Learn from mistakes

The national council of the Socialist Alliance has overwhelmingly endorsed the unanimous view of the executive regarding the resignation of former SA chair Liz Davies. More than forty representative of local SAs and members of the executive gathered in London for the December 14 meeting that took the decision. Marcus Ström (CPGB) gave a verbal report on the inquiry he conducted into the events that led to comrade Davies's departure. Whilst it was generally agreed that a serious mistake had occurred, several delegates expressed the view that something more must have been involved to prompt comrade Davies's resignation. Comrade Ström, giving his own personal view, said that the underlying reason was the differing political perspectives of comrade Davies and the Socialist Workers Party, the largest SA component. Indeed comrade Davies had gone public on this after her resignation. However, these differences were the subject of private discussions with select individuals and were never raised on the executive. In comrade Ström's view, comrade Davies had failed to fulfil her responsibility to raise political concerns and criticisms on the executive. This provoked rather hysterical interruptions from two independents, who shouted allegations of "character assassination" and "cover-up". However, that did not wash. As more and more executive members and delegates spoke, several things became clear: the executive had acted quickly to institute new procedures and working practices; the resolution unanimously agreed by the executive was substantively the same as proposed by comrade Davies; and the subsequent criticisms made by Liz were never raised by her at any time on the executive. All were agreed that any future criticisms or differences should be discussed collectively on the executive. Many speakers expressed the view that it was unfortunate that Liz had resigned and it was hoped she would return. The report was accepted with only one vote against. Although a setback, comrade Davies's resignation brought a number of issues to a head in a way that has had the positive effect of tightening up and improving methods of work and has at least sparked a desire to have a more open and democratic culture. Following the clear endorsement of the executive's handling of the affair, SA treasurer Tess McMahon gave a financial report up to the end of September 2002. Group donations towards the running of the SA office make interesting reading - the five 'principal supporting organisations' had committed themselves to making regular payments. The CPGB has contributed most (£1,750). The SWP gave £1,600, while donations of £750 from Workers Power put it way ahead of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (£320), who come just ahead of local alliances Southwark (£300) and Hackney (£150). The International Socialist Group (£80) only just began regular donations in October 2002. Trade union officer Mark Hoskisson (WP) introduced an uncontroversial report on the firefighters' strike and related trade union matters. He emphasised the importance of setting up support groups, building solidarity with suspended FBU activist and SA executive member comrade Steve Godward and campaigning for the democratisation of trade union political funds. This led on to a controversial motion from the AWL, introduced by Pete Radcliff. Nick Wrack spoke against and particularly criticised a section of the motion calling for a campaign in the unions to demand a special Labour Party conference "to call Blair to account". Comrade Wrack argued that it would be counterproductive to campaign for an orientation towards Labour when the move was in the opposite direction - as, for example, in the FBU. Indeed we are being presented with opportunities to fracture the Labour Party base. The motion was heavily defeated. More controversy was sparked by an emergency motion moved by comrade Ström. This followed on from a report on the anti-war movement presented by John Rees (SWP). Comrade Rees commended the European Social Forum for initiating European-wide action against the war on February 15. He pointed to the importance of mobilising three constituencies in British society to stop the war: the left, the unions and muslim and Asian communities. Comrade Ström's motion called on the Socialist Alliance to "continue to promote our own distinctive socialist politics" within the anti-war movement and "promote the need for secularism, democracy and freedom of religion as part of our genuine anti-imperialism". Two amendments were tabled. The first from Martin Thomas, moved by Pete Radcliff, sought to add: "Within the Stop the War Coalition the Socialist Alliance should argue against future STW activities being co-sponsored with the Muslim Association of Britain." This amendment was fairly swiftly defeated, as the real battle centred on the second half of the motion and the 'delete' amendment from comrade Hoskisson. The first half - condemning the terrorist attacks in