... or dead parrot?

Tony Greenstein of Brighton SA and secretary of Brighton Unemployed Workers Centre, writes in a personal capacity

Like John Cleese’s famous creation, the Socialist Alliance is to all intents and purposes lifeless. When the Socialist Alliance was first formed there were high hopes that it would, at last, overcome the perennial sickness of the socialist left in Britain, with its Life of Brian divisions. For anyone who considers themselves a socialist and seriously wishes to see an end to capitalism, the antics of the various sects with their obsessions with what Trotsky said to Lenin, when and where, were a complete turn-off from revolutionary politics. Differences were invented in order that groups could justify their separate existence. Marxism is about practice first and foremost and ideology should flow from, and in turn guide, that practice. For the sects ideology is everything.

At the general election the results the Socialist Alliance gained were disappointing, but not surprising. It was then that a clear decision needed to be taken to transform the SA into a genuine socialist party, which would encompass all the groups and none. There was a clear need for one workers’ party, to which all those involved would owe their primary allegiance. Like the Scottish Socialist Party, groups could organise as tendencies or platforms, but they would recruit to the organisation, not the tendency. Likewise there was a need for one socialist paper to be sold externally, which of course would not prevent the internal distribution of various papers.

Instead we had the fiasco of the first national conference when the Socialist Party walked out because of the Socialist Workers Party’s determination to create an undemocratic, centralised group which was neither fish nor fowl - neither a party nor even an alliance. Yet if the first conference was a fiasco, then the conference two weeks ago was a disaster. There can be no doubt that the SWP is determined that the SA is a plaything which will be called into activity at election times, and be excluded from campaigns such as the Stop the War Coalition at other times. It is indeed a “united front of a special kind”!

The tragedy of the present situation is that the time has never been so opportune for a concerted challenge to be made to the dominance of New Labour. Privatisation, PFI, cuts, asylum, etc have opened up a yawning chasm to the left. In Scotland the SSP has successfully managed to take advantage of this political vacuum to make steady, if not spectacular, progress. Undoubtedly the election of six MSPs and the prospect of hundreds of councillors under the proposed single transferable vote system will bring problems in its wake. But these are problems that the SA can only dream about!

No analysis

At the last conference the SWP did not even pretend that it wanted anything other than a pliant front group that would do its bidding. It increased its representation on the executive from three to 13, which, with the International Socialist Group/Resistance, gives it an absolute majority. It opposed democratising the elections to the NEC by using the usual ‘remit to the executive’ device so favoured of union bureaucracies. It shamelessly manipulated the present slate system - so much so that many people did not even know whom they were voting for.

But, worst of all, it made no attempt to analyse the local election results and thereby draw conclusions as to why the SA had made no progress since the 2001 general elections. For comrades who are not aware, overall the 159 Socialist Alliance candidates gained an average of five percent. However, two-thirds of SA candidates gained less than five percent and three managed to obtain less than one percent. Just three results were over 20%. Compare this to the British National Party, whose 219 candidates gained an average of over 17%, 58 of whom gained over 20% (compared to 58 SA candidates who gained less than three percent!). In fact the conclusion the SWP drew was that the sole SA victory in Preston - thanks to an alliance with the imam of the mosque - was that the SA was on the advance!

Julie Waterson of the Anti-Nazi League represented the SWP in all its ludicrous absurdity. The BNP, with its 16 seats, had apparently become marginalised and the task was now to crush it. And, when it came to David Landau’s motion on anti-fascism and anti-racism, the SWP’s Sean Doherty moved to delete all references to “white working class areas”. We had to maintain the pretence, according to Waterson, that it was the middle classes who had voted fascist and the working class was untouched, whilst at the same time pointing out that in Burnley New Labour’s vote had collapsed! Deleted also were all references to no platform for fascists and community and black self-defence. There could not be any better example of the SWP’s refusal to face reality and acknowledge that, yes, the fascists had scored a victory on the back of the asylum issue, though not as yet a decisive victory, and, yes, the ANL’s strategy of painting the BNP as Nazis was not exactly a resounding success.


