By-election: Brian for Brent

At the 'Brent convention of the left' on July 31, Socialist Workers Party activist and secretary of the Brent local government branch of Unison, Brian Butterworth, received overwhelming backing as Socialist Alliance prospective parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming by-election in the north-west London constituency of Brent East. Polling day is not expected before late September

Brent East represents a significant test for the Socialist Alliance. As Geoff Hoon wobbles and Tony Blair reels in the aftermath of the massive anti-Gulf War protests and the revelations following the death of David Kelly, can the SA win significant support?

Brent East is one of Britain’s most deprived areas and has an organised working class movement which successfully dumped rightwing Labour MP Reg Freeson in favour of a leftwing Labour Ken Livingstone. Incidentally a key player in that campaign was Constituency Labour Party secretary and Labour Left Briefing activist Alf Filer, who has now returned to the fray as press officer for Brent and Harrow SA.

Over a hundred turned out for the ‘Brent convention of the left’, certainly a good meeting for the non-Labour left. So the convention did broaden the base of the campaign to a modest extent, with a number of young black Unison stewards attending their first socialist meeting, and a couple of representatives of Hands Up, an organisation which “played a major role in mobilising young people into anti-war campaigning”, turning up, along with a spectrum of local left activists. Pete Firmin of Labour Left Briefing, who normally argues his corner at any left gathering, stayed away this time in an attempt to devalue the event - it was not a convention of ‘the left’ because it was convened by the SA alone.

Although no vote was taken - seemingly an oversight in the excitement of the meeting - the bulk of those present were clearly there to back Brian Butterworth, whose candidacy was submitted to the convention by the Socialist Alliance following its membership meeting two days earlier. Comrade Butterworth spoke of “new forces”, especially young people, being drawn into building “an alternative”. The government is at war, not only with Iraq, but with the people of Britain. The SA is with ordinary people who fight for their rights, he said: “We are not the answer - yet”.

Leaving aside the Yoga Meditation Party candidate who also came along, a real division seemed to be represented by a Mr Fawzi - an Iraqi exile, local anti-war activist, and national officer of the lecturers’ trade union, Natfhe. Fawzi had announced himself some weeks earlier as the anti-war, anti-Blair candidate, and was not willing to submit to any decision of the convention. He had been moved to stand when Blair claimed that Iraqis in Britain supported the war, and wanted to “give Blair a slap” because the government had “gone astray”. He was backed by resident Maoist and secretary of the local branch of the National Union of Teachers Hank Roberts, who claimed that fielding a socialist candidate now would mean splitting the left vote.

Local members of the Communist Party of Britain were present - as observers, one of them told me. Despite wanting to be part of the real left development which the SA represents, they will be following the CPB’s dogmatic line and voting for Labour candidate Robert Evans - automatically.

The CPGB’s Tina Becker emphasised that, although this was a by-election, it was not just about local issues, as some speakers from the floor had implied. It was necessary to build a national - indeed international - alternative to Labour. When she raised some problems about the Socialist Alliance - that it had “disappeared during the war”, and that women’s rights and gay liberation were under threat from certain SWP leaders as disposable “shibboleths”, she was met with howls of indignant outrage. Chairperson Anne Drinkell immediately rejected the charge and declared that she would never belong to an organisation which did not uphold these rights, and Brian Butterworth, too, reasserted his non-sexist credentials.

Socialist Alliance national chair Nick Wrack attacked “the system of capitalism and everything it stands for”, and condemned Blair as a liar and a war criminal. The SA was set up, he said, to oppose war and privatisation and to explain how society could be very different - adding, rather tamely, that there was a need for “something to the left of Labour”.

Tariq Ali - the main attraction - without spelling it out, made a series of arguments implicitly in favour of developing the SA into a party. Holding up the Scottish Socialist Party as a success story, he said the SA should “unite all those to the left of New Labour”. “Elections are a start,” he said, advocating the necessity of combined campaigning inside and outside of parliament. “Even if we don’t get a lot of votes”, the main question was to “build a unified opposition”.

What a pity that simple message has not been taken on board by the SWP and SA majority. There is a lot wrong with the SSP - not least its nationalism - but it shows what can be done. Certainly the SWP’s latest strategy of left unity with itself is doomed to go nowhere fast.

Treating the SA as an on-off front, trying to expel dissidents, abandoning the norms of inclusivity, promoting a culture of secret negotiations and toadyism - these are the sectarian politics of yesterday.