Socialist Alliance: Forget SWP, forget Communist Party
Jean Kysow explains why we should prioritise the SA in the fight for a workers' party
There were many issues that I thought should have been priorities which the May conference did not address. The first one was finances. At present some members pay their subscriptions nationally and some locally, and the lack of communication between the two means that local alliances are sometimes not informed about their members’ payments or do not receive the money for months, if at all. Every penny counts for small branches, but there is no way of knowing how much they are entitled to. Whether they can or cannot stand candidates and what activities they can undertake is largely dependent on what money they have available. That was something that really needed to be sorted out, but I do not think it even got a mention.
Secondly, I was not happy at all with the main resolution on the future of the SA. The majority of the people out there, Joe Public, think we are a party - that is why we are standing in elections. As far as everybody but ourselves are concerned, we are a party. So what is the problem? Would it be such a big leap to go from what we are now to a party? But people think that would be too much of a commitment, because they are still prioritising their own groups. They have not thought through to their own satisfaction what would be the effect on their own organisations. They feel scared of each other and are apprehensive about which way an SA party would go. As I said at the conference, they are still fighting about who gets the cherry on the cake. I am beginning to despair of whether they ever will prioritise the Socialist Alliance.
But there are a lot of disenchanted people out there. For example, I stood in the Downham by-election for Lewisham council earlier this year. Despite being a well known activist, having campaigned in the area for 40 years, I managed to get just 40-odd votes - I could not believe it. It is a very unusual ward, in that it is the only one where the Liberal Democrats have had any success, winning eventually three seats, but the British National Party picked up nearly 1,000 votes.
Part of where we failed is that we do not have full-timers who work exclusively for the Socialist Alliance, even if we have to pay them. At present, the same people are doing Socialist Alliance work, Stop the War Coalition work, Socialist Workers Party work, trade union work and there is only so much a person can do. I know some people who have literally given over their lives to the cause - travelling all over the country, going without sleep. For example, just two or three people have saved literally hundreds of thousands of council properties by organising people in Defend Council Housing. But the Socialist Alliance is coming a poor second with a lot of parties.
The executive committee is not working exclusively for the SA, but if we are going to make a workers’ party, this has to be given priority. We need a dedicated committee to vet candidates. We seem to be desperate to win recruits, but we can come a cropper. For instance, we had one candidate in Lewisham who seemed to have an excellent activist and trade union background, but, once we got to know him, we found he was a virulent racist, who had to be asked to leave.
We need people who can do research and analyse what makes people vote for certain candidates, for instance. Why did they vote for the BNP in Downham? What really pushed up their vote was the fact that this was one of the largest estates, where politics had always been decided on housing issues. In the old days black people were never put in the ‘best’ end of the borough, but after years of campaigning, that was changed. Of course there was resentment. Traditionally your sons and daughters automatically got a house, but, now there is a housing shortage, all that is gone. There is no longer a community vote - people vote as individuals. The crucial factor was the placing of Kosovan refugees, which has caused absolute mayhem. That is why the BNP vote was so high. So people do not vote the way we think they ought to.
Sometimes being too upfront about who you are puts people off. After years in the wilderness, when I first joined the Socialist Alliance, I went to a lobby of the Labour Party conference in Brighton. On the way there, during the march and on the way back, I must have been asked 20 or 30 times if I wanted to join the SWP. The other thing that is really off-putting is when a lot of local people fight really hard for a campaign and then suddenly the socialists latch onto it. They organise a meeting and for two streets before you get there, there are 20 people selling newspapers.
We have failed to get across the message that the SA is a broad group. People say the Socialist Alliance is ‘just a load of commies’ or ‘just another front for the SWP’. But, quite honestly, I do not think our hearts are in that, because we are not a broad group. For example, in my local alliance there are comrades from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, SWP and independents. Sometimes I can agree with the AWL, sometimes with the Resistance paper, sometimes with the SWP and I do so as an individual. But some of these party hard-liners frighten the life out of me. I often think, ‘God, if we ever put them in power …’ They behave almost as though they are cloned. If you speak to one, you know you will get the same from most of them. That is another reason why we need people running the Socialist Alliance who are working exclusively for it.
We ought to be far more inclusive, except for racists. We must get really involved with local issues - in your trade union, standing on picket lines. If you are going to recruit to the Socialist Alliance, you need to cater more for people like me. I went along to the SWP’s Marxism conference for two or three days a couple of years ago, but I found a lot of what was discussed was way above my head. I was absolutely lost. The general public need to be introduced to what the Socialist Alliance is all about gently.
I may not know my Marx from my Trotsky, but I do know for sure we ought to be a party. And we need an SA paper. The AWL did start putting in a couple of pages in each issue of Solidarity on the Socialist Alliance, which is better than nothing, but some SWP members were not happy about that. It seems that they do not even buy each other’s papers. All that restricts me is the price. On my pension I can afford one paper a week, yet we do not have a Socialist Alliance paper.
At the SA conference I did not have a clue about the names that were displayed for the slate that was elected. It would have helped if we had been told if they were independents or SWP or whatever. I had no idea what I was voting for. I am still trying to sort out the different parties - it is so totally confusing. I just get angry and think, ‘I wish to god they’d just get rid of all these bloody parties’. I know you all have a history and tradition behind you, but we largely agree on the important issues. So forget the SWP, forget the CPGB - why can’t we concentrate on getting a workers’ party?