Chasing votes: two wrong approaches

A number of local by-elections have been contested by the Socialist Alliance in recent weeks. The results were neither brilliant nor a total disaster. Rather they showed that there is a definite space to the left of New Labour that desperately needs to be filled, but that in its current becalmed state the SA is not able to seriously contest for this space. For example, Tottenham Socialist Alliance, which has been pretty much non-existent since the general election in 2001, delivered what is for us a standard performance in Tottenham Hale ward on January 23. Steve Cracknell, a firefighter at the local Hornsey fire station and FBU branch secretary, received 68 votes, or 4.5%. Naturally local Socialist Alliance members worked very hard in leafleting and canvassing the ward. And one might have thought that the substantial public support for the firefighters and the opposition to an attack on Iraq would have provided favourable conditions for a reasonable vote. However, most people have still not heard of the Socialist Alliance "¦ and if they have they do not think much of people who only appear at election times. Shoving leaflets through the letterbox is no substitute for consistent, principled work - locally and nationally. As in many other parts of the country, Socialist Worker Party members divide their time between the local branch of the Anti-Nazi League, the Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance and other SWP fronts. Hardly any non-SWP supporters of the SA were re-activated in the by-election and the bulk of the work was done by members of the SWP. On top of that there is the Socialist Alliance itself nationally. No paper, no trade union fractions, no serious commitment to transform what is primarily a loose front cemented between five principal supporting revolutionary organisations into a serious party with an internal regime of democracy and healthy debate. Just as bad, our leading faction expects to gain mass support simply by standing on an old Labour programme of restoring services and defending the NHS. The results in the ballot boxes are predictable. By contrast, the Independent Working Class Association's Gary O'Shea scored 22.4% of the vote at a by-election in Islington's Bunhill ward on January 23. This comes on top of other impressive results. The high point so far has been the local elections in May 2002, where the IWCA scored 27.8% in Heaton (Havering), 26.6% in Clerkenwell (Islington) and 26.9% in Haggerstone (Hackney). In Oxford's Northfield Brook ward Stuart Craft was elected councillor with 42.4% of the vote. Communists and revolutionary socialists must be clear, however, that rather than aping the IWCA's sub-reformist localism, the answer must be to work hard for the SA to become a serious fighting class organisation. That means having democratically agreed, but flexible and responsive answers, and fighting for them, on all fronts, alongside the greatest possible mass of people. From international and constitutional politics to the most humble local politics. That way, we both teach and learn. Those that cannot, or will not, do that, face the danger of either sectarian isolation or being blown off course by big political events and developments. At present the SA still suffers from sectarian isolation. On the other hand the IWCA is hardly equipped to deal with governmental issues, let alone matters such as war and peace which determine the fate of countries and whole peoples A few examples. One of the IWCA's main slogans is 'Working class rule in working class areas'. So in the local elections in May 2002 they demanded that "the council and the police have a duty to stop dealing in hard drugs". Rather than fighting for the legalisation of all drugs - the only measure that would really stop drug-related crime - the comrades call on the police to sort out the "working class areas". Also, should socialists not work for working class rule in all areas? In other words a working class state. But then, the IWCA does not consider itself to be a socialist or communist organisation - although its core members come from Red Action, which split from the SWP in the mid-1970s. However, just like its parents in the SWP, the IWCA is proud of not having a programme capable of guiding its actions. Instead, it draws up its campaigning priorities as a result of "dialogue with working class communities", as Carl Taylor explained in an interview with the Weekly Worker after his election campaign in Hackney's Haggerstone ward (May 16 2002): "It's true that we didn't campaign on anything that isn't in the remit of a local councillor," he said. "We have been busy with a door-to-door survey for the last six months, asking people what their priorities were locally." In the 'Who we are' section of Hackney IWCA's website the comrades explain that "we try to represent the views of the working class majority in the area". The local community in Islington Bunhill must be very special, judging by the election material of the IWCA. Although a majority of British people oppose an attack on Iraq and support the firefighters, the IWCA website fails to even carry a mention of either. The comrades deal instead with local issues only: they rightly campaign for 'Justice for Christopher Pullen' (a boy who was killed in an accident playing on a rundown local estate), against the sale of Finsbury Park town hall and for "the safe-siting of mobile phone masts on behalf of residents worried about possible health concerns. Achievements so far have included a three-year ban on the siting of mobile masts on council estates" (www.iwca-islington.org.uk). However, in this localist spirit, the IWCA has no national website - only four local sites that reflect its local organisations in Hackney, Islington, Oxford and Havering. A local resident of Bunhill tells me that none of the organisation's many election leaflets have mentioned national or international questions either. The ongoing onslaught on asylum-seekers in the national press, the looming war and the firefighters' dispute are of course not "in the remit of a local councillor". Tina Becker Engagement "Any organisation in today's conditions which decides its priorities by a 'dialogue' with a local working class and which at the same time rejects the need for a programme will quickly dissipate into dead-end localism," the Weekly Worker warned on January 18 1996, a couple of months after the IWCA was formed. The CPGB was involved in the inaugural meetings called by Red Action in 1995, which attempted to set up the IWCA as a conscious alternative in opposition to the formation of the Socialist Labour Party by Arthur Scargill. We were engaged with both unity initiatives, while most of the rest of the revolutionary left at that time was preparing to 'Vote Labour, but"¦' in the 1997 general elections. But right from the start we had many disagreements. Amongst other things Red Action wrote off the Labour Party as a "middle class" party, ignoring the important link with the trade unions and its working class base - factors that still identify Labour as a bourgeois workers' party. Red Action rejected fighting for consitutional reforms, which was only ever an ultra-left posture and stood in stark contrast to the actual sub-reformist activities of the IWCA even in those early days. All organisations that wanted to be part of the IWCA had to "agree" to these points, which were drafted by Red Action. When the CPGB put forward some amendments to this foundation statement, they were dismissed without discussion.