Where now for Socialist Alliance?

Election results gained by the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales on May 1 were patchy but not at all bad. In fact they were far better than I dared hope for. Michael Lavalette in Preston is our first councillor. There were other good results. Gordon Rowntree in Middlesbrough got 21% of the poll, Sue Wild in Barnsley 17.7%, Urfan Akhtar in Telford 14% and Andy Newman 13% in Swindon. In Walsall the SA's 10 candidates secured an average vote of 9%, with Peter Smith scoring 23.3%. However, there were also many poor results. On average our candidates polled well below five percent. In Wales the SA fought a particularly ineffective campaign. More to the point, we must ask ourselves, what was possible? After all these were not 'normal' elections. Tony Blair had risked all and put the United Kingdom at the service of United States superimperialism. Supposedly to search out and destroy weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein's Iraq has just been 'liberated' by the US-UK 'coalition of the willing'. In response to this permanent 'war on terror', starting with the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002, a global anti-war movement arose and climbed from unprecedented heights to yet new heights. London saw three mega-demonstrations. Two million marched on February 15. Before the war began on March 20 opinion polls in Britain showed the anti-war party had a slim majority in the country. Meanwhile, despite two record backbench revolts, Blair and the war party commanded a thumping majority in the House of Commons. In short, there existed a yawning democratic deficit and a palpable crisis of representation. Tragically, instead of rising to the challenge, the majority of the SA's executive were persuaded to postpone the general meeting - only the CPGB and one indie voted against - till safely after the war. Delay was agreed not so as to dictatorially lift the SA's profile and galvanise the entire organisation from top to bottom. Putting aside the rule book and formal democratic niceties might have been excusable if that had been the intention. But no. The anti-war movement, especially its sheer size, enflamed base appetites. Grabbing recruits for one's own sect overrode all other considerations. The idea that a transformed SA could open up wider, strategic, vistas was pushed aside in the scramble for growth. Chris Bambery infamously instructed SWP members not to do SA work. The SA was left becalmed as an on-off Socialist Workers Party "united front of a special kind". And throughout the duration of the war the SA was to all intents and purposes 'off'. That meant effective liquidation. Meetings continued but they were few and very far between and desultory affairs. The SA dropped out of view. No SA speaker featured on Hyde Park platforms. Lindsay German was always introduced as Stop the War Coalition, not SA. Charles Kennedy was though allowed to strike a cheap anti-war pose - from which his Liberal Democrats greatly benefited electorally. Yes, anodyne SA leaflets were produced, along with placards. But let us honestly admit it - nothing serious was done. Indeed all principal supporting groups worked separately and as rivals. Prime responsibility for this regressive state of affairs falls upon the shoulders of the SWP. But no one was entirely guiltless. So what was possible? To get an inkling, all one needs to do is to cast an eye north. Tommy Sheridan has been reinforced in Holyrood by five more Scottish Socialist Party members - Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane, Colin Fox, Rosemary Byrne and Frances Curran. Of no less significance is the SSP's 7.68% of the total vote - where the SA average vote is derived from 163 council wards, the SSP contested every list and virtually all seats. Put another way, the SSP has arrived. It constitutes a real political force across the whole of Scotland. A viable alternative to New Labour and its rotten record. What did the SSP do in the war? On the minus side, Scotland had a separate anti-war campaign with its own slogans and demonstrations. A product of nationalism. It was as if Britain and its historically constituted working class had been broken apart. Nevertheless there was a definite plus side. The SSP took a lead and its version of socialism featured loud and clear on every platform. The SSP's weekly paper Scottish Socialist Voice also linked the anti-war movement with the forthcoming Holyrood elections. The Greens benefited too from an anti-war stance in Scotland. They now have seven MSPs. But, not least because of SSP criticism and propaganda, the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party were punished for their vacillation. The SNP in particular suffered a big setback. The main lesson is that the serious left has been united. Scottish Militant Labour - which lingers on as the rather ghostly International Socialist Movement - threw all its resources and efforts into building the SSP. That, and factional guarantees, breathed confidence into others. As the dominant force SML could not lose ... but smaller factions had nothing to fear and much to gain. Therefore the Committee for a Workers' International - the rump still loyal to Peter Taaffe in London - has not walked out, as it has walked out from the SA. Moreover the SWP found itself compelled to join. Scotland now has the Socialist Worker platform. The result of left unity - an influx of non-aligned members and through hard work and yet more hard work success in winning a popular base amongst working class voters. Conditions in Scotland are different from England and Wales. But, in the main, differences are subjective, not objective. Everyone should celebrate the SA's good election results on May 1, yet we would do well to recognise that more, far more, was possible. One councillor is a step forward. There could have - should have - been dozens. So where now? The CPGB is backing motions for an SA paper and the aim of establishing a new workers' party at the May 10 conference. If the majority recoils from this - what would to all intents and purposes be a relaunch - and continues to prioritise building the SWP as a sect, then that puts a question mark over the SA. The CPGB's attitude is clear. We have done everything in our power to take the SA forward. The goal is of necessity a Communist Party - to be content with warmed over left Labourism or a centrist halfway house is to invite eventual defeat. So the CPGB does not view the SA as the final destination or for that matter the only road. It is a field of struggle. The SA could petrify into just another sterile SWP front, or it could sink like a stone during the next important elections - Greater London Authority and the EU in 2004. The working class and the working class movement are key. That most decidedly includes the Labour Party. Labour remains a bourgeois workers' party, though the bourgeois, Blairite pole is dominant as never before. Rebellions against Blairism are, however, ragged, partial and myopic. Frankly, in the concrete conditions of the early 21st century that is exactly what we should expect. Socialism still suffers from a debilitating association with Stalin's USSR and the grey verities of social democracy. Moreover, there is not even a modestly sized body of trained cadre organised around a Marxist programme to provide strategic and tactical direction. Therefore things characteristically proceed in fits and starts. Ken Livingstone rebelled, but yearns for a return to Labour's bosom. RMT and the FBU militants are tentatively exploring alternatives. The Labour left is reviving, but finds democratic avenues - from CLPs to the annual conference - effectively closed off by the Blairites. We relate to each and every rebellion against New Labour as communists, not as quality controllers. That is why the CPGB supported those who actively involved themselves in Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. Platonic or dismissive commentaries united sectarianism and auto-Labourism. Communists fought to shape the SLP into what was necessary. Though that project quickly ended in abject failure, it did pave the way for the SA. Fail we might once again. But one thing is certain: the struggle will continue. Jack Conrad