'Independents' meet

The second conference of Socialist Alliance 'independents' was a small affair with large numbers staying away - it seems that the flotsam have fallen out with the jetsam. It was also politically confused. Battered and bruised from their bad experiences in the sects, the comrades carry with them all the problems of the past and precious few of its virtues. The approach remains bottom-up and decidedly localist. When it comes to big politics - ie, fighting fascism - the comrades appear to want to give out vainglorious orders to an army that they do not lead. Their vision of the Scottish Socialist Party is rose-tinted, while in the Socialist Alliance they have no perspectives other than moaning about the SWP being a majority. The hard factions in the Socialist Alliance would be ill-advised to look to these 'independents' for answers. Only by taking the lead - making an SA paper a reality by launching one ourselves - can we turn such comrades from being part of the problem into part of the answer

Independents from across the country met in central London on June 23 to discuss the potential of the Socialist Alliance. Whilst under no illusions about the status of the conference, participants - who ranged from as far as Exeter, Sheffield and Walsall - were keen to outline their experiences and ideas for the future development of the organisation. The first session served as a report-back on recent developments and events, and led into a more general discussion on perspectives. It was clear that there was a wide range of experiences across the country. The point was made that the creation of the SA represented a significant step forward for the non-Labour Party left, and a break from older styles of organisation that had characterised the left since the 1960s. It was generally accepted that the SA was effectively an 'arms-length' organisation of the Socialist Workers Party (who are, de facto, the dominant force within the SA since the Socialist Party left at the December 2001 conference). Some comrades reported that relationships with SWP comrades remained fraternal and that positive work had taken place, but others stated (mainly from south and east London) that any effective joint activity had ceased due to problems encountered in their localities. It was noticeable that these same areas had failed to build any significant organisation on the ground and had generally performed badly in the local elections in May. All present considered it vital that the development of internal democracy of the SA must be a priority, if it is to survive and to flourish as a viable socialist alternative to the Labour Party. It must be open, transparent and above all, democratic. Local elections Not surprisingly there was lengthy discussion about the recent local elections. Many comrades reported a decline in real membership and activity in the period before the local election campaign began. It was recognised that in some areas the SA had been able to attract a sizeable percentage, but this had been quite patchy and some results were an embarrassment. Where the SA had polled strongest was in those areas where recognised campaigners had stood and had a history of involvement locally. This seems to be the key and the point was made that, in future, preparatory groundwork and local involvement was vital before standing candidates. The conference rejected the 'parachutist' approach that had been adopted in a number of areas. These results were often very poor and had entailed a lot of commitment from local activists for little return and clearly led to numbers of people becoming demoralised. Attention was drawn to the success of a number of local campaigns that performed well - notably the education-orientated Local Education Action for Parents in Lewisham, the Independent Working Class Association in Oxford and Hackney, and Kidderminster health activists. Despite the political limitations of these 'localist' approaches, a 'bottom-up' grassroots emphasis had been central to their gains and should serve as a lesson for all SA activists. Some comrades argued that these successes reflected a collapse of the traditional Labour vote, as the government had failed to deliver any real improvements for working people. The Socialist Party also achieved electoral success again and this was due to their campaigning work in certain localities. Overall it would seem that the way forward is to insist that the SA shifts from a mainly electoral organisation to a politicised campaigning one that can then lay firm foundations for future elections. What sort of SA? Another main strand of debate centred on the future of the SA itself. It was generally felt that unless the SA moved towards becoming a fully-fledged party it would be unable to play any significant left role in the future. It was clear that the SWP - as the major backers both financially and in terms of providing an infrastructure - has to decide whether to proceed down this road. To do so will not be easy for them, as it will entail abandoning their own party as 'the' socialist party but their failure to do so will lead to the slow strangulation of the SA. A number of comrades favoured a model along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party, where Scottish Militant had willingly dissolved itself but remained as an organised tendency within it. This is a serious and profound contradiction that the SWP and its members need to address in the coming months. The broad-based, multi-tendency Communist Refoundation from Italy was also held by some at the conference to be a workable model. Comrades felt that the SA was currently too centralised and that the national structure should act much more in a support role for branches and regions. This would both reduce costs and bureaucracy, as a number of tasks could be better dealt with locally. Disappointment was expressed at the lack of effective city-wide structures - particularly in London - as a means of organising campaigns that went beyond local authority boundaries. The fight against the privatisation of the tubes and the coordination of anti-fascist activity were cited as examples. Not surprisingly the need for some sort of national paper and or journal was raised and this must still remain one the key objectives of the organisation if it is to develop. Several comrades brought examples of newsletters and bulletins, which had been used to good effect locally, but lacked the resources and foci that a national organ would give to the SA. The question of what kind of organisation the SA is seeking to become needs to be addressed clearly now. Some comrades felt that the present orientation of trying to recreate a left social democratic party with the slogans and aims of the 1970s no longer fitted with the tasks of the present. As well as debating whether or not to become a party, the SA also needs to consider, in equal measure, the need to align and relate to forces outside the traditional areas of left. There is a wealth of organisational talent and political experience within the SA. This needs to be harnessed towards a greater goal than the recreation of a Bennite left outside the Labour Party. Proposals Please note that no formal voting took place