointly organised with the LCDTU. None of the three ideas was rejected; all will be discussed further. Palestine/Israel was the most controversial debate. It originated from an email canvass of executive opinion about slogans for Socialist Alliance placards on the afternoon of April 13 demonstration called by the Muslim Association of Britain. Socialist Alliance secretary Rob Hoveman had proposed 'Victory to the intifada! Free Palestine!'There was no opposition from those canvassed. At the executive, comrade Hoveman moved the original motions. Martin Thomas, having returned from Australia, suggested three alternatives: 'Solidarity with Palestine! Israel out of the occupied territories! Two nations, two states!' I was in the enviable position of being able to support all five slogans. However, given a straight choice, I preferred Martin Thomas's to Rob Hoveman's. This was not how we proceeded. Instead, we voted on each individual slogan. Only myself, Martin Thomas and Dave Church supported 'Two nations, two states'. There were nine votes against, with Steve Godward abstaining. 'Israel out of the occupied territories' received the support of eight executive members with one abstention. All three SWPers opposed this slogan - John Rees saying it was not "a priority". Perhaps the problem the SWP has with this slogan is that it implies that there is an Israel that has somewhere to go - a tacit recognition of its right to exist. The final three slogans were passed, with Martin Thomas and Dave Church opposing 'Victory to the intifada', on the basis that the aims of the uprising were ambiguous ('Israel out of the occupied territories', is the aim of the secular wing of the intifada). We then voted on our priority slogans which were identical to those of the SWP: 'Victory to the intifada! Free Palestine!' Comrade Thomas was quite right to bring up questions regarding the nature of the April 13 demonstration which had several anti-semitic sections. Comrade Thomas said that the website of the Muslim Association has a link to a reactionary Pakistani fundamentalist grouping. However, that does not mean we should have boycotted such an important demonstration, as Martin seemed to imply, but gone along to intervene, not least against political islam. Weyman Bennett (SWP) argued that to do so would imply that all muslims were reactionary fundamentalists. A further implication was that a refusal to take part in the demonstration would be a form of anti-muslim 'racism'. He said: "You wouldn't have such objections to a demonstration called by christians." I did point out that the demonstration of Gerry Falwell or other such christian fundamentalists would certainly be opposed by me. John Rees said that the Palestinian struggle against Israel should be spoken of in similar terms as the struggle of the French and Italian Resistance against Nazi occupation in World War II. Comrade Bennett commented that Israel was like South Africa, while Rob Hoveman added that we should not condemn the suicide-bombers, but explain their actions as resulting from Israeli oppression. The executive went on to discuss the May 2 local elections. We have about 200 candidates in the field - 90 in London and around 100 elsewhere - fewer than the 300 we expected. We are reaching far fewer numbers of people than we did in the general election and this can only be a step back. Apart from one side of our election leaflet, we have not been running much of a national campaign. The manifesto is still not ready. This relatively poor performance is due to the initial 'steer' of conservatism given by the majority on the executive and the majority group in the alliance - the SWP. Realising that we would fall far short of even the cautious target of 300, the SWP adjusted its advice to its members, but it came too late for us to really stretch ourselves. I moved a motion in this section calling on the executive to recognise the right of candidates to mention their trade union and political affiliations in their election communication. Anne Mc Shane, standing for the alliance in Hackney, was barred from stating her membership of the CPGB (although other CPGB candidates have not experienced similar difficulties). After much procrastination her personal statement described her as a "communist". There is a point of political honesty here. Candidates should really declare all their interests to the voters - otherwise they leave themselves open to charges of subterfuge and deceit. However, after some debate, I agreed to the suggestion that the motion be merely 'noted'. We are planning a national launch of our election campaign and our hard pressed media officer John Rees is to prepare an information pack and press release, with a particular focus on the regional, as well as national, papers. Finally, the national council will decide on the dates and priorities for forthcoming events. We agreed that the Socialist Alliance should have a conference to decide our position on the euro. There is a vague proposal for a future union conference. We need to have an AGM and Mandy Baker has proposed the SA organise a youth-oriented conference on 'The new imperialism, new internationalism', which the CPGB is supporting. I think that we should hold a two-day conference in September, with the AGM combined with the euro debate. This should be followed by a youth/student conference aimed at building for the November European Social Forum in Florence. The SWP has proposed a French Communist Party-style festival for May Day or Easter next year, which seems a great idea. So far, the SWP is opposed to the youth conference, preferring to let the preparations for the European Socialist Forum look after themselves. It seems that it does not want its comrades getting confused about which united front they are in at any one time "¦ Marcus Ström SA executive committee member