Opposition platform launched

The September 13 gathering of Socialist Alliance independents and supporting organisations marked a watershed. John Pearson and Mark Fischer explain why

Summing up many of the past frustrations of the 70 or so comrades who attended the ‘Open forum on democracy and the Socialist Alliance’ in Birmingham, Dave Church of Walsall SA sardonically noted that Socialist Workers Party leaders had probably comforted their troops in the past about similar gatherings - “Don’t worry about that lot. They meet and only ever agree to meet again in two months time!”

But, said comrade Church, we have a responsibility to come up with an answer for the working class: we need a new workers’ party to replace Labour. His call to action was emphatically underlined by Pete McLaren in the next session, when he stressed that we needed “a concrete decision” to “form a platform today”.

Despite considerable confusion during the voting towards the end - exacerbated by some less than inspiring chairing from a visibly bored Margaret Manning, who had already announced to the meeting her intention to resign from the SA’s executive - positive decisions were indeed taken.

Agreeing a motion moved by Chris Jones of Merseyside SA and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, the meeting resolved immediately to form an SA platform - the resolutions passed effectively acting as its initial political basis (see below). Also agreed was a motion from Lesley Mahmood which commits us to reconvene a conference in two months time to flesh out the politics, with a call for written submissions between now and then.

Local meetings/caucuses are to be established in order to promote the platform and discuss the politics needed. This could prove helpful in stopping the rot of demoralisation and resignation amongst the independents in the alliance.

The forum passed these and other positive resolutions, but there were missed opportunities. The first half of an agenda that was already tight for time was needlessly eaten up with reports of problems in the SA that have been well aired elsewhere.

The initiative to rally the SA’s opposition forces came in the first place from five members of the SA’s national executive committee: Marcus Ström of the CPGB and independents Steve Godward, Lesley Mahmood, Declan O’Neill and Margaret Manning. They were determined to stand up against the SWP’s frontal assault on the SA’s founding principles of socialism, democracy, inclusivity and representation of minorities.

The executive members came together following the SA national council meeting of July 19, when the SWP and its allies flatly rejected all criticism of their actions in Birmingham, where it packed the AGM and removed all committee members critical of the failed ‘peace and justice’ turn. The Birmingham events followed hot on the heels of similar moves on the executive. Steve Godward was voted out as vice-president and Marcus Ström just survived as nominating officer after an internal SWP wobble which saw abstentions and even a breaking of ranks. Comrades such as these had no place in the leadership, said SA national secretary and SWP member Rob Hoveman. They “hold minority views”.

Comrades from Birmingham reminded us of the chain of events and - naturally - all expressed solidarity with those on the receiving end of such attacks. As already noted, this cut into the time allocated for the second half of the day: time set aside to debate the concrete measures we need to take. Although many contributions in the first half of the day started to address this, the debates and votes were often confused.

Encouragingly, comrades from both the Erdington and South Birmingham SA branches gave an unequivocal message. They were for staying in and building the Socialist Alliance. But understandably there were many amongst them who consider that it is now impossible to work with the SWP - an untenable position, in truth, but one articulated by comrade Arash.

Mark Fischer, representing the CPGB, took on these arguments. Yes, the SWP is bureaucratic and sectarian. Its leadership has contempt not only for the SA, but for its own rank and file. Yet we have to battle with the SWP, a large and important component of the left, not least because it will not go away. Indeed it is riven with contradictions and has shown itself to be highly vulnerable.

The John Rees-Lindsey German-Chris Harman-Alex Callinicos leadership is disorientated. It is frustrated and bitterly disappointed by an abject failure to recruit from the massive anti-war movement. The ‘peace and justice’ turn came to nothing, but caused internal ructions. Many SWP members were deeply uneasy about women’s and gay rights being dismissed as “shibboleths”. Now John Rees is busily covering his tracks: virtually denying that he made any proposals to the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain or Birmingham’s central mosque.

The turmoil in the SWP’s ranks was apparent at Marxism 2003, a fact underlined by the physical assault mounted against Weekly Worker sellers, with the apparent prior knowledge of SWP national secretary Chris Bambery.

It would be a grave mistake, concluded comrade Fischer, to walk away from the SA because it is dominated and misled by the SWP. We have to increase the pressure for left unity. We must regroup and redouble our efforts. An SA platform to lead that fight would be an excellent start.

On behalf of the sponsoring NEC members, comrade Mahmood emphasised the main question of the day: “Is the SA saveable and is it worth saving?” Her own answer was yes. We had achieved much. People before profit, our 2001 general election manifesto, was an excellent document and should provide the foundations for our ongoing work, based on clear socialist principles. Similarly, our victory in the Preston council election had shown that a white, male SA candidate can be elected, largely by an ethnic minority community, without dropping any socialist principles.

Comrade Mahmood called for a reassertion of the ‘80-20’ principles - the idea that we should unite on the 80% that we supposedly agree upon and conduct ongoing discussion, in a comradely manner, on the 20% where we disagree. Both Bruce Robinson of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and John Pearson of the CPGB opposed this. It is a wrong formulation, conceived in the SA’s infancy. The majority has the right to decide on actions and policy, but minorities must be protected and given the possibility of fighting to become the majority.

Apart from a rather off-the-wall contribution from a Workers Power comrade, there were no explicit calls to simply up and leave the SA. The two most negative interventions probably came from Dave Spencer of Coventry (we should have “no loyalty to the SA”, as the “SWP will not change”) and Tony Greenstein of Brighton (we needed to give “some sort of ultimatum to the SWP” - start behaving democratically, or else).

