Unity or paralysis?

The fifth annual conference of the Welsh Socialist Alliance takes place in Swansea on Saturday January 25. In the run-up to the national assembly elections later in the year, the conference provides the opportunity for the WSA to regain some of the energy and dynamism that enthused members during the 2001 general election. The omens are, however, not good. 2002 was a bad year for the WSA. With the withdrawal of both Cymru Goch and the Socialist Party, membership is now seriously depleted. A high proportion of our branches are inactive and rarely meet. New members of the WSA are few and far between. Furthermore, the opportunity provided by the launch of Welsh Socialist Voice after last year's conference was criminally squandered. Upset at a potential rival to Socialist Worker, the WSA's largest affiliate, the Socialist Workers Party, did its utmost to derail the publication. After only three issues, WSV was effectively put to death. This was despite promises from the SWP that a relaunch of WSV would appear later in the year. Of course, no such relaunch has taken place. The preparations for the assembly elections have been lethargic, to say the least. With only three candidates announced so far, it appears that the WSA's campaign could be a damp squib. Again, the SWP has had more than a little role in this, making sure by force of numbers that Socialist Party members would be unable to stand under the alliance banner. It was this that provoked the SP's walkout. While these antics may have given the SWP a certain sectarian advantage, they have done nothing to make more credible the WSA's claim to be the socialist alternative to New Labour in the principality. Indeed, it appears that rival leftwing organisations have more of an election plan than we do. The Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain intends to contest three of the regional lists, in order to qualify for a party political broadcast. The SP expects to stand in Aberavon and Cardiff South, whilst the minuscule Socialist Labour Party plans to capitalise on its success in the Ogmore parliamentary by-election early in 2002. It aims to stand again in Ogmore, as well as ensuring it is on the ballot for the South West list (which includes Ogmore) and may also put up a candidate in Islwyn or Bridgend. Cymru Goch, however, will have no candidates, it seems. It is as clear as day that the WSA's status as an alliance separate from the Socialist Alliance in England is having a debilitating effect. Whereas the Morning Star's CPB, SP and SLP - all numerically smaller than the WSA - can call upon resources from elsewhere in the UK to help them fight the elections, the WSA's obvious source of assistance, the Socialist Alliance in England, is organisationally a separate entity. With no infrastructure at all, the WSA appears likely to soldier on in a completely amateurish way. Unless, of course, this weekend's conference changes this sorry situation. Amongst a set of motions that are largely uncontroversial, not to say bland, two clearly stand out, offering the WSA a coherent way forward. Although there are some important political differences between the two motions, both offer a route out of our current paralysis. The first comes from Leigh Richards, an independent member of Swansea WSA. His motion calls for the WSA to affiliate to the Socialist Alliance and to adopt its constitution. Comrade Leigh has clarified that this means that if this took place then this would supersede the constitution of the WSA. If passed, it would be many times more preferable than the present situation and cement some unity between socialists in England and Wales. However, there are some ambiguities in his proposal, which reflect a desire on his part to ensure semi-autonomous status for the WSA ("the Welsh section of the Socialist Alliance"). It is not at all clear whether alliance members would be first and foremost members of a new and enlarged Socialist Alliance of England and Wales or principally still members of a semi-separate WSA. This is a recipe for some considerable confusion. The second motion, from the Communist Party of Great Britain, avoids any such ambiguity. It calls for a straight merger of the two alliances, so as to form one unified body. Whilst full unity is no panacea for the ills of the WSA, it would nevertheless, be a powerful blow for those who advocate unity amongst socialists in Britain. Of course, criticisms have already been made of the CPGB motion. We have been accused of seeking to obliterate the gains made by the WSA and deny the right of Welsh members of the alliance project any opportunity to have a voice in a merged (or submerged) organisation. These objections are, however, easily dealt with. Firstly on technical grounds. Merging with the SA would not prevent the WSA still having an existence. The SA constitution allows for regional bodies and these already exist to some extent: eg, the London Socialist Alliance, which will perhaps be brought back to life for the 2004 London assembly and mayoral elections. Of use is an analogy with the Labour Party. It is a 'unitary' body that organises in England, Scotland and Wales. Yet