Business as usual for stalled alliance?

As the Socialist Alliance executive committee was meeting on Saturday March 29, the sounds of the Birmingham anti-war demonstration passing outside filtered into the United Services Club. Reports from up and down the country of tens of thousands on the street against the war were phoned and texted in during our discussions. The mass movement is making its mark. Yet, apart from a few placards and leaflets, the Socialist Alliance has failed to engage with it. It has passed the SA by. The alliance has not been transformed. Of course, individual SA members have thrown themselves into anti-war activity, but by and large they are not doing so as SA members. John Rees, representative of the Socialist Workers Party on the executive, ducked out of the meeting to appear at the rally following the demonstration. Of course, he was speaking on behalf of the Stop the War Coalition, not the alliance. Different 'united front', different hat. We have seen two million on the streets. Mass meetings have been held up and down the country. The first People's Assembly has taken place. Labour Against the War has pulled hundreds of delegates to its conference. Every serious organisation has redoubled its efforts, increasing the number of its meetings, not cancelling them. While the rest of society debated and acted against the war, the Socialist Alliance postponed its conference - our highest decision-making body - for what was believed to be the duration of the conflict. Where branches are doing anything, it is usually just the same monthly gathering of the same few people. After all, "We all know what we need to be doing", as national secretary Rob Hoveman (SWP) said at the executive meeting. We don't actually need to discuss the war after all. Trivial matters such as the politics of the war, what slogans to develop, the schisms in the Labour Party, how to campaign for a new workers' party - none of this was needed once war broke out. Such was the apolitical stance of the Socialist Alliance executive. My charge of effective liquidation of the alliance was challenged at the meeting. The 100-plus candidates in the forthcoming local elections on May 1 is evidence that the SA is alive and well, I am told. This misses the point. Liquidation is not about what local branches do on the ground: it is about leadership. It is about where the alliance is going in these dramatically changed circumstances. Apparently, we are going exactly the same direction before the war crisis emerged as after: ie, nowhere in particular. The SWP does not have the politics or the courage to take the alliance to the mass movement as a bold campaign to forge a workers' party. The Socialist Alliance has failed the test of the war. Where is this organisation going? No dramatic change of gear was proposed by the executive. Business as usual. The current framework seems to satisfy the majority. It does not satisfy me. Discussion began with a feint. John Rees and Nick Wrack, the SA representative on the STWC steering committee, both gave reasonable assessments of the war and the movement. Comrade Rees said that the slogan 'Blair out!' had been adopted. This was all well and good, but what, I asked, was to replace Blair? Setting out the argument for regime change at home was the key task for socialists and communists. Now that the anti-war party had been reduced to its hard core of 30% or so, we needed to rewin the majority with harder, more concrete politics. Attention turned to the new stage in the campaign: April 12, the next national demonstration. Why shouldn't we have an SA representative speaking on the platform? After all, the SA was there at the start. Well, said comrade Rees, we'd be competing with 10 Iraqi organisations, 10 Kurdish organisations, etc. And if the SA wanted to speak, then what about the Socialist Party, Morning Star, Arthur Scargill? I suggested that John Rees could speak for the SA if the organising committee wanted a credible speaker from the anti-war movement. He did not seem so keen. It was agreed that the STWC be approached and comrade Wrack offered as our speaker. Comrades seemed pleased that there were 25 to 30 people handing out SA material at the previous national demonstration on March 22. Rob Hoveman said he wanted to improve on this"¦ Well, one way he could is by winning (instructing?) more of his SWP comrades to do this work, of course. I am sure no one would miss a few dozen sellers of Socialist Worker. Alan Thornett (International Socialist Group) then presented two motions. One to endorse the writing of a pamphlet on the Labour Party and the war (albeit with a sexier title) by himself. The other was for a series of youth and student teach-ins under the SA banner. Given that this executive should have ceased existence months ago (we were only elected for a year on December 1 2001); given that we have not actually had our annual conference to discuss and debate the question of the war and the Labour Party, I felt it precipitous, to say the least, to commission a pamphlet. Declan O'Neill felt that the proposals were too much "business as usual". Nick Wrack in particular sought to ridicule my argument. He said that I could not have it both ways. In fact it was myself who wanted business as usual when I insisted the annual conference go ahead on March 15. Alan Thornett's proposal was about acting quickly in the new circumstances, he said. For my money there are two interconnected points here. Democracy and ideas. How can we commission a pamphlet without a democratic debate on the issues it will contain? How can we collectively think without a regular press and without having had a conference? I honestly do not know what comrade Thornett has in mind about the Labour Party and the war. Why would I vote for him to write a pamphlet on it? Only Tess McMahon, outgoing treasurer, and myself voted against this 'initiative'. Describing going ahead with our annual conference a week before the war against Iraq started as 'business as usual' would be laughable if it was not so sad. We could have agreed emergency resolutions on the war. We would have had the opportunity to discuss our strategy with regards to the Labour Party. We could have launched a weekly or daily anti-war paper. There were motions to launch a campaign for a workers' party - just what was needed in the period of heightened political