Scotland shows unity is strength

Scotland 6, England 1. No, not some nightmare scoreline for Sven Goran Eriksson, but the tally of Scottish Socialist Party members sitting in the Holyrood parliament, compared to the total number of Socialist Alliance members holding any elected office: ie, our solitary councillor. One step at a time, of course. Today Preston, tomorrow Chipping Sodbury. Nevertheless, consider what a contrast the two organisations present. On the one hand, the most successful left-of-Labour formation seen in Britain since the 1930s. On the other, a jerry-built cabal of bickering Trot sects with no particular prospects, and a few dozen independents tagging along for the ride. And we're asking people to vote for that? Unsurprisingly, the one-day 'annual' conference of our ramshackle little outfit - a full 17 months since the last one - won't quite have the feel of a major political event about it. And that's because it won't be one. No danger of the constant glare of national newspaper photographer flashbulbs damaging anybody's eyesight this Saturday, then. There will be no real tension. No gut feeling of anything palpable at stake, or that it is important which resolutions carry and which do not. Instead of looking enviously north of the border and wondering how we can take a leaf from the SSP's book, the Socialist Alliance more or less accepts its continued marginalisation. There's probably no more conservative organised layer in English politics than the revolutionary left. This is a criticism I am levelling at the organisation as a whole. The Socialist Alliance badly needs a rocket up its collective political arse. But no-one appears to be on hand with the relevant fireworks. Some components have at least a broadly correct idea of what needs to be done, but neither the weight nor the courage seriously to act upon it. Others would be happy for a pretext to slink back into Labour Party entry work or the Valhalla, 'build the party' sectarian routine. The SWP, the largest single component and thus in a position to dictate our political direction, does not seem quite sure what it thinks. Overall the pervasive sense is one of drift. Hard to imagine, sometimes, that we are in the eighth year of an ongoing regroupment of the left that took its first tentative steps in 1995, with the start of discussions over the launch of the Socialist Labour Party. Seen in this context - as part of a continual process of recomposition - our progress has been glacial. The SLP managed to move from being a twinkle in Arthur Scargill's eye to a busted flush, at least as a regroupment vehicle, inside three years. The decline of the Socialist Alliance could prove somewhat more protracted. By definition, I suppose inertia cannot run rampant, but you get the picture. Saturday's proceedings may even prove uncannily akin to reading the formation's last rites. Most participants will probably hang around for the funeral, if only for form's sake. But nobody can pretend that the patient is in good health. What makes things all the more frustrating is that the last year has seen an upturn in industrial militancy, combined with huge anti-war mobilisations, a partial but real youth radicalisation, and a rapid outflux of Labour Party members. Those of us who can remember what it was like to be a revolutionary in the summers of high Thatcherism used to dream of situations like that. So where are the recruits, then? I do hear from the office that Socialist Alliance numbers are up "¦ slightly. But, given the best conditions the left has witnessed since the 1970s, anything short of a serious influx is actually a failure. If we do not - or should that be cannot? - achieve a breakthrough now, we arguably never will. Yet the basics of Scottish success are simple enough. There is no evil secret blueprint dreamed up by Sheridan during one of his sunbed sessions. It's not as if they are genetically modifying the porridge up there, or spiking the deep-fried Mars bars with some sort of drug that stupefies the electorate into backing the radical left. Lesson one: unity pays. By the simple expedient of joining forces, the SSP has managed to wipe out the enduring credibility gap generated by divisions on the far left. You know all of those antique trade union banners, delicately hand-embroidered with the motto 'Unity is strength'? Well, guess what? They're right. Lesson two: developing concrete, deliverable policies pays. And no, I am not suggesting that we curtail 'big picture' theoretical work. Constantly re-evaluating our rapidly changing world is vital for all thinking socialist organisations. If anything, we aren't doing enough of that either. But in terms of immediate agitation - and I'm consciously counterposing the term to propaganda here - socialism has to be made relevant. The SSP have been right consistently to push such readily understood ideas as free school meals for every kid and its plans for a Scottish services tax. We should come up with similar hallmark policies ourselves. Either that or just blatantly nick the SSP's. Lesson three: Media work pays. The SSP already had a full-time press officer before the elections, and will now have the resources to expand dramatically its media operation. Now look at the Socialist Alliance website. The most recent press release on offer dates from April 2002. Who's pushing to get our people on the telly and the radio? Nobody. Yet a single peak-time broadcast reaches an audience many times larger than the combined circulation of the entire left press. No serious political grouping can afford not to seek maximum broadcast exposure for its ideas. If you doubt that, ask the British National Party. Just as importantly, the existing affiliates to the Socialist Alliance have both the talent and resources to publish the best socialist paper Britain has ever seen. They should do so. Sporadic A4 bulletins with a readership of zilch do not betoken political seriousness. And if we do none of these things? What happens if the drift continues? Think on this. Next year, Scottish Socialist Party representatives will probably be joining Lutte Ouvrière, Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and Rifondazione Comunista comrades in the European parliament. The Greens already have a Euro-MP, and the BNP could well get one next time round. And the Socialist Alliance? We'll still be polling under 2%, congratulating ourselves that all our hard campaigning actually secured a few tenths of a percentage point more than the Scargillites managed to muster simply by standing. But look on the bright side. We might just get a second councilor. Dave Osler