Republican People's Assembly needed

Where now for the Socialist Alliance and anti-war movement? asks Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group

Saturday February 15 2003 is a day comrades will remember because of the massive demonstration in London against war in Iraq. It was one of the largest ever to take place in Britain. It involved between one and two million people. It was more than simply an anti-war event. It was the height of the most important mass democratic protest movement since the anti-poll tax campaign. We need to draw some lessons from that earlier example.

Like the anti-poll tax campaigners, the anti-war movement represented a majority of the British people. It was a protest at the failure of British parliamentary democracy to represent the will of the majority. Parliament failed to call Blair and his government to account. It failed to expose the secret pact between Bush and Blair to invade Iraq, made months, if not years, before any formal decision was announced. It failed to investigate or expose the economic and commercial interests of British and US imperialism in supporting the war. It failed to expose the bogus story of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ promoted by Blair as his excuse to go to war. In short parliament failed to stop a war, as demanded by a majority of the people.

The sheer size of this demonstration swamped every socialist organisation. But it is widely accepted by most, if not all, Socialist Alliance members that, rather than raise its political profile, the SA was virtually liquidated during the pre-war period. The war was a major test for the alliance and one which it failed. This is not to deny the important role in the anti-war movement played by the Socialist Workers Party, one of the SA supporting organisations, nor indeed the involvement of other SA groups and individuals. Given the failure of the SA to build either its credibility or membership on the most important test facing the Blair government, the question is now whether the SA can do any better in the aftermath. The question is, where now for the Socialist Alliance?

Any new perspective for the SA that did not focus on such a movement would condemn the alliance to continued irrelevance. This year’s SA conference in May made absolutely clear that the SWP - now providing the majority of the membership, finances, and organisational cadre - is in charge of the SA. Whilst the SWP has always had a majority on the ground, it was not until the 2003 conference that the SWP and its allies (International Socialist Group and pro-SWP independents) took a majority of executive seats. So the real question is, where is the SWP taking the SA?

Certainly there is no dispute over who the target audience should be. Both John Rees and Rob Hoveman, leading SWP members on the SA executive, correctly identify the left, the trade unions and the muslim community as the ‘constituencies’ the SA should seek to win over. On the latter comrade Rees says: “There is a palpable desire among those [muslims] who supported the Stop the War Coalition to find a viable alternative to New Labour. This community is, in its majority, working class. It is, in its majority, a community which has been the bedrock of Labour support in many inner cities. Some have been radicalised by the war. This has made them open to working with the left. The left should welcome this development” (Socialist Worker August 2).

The real question is not whether we should try to win these forces, but how, and on the basis of what politics and programme. Should it be ‘old Labour’ politics, or some new-fangled ‘Peace and Justice’ platform, or the democratic and republican socialism outlined in our SA programme People before profit? It is here that the real problem can be found. In SWP psychology, a programme is not the cutting edge of our politics, but a barrier that could put people off! If the SWP wants to broaden the appeal of the SA, the natural tendency in its own political method is to reduce the programme to zero. The SA would appear like a chameleon, appealing to Labourites and trade unionists as old Labour and to muslims as ‘Peace and Justice’.

Marxist method

The Marxist method points in the opposite direction. We must deepen our analysis, politics and programme if we are to broaden our appeal. Perhaps we could begin where Rees and Hoveman do, by considering the current position of the Blair government. It is instructive to see what they have to say on this score.

Comrade Rees argues: “The Blair government is now in a deep crisis. The war has left a bloody and costly occupation behind in Iraq. The trail of lies and deception is now reaching back into the heart of the government. The movement built by the Stop the War Coalition struck the whole governing system with such force that its aftershocks are still reverberating through the corridors of power” (Socialist Worker August 2).

