Socialism 2003: Still justifying SA walkout

Anne Mc Shane heard a lot of talk of a new, 'mass workers' party'

Since the Socialist Party walked out of the Socialist Alliance in December 2001 it has kept pretty much to itself. Socialism 2003 saw the same old faces plus a sprinkling of school students and other young people recruited during the war. The SP, like the rest of the left, was not transformed by that momentous struggle.

There was a lot of talk from speakers about the need for a “mass workers party”. But this is very much an abstract notion. Hannah Sell said at the closing rally that she did not know where this new party would come from - and what politics it would have. Except to say that its programme might be even less leftwing than that of the Scottish Socialist Party. A rather misaimed dig, given the SP’s own left reformist politics.

Linked with this support for a workers’ party in the abstract was a great deal of self-justification about why the SP was right to leave the Socialist Alliance. At times this was less than honest. Comrade Sell informed us that the SP had to walk out because it would have had to drop its own programme in order to continue to participate. What rubbish.

All organisations are free to distribute their own material, sell their own papers and publicise their own programmatic demands - inside or outside the SA (on the other hand, SSP guidelines frown upon such public activity, but that has not led to the SP’s comrades north of the border making a quick exit). In fact the freedom for component organisations to retain their public face - despite the occasional Socialist Workers Party grumble - was one of the most positive things about the SA regroupment. Unity in action meant promoting the SA programme, of course - but it did not mean that any group had to disguise its own views.

Assertions such as these conceal the real reason why the SP left. Being in a minority to the SWP majority was intolerable. Its leadership certainly found itself unable to put any project of building a mass party above its own narrow interests. Presumably that is why SP members stood against the SA in Hackney and Greater London elections while it was still a supporting organisation. Rather than a ‘one member, one vote’ proto-party formation, the SP wanted to impose upon the SA an anarcho-bureaucratic constitution which would have given it a veto over all actions. Not unexpectedly the SA overwhelmingly rejected such an arrangement. The SP then staged its planned walkout.

Some valid criticisms were made over the weekend about the fact that the SA is now dominated by the SWP and used as one of its many ‘united fronts’. But that does not make it right retrospectively for the SP to have pulled out. The problems we now have were by no means a foregone conclusion. If the SP leadership had overcome its own sectarianism and decided to fight alongside the CPGB and others for a party project, there could have been a very different welcome for the demonstrators entering Hyde Park on February 15. Instead of an array of rival leftwing grouplets competing with each other, perhaps we could have had a united Socialist Alliance party. The left could have transformed itself and the movement. The SP itself has to take its share of the blame for the abject failure of the left during the huge anti-war protests.

And what if there is another partyist initiative? Do the SP leaders really think they can avoid the SWP? Clearly this cannot be the case. If any kind of new project is set up, the SWP will almost certainly be involved. Yet some SP members told me that they will never work with the SWP again.

Overall there is a lack of any concrete perspective. The SP is concerned with itself alone. Despite its toeholds in Coventry and Lewisham councils, its leaders know that the SP is not the answer. Having spent decades worming away in the bowels of the Labour Party, the comrades now dismiss Labour as simply a bourgeois party and nothing more. They claim to be striving for a mass alternative but were itching to walk out of the SA once the SWP joined. Apart from in the trade unions, the SP now operates in splendid and suffocating isolation.

The comrades seriously have to reconsider their position if they want to be anything more than a sect. Dealing with the divisions on the left cannot be skipped.