Socialist Alliance: Republican socialist party

Dave Craig speaks on behalf of the Revolutionary Democratic Group

Over the last 20 years we have seen a crisis of parliamentary democracy developing in the UK. The system is failing and this is characterised by an increasing disconnection between the people and political institutions. Corruption, lies and spin are rife, and cynicism about government is widespread. There is now a real sense of alienation from the political system and a loss of confidence in the major bourgeois monarchist parties.

This year the problem has been manifest in new ways. The most important has been the war against Iraq. Despite the fact that the majority opposed him, Blair took the country into a bloody and expensive conflict at the behest of US imperialism. With up to two million taking to the streets, and many more opposed to war, parliament and people were potentially on a collision course.

James Thorne, former commander in the Royal Tank Regiment, was one of the millions. Interviewed in Socialist Worker, he makes the point that “the two main political parties in parliament are identical”. The question is, “who represents the 80% of people who are opposed to war? The February 15 demonstration is more like a pro-democracy march than an anti-war one” (February 1).

The opposition to war sharpened the sense that parliament did not represent the people. James Thorne gives voice to a desire for real democracy. In the eyes of the anti-war protestors there was no democratic legitimacy or democratic mandate for war. There was no referendum, no general election, in which these life and death issues could be put before the people. Popular demands for democratic accountability were expressed in the People’s Assembly, which met in London on March 12 with over a thousand delegates.

Short change

The resignation of Clare Short from the government on May 12 gives us another angle on the same problem. She had disgraced herself before the war by threatening to resign and then staying in office in exchange for a bit of flattery and some empty promises about the role of the UN. This had greatly assisted Bush and Blair, providing the latter with vital support at a most critical time.

In her speech to parliament, Ms Short explained that “it is increasingly clear that the cabinet has become, in Bagehot’s phrase, a ‘dignified’ part of the constitution, joining the privy council. There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective - just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high. The consequences are serious … [leading] to bad policy. In addition, under our constitutional arrangements, legal, political and financial responsibility flows through secretaries of state to parliament. Increasingly those who are wielding power are not accountable and not scrutinised.”

The MP makes the following observation: “We have the powers of a presidential-type system with an automatic majority of a parliamentary system. My conclusion is that these arrangements are leading to increasingly poor policy initiative, being rammed through parliament, straining and abusing party loyalty and undermining the people’s respect for our political system. These attitudes are causing increasing problems with reform of the public services” (The Independent May 13).

Three key ideas are connected here. The government is highly centralised. It is almost a presidential system and has been described as an elected dictatorship. Bad decisions and poor policies have a real impact on people’s lives. The limitations on the right to trial by jury, the privatisation of public services and student tuition fees are examples of policies rejected by the majority. The Fire Services Bill is a recent example of authoritarian government taking legal powers to “fix and modify the conditions of service of the fire brigade members” (Weekly Worker May 15).

Walter Bagehot, the 19th century constitutional expert, used the term ‘dignified’, or decorative, to describe the position of the monarchy and the House of Lords. Now it is not just the cabinet and privy council which have joined the list, but the House of Commons as well. Of course the ‘dignified’ parts of the constitution refer to all those outdated and useless institutions which have little or no power. But these are a very useful tool for deceiving the people. According to Bagehot, these institutions should be preserved so that the ‘ignorant’ masses could be kept in the dark about the real game and where power really lay. Taken as a whole, the constitutional monarchy maintains the illusion of democracy and helps to keep the working class as passive, mesmerised onlookers.

A hundred years later, the parliamentary fish is rotting from the head. The stench is infecting the whole body politic. The loss of “respect for our political system” shows itself in poor turnouts in elections. The bourgeois monarchist parties have no solutions and make no difference. The stench is very pungent in places like Burnley, where poverty and alienation are breeding grounds for racism and the growth of the BNP.

