Campaign for a workers' party

There is nothing like two million people on the street to concentrate the mind. In the shadow of the mammoth show of force by the anti-war movement on February 15, the Socialist Alliance executive gathered the following day to discuss future perspectives of the alliance and the fluidity in the workers' movement created by the outpouring of anti-war sentiment. Other issues on the agenda included the May local elections, the firefighters' dispute and union work, as well as preparations for annual conference. The executive committee entered into a wide-ranging discussion about the implications of the February 15 demonstration and the tasks of socialists in this period. There was general consensus that the march constitutes a turning point in Blair's premiership and opens up a period of potentially rapid change in the British political landscape. With no coherent opposition, the left is being forced to play catch-up. George Galloway is openly calling for a refounding of the Labour Party (see interview), with the 'awkward squad' of trade union leaders at increased loggerheads with New Labour and millions of people opposed to war on Iraq and unrepresented in parliament - the raw material for a mass workers' party is being created. With the possibility of George Galloway being involved in the creation of a new party - or at least in the campaign for one - the question of Scotland comes up. Galloway is MP for Glasgow Kelvin. He is also an opponent of Scottish separatism. In any campaign for a "refounding of the Labour Party" or for a new mass workers' party, where will the Scottish Socialist Party fit in? Opening the discussion on the war John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party said that this movement was no longer just about war and peace, but about democracy and whether this government can be bent to popular sentiment. Opposition to the war has no coherent parliamentary expression. Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat leader, is not against the war per se, but is cynically positioning himself as an opponent of non-UN-mandated imperialist aggression. While Labour mavericks such as George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn have spoken out against the war, there is no mass alternative to the openly imperialist government of Tony Blair. The executive discussed the fact that Charles Kennedy was given a platform at the demonstration. Comrade Rees, who represents the SWP on the Stop the War Coalition steering committee, argued that it was a tactical decision to allow Kennedy to speak in order to minimise his impact on the demonstration. He said that to deny Kennedy a platform in the days before February 15 would have given him a pretext to run a campaign in the media which would have overshadowed other, more important, aspects of the day. Nick Wrack, Socialist Alliance representative on the STWC committee did not disagree. I spoke in opposition to this. While I agreed that it was a tactical decision and not a point of principle, I argued that by giving Kennedy the mantle of 'peace campaigner' we were allowing him the possibility of claiming to be a leading voice in the movement, who would attempt to pull it behind any second UN resolution. Even without a UN mandate Kennedy would be a 'loyal oppositionist'. Mark Hoskisson of Workers Power agreed that it was a tactical mistake to allow Kennedy to speak. Martin Thomas (Alliance for Workers' Liberty), Declan O'Neill, Lesley Mahmood and Margaret Manning had also voiced opposition to Kennedy speaking on our email list previous to the demonstration. In view of this, it was in retrospect a mistake not to push the question to a vote on the executive. In his defence, Comrade Rees said that having Jeremy Corbyn speaking immediately after Kennedy lessened his impact. He also pointed out that Kennedy had refused to march at the front of the demonstration to avoid being photographed with the likes of George Galloway. Anyway, argued comrade Rees, the presence of Hollywood actor Tim Robbins had overshadowed anything Kennedy said. The executive were understandably buoyed up by the demonstration. Though all recognised a clear gap between the potentialities the movement offers and the actuality of the Socialist Alliance at present. Will McMahon, membership secretary, said that 30,000 Socialist Alliance bulletins and 1,100 placards were distributed. There were 11 volunteers on the Socialist Alliance's stalls. In this context I raised the issue of the pre-demonstration email from Chris Bambery, SWP national organiser, to the SWP membership instructing them to only undertake SWP and Socialist Worker sales activity. This email brought angry responses on the IndieSA discussion list. Comrade Bambery's instruction states: "Comrades should not on this demo be doing anything else aside from selling SW unless you have been asked to steward by STWC. In other words you should not be doing stalls or whatever for Palestine Rights, ANL, Defend Council Housing, SA or whatever." All of the supporting organisations, including the CPGB, concentrated on distributing their own material at the demonstration, although all CPGB stalls also had SA material. However, the bulk of the responsibility for the lack of any coordinated socialist intervention on the demonstration must rest with the largest faction in the Socialist Alliance. As the dominant force, it has acted as a brake on the unity of political action outside actual election campaigns. In these circumstances the other main supporting organisations would not to be corralled by a spurious discipline to the Socialist Alliance, where the SWP was flagrantly wanting to sideline its role in the anti-war movement. Rob Hoveman, SA secretary and SWP member, defended the email, saying that all constituent parts retain the right to independent activity. He pointed out that the demonstration was the largest in British history and everyone was stretched to cover it. The SWP, as is its right, took the decision to prioritise SW sales. While this is perfectly true, it points to a problem. The left has no united voice. There is no political paper of the SA. No real unity in the branches. The SA is used to a limited extent to make propaganda in the unions, agitating for change on the political fund, but is mostly just turned on locally at election time. In this context, motions before annual conference that call for a campaign for a new workers' movement must be passed. George Galloway is obviously looking to such a campaign. The needs of the democratic anti-war movement demand it. The inadequacies of the Socialist Alliance and the dead ends of the sects point to the need to prioritise such a campaign. Comrade Rees noted that the TUC under its rules is obliged to call an emergency conference when there is an imminent threat of war. Socialists must campaign to enforce this. From the platform on February 15, both Galloway and comrade Lindsay German (SWP) called for strike action in the event of war. We must do all in our power to politicise the unions in the face of Blair's imperialist adventure. The March 3 public meeting organised by the Socialist Alliance is critical in this