Mark Thomas, the comedian and broadcaster, who is almost revered amongst the anti-globalisation and direct action movement, laid bare our criticisms of the SWP. It had hijacked the anti-war movement and turned it into a sectarian deadend in which it feared to raise anti-capitalist arguments in case they scared their liberal friends away. “Without fronts like Globalise Resistance (commonly known by activists as Monopolise Resistance), the SWP would have shrivelled into political oblivion long ago” (New Statesman May 19).

But all this is common knowledge. In a sense it is absurd to criticise the SWP for the way it operates. One might as well criticise the fox for refusing to become a vegetarian. The SWP refuses to cooperate with other groups in any genuine united front or organisation, seeking instead to create its own tightly controlled front groups, because it is wedded to the idea that the only way a revolutionary party can be built is under its leadership and by recruiting incrementally in ones and twos.

The primary responsibility at conference for allowing the SWP to go politically unchallenged was the International Socialist Group/Resistance and its misleadership. Alan Thornett proposed the key motion 13 on the future of the alliance. The ISG has repeatedly stated that it is in favour of a new workers’ party to meet the crisis of working class representation and that it is in favour of a paper of the Socialist Alliance. Its motion mentioned neither. Instead it was vague, vacuous (albeit well intentioned) and meant anything that you wanted it to mean. It spoke of launching a “new initiative”: ie, continuing as before. It spoke of having “an open mind on the organisational forms”. It talked about initiating discussion with anybody and everybody. It spoke of the SA having been “fully committed to the unprecedented anti-war movement”, whilst omitting to mention that the SWP had deliberately excluded the SA from the Stop the War Coalition, to the extent that the SA had not even been invited to contribute a single speaker on the platform on February 15. It urged the SA to “use every opportunity to build, strengthen and recruit to the SA”, without even attempting to explain how this could be done when the SA barely exists as an organisation between elections.

Despite its apparent commitment to open discussions, the ISG has pointedly refused to participate in meetings called to discuss the campaign for a workers’ party. At the last minute Alan Thornett decided not to attend the May 3 pre-conference meeting of those involved in this campaign. The reason for refusing to take part in joint activity with those who wish to see the SA develop into such a party was clear. The ISG political project is to uncritically seek to work with the SWP, and if this means providing political cover for the SWP in the SA, then so be it.

Unfortunately for the ISG, its relationship with the SWP is akin to that between Bush and Blair. One gives and the other takes. But the SWP goes even further. It has made it clear that it wants a link up with the Communist Party of Britain, which runs the Morning Star. Not only are they the same Stalinists who signed up to the British road to socialism and the CP’s post-war reformist ‘strategy’, but they have few numbers and little influence any longer.

Indeed it took the speech of Julie Waterson to provoke even Terry Conway of the ISG into responding that the SWP threat to vote against David Landau’s motion on fascism and racism (unless the parts they opposed were deleted) would mean that the SA was effectively without any policy on issues such as asylum-seekers.

It should be absolutely clear to all comrades that the SWP has no intention whatsoever of loosening its grip on the SA and allowing it to develop organically and democratically. We are to be a “special kind” of united front. The alliance is not going to be allowed to develop into a workers’ party because one already exists - the SWP. Likewise there is no need for an SA paper, however tightly controlled, when Socialist Worker already exists.

The ISG bears the heaviest responsibility for what happened at conference because it provided the SWP with political cover. The ISG is fully aware of the SWP’s motives and purpose, yet it chose political cowardice over honesty. Its stated belief is that the SA cannot do without the SWP, yet with the SWP the SA cannot develop.

Work is underway amongst like-minded comrades to discuss the setting up of a Campaign for a Workers Party. There are no illusions that the road ahead is going to be easy, especially when groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are more interested in joining in the tabloid and Daily Telegraph attack on George Galloway, than cooperating seriously with other comrades. However, what needs to be faced is that the SA will never be allowed to develop into the type of organisation that is represented by the Scottish Socialist Party.

There is an urgent necessity for comrades to not only re-evaluate their relationship with the Socialist Alliance, but to develop tactics that enable us to work within the SA where we can and to develop an independent project where possible.