President Blair’s middle class, christian and politically correct values have done nothing for the poorest, and most oppressed, struggling to survive in a cesspit of political ignorance. Many people are voting BNP because it causes obvious discomfort to the bourgeois parties responsible for the mess. But the more obvious the bankruptcy and degeneration of the system becomes, the larger will be the pool of people prepared to vote for the BNP.

SA response

The conclusion from this is obvious. The Socialist Alliance must not and cannot ignore the crisis of parliamentary democracy. Republicanism is about putting clear democratic water between the SA and all the bourgeois monarchist and fascist parties. We are not ignoring the bankrupt parliamentary monarchy nor defending it against fascism. We must champion the cause of an alternative republican democracy and mobilise the working class to fight for this as part of the struggle for social change.

In assessing the Socialist Alliance conference we need to ask whether this organisation has any clue about the bankruptcy of the parliamentary system. Does it have any idea of the dangerous consequences for the working class of ignoring the crisis of democracy? Does the SA have any plan as to what to do about it? The answer unfortunately is no. The Socialist Alliance is disconnected from the real political problems facing the country. It was and remains a campaign, rather than a party that has set its sights much higher. As the Scottish Socialist Party’s Allan Green told the conference, a party aimed “not just to win the odd seat but to challenge for power”.

The question of republican democracy did appear at conference in two motions. One, from the CPGB, calling for a federal republic, fell off the end of the agenda. The other, from the Revolutionary Democratic Group, was an amendment to the second motion on the agenda in the name of John Rees (Socialist Workers Party). The amendment was implicitly republican. It called upon the SA to work in the anti-war movement and win support for the Socialist Alliance “in our fight, not only to get rid of the Blair government, but put an end to the system of elected dictatorship which has enabled Blair to wage war without the consent of the people”.

The RDG amendment was a response to the SWP motion submitted in the run-up to the war. The SWP had called on SA members to support, join and get involved in the Stop the War Coalition. Involving ourselves in the mass movement was obviously the right direction. But the implication of the SWP motion was that the SA would dissolve into the movement. It proposed joining the united front with no specific socialist aims of our own. It did not say what we should do or what we should say. If all we were going to do was say ‘Stop the war’, then the SA was irrelevant as a national organisation and we would become invisible. Experience shows that this was what happened.

We should have intervened in the united front with a democratic message. Given the democratic logic of the anti-war movement, we should have aimed to clarify, draw out and extend democratic consciousness. We should have been driving home the points about democratic legitimacy and democratic mandate. Had Blair not been confident of winning a parliamentary majority, he would simply have resorted to the royal prerogative. In our system the executive controls parliament and increasingly the courts and can therefore ride roughshod over the people, just as Thatcher did over the poll tax. This must be changed.

We should therefore have intervened in the anti-war movement with the message that we were not just against the war, but in the business of fighting for real democracy and real power for the people. That of course is exactly what the SA manifesto People before profit argues, when it says that Britain is not democratic and we need a democratic republic. The failure of the SA was not to realise the relevance of its own policies or see itself as a serious organisation fighting to implement its own programme.

This amendment was defeated by the SWP and International Socialist Group. We do not know why. Perhaps the SWP voted against it for the sectarian reason that it was an RDG amendment? Perhaps it did not want the anti-war movement to support the SA in our fight to get rid of Blair? Perhaps it did not want to put an end to the system of elected dictatorship: that is, the constitutional monarchy? But, as the crisis of democracy deepens, we will have to come up with some answers.

The issue of the democratic republic in post-war Iraq came up again in the discussion about the war. The RDG submitted an amendment to a CPGB motion and we were pleased that the CPGB agreed to accept it. Our amendment read:

“In view of the overthrow of the Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein by Anglo-US imperialism and the collapse of the regime’s apparatus of repression and terror, there are now possibilities for democratic revolution and for the working class to emerge as the leading social force in Iraq.

“US imperialism and its armed forces of occupation are now the main barrier in Iraq to the development of a popular democratic revolution. The aims of US imperialism are to establish a dependent puppet regime and to limit Iraq democracy to what serves the wider interests of US imperialism in the Middle East.

