SA party agreed

The Australian Socialist Alliance met on the same day as its counterpart in England and Wales - with a rather different result. Dave Riley, one of the newly elected Non-Aligned Caucus representatives on the Australian Socialist Alliance's national executive, provides his assessment and gives food for thought

The second weekend in May was either going to go down in Australian political history as yet another excuse for a lot of things that did not happen - or something rather special indeed. Fortunately, May 10-11 rebooted the socialist left.

In terms of political significance, the second conference of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne has to be compared to the early 70s, when the new left forces first began to organise their party and proto-party formations. That legacy has been the main socialist artefact these past 30 years. However, the need to regroup the disparate Marxist forces was not a notion that all these organisations shared. While the formation of the SA two years ago was a step forward, the left groups who joined it did so assuming that their own organisational integrity would prevail and their separate party-building projects would persist.

The irony was that the SA was much more successful in re-engaging the non-aligned left than its affiliates realised. The alliance has grown much more quickly than any of its affiliated bodies, so that now more than half its paid-up membership of around 1,000 nationally are not members of any of these groupings.

Such growth changed the nature of the project and raised expectations. Activists were joining the alliance assuming it would function as their political home. But many of the affiliates were trying to obscure that outlook and reduce the activities of the SA to a strictly limited charter. After all, if it was a party project people wanted, the alliance could offer eight affiliated varieties to choose from.

In late 2002 when the largest affiliate - the Democratic Socialist Party - moved to integrate itself completely into the alliance, all the others vehemently opposed the initiative. One - the International Socialist Organisation (the second largest SA affiliate and sister party to the British SWP) - threatened to leave if the DSP proceeded. The DSP withdrew its offer in the face of this ultimatum and the project stalled.

Because of its relative size and ongoing commitment, the DSP has been a major underwriter of the alliance from its inception. By 2002 the DSP membership was basically running two organisations side by side - its own party project and this hybrid formation that was supposed to be an electoral coalition with approved add-ons. But the add-ons were becoming more significant in the day-to-day life of the SA. Something had to give. Unfortunately the attitude of the other affiliates was adamant: the alliance was to stay as it is and not become a focus for regrouping the left. That was supposed to be for a later stage and during a different period.

Caught up in their own schematic view, these affiliates completely missed the real dynamic that was unfolding in front of their noses. They were content to have a dispute among themselves, but, when the non-aligned membership became actively involved in this discussion during March this year, most of the affiliates were not prepared for it. It did not seem to have entered their heads that this could happen. With an activated non-aligned membership, the fulcrum of the debate shifted. Instead of being muddied by allegations that the DSP was trying to take over the alliance, the debate turned very quickly to the key political issue: do we want to create a multi-tendency socialist party or not?

This non-aligned push was generated through the tactic of seeking endorsements for an open letter which was aggressively circulated among the unaffiliated membership. By phone call, face-to-face contact and email, in the space of six weeks 150 signed the non-aligned call for a multi-tendency socialist party, enshrined in seven key points. It was this act, enriched by its obvious resonance, that determined what the conference was to be about.

While it took until the last few weeks before conference for the various affiliates to finally state their case, three main perspectives emerged. The first (proposed by the Non-Aligned Caucus and supported by the DSP) was that the alliance progress now toward becoming a multi-tendency socialist party. The second, advocated primarily by the ISO, was for a united front, mainly electoral in orientation, around ‘old Labor’ values. The third basically ignored the concrete achievements represented by the SA and instead called for an open-ended process of propagandising for a “workers’ party”.

Come day one of conference - after the votes were tallied - it was obvious what the overwhelming sentiment was. More than 75% of delegates voted for progressing immediately toward a multi-tendency socialist party. Voting for this perspective were some 90% of all non-aligned delegates (43% of the 121 at conference), the DSP (32% of delegates) and a small affiliate, Workers’ Liberty. All the other affiliates, plus a small number of non-aligned delegates who opposed the seven points, voted against.

While the votes on other motions varied through the rest of the conference, despite attempts to circumvent the thrust of this core resolution the conference held firm to the outlook enshrined in these seven points, and concluded without taking on contradictory perspectives. Even the main addendum (point 8) that was passed with the Non-Aligned proposal did not change the core significance of the resolution: “The alliance recognises the organisational and programmatic integrity of its affiliate organisations and welcomes their continued existence as tendencies within the alliance.”

However, any concern that the new alliance format would be easily dominated by one tendency was laid to rest by changes to the make-up of the incoming national executive. Conference overwhelmingly endorsed an approach which expanded the executive to 21 members, elected according to the following formula: two representatives from each of the larger affiliates, one representative from each of the smaller affiliates and 11 unaffiliated representatives, who will now have a majority. The executive slate endorsed by conference was the one proposed by the Non-Aligned Caucus - with 11 positions made up of non-aligned candidates who were publicly committed to the seven points.

Conference also supported an active orientation to other left formations, solidarity and community organisations, trade union branches and migrant bodies to encourage them to affiliate. While other resolutions were primarily organisational, conference clarified its approach on the Greens, the Australian Labor Party, the occupation of Iraq and US threats to Cuba. It also endorsed a major resolution on reviving militant democratic trade unionism and established procedures to develop a comprehensive platform for the alliance.

Aside from the decisions arrived at over the two days of deliberations, the conference also registered the ongoing political significance of the project. During debate several militant unionists spoke strongly for the Non-Aligned Caucus proposal. These included former Victorian state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Craig Johnston - a leader of the militant AMWU grouping Workers First - and Maritime Union militant Chris Cain, who is leading a challenge to the incumbents in the Western Australian branch of the MUA. It is the presence of key activists such as these and others, some who have come out of the Greens, that confirms the fact that the alliance has already begun the process of regrouping the left.

The conference decisions in favour of a multi-tendency socialist party remove the shackles that have hamstrung the alliance thus far. With the promise of more resources being committed by the DSP as it integrates, and greater clarity about our shared perspectives, the Socialist Alliance can look forward to significant growth in the next period. The obvious groundswell to proceed this way should give all the affiliates cause to rethink their narrow view of what the alliance project is about.

Despite early hints by some affiliates that they would leave if the non-aligned proposal was adopted, nothing during or since the conference suggests that this may happen. Indeed, given the tenor of the debate, the obvious success of the project, its immediate promise and the checks and balances enshrined in the alliance’s very democratic operating procedures, it would be a brave affiliate that decided to split and turn its back on the advanced sectors of the working class who are already current non-aligned members of the alliance.

Whether some members recognise it or not, the second weekend in May 2003 changed the socialist project in Australia for ever.

Conference resolution

Conference endorses these eight points:

  1. We want the alliance to become a single, multi-tendency socialist party.
  2. We want to progress this move right now, starting with this conference.
  3. A commitment from affiliates to building the Socialist Alliance through increasing integration needs to be demonstrated, in word and in deed.
  4. Our multi-tendency socialist party should be as broad as possible.
  5. We accept and welcome a strong revolutionary socialist stream as an integral part of our vision of a broad socialist party.
  6. We need strong democratic structures to accommodate diversity.
  7. We need a common socialist voice: in our platform, in a national paper, and in our campaigns.
  8. The alliance recognises the organisational and programmatic integrity of its affiliate organisations and welcomes their continued existence as tendencies within the alliance.