Most other comrades declared their intention to “stay in and fight” (Steve Godward) - even if a sense of confidence was lacking. In this context, however, the contribution from Bob Whitehead, a Resistance supporter from Birmingham, was far-sighted and inspiring.

Comrade Whitehead reported that non-SWP comrades were caucusing in his area, with openly advertised meetings for all SA members, whatever their political affiliation. Three meeting of the caucus had been convened so far and it was having a palpable effect on the SWP and its local allies.

The comrade described the ‘clean sweep’ victory of the SWP in Birmingham as “pyrrhic”. The majority on the new local executive was “leaky”. The SWP was clearly “nervous” and “everything is still there to be fought for”, the comrade stated.

Summing up, comrade Whitehead put his finger on the nub of the problem: “There can be no question of walking out,” he insisted, because that would solve nothing. “The problem - the domination of the left by a monolithic sect - will not just go away.”

Tensions remain however. For instance, what exactly is the position of the comrades of the AWL? In the confusion at the end of the meeting, it is not clear whether their rather large contingent on the day (some 14 comrades - most of whom were silent throughout) actually voted for the establishment of the platform. Certainly, the AWL’s keynote speech - delivered by Solidarity editor Cathy Nugent - effectively denied the urgency of constituting an SA-loyal opposition bloc in the here and now.

Instead comrade Nugent emphasised the need for protracted debate on the politics of such a platform - as opposed to taking a concrete decision to form one now and expand upon its politics later. Earlier the AWL’s Mark Sandell made exactly the same plea. Of course, we in the CPGB are not against political debate and clarification. But, as one perceptive independent comrade commented, the AWL’s tactics were designed to “fight for as much space as possible” so they can hark on about issues such as Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain. They were not concerned to address the pressing needs of the SA. Nevertheless the AWL has expressed a willingness to work within the platform and that has to be warmly welcomed.

It was clear that the majority of comrades wanted to take steps to advance the SA project -  and without delay. We now have a platform based on inclusion, democracy and for a workers’ party. That must be quickly complemented though the setting up of local and regional groups.

Agreed resolutions

A. Organising a national platform around democracy

Moved by Lesley Mahmood

We agree to hold a further open meeting/forum within the next two months to organise a caucus or platform to work in and outside the SA around the issue of democracy within the SA, to enable more time for discussion on how to organise and to determine the more precise nature of the platform. Further written proposals to be submitted in advance of such a meeting. This proposal [and the other resolutions agreed] to be implemented by the five EC members who initiated the open forum today, together with volunteers from the floor [Pete Radcliff from Nottingham SA/AWL and Pete McLaren from Coventry and Warwickshire SA volunteered].

B. Democracy and the Socialist Alliance

Statement proposed by Dot Gibson, Workers International and May 3 Committee

The founding and development of the Socialist Alliance has been, and is, an important part of the necessary unity of the working class, who feel disenfranchised by New Labour. Even though united in our strategic aim of socialism, no socialist group or individual could expect that building such an alliance could come without difficulties and differences of approach, especially on questions of tactics and election programme. Therefore it is important that all members of the alliance do their utmost to safeguard its founding principles of inclusivity, the rights of minorities, openness and democracy.

Responsibility for this rests especially with the Socialist Workers Party, the biggest socialist group, with the most individual members. Although doing what it considers to be in the ‘best interests’ of the Socialist Alliance and the working class as a whole, we consider that the SWP leaders in the alliance have acted in an impatient and high-handed manner. This is so particularly in the Birmingham Socialist Alliance, and in taking forward individually the proposal announced at conference for discussions relating to possible election agreements with the Communist Party of Britain and the Birmingham mosque. Concern over these events has led to disillusionment and anger in the alliance and an erosion of trust.

This forum has therefore been called to overcome this mistrust and strengthen the Socialist Alliance. Therefore, we call on the SWP leaders in the alliance, as a first step to re-establishing trust, to make a report of the proposals and discussions that took place with the CPB and the Birmingham mosque (whatever the outcome of these), so that all members of the alliance can consider and discuss this.

The importance of this procedure should not be underestimated, not only to safeguard the founding principle of democracy, but to ensure that the tactics through which the alliance proceeds to its strategic goal are open for discussion throughout the membership and not the property of one group (even if the biggest).

C. May 3 Committee motions

1. For democracy

The SA was founded on the principles of tolerance and representation of minorities throughout the alliance in order to unite the broadest layers of socialist activists and socialist thought. We will campaign for the SA to return to this inclusive and democratic state of affairs. Further, we will campaign for full implementation of the constitution on all matters relating to accountability.

2. For socialist principle

We seek to defend the principles of the SA, as outlined in our manifesto People before profit.

3. For a party

The SA should put campaigning for a new workers’ party at the centre of its work.

4. For a campaign for a workers’ party

Millions of workers feel disenfranchised by New Labour which governs in the interests of war and big business. The emergence of a mass anti-war movement on a global scale and the development of parties such as the Scottish Socialist Party and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy show that it is necessary and possible to build a workers’ party in today’s conditions.

It is necessary for all trade unionists, socialists and communists in favour of a new workers’ party to combine our efforts in a campaign for a workers’ party. Such a campaign should function within the Socialist Alliance, make links with the Labour left and operate within the broader workers’ movement to unite with other socialist and trade union organisations and activists who support the founding of a workers’ party.

D. Establishing a platform

Moved by Chris Jones, Merseyside SA

We agree to actually set up the national platform today, discuss it in detail within two months as agreed, and start organising local meetings to promote this.

E. Broaden our discussions with other groups

Moved by AWL

We agree to establish a discussion bulletin to develop Dot Gibson’s statement and open up discussions with Workers Power, the Socialist Party and others inside and outside the SA, and where possible undertake practical work together.