Socialist Alliance Pull back from disaster

The future looks bleak if the Socialist Workers Party can not be won away from its popular front project with the mosque. Marcus Strom reports from the weekend meeting of the Socialist Alliance national council

A question mark hangs over the future of the Socialist Alliance. The best hope for principled socialist unity in some time is being undermined by the misleadership of the Socialist Workers Party. Its obsessive control-freakery might ensure adherence for its turn to a section of the mosque, but in the process the SWP is obliterating the original tolerance and inclusiveness of the SA. The Socialist Alliance is in danger of becoming nothing more than an ineffective, on-off electoral appendage of the SWP.

Yet the idea for an ever closer alliance of revolutionary socialists and communists is not the property of any single group in the workers’ movement. The objective situation in Blairite Britain demands principled socialist unity. For the SWP to risk even the limited achievements of the Socialist Alliance for a thoroughly unprincipled, get-rich-quick approach is criminal.

The fall-out from the SWP’s coup in Birmingham Socialist Alliance - which removed all critical voices from its committee - continues. At the national council of the Socialist Alliance on July 19 - coincidentally held in Birmingham - the SWP and a handful of fellow-travellers saw off attempts from the overwhelming majority of non-SWPers to criticise its actions in the city. Unrepentant over its removal of Steve Godward, former Birmingham SA chair, the SWP is now openly abandoning the spirit of the SA constitution. It believes it can use the SA as its political property to leap-frog into the big time: dissent is irrelevant; minorities troublesome.

While Workers Power’s walkout (from the national council meeting and from the alliance) was predictable, it is the growing departure of non-aligned comrades that must be of some concern - if not to the SWP, then at least to their hangers-on, most notably the International Socialist Group, Nick Wrack (SA chair) and Will McMahon (publications officer). In the last few days independents and some Alliance for Workers’ Liberty comrades have publicly exited various local SAs.

We must stop this haemorrhaging of critical voices. To cohere anything out of the Socialist Alliance, individuals and groups must avoid moralistic gestures and seek ways to unite. To this end the CPGB supports the statement from minority executive committee members, including vice-chair Lesley Mahmood, which looks to a meeting of SA activists and others in September.

There were 63 voting comrades at national council - delegates from branches, as well as executive committee members. Given that there were around 30 executive members present and some branches had two voting delegates thanks to the new 50-50 gender balance rule, this means that less than 30 local alliances were represented. Comrades from Wales were given no vote. The agenda was in three parts: motions on the direction of the SA and Birmingham; building the Socialist Alliance; and reports.

After apologies and opening remarks from Nick Wrack, we moved straight to a discussion of motions. First taken was that from Mark Hoskisson et al (Workers Power). This was an attempt to give content to the open-ended formulations of the annual conference resolution on the ‘left unity initiative’. Specifically, it aimed to direct this initiative along class lines and away from the cross-class approach being pursued by the SWP. Tellingly in the pre-conference executive meeting, comrade John Rees of the SWP referred to the mosque as one of the “community organisations of an oppressed people”. The failure to identify antagonistic class contradictions within the muslim ‘community’ is self-serving wishful thinking.

An amendment from the AWL, which sought to remove reference to George Galloway as one of those worth talking to, with a view to mounting a left challenge to New Labour at the European elections, was heavily defeated with only four votes in favour. Unfortunately, this included the vote of one CPGB delegate who voted in accordance with the decisions of his SA branch rather than with the Communist Party position. The WP motion received 17 votes, with 43 against and three abstentions.

In arguing against the motion, John Rees pointed to the Bolsheviks’ experience in Russia, where a soviet republic of workers and peasants was established: a cross-class alliance. Of course this was a revolutionary cross-class alliance - of the two main exploited classes. Anyway, this is the clearest attempt at ideological justification we have seen from the SWP for its alliance with an undifferentiated muslim ‘community’. It is if the Bolsheviks had proposed a governmental bloc with the rabbis in the name of an alliance with the oppressed Jewish ‘community’. They did no such thing. The Bolsheviks championed working class political independence - ie, they defended their programme and its principles - and sought to split religious workers from their clerical misleaders.

While there is undoubtedly islamophobia in Britain, the imams generally represent conservative and backward-looking politics. They might protest against the US-UK invasion of Iraq one day, but the next they will preach against godless communism and the evils of women’s liberation. Even amongst ‘progressive’ imams their socialism is not proletarian, but clerical - islamic socialism is half a ludicrous protest against existing conditions, half a lamentation for a lost golden age. As for the mosque as an institution, it is not controlled and run by its working class members rather the traditional intellectuals, the petty bourgeois and more especially the bourgeois elements. Defend muslims against discrimination and chauvinist attacks, yes, but no compromise and no concessions to the mosque’s politics.

Although it is permissible to form episodic alliances with such forces - in the Stop the War Coalition, for example (while insisting on the right to put forward our working class programme - ‘March separately, strike together’), standing with them on a joint platform in elections is not principled. Of necessity this means watering down or dropping key aspects of our programme in the interests of an implicitly pro-capitalist popular front.

There were three motions moved on the ‘Birmingham affair’: one from Erdington SA and Stuart Richardson (ISG); one from Lesley Mahmood and Steve Godward; and one from John Rees and Lynne Hubbard (new chair, Birmingham).