If we compare this with what Rob Hoveman says in an internal SWP document, we can see a subtle, even if unintended, difference. He speaks only of “Blair’s crisis” and “anti-Labour feelings” (Weekly Worker August 21). By contrast Rees implies a deeper crisis, not limited to New Labour. The “whole governing system” has been shaken. It is not therefore just the credibility of New Labour that is on the line, but parliament, civil service and government itself.

If comrade Hoveman is correct, then all we need to do is campaign for a new workers’ party as an alternative to New Labour. Certainly his document talks about millions of people who will not vote Labour again, some of whom would want “a viable left alternative” and a “socialist alternative”. Only a party, not an on-off electoral alliance, would be seen by workers as a “viable left alternative”. It is only the sectarian interests of the SWP that have them voting down the perspective of campaigning for a workers’ party, whilst calling for a “viable left alternative”.

But, if Rees is correct, we need to campaign for a new “governing system”, or perhaps a new parliament. So we need to look more closely at where Britain is going. We need to understand not only Labourism and its relationship to the state, but the specific features of Blair’s New Labour. Our starting point is to go back to the high point of Labourism - the 1945-50 Labour government.

The programme of the Revolutionary Democratic Group calls this period the formation of the “social monarchy”. Marx used this term to describe the situation in Germany in the 1880s under the kaiser, in which a welfare state went hand in hand with a weak parliament. We use it not simply to describe Labour’s 1945-50 combination of welfare state and mixed economy with the constitutional or parliamentary monarchy. It better captures the totality of the system’s political, social and economic features than simply ‘welfare state’.

If this system goes into crisis, it will show itself at all levels. Certainly it was stable in the 1950s and 60s. Both the Tories and Labour accepted the social parameters of the post-war settlement. This gave rise to the term ‘Butskillism’ after the Tory, Rab Butler, and the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskill, who both pursued social monarchist policies. This remained in place until the crisis of world capitalism in the 1970s and the advent of Thatcherism.

The defeat of the miners in 1984-85 marked the beginning of the end of the social monarchy. It allowed Thatcher to extend privatisation and free markets. As the welfare state and mixed economy were being dismantled, so the political features and even the monarchy itself would come into sharper focus. Of course Thatcher’s radicalism did not extend into constitutional affairs. The one exception to this rule was in local government, where Thatcher imposed the poll tax.

Parliament proved itself unwilling or unable to represent or defend the people. But a mass anti-poll tax movement emerged - the first mass democratic movement - in response to the dismantling of the social monarchy. It had the greatest impact in Scotland. It produced a new working class leader in Tommy Sheridan. It produced the Scottish Socialist Alliance. It gave real impetus to the demands for a Scottish parliament. This was translated into one of the major policies in Blair’s 1997 election manifesto. The advent of the Scottish parliament itself was one of the factors in the evolution of the SSA into the Scottish Socialist Party. Significantly there was no parallel constitutional change in England.

What therefore is the historical significance of Blairism and New Labour? First New Labour is the product of Thatcher’s defeat of the miners and the trade union movement. It is a continuation and extension of Thatcherite anti-union laws, markets and privatisation into, for example, student fees, foundation hospitals, public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives. But New Labour is also a product of the anti-poll tax movement, extending Thatcher-style radicalism into the realm of constitutional reform.

In the Scottish parliament, New Labour accidentally stumbled across its own ‘big idea’. Blair would ‘modernise’ the constitutional monarchist system of government. In the Scottish parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, the reform of the House of Lords, regional assemblies, proportional representation, the European Convention of Human Rights, New Labour distinguishes its reformist agenda from that of Thatcher.

The problem for New Labour radicals is that the system of government is historically bankrupt. Attempting to reform it only brings more problems. Remember how Gorbachev ‘reformed’ the USSR, only to see it crumble to dust? The mess Blair has got himself into over the House of Lords is indicative of more trouble ahead.