it still has regional and national bodies: eg, the Welsh Labour Party. This has its own apparatus - ie, a general secretary, conference, regional executive - and on ballot papers the party is described as 'Welsh Labour Party'. Therefore, it has a certain autonomy in some areas. Of course, the CPGB does not propose that we should model the alliance on New Labour - but the comparison is a valid one nevertheless. Merger would certainly not mean the disappearance of a Welsh alliance, though it would be a very different one. There would still be a secretary, officers, a national council and a conference. This is the situation in many trade unions. However, it is not the technical grounds that ought to be emphasised. Instead, it is the political consequences of the respective motions which is the key. Comrade Leigh, a former member of Plaid Cymru, appears to be arguing that on such matters as the national question the WSA must remain sovereign: ie, this is a question for Welsh socialists alone to decide. Let us be clear about the position of the CPGB - it is often misinterpreted by our opponents as being a 'Brit left' one. We are, in fact, in favour of the immediate abolition of the United Kingdom - no ifs, no buts. However, we do not want to see the historic unity of the working class in Britian broken up through the creation of separate states. This is why we advocate a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales with self-determination for each part - right up to secession. Note that we do not insist that it has to be a 'socialist republic' - our programme is a bridge that starts with a concrete problem that exists now. In a sense, what the CPGB argues goes way beyond the stated aim of comrade Leigh - a Welsh parliament with real powers. On the contrary, we believe that the people of Wales ought to exercise full sovereignty - ie, the repeal of the acts of union. Yet in arguing this we are in no way calling for separation. Far from it. As communists we are for the maximum unity of England, Wales and Scotland. But it must be a voluntary unity. Some sceptics may ask how this relates to the WSA/SA debate? The British constitution denies the people of Wales the right to self-determination. As it stands at the moment, the 'English', by virtue of constituting 80% of the UK population, have a veto on this matter. Therefore, this is also an 'English' question. If the dead end of nationalism is to be defeated, it is incumbent on socialists in England to be the champions of the right of Wales and Scotland to self-determination, whilst we in Wales (and Scotland) must advocate maximum unity. This is best served in one single Socialist Alliance. There is no contradiction between arguing for self-determination and being in one organisation. If we want socialists in England to take the national question seriously - and most do not - then we need to be in the same organisation as them. It is not a question just for 'us' - but also for 'them'. Separate or even semi-separate alliances will simply allow the nationalist poison to spread - at the expense of socialism. Yet whether our motion or that of comrade Leigh (our second preference) is passed will depend on the attitude of the SWP - now overwhelmingly the biggest section of the WSA, though strangely weak in the principality. It has been making noises to the effect that it will support Leigh's motion, but not that of the CPGB. But with the advocates of a 'Welsh' road to socialism - the SP and Cymru Goch - now out of the WSA, it is beholden on the SWP comrades - belatedly, it is true - to become open advocates of all-Britian working class unity. It is likely, though, that its recent attempts to swallow up a few members of Plaid Cymru will push them in the opposite direction. And they have the gall to criticise others as nationalists! In the few other motions likely to cause controversy, the SWP will no doubt hold sway. It is likely that a CPGB proposal for an active boycott of any referendum on the euro will be defeated. Of some interest too are a couple of amendments from non-SWP members calling for the WSA to have a much more active role in shaping the activities and politics of the Stop the War Coalition. Up till now the SWP has sought to severely curtail the role of the alliance in this organisation. Maybe, however, comrades of the SWP in Wales will recognise the sorry state of the WSA and use their majority to offer the alliance some real leadership at last and point a coherent way forward. Can the SWP be heroes, even if it is just for one day? We will see. Cameron Richards Motion from Leigh Richards This conference agrees the WSA should become an affiliate member of the Socialist Alliance, and in so doing, will have both full rights as an affiliate member of the Socialist Alliance and abide by the constitution of the Socialist Alliance, and that the WSA should become the 'Welsh section' of the Socialist Alliance, with full rights to determine policy as appropriate in Wales. CPGB motion Conference calls on the national officers of the WSA to enter into negotiations with the Socialist Alliance (England) in order to bring about a merger of the two organisations.