“The Iraqi working class should give no support whatsoever to the interim government which serves the interests of US imperialism. In order to advance the democratic revolution the working class and its allies should fight for an independent provisional government opposed to the occupation of Iraq by Anglo-US imperialism.

“The tasks of the provisional government of democratic revolution must include:

i) the organisation of a democratic people’s militia to defend the Iraq people;

ii) the suppression of counterrevolutionary violence by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein;

iii) the organisation of revolutionary people’s tribunals to investigate crimes against the Iraqi people and to prosecute and punish those guilty of such crimes;

iv) the convening of elections to a constituent assembly;

v) the organisation of resistance to US occupation and the immediate removal of all US and British troops for Iraq.

“In order to advance these tasks the working class movement must organise its own working class party with its own democratic programme, with the aim of establishing a workers’ democracy based on workers’ councils. This programme should include:

i) a voluntary federal republic which recognises the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination. Iraqi Kurdistan must have the right to join a democratic, federal republic or form its own independent state by means of a referendum;

ii) a secular democratic state with the full freedom for all religions and for non-believers; and no political privileges for any religion and no discrimination against any religion;

iii) the organisation of elected councils in all workplaces to supervise their management;

iv) the organisation of an independent trade union movement.”

From an RDG perspective the question of the party goes hand in hand with the importance we attach to republicanism. At the December 2001 SA conference the RDG had put forward the SSP as an example that we could take up in England. We secured 21 votes. But we were always confident that this argument would gain more support. This year’s conference enabled us to test how much progress had been made. This time we were able to coordinate our efforts with others arguing similar points of view. It was a major step forward to be able to composite with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, CPGB, Merseyside SA, and pro-party indie and Resistance supporter James White.

SSP model

Chris Jones (RDG) moved the composite, arguing that the Socialist Alliance needed to make a serious commitment to building a party - not simply to declare itself a party immediately, in the way that some speakers had parodied the aim of the motion. He contrasted this approach with that of Alan Thornett, who put forward a motion calling for a new and broader alliance. Chris argued that the aim of building a party would allow the Socialist Alliance to deepen the links that had already been developed. Building the Socialist Alliance required making it both broader and deeper, not simply broader.

He argued that without clarifying its aims the Socialist Alliance would risk liquidating itself into a series of campaigns and united fronts in which the supporting organisations would intervene under their own banner. This was exactly what had happened in the anti-war movement and during the firefighters’ dispute. Unity was a key question affecting the credibility of the Socialist Alliance and the appearance of such disunity would weaken the attraction of socialist ideas.

There was in Chris’s view no contradiction between the bold aspirations contained in Alan Thornett’s motion and the aim expressed in the composite. In fact the best way to achieve these aims, such as standing candidates in all constituencies, was to adopt the aspiration of becoming a party. Despite the correctness of these arguments the motion was defeated.

Reflecting on the conference, it seems significant for three reasons. First, the SWP took power by securing the largest bloc of seats (13) on an expanded executive (36). The SWP with its main allies, including the ISG/Resistance, now has a real majority. Unfortunately the methods by which the election was conducted leave much to be desired. We will need to get our own house in order before demanding democracy for the country.

Second, an alternative minority perspective has begun to form around the AWL, CPGB, RDG and the pro-party SA indies. Whether this will continue remains to be seen. But these alignments and coalitions of the majority and the minority should be welcomed because they will make the real politics more transparent.

The failure of the SA was implicitly recognised in pre-conference discussion about relaunching the SA. The saving grace was the election of Michael Lavalette in Preston. Without that the conference would have been facing real disillusion. Despite the ‘let’s try again’ perspective of the SWP-ISG, there is a   failure to recognise or connect with the crisis of democracy or understand the dangers it poses for the working class. No doubt in the coming year we will have to revisit the issues posed by the SA minority.