The constitution is like a rotting piece of meat. It cannot be made edible, no matter how much New Labour packaging and spin is deployed. It is past its sell-by date. The stench of the decaying carcass gets stronger by the day. Those best placed to feed off this are the maggots of fascism. Each crisis makes the corruption and bankruptcy of the parliamentary monarchy ever more transparent. The latest issues over weapons of mass destruction, the death of David Kelly and the Hutton inquiry are bringing further exposures.

What makes this significant is the involvement of a mass movement in the whole political drama. Rees is therefore right to say that “the movement built by the Stop the War Coalition struck the whole governing system with such force that its aftershocks are still reverberating through the corridors of power”. Unfortunately the politics of the SWP and their sectarian hostility to republicanism blinds them from drawing the correct conclusions.

Mass democracy

The emergence of a mass democratic movement against the war is the next step on from the anti-poll tax movement, to which the SWP failed to relate correctly over a decade before. Of course this movement was not officially about democracy. It was ‘merely’ a protest against the war in Iraq. But it was in reality a protest against the failure of parliamentary democracy to represent the will of the people. The political potential for this movement is massive. It can do for England what the anti-poll tax movement did for Scotland. It can bring political-constitutional change and new forms of class politics.

Can John Rees become England’s Tommy Sheridan? Not unless socialists, communists and the working class movement develop a new democratic perspective and a democratic programme. In this respect the RDG, CPGB and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have democratic demands which fit the bill. The call for a federal republic may be theoretically correct. But it will remain abstract unless it is translated into a fighting perspective.

A federal republic implies parliaments for Scotland, Wales and England, and an all-Britain parliament for the common affairs of the republic. With the advent of New Labour’s assemblies in Scotland and Wales, there is a massive political vacuum in England. This is why we call for a republican parliament for England - not as part of some separatist agenda, but as part of an all-round struggle for a federal republic.

A federal republic must come from below, propelled by the self-activity of the masses. It is not a matter of waiting for the ruling class to promise a republican parliament. We must build it for ourselves. In the 1990s the Scottish Constitutional Convention brought together political organisations, trade unions and religious and community organisations to discuss a democratic future for Scotland and to promote it. We should take that example, but improve on it.

We should campaign for a republican People’s Assembly in England. This would be a representative, not elected body, comprising democratic organisations that recognise the sovereignty of the people. It should include trade unions, tenants associations and representatives of mosques, synagogues and churches, along with republican political organisations such as the SA, the Green Party and the Communist Party of Britain.

Campaigning for a republican People’s Assembly is not a utopian perspective. On the contrary the mass anti-war movement moved into the political vacuum in England by organising its own People’s Assembly for Peace in March. On Saturday August 30 the second People’s Assembly will be held in London. Perhaps not surprisingly the assembly, called by the Stop the War Coalition, will be focused on the war. It will be discussing a draft declaration opposing the war and demanding an end to the illegal Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.

The declaration makes the link between the war and democracy. It states: “The government of Tony Blair systematically lied to the people and to parliament about the threat from Iraq in order to manipulate opinion.” It goes on to say that “This conduct represents a negation of democracy” and that “The government should be held to account by the public and parliament for these lies and assault on democracy.”

Of course we must remember that it is Rees’s “whole governing system” that is the negation of democracy, not just Blair’s government. Neither should we forget that parliament is politically, constitutionally and morally incapable of holding this government or any government to account. That honour belongs to the people and especially the working class. The people need their own republican assembly independent of parliament, just as workers need their own democratic rank and file organisations, if they are hold the capitalists to account.

The People’s Assembly could be the start of a new democracy movement, if we learn from the Scottish experience. It would need its own people’s charter of democratic demands. It would need to become an organisation in its own right and not simply an appendage of the Stop the War Coalition. It would become a democratic assembly for all issues of democracy, peace and social justice.

The next step should be to take a leaf out of the Scottish book and convene a republican ‘constitutional convention’ comprising those parties and organisations that recognise only the sovereignty of the people. If we go in this direction, the anti-war movement will have a more lasting impact on class politics in the United Kingdom.