context. Speaking will be George Galloway, Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow, Christine Blower, John Rees and Linda Smith. Drawing together the various elements for a dialogue about the future of the workers' movement is needed at this time. It is a shame the Socialist Alliance does not have a paper in which to conduct this discussion. John Fisher (non-aligned) expressed some frustration - why did we not simply ask people like Galloway to join the SA? Comrade Steve Godward (non-aligned) said that we should not act at the behest of the Labour left. The majority argued that what was important was to place the SA in a good position for any future developments towards a new party. There was no thought of leaving the SA behind, but of using our unity and the lessons that come from it to advance the whole working class movement. Nick Wrack (non-aligned) said we should work with all who want an alternative to New Labour. He said what was key was the lack of representation for those opposed to the war, who want to retain public services in public hands and so on. Comrade Hoskisson said we must turn to the trade unions and campaign for them to take a lead in the anti-war movement. He said that Blair had been forced into a dialogue with the movement and was continually changing the parameters he sets for going to war. By moving onto the terrain of morality in his speech in Glasgow, he was setting himself up for a defeat by the movement. Will McMahon (non-aligned) said that this war was putting democracy to the test and argued that the Socialist Alliance was well placed in this period. Weyman Bennett (SWP) said we are witnessing the birth of the new left. Local elections We moved on to a discussion of the upcoming local authority elections in England. Rob Hoveman opened, saying we need to strike a balance between standing as many candidates as we can and running credible local campaigns. We reviewed the local government policy document passed by the February 2001 national council. It was agreed to insert a paragraph in the introduction, placing democracy and the war as central issues in these elections. The discussion touched upon anti-fascist work. How do we unite against the BNP within the workers' movement? This will be debated at our annual conference. However, I warned that the SA must not become involved in 'establishment' Lib-Lab anti-racist pacts. One of the sources of the BNP vote is that they come across as anti-establishment. The SA must not be seen as part of the official anti-racist paradigm of the main bourgeois parties. I raised the importance of fighting for a united front against Blairism in the elections. This should include the possibility of calling for, and campaigning for, votes for anti-war, anti-Blair Labour candidates. This will also be debated at annual conference. FBU and trade unions Steve Godward opened on the present state of the FBU pay dispute and on his own sacking and victimisation during FBU industrial action. Comrades on the executive agreed that the strike had moved to a defensive guerrilla battle to retain the firefighters' conditions. There was a danger that the leadership around brother Gilchrist could look to settle in a manner that set the FBU back. Executive members agreed that building a rank and file movement in the union was thus critical during the endgame of the dispute. I said that one key difference between this dispute and the 1977 strike was the lack of control from below this time around. While the executive has postponed the FBU annual conference scheduled for May 18, the London region has called a solidarity conference for March 1. It is here that the rank and file and its supporters in other unions should seek to organise. Socialist Alliance firefighters will meet at 4.30pm on March 1 at the conclusion of the FBU conference. Mark Hoskisson, trade union officer, reported on preparations for fringe meetings during conference season. Meanwhile the Socialist Campaign Group is to organise 'Stay in Labour' meetings. There may be some scope for debate with the SCG on this. At present, motions calling for the democratisation of the political funds are on the order papers for TSSA, RMT and CWU. It is only in Amicus that a resolution calling for democratisation has been ruled out of order. Unison, TGWU and GMB also have motions submitted to annual conference on the subject. The NUJ and NUT have motions on their respective agendas for the establishment of a political fund. The SA will be re-issuing Matt Wrack's pamphlet on the political fund for this round of conferences. Other business Our annual conference may have to be moved to March 16 if there is another national anti-war demonstration called for March 15, the current conference date. The executive will consult with branches on this. In order to facilitate debate and clarity at conference it was agreed that main themes should be suggested - the conference arrangements committee will make final recommendations. However, the executive felt that the two main themes for our conference, given the nature of the motions in front of us, are 'Fighting Bush and Blair's war' and 'The future of the Socialist Alliance'. The executive looked at the need to build a functioning regional structure in the lead-up to the European parliament elections in 2004. Representatives of the executive will meet with the electoral commission to seek clarity on the formation of accounting units and the possibility of registered (and unregistered) political organisation affiliating to the SA without affecting the independent finances of either party. How the Welsh Socialist Alliance will fit into the SA constitution and accounting structure was also floated. Lesley Mahmood reported on the formation of an SA women's network "by the SA for all women". This is to include some 'policy forums'. Why non-members are to have input into SA policy when male members are to be excluded from these forums needs some clarification. The executive agreed to pursue twinning local towns and movements with Palestinian towns. At my suggestion, we agreed to send solidarity greetings to the Israeli military refuseniks as well. Marcus Ström Money where our mouth is The 2002 financial year saw the Socialist Alliance put on a much sounder footing. Despite the cock-up over the clearing of cheques in the national office, the running of our finances has improved markedly. This is due in no small part to our treasurer, Tess McMahon. Comrade McMahon received the unanimous thanks of the outgoing 2002-03 executive. It is good to see that all principal groups are now beginning to contribute to the SA coffers as agreed. This certainly took some prodding, not least by yours truly at executive meetings and in the pages of the Weekly Worker. While the principal supporting organisations provided the resources to establish the Socialist Alliance, the bulk of our funds now come from members' subscriptions. The CPGB has been one of the most consistent advocates of a central office and central funds. And we have put our money were our mouth is. Contributions, 2002 SWP £1,920 (SA debt repayment to East End Offset); CPGB £1,590; Workers Power £750; AWL £480; ISG £160