The poverty of complacency

John Bridge has mixed feelings about the Socialist Alliance executive committee's conduct

Often we hear glowing reports of the Socialist Alliance’s executive committee and how proceedings are comradely, upbeat and businesslike. My impressions were rather different, I am sorry to say.

I attended the September 20 meeting at the University of London Union, substituting for Marcus Ström who is in Australia. Not only did things start late, but debates exhibited a dreadful complacency and lack of vision. As to relations, they are decidedly uncomradely. The source of this growing malady can be summed up using an old English proverb - fish begin to stink at the head.

Rob Hoveman - SA national secretary and leading Socialist Workers Party member - reported on the three recent council and parliamentary by-elections. Our candidate in Cardiff, Clive Protheroe, got 3.0% of the poll, Lee Rock 3.5% in Waltham Forest and Brian Butterworth 1.7% in Brent East. The comrade rightly praised the candidates. All were excellent.

Focusing in on Brent East, he reckoned that the SA’s message on the Iraq war, student fees and public services was either kidnapped or eclipsed by the Liberal Democrat machine. Nevertheless the government was given a hammering and the Labour Party suffered its first by-election defeat for 15 years. Our campaign had been good and a few contacts were picked up. Brent SA plans not to dip back out of existence now the election campaign is over.

Readers might be interested to note that Brent SA accumulated debts estimated at between £1,100 and £1,400 during the campaign. The executive agreed to take on half that sum (the CPGB sent off £150 towards this last week). To me, however, that whole small-minded approach smacks of amateurism. The by-election appears to have been run as a local campaign - only with outside help. But by-elections are national events and of national significance. The executive and its officers should have taken full charge and ploughed in as much national money and resources as possible. Surely that is what the Liberal Democrats did. After all, it is unlikely that their Brent East constituency organisation paid for the one million leaflets that were delivered to households urging a vote for Sarah Teather.

The only comrade to critically question the SA’s performance was Margaret Manning (Manchester SA). She pointed to the SA’s lack of profile and the failure to secure a speaker at any of the Stop the War demonstrations. Others satisfied themselves with excusing or explaining away the low vote.

Simon Joyce (SWP) correctly pointed to the dishonesty of the Liberal Democrats. Will McMahon (SA office worker and Resistance supporter) complained of the unwillingness of the capitalist print and electronic media to carry the SA’s “story”. Matthew Caygill (Leeds SA and Resistance) emphasised the importance of left unity - not only did Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party stand in Brent East: so did a string of other fringe candidates who were to the left of Labour. Mandy Baker (Socialist Solidarity Network and Resistance) concluded that we “couldn’t have done differently”. John Rees (SWP) argued that Labour’s social base was “decomposing”. The Liberal Democrats are filling the vacuum because we lack the social forces necessary to mount a credible challenge. However, with correct tactical handling, the RMT and PCS unions, George Galloway, the muslim community, etc could come to our rescue.

Nick Wrack (SA chair) delivered the next report. This was from the executive’s ‘task force’ - a kind of politically united leadership within the leadership: ie, the SWP and its closest allies. Comrade Wrack referred to talks with various trade union officials. He also mentioned the example held out by the Scottish Socialist Party. Of course, they have a well known leader in the form of Tommy Sheridan and proportional representation.

Comrade Wrack outlined a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, the trade unions. The SA is sponsoring a convention of the trade union left on February 7 2004. A number of prominent speakers have already been agreed and support gained from the London region of the Fire Brigades Union. Secondly, the SA is preparing to take part in a series of nationwide forums - George Galloway will play a crucial role here. Thirdly, building the SA. The SA should not disappear between elections. Branches should follow the example of Hackney SA and SA councillor Michael Lavalette in launching a bimonthly or quarterly local publication.

Then I came in. Basically I called for a sober assessment and a clear line of march. What is remarkable about Blair’s government is not that it lost a by-election mid-term and after a deeply unpopular war. Rather that it had not experienced similar trouble till now. Labour’s social base was not decomposing. Brent East was a massive protest vote. Under these circumstances the SA should have done better. Much better. We should take the example of the SSP seriously, not flippantly put its success down to one man and proportional representation. Comrade Sheridan was elected as a councillor in Glasgow under first-past-the-post rules. London’s assembly has PR and so does the European parliament.

Objective circumstances in Scotland and the rest of Britain are not qualitatively different. The key factor is subjective. Scottish Militant Labour - the leading force in the Scottish SA - wholeheartedly fought for a party. It threw all of its financial resources, full-timers and energies into the project. Other factions of the left were won over too. The SSP launched a fortnightly paper which, with the eventual entry of the SWP as a platform, went weekly.

The results speak for themselves. And not only in PR elections. A week before Brian Butterworth secured 1.7% of the poll for us in Brent East, Scottish Socialist Voice reported that in Glasgow’s Drumry ward the SSP’s Andy Lynch ran second to Labour. He got 18% - ahead of the SNP and the Greens ... and the SLP, which managed just seven votes.