Mombassa and the hypocrisy of western governments and the Sharon administration - were unproblematic for everyone except the SWP, who are squeamish when it comes to condemning reactionary atrocities. Such a condemnation was no problem for comrade Hoskisson - neither was making a pledge to "continue to promote our own distinctive socialist politics" within the anti-war movement. It was how, or indeed whether, we carry out this pledge in practice that was a problem. In a truly wretched piece of double-speak comrade Hoskisson suggested that "secularism, democracy and freedom of religion" is "often a code for islamophobia" - even when it is part of a socialist campaign and linked to "genuine anti-imperialism", it seems. Some within the alliance are clearly suffering from an inverted islamophobia, a softness on principle, a retreat from promoting "our own distinctive socialist politics" - a direct corollary of the opportunism and frontism of sect politics. Unfortunately, three quarters of the meeting showed by their votes that they thought socialism could be separated from secularism, democracy and freedom of religion. The substantive resolution, thus gutted, was accepted by just two votes: 22 votes to 20. The SWP voted against, backed by their close 'independent' allies, Nick Wrack and Will McMahon. A motion on anti-racist work and affiliation to the Anti-Nazi League, moved by John Rees, prompted a procedural motion from comrade Ström. This asked that the motion on the ANL lay on the table "until such time as we receive a copy of the ANL constitution, copy of the last minutes of the steering committee, and an outline of its decision-making structures and how members and affiliates contribute to ANL policy". Comrade Ström argued that it was important that any organisations to which the SA affiliates should follow established labour movement procedures for decision-making. Comrade Rees spoke against the procedural motion and also responded to numerous criticisms throughout the meeting regarding the SWP majority. He pointed to other SWP 'united fronts', asking rhetorically: "Have we seen their constitutions before supporting them?" The procedural motion was lost overwhelmingly. In defence of the SWP comrade Rees accurately argued that the SWP had only three members on the executive, did not argue its full position within the SA on a whole range of questions and thereby sought not to dictate SWP policy to a broad alliance. However, I see this as a negative feature. It is deeply patronising to pander to the imagined politics of independents and phantom left Labourites. It is futile to pretend you are not the majority when everyone knows you are - issues which are not a priority for the SWP may well be agreed (or at least not opposed), but cannot be carried forward without the active participation of the majority - this was one of comrade Davies's criticisms. The SWP should argue its corner, openly and honestly. The majority has a responsibility to act as the majority. The SWP should not tail broad sections at the level of the lowest common denominator - it should lead on the basis of the highest principle. In fact it has a right, a duty, to seek to have more of its comrades elected to the executive. In the Scottish Socialist Party the majority ISM faction has 11 of the 14 executive members - alongside an inclusive and broad national council. For the SWP, this is a problem. For democrats in the workers' movement, the clear and accountable exercising of majorities is something in principle to be welcomed. A substantial amendment to the ANL motion was moved by Margaret Manning and Lesley Mahmood. It was taken section by section and most were passed. But sections that argued against ANL affiliation, for the executive to decide which organisations to affiliate to and for the next national council to be devoted to equal opportunities campaigning were all defeated. The substantive ANL motion was overwhelmingly accepted. A motion from Lewisham SA on next year's Greater London Authority elections, moved by Toby Abse, was defeated as too restrictive - it insisted that SA candidates be chosen only from amongst rank and file public sector trade unionists. A further motion from Lewisham, arguing for a regular monthly bulletin, was opposed by Tess McMahon on grounds of cost. Yet, as one independent pointed out, what we really need is a Socialist Alliance paper. At this point comrade Wrack intervened, suggesting that these issues ought to come up at the AGM. On his request it was agreed that the motion be remitted to the executive. The national council meeting demonstrated, despite cynical claims in some quarters that the resignation of comrade Davies would deal us a deadly blow, that we can learn from mistakes and put this incident behind us. However, the underlying tensions are still present - tensions caused by the determination of the largest faction to hold back the Socialist Alliance project and block its evolution into the party our class needs. Alan Stevens