The contribution of comrade Richardson and others from the ISG showed just how fragile that organisation is. Comrade Richardson ably described the stacking of the Birmingham meeting - a total of 20 SWPers had ‘joined’ the SA in the weekend preceding the AGM. Comrades from the floor compared this to what had gone on in the Labour Party in the past. The ISG was all over the place. While its leader, Alan Thornett, voted for the Erdington motion (defeated by 29 votes to 33 with five abstentions), he could not vote for the motion moved by Lesley Mahmood and backed by just about every independent and group there. Comrade Mahmood’s motion was defeated by 25 votes to 34 with nine abstentions (including at least one SWPer).

Nick Wrack, who is increasingly seen as little more than an SWP fellow-traveller, was under considerable pressure as chair and his approach was far from democratic. He refused to allow observers from Birmingham SA, including the chair at the AGM and a former SWP member who was deposed as press secretary, to speak. Procedural motions in opposition to the chair’s ruling were defeated by the narrowest of margins. Comrade Wrack should be ashamed of himself.

The SWP’s only concession to the large, hostile minority (Dave Church of Walsall SA exclaimed: “I don’t mind you outvoting me, but don’t bullshit me”) was to withdraw its own motion. While continuing to defend his organisation’s blatant bureaucratic manoeuvring, John Rees seemed a little cagey on the politics that lay behind it.

He denied “offering” the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain a joint Peace and Justice campaign in Birmingham, despite this being publicly acknowledged by the CPB’s John Haylett. Further, he distanced himself from claims made by Stuart Richardson that the Peace and Justice platform would have a limited reference to women’s rights and no mention of gay rights. He said he had told comrade Richardson that he could “foresee” a situation where some in the muslim community might want that approach.

At the end of the debate, comrade Wrack said there had been a request to divide the Lesley Mahmood motion so that there could be a separate vote on the SA’s commitment to candidates who supported women’s and gay rights. This was rightly refused by comrade Mahmood, who said that the issues were inextricably linked. Comrade Wrack’s attempt to push this to a vote was greeted with howls of derision, which caused him to back down, even though an earlier indicative vote had been in favour of taking the vote separately.

Martin Wicks made perhaps the most telling contribution. He said he had been privileged to have been a delegate at the RMT conference which decided to democratise the union’s political fund. However, if the SWP was intent on pursuing this undemocratic line in the alliance, then the RMT would not touch the SA with a bargepole. Comrade Wicks has since put forward a principled argument in favour of staying together in the SA and avoiding individual splintering off. Quite right.

After lunch, the meeting room seemed depleted. Many had had enough. Workers Power had abandoned ship. Yet Nick Wrack attempted to put a brave face on the future of the SA. Speaking as if to a mass meeting, the comrade tried to remind us all why we were socialists in the first place. There was an air of unreality. According to script, SWPers got up to say what was great about what was happening in their alliance. And there is some positive work taking place. Yet, unless it is knitted together in a democratic and effective fight for a workers’ party, it is all going nowhere fast.

Comrade Wrack reported that the Morning Star’s CPB had formally rebuffed the SA. No surprises there - except for poor Alan Thornett, who really thought the CPB might dump 50 years of the British road to socialism in order to lie prostrate, as he is doing, before the SWP. Nick Wrack proclaimed that the SA would not “water down its beliefs in order to accommodate a half-way house”. How does this sit with Lindsey German’s description of women’s and gay rights as “shibboleths”?

The most interesting contributions came from two SWPers - Brian Butterworth of Brent SA and Preston councillor Michael Lavalette. Comrade Butterworth pointed to the coming by-election in Brent East. The SA favours standing a socialist candidate. Excellent. Brian and his friends have approached the Pakistan community association, whose representatives said they were hoping Labour would select a “muslim candidate”. But the Blair machine had not obliged and the association is now expected to give the SA a hearing. Brent SA is hosting a ‘Convention of the left’ on July 31 to consider what sort of MP is needed. The SA will propose their candidate and see if they can win support. All good stuff.

This, and the election of Michael Lavalette, is somehow trumpeted in opposition to the motions being proposed by the SA minority. How so? Comrade Lavalette was elected on the basis of People before profit, our 2001 general election manifesto, which declares “no compromise” in the fight against sexism and homophobia. An SA candidate in Brent would stand on that manifesto too. As I argued at national council, if an imam, rabbi or priest wants to support a Socialist Alliance candidate - good luck to them. If they feel moved to recommend a vote for the SA to their congregation (on Friday, Saturday or Sunday) - even better. The contradiction is theirs, not ours.

It is when we propose allowing our electoral platform to be compromised in order to win the support of this or that cleric that we end up crossing class lines. This is what the SWP’s opportunism is pointing towards. It is not there yet, but the door is wide open.

Comrade Lavalette referred to this in his own speech. He has been involved in an excellent initiative in Lancashire to launch a paper for the labour and social movements. On the editorial board are a number of non-SA members, including a priest who is in the CPB. Comrade Lavalette said that was his circle to square. Precisely the right approach.

The politics we stand on is vital. We must be infinitely flexible in tactics, yes, but stand firm on our principles. Yet the SWP seems prepared to turn this on its head: firm in the tactic of winning over sections of the mosque; flexible in the ‘principles’ you adopt to achieve this.

We need to be calm, yet prepared to act quickly. The SA can be pulled back from disaster. By staying together we can lay the basis for a serious campaign for a workers’ party - through the Socialist Alliance, if possible; outside it if necessary.