Oxford's revival

Oxford Socialist Alliance held its annual general meeting on January 21, which was coupled with a public meeting addressed by SA national secretary Rob Hoveman. There were around 25 people - not a huge turnout, but a big improvement on a series of very poorly attended and somewhat disorganised events in the autumn. Noteworthy was a significant improvement in attendance by Socialist Workers Party members, in spite of a clash with a meeting of Globalise Resistance. The AGM was largely uncontentious. It is possible that the harmony of the meeting was aided by the fact that we did not consider motions for the SA annual conference. After the AGM business was done, comrade Hoveman spoke on the theme 'Iraq, war, firefighters, privatisation - where is New Labour going?' He gave a fairly standard left account of the political situation: the impending war, the Bush and Blair administrations' reasons for promoting it, the continuing strong opposition to it; the government's determination to inflict a defeat on the firefighters and cut fire service cover along the line of rail 'modernisation', and the unpredictability of this dispute; several other sections of workers are looking to how this develops. He emphasised the "high-risk" character of American international strategy (though he rightly declined to make military predictions) and of the political strategy of the Blairites. In this situation he argued that it is crucial for SA to build itself as a real socialist alternative, and the possibilities exist for doing so. The firefighters' dispute has led the campaign for democratisation of the political fund to take off, not only in the FBU but also in other unions, and this campaign is critical. Firefighters have been adopted as SA candidates in local by-elections in Tottenham Hale and Camden, and a group of firefighters in Basingstoke propose to stand a candidate under the SA banner (though there is not yet an organised alliance there). On the other hand, comrades in the north freely admit that the growth of BNP influence reflects their own failure to develop an effective socialist alternative. It is now critical for the SA to play this role. The speech was followed by a lively discussion. Several floor speakers argued for the need for the SA to move towards being, or acting as, a political party, though there were varying views about how rapidly to move in this direction. From this the debate shifted to the need for the SA to be able to develop priorities, and avoid trying to cover too many meetings (a traditional problem of the Oxford left). Out of this a discussion developed about the problem of the SA appearing as 'just another group of politicians' who turn up only at election time: several speakers argued that we need to "be there campaigning" continuously. One speaker argued that, for example, it was necessary to raise the issue of drug legalisation in connection with local estates' problems with dealers, or link bus timetable issues to the effects of privatisation. Another argued we should "get back to basics": Iraq was important, but issues like education, health, etc were critical. Responses varied, one person saying that the war and the 'basics' were linked by the question of the money being spent on the war; another that the key to "prioritising" was to focus on members' trade unions and workplaces. Responding to the discussion, comrade Hoveman reiterated some of his previous points. In relation to the development of the SA, he said that, though it was frustrating not to have grown more, we had only been in existence for a couple of years as a national organisation. With very different traditions - a coming together of reformists and revolutionaries - there were bound to be disagreements; the key was how to manage them: ie, in a "comradely" fashion. The alliance was trying to reach out to various elements - old Labour and anti-capitalist, as well as others. We need to be "broad, welcoming, interesting, principled and active - not to just sit in a room but go out and change things"; we need numbers but also need to be consistent. As an example, in Oxford at the last local elections the SA was (heavily) outpolled by the Independent Working Class Association. They concentrate their resources very narrowly, but also drop fundamental principles in order to get votes, in particular on immigration. That road leads to Blairism. Comrade Hoveman concluded by arguing that if we can get millions on the streets for the February 15 anti-war demonstration we can "kick Blair into the dustbin of history". In the autumn it certainly felt in Oxford as if the SWP had decided to put the SA in their back pocket pending the next round of elections. If they now think it has to play the lead role in political campaigning, this would be a welcome change. It would be even more welcome if they were prepared to take more steps towards a partyist perspective for the Socialist Alliance. Mike Macnair