Scottish lessons lost

Peter Manson urges partyism

Soon after the start of last Saturday's Socialist Alliance conference, Allan Green, guest speaker from the Scottish Socialist Party, invited us to make a comparison between the 1997 general election and the May 1 2003 polls.

In 1997, he reminded us, the left, both in England and Scotland, averaged around 1.5% - if you left a couple of good results from Glasgow and Coventry out of the equation. Now, just six years later, the SSP had six MSPs and almost seven percent support - and the SA has its first elected councillor, he added diplomatically. It was not for comrade Green to suggest the way ahead for the SA, but he made it clear that the SSP's success was in no small way down to the decision to transform the Scottish Socialist Alliance into a party, whose aim was "not just to win the odd seat, but to challenge for power".

The importance of that decision may have been obvious to comrade Green, but it was lost on the Socialist Workers Party, whose comrades accounted for well over half of the 310 or so SA members present at the May 10 annual conference, held in Islington Green school. The SA had effectively been liquidated, since, at the SWP's urging, the conference, originally scheduled for March 15, had been postponed because the alliance was considered virtually irrelevant in relation to the tremendous anti-war upsurge.

Each of the component organisations, apart from the CPGB, decided they were 'too busy' for SA work - especially for an SA conference that would chart the way ahead - and concentrated instead on pushing their own cart. Thus a golden opportunity to provide the mass movement with a viable working class alternative to the warmongers was lost, as the alliance was hardly visible, if at all.

Perhaps then, with the SSP's electoral success as an example, the Socialist Alliance could now be relaunched as an effective organisation, equipped with a regular newspaper, committed to a campaign for the united party our class needs? Not a chance. Far from honestly accounting for our collective failure to grasp the opportunity presented to us, the SWP, by contrast, crowed at what it believes to be its tremendous success over recent months.

And of course, from its own narrow sect perspective, success of some sort is what it has achieved. It has won a position of influence in the anti-war movement, thanks to its leading role in the Stop the War Coalition, and now has the ear of George Galloway, Bob Crow and other Labour lefts and union leaders. The Socialist Alliance - boosted by Michael Lavalette's victory in Preston - can be used to enhance the SWP's position in any new left-of-Labour coalition that emerges.

But in the meantime the SA remains an on-off electoral front, now even more firmly under SWP control. For the first time at an SA conference the SWP had an absolute majority over all other groups and individuals combined, with around 170 comrades. The next largest group in attendance was the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, with about 30 comrades - a few more than the CPGB. The International Socialist Group and Workers Power had less than a dozen each. The SWP dominance is reflected on the new executive committee, where, together with its allies, it also forms a majority - no bad thing in itself, of course.

The future of the alliance was, then, the main debate facing conference, which had before it three main motions. The ISG's Alan Thornett proposed 'A new initiative for left unity' that contained many good points, but avoided the 'p' word like the plague. This motion, backed by the SWP and allies, proposed keeping "an open mind on the organisational form that could emerge" from discussions with others on the left, but basically it was a recipe for carrying on as we are - stagnation, in other words. Comrade Thornett's concession to those demanding an SA paper was a call to develop Left Turn, the (very) occasional, single-sheet handout, as "a more regular and substantial publication of the alliance with an editorial structure".

What is the difference then between what comrade Thornett is proposing and the Cambridge SA proposal, backed by the CPGB, AWL and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, amongst others, for a straightforward "regular Socialist Alliance newspaper"? Is it the fact that the role of the paper would be not only to "cover current events", but to "promote political debate amongst Socialist Alliance members"? Or is it that comrade Thornett's proposal is just one clause buried in his lengthy motion, which can be safely forgotten? Addressing conference, comrade Thornett admitted that he was proposing "building the alliance as it is", but went on to call for a "new realignment" with "much bigger" forces - anti-war activists, the trade union left, ex-Labour Party members, the Socialist Party, Communist Party of Britain." In conclusion he said: "A workers' party is not so much the issue at the moment. We need to keep the coalition broad". One wondered when and how his workers' party would come into being if it is too early to even give it a mention in his motion - too early south of the border, that is.

The CPGB backed a composited alternative, moved by Chris Jones of Merseyside SA and the RDG, which specifically noted the success of the SSP and Rifondazione Comunista, achieved "through making the party the focus of public work". The motion called on the SA to "seek to set up a 'Campaign for a new workers' party'" with others; to adopt "the aim of a workers' party in its constitution"; and to include "arguments" for this "as part of its campaigning propaganda".

Comrade Jones noted that actions such as standing in elections had a logic which pointed to a party. Adopting the strategic aim of a party would "deepen the basis on which we are united"�. Like the SSP we should "take ourselves seriously".

Mark Hoskisson proposed a third motion on behalf of Workers Power, the main thrust of which was virtually identical to the CPGB, RDG, Merseyside composite. It too called for the setting up of a "Campaign for a new workers' party", specifically stating that the type of party that would emerge should be left open. However, it appears that the mere mention of the SSP and Rifondazione was enough to preclude WP support for the Merseyside composite, which, according to Alison Higgins, was "too prescriptive".

In the absence of anyone from Cambridge, the CPGB's John Pearson stepped into the breach to propose the motion in favour of an SA paper. He pointed out that during the anti-war mobilisations we had been left "without a national voice". The opportunity provided by the two-million-strong London demonstration had been "squandered", as we had no common paper arguing the case for socialism.

Clive Searle, an 'independent' who is close to the SWP and the editor of the Manchester SA news sheet, also called Left Turn, said it was wrong to think that a paper is "going to solve all our problems". We have to "start walking before running". He wanted to know how many other local alliances have "their own monthly newsletter". This is a completely topsy-turvy view. A national paper would avoid the absurd duplication of time, money and effort implicit in comrade Searle's notion and could be produced immediately.

As the CPGB's Lee Rock pointed out, we are already "walking all over the place" - the left publishes a whole range of different papers of a much higher professional standard than comrade Searle can hope to achieve. James White, a non-aligned supporter, made a good speech: "The key question is the creation of a new independent force to represent the working class. The conditions for a party are favourable" and it will either be the SA or "someone else" who will fill the void. Why keep putting it off, he asked. However, this was opposed by an array of speakers including the SWP's John Rees and WP's Mark Hoskisson. They implied that the composited motion in favour of a party demanded that we "just declare one" - now.

Tony Greenstein was another independent to criticise the absence of ambition on the part of the majority: "One councillor in alliance with the mosque is held out as a strategy for the future." He too pointed to the example of Scotland and concluded: "The SWP don't want a paper because they think Socialist Worker is it."

When it came to the vote, just about everyone except the SWP and Workers Power put up their hand in favour of an SA paper - not enough, of course, but it gave us a very healthy one-third minority. The minority for the pro-party motion was smaller - understandable, given the two alternatives, both of which the CPGB considered supportable.