on these proposals except for the proposal relating to a SA publication. These discussions were exploratory only and should be understood as an attempt to more clearly define some of the key issues that independents might campaign about in the period leading up to the next annual conference of the SA which is to be held in February 2003. Building the alliance through affiliations (Nick Long, Lewisham SA): "This conference notes that under our present constitution it is not possible for community campaigns, trade union branches, trades councils, socialist groups, tenant associations, etc to affiliate to the Socialist Alliance. This conference recommends that the NEC and national council consider drawing up rule changes to facilitate affiliation locally, regionally and nationally." This proposal was generally supported by the meeting, although some comrades believed it needed to be fleshed out a bit more. The major objections to it were that this was really 'refighting the battle' that was lost at the December 2001 conference and that the SWP would never accept it now. The majority of comrades felt that the argument should still be made because they believe that it will not be possible for the SA to grow into anything meaningful otherwise. The point was made that branches of the SA, where possible, should affiliate to local campaigns. Either way, this would act as a bridge between the SA and local community groups. Nick undertook to redraft the proposal in light of comments in preparation for the next annual conference of the SA, to be held in February 2003. Organisational development (Nick Long, Lewisham SA): "This conference recognises our collective aspiration that the Socialist Alliance should eventually develop into a new socialist party of working people. We believe that the NEC and national council should consider the following proposals to move the organisation in that direction: 1. Local Socialist Alliances should be the building blocks of the SA. Vibrant, active SAs are the key to recruiting new members and winning the argument for socialism in local communities and neighbourhoods. SA branches should be free to determine their own structures, select candidates, publish literature and adopt their own methods of working. 2. The NEC should work with local SAs to explore the possibility of establishing regional and city-wide SA structures to support and assist their development. 3. This conference notes that our membership system and administration is currently in a muddle. Local SAs are best placed to recruit new members, keep in contact with them and to involve them in the life of local SA branches. The burden of processing membership and issuing membership cards should, in future, fall on local branches, thereby freeing the national office to concentrate on organising national conferences, demonstrations, press and publicity, etc. 4. This conference believes that the SA should consider the adoption of a branch affiliation system. Branches failing to affiliate will be unable to stand candidates, submit motions and send delegates to national conference. Attendance at future AGMs of the SA shall therefore be on a delegate basis from affiliated bodies and affiliated branches." There was overwhelming support for this proposal. It was noted that Liz Davies, in her recent paper The next two years, had raised some similar arguments. Finance (from ideas suggested by Clive Searle, Manchester SA): "This conference believes that the annual subscription of £24 is far too low and that it should be raised substantially to put the Socialist Alliance on a more stable financial footing and enable it to intervene more effectively in future. The SA also needs to develop regular fundraising activities." While comrades agreed that the financial situation of the SA nationally was very unsatisfactory (in debt to the SWP by about £10,000), there was no consensus in the meeting for an increase in annual subscriptions. Instead comrades believed that local branches of the SA should develop regular fundraising activities following the example of the Leeds Left Alliance. The Socialist Alliance and anti-fascism (David Landau): "This conference notes the recent electoral successes of fascist and far right parties and the response by governments and mainstream parties to move even further to the right on immigration. In these circumstances the Socialist Alliance should be committed to building and supporting local anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations which: 1. challenge the fascists physically - 'they shall not pass'; 2. challenge their ideas politically, but not by debating with them - 'No platform for fascists'; 3. support community self-defence and, failing that, organise support for individuals and communities under attack; 4. oppose deportations, support local anti-deportation campaigns, sanctuary or whatever else is needed; 5. support campaigns on an anti-racist basis for the closure of detention centres, reception centres, etc 6. encourage the unity of community and trade union organisations around all of the above. "This conference also suggests that the following principles should guide the SA's tactics in electoral confrontations with the BNP and other fascist and far right parties: * a) The local SA should campaign against the BNP (or others), whether or not we put up a candidate. * b) The local SA should only stand a candidate if they think they have a reasonable chance of getting more votes than the BNP (or others). * c) The local SA should take account of the need not to divert forces away from an anti-fascist campaign by standing a candidate nearby, where the BNP have a chance of winning a seat." Comrades were generally supportive of the first part of these proposals (points i to vi) - the main point being that anti-fascist activity must fall within the remit of the SA and the SA must play a leading role in this arena rather than the Anti-Nazi League. There was much less support for the second part (points a to c) because comrades felt that it was very difficult to produce overall guidelines for the many different local circumstances that were likely to occur. These decisions needed to be made in the localities. A Socialist Alliance publication: "This conference considers it essential that the SA produces its own publication. This will provide the membership with a much-needed forum for democratic discussion and for the exchange of news, ideas and experiences, and a vital means of building up its public profile. "As a first step in this direction this meeting resolves to launch a quarterly journal that will be open to all members of the SA. "We request that the Socialist Alliance national council take the responsibility for producing this journal, subject to a strict guarantee of democratic access to its pages for all tendencies and individuals within the alliance." This proposal was overwhelmingly supported and a discussion about the sort of journal we need will be launched on the 'indy' list in the next few weeks. It was agreed that Dave Church would take overall responsibility for calling the next conference of 'indies' in late November or early December. Pete Weller, Pete Webster (Lambeth SA) * Anti-Socialist Workers Party