activity and direct mass involvement. Just what has been missing. Instead, the postponement allowed the groups to get on with their own narrow work. It was the victory of the sects over the fight for principled partyist unity. On the matter of youth 'teach-ins' I abstained. I am not against them, but cannot really see the Socialist Alliance having much cutting edge in the movement, given that the majority faction, the SWP, favours either the STWC or Globalise Resistance for its youth activity. While a majority on the SA executive seems happy providing a 'broad' face for the SWP's electoral united front, I am not. Finally on the war, we discussed our slogans. Rob Hoveman suggested adding 'Blair out, troops out'. This was agreed unanimously. Jim Denham of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - there substituting for Martin Thomas, who prioritised attending Labour Against the War over the EC meeting - proposed adding: "Freedom for the peoples of Iraq". Amazingly, only two voted for what I thought would be an uncontroversial slogan. I asked what had happened to the People's Assembly. John Rees assured us the second assembly would be called at the appropriate time. Last week's steering committee of the STWC had decided that the time was not now. Local elections There was fruitful discussion on the May 1 local elections. Comrade Hoveman reported that there will be more than 100 candidates in around 50 local authority areas. I expressed concern about the credibility gap between the results we will get standing as anti-war candidates and the actual level of anti-war sentiment in the country. I pointed to the debacle of the Australian Socialist Alliance in the New South Wales state elections. Just standing as 'Socialist Alliance Against the War' would not automatically bring us a mass audience. I proposed that, where there was no Socialist Alliance candidate, the SA should call on activists to vote and campaign for candidates who were opposed to the war, supported the firefighters and stood in defence of asylum-seekers. This was how we could campaign for the 'anti-war party' on a class-struggle, internationalist basis. Comrade Hoveman stated that the SA had never called for a vote for another party or candidates before and we should not start doing it now without a proper debate. A compromise was reached. The minimum platform of opposition to the war, support for the firefighters and defence of asylum-seekers was to be a "guide" enabling local alliances to "seek cooperation on this basis". Local activists can decide for themselves what level of cooperation this entails. Our local government manifesto, which was cobbled together at the February 2002 national council meeting, will be issued to candidates and put on the website as a "draft policy document". It was agreed that the document is very inconsistent and eclectic and needs a thorough going over before it could be considered SA policy. There was discussion on a proposal from comrade Rees that the SA call a national meeting of anti-war candidates. Details were patchy. I opposed this. I argued that we should attend such a meeting if it was called by the Stop the War Coalition. However, if the SA called a national meeting of candidates whose only basis was opposition to the war, we could end up being swamped. Candidates from the Greens and Liberal Democrats would far outnumber us. I also opposed the SA calling such a meeting with no clear class basis to it. It was agreed that a national meeting would be too difficult to organise, so it was suggested regional meetings of anti-war candidates be organised. I voted against. I suspect this decision will disappear without trace. Trade unions The executive called on the SA trade union committee to meet and report on plans for union conference fringe meetings this year. Mark Hoskisson (Workers Power), SA union officer, was absent from the meeting. Comrade Rees reported that George Galloway had agreed to speak at a number of fringe meetings on democratising the union political funds - although obviously not under the SA banner. Finance and conference Shelley Margetson was unanimously co-opted onto the executive to act as our treasurer until annual conference. Executive passed the draft budget for 2003 and recorded its vote of thanks to Tess McMahon, who is standing down after doing a fantastic job. Annual conference will go ahead on May 10, despite a request from Globalise Resistance to move it in order to avoid a clash with its own conference. Amendments are reopened and must be in by April 27. Emergency motions will be allowed. Conference arrangements committee will recommend which of these should and should not be taken. I pointed to the motions from South Manchester and Greenwich, which condemned the postponement of the annual conference. In this light, I suggested that the executive needed to move an emergency motion. This should lay out the new situation before us: the fluidity in the workers' movement; the lack of working class representation in parliament; the ructions in the Labour Party; the development of the 'awkward squad' of union leaders; and the continued disunity of the left despite the limited gain of the Socialist Alliance. Finally the motion should commit the SA to campaign for a new workers' party based on the mass anti-war movement and issue a call to the Labour left, anti-war activists, trade unions, other socialist and working class organisations to unite. People nodded. John Rees said he would "draft something up" along those lines. Given the meeting we had just had, I was surprised that comrades from the executive endorsed such a perspective. We will see how it all comes out at conference. As comrades rightly throw themselves into the anti-war movement, we can still spare some time to ponder, whither the Socialist Alliance? Where is the SA now? How will it change? I feel now the change needed cannot come from within the SA itself - without a revolution in thought, and a break from the sect perspective of the Socialist Workers Party. It can only come from outside, from the SA and the SWP being forced to confront the movement itself. Perhaps from the class itself throwing up another concrete alternative to resolve the party question. When all is said and done, it is this question, the fight for a workers' party, which remains the strategic issue confronting our movement today. Marcus Ström