There is no chicken and egg situation. We should not wait upon “bigger social forces”. The SA is the answer - if properly led. And talking about progressing left unity is all very well ... but how does it square with the total purge of dissenting voices in Birmingham SA by the SWP.

Comrade Rees would have none of it. He simply repeated the half-baked nonsense about Scottish PR and his faith in trade union leaders and George Galloway. John Fisher (independent) put his stress on local initiatives, while Alan Thornett (International Socialist Group) highlighted this year’s TUC and the SA’s fringe meeting. Forty-five attended, including some 35 delegates. The main speaker, Mark Serwotka, was “right down the line”. Comrade Hoveman referred to the Green Party’s decision to allow local discussions with organisations such as the SA. He also mentioned the “fraternal atmosphere” at the Wrexham summer gathering put on by Welsh assembly member John Marek. A somewhat amazing statement considering the brazen attempt to exclude the CPGB. But I let that pass. Other executive members either asked technical questions, touched upon European developments or concentrated on their own particular local circumstances.

Perhaps the complacency and poor level of debate is down to the absentees. Not only our comrade Ström, but Martin Thomas (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) and oppositionists such as Steve Godward and Lesley Mahmood were away too.

Shelly Margetson (Cambridge) gave a financial report. Her McCawber-like approach is to religiously avoid debt and keep safely in the black. Incidentally she appears oblivious to Worker Power’s departure from the SA and therefore the end of its financial contribution.

She also banked on the CPGB continuing to pay twice as much as the AWL, International Socialist Group, etc for the rest of the year. We are putting a stop to this. Hence suddenly controversy broke out. Comrade McMahon asked me when he could expect the cheque covering the CPGB’s monthly contributions to SA funds. I said that he should not rely on it and that the CPGB will be writing to the executive to the effect that we wish to renegotiate the arrangement. Comrade Wrack said this threw the SA’s plans into crisis, including the SA’s intervention at the September 27 demonstration against the occupation of Iraq.

The meeting adjourned for a break and myself and comrades Wrack, McMahon and Margetson got together to talk. Comrade McMahon was particularly angry: “Why did you not inform the SA earlier?” I did not know it at the time, but apparently we did. Mark Fischer, our national organiser, left an answerphone message saying that our cheque had been cancelled.

Anyway I explained that the CPGB was deeply worried by recent negative developments in the SA. The CPGB had originally proposed that all of the principal supporting organisation pay equal contributions to cover the rent of an SA national office. Everyone agreed. Last year we paid in full. No other organisation did. The SWP merely discounted debt owed to its printshop, East End Offset - good business practice.

More than that, at the last AGM in March the SWP carried out a coup d’etat. The SWP increased its representation from three to 13 seats on the executive, while its docile allies around Socialist Resistance were rewarded with some half a dozen places. The political balance within the SA’s leadership was thereby radically shifted. The SWP also sought to kick out the AWL’s Martin Thomas. He was kept on the executive, but only after we threatened to withdraw from the SWP’s slate.

Shortly after that the SWP replaced comrade Godward as vice-chair and attempted to likewise remove comrade Ström from the purely technical post of nominations officer. This violation of the SA’s founding principle of inclusivity was a prelude to the infamous purge in Birmingham and the physical attack on our members at Marxism 2003 - apparently set up by SWP national organiser Chris Bambery. Naturally we wrote to the SWP central committee in protest over this particular incident. No reply has been forthcoming. Not even an informal apology.

An example of the state of affairs in the SA can be gleaned from when comrade Rees put his oar in. In the Brent East campaign, he said, the CPGB did nothing (untrue). In Hackney CPGB members only sell the Weekly Worker. Not Paul Foot’s local propaganda sheet. I did not directly respond. But I did mention Waltham Forest. The candidate, Lee Rock, got 3.5% of the vote - nothing to boast about, but neither a disgrace, considering Brent East. He is a CPGB member and CPGB members did most of the canvassing and most of the leafleting. Comrade Rees shut up.

However, comrade Wrack launched a sneering attack on the Weekly Worker’s post-mortem on the Waltham Forest by-election and the candidate’s complaint about the SWP putting in only 15 hours of work during the whole of the campaign - in spite of claiming some 100 members in the immediate vicinity. This was “bollocks”, spat comrade Wrack. “If that is the case,” I said, “then what comrade Rees has just said should likewise be described.” Did he talk “bollocks”? But, of course, our national chair would not dare say any such thing about the leader of the SWP, would he?

Again - and I know this is trivial, but it does serve to illustrate the soured relations that exist in the SA - I later asked comrade Wrack if he would care to buy a copy of the Weekly Worker. He reads the paper avidly and with a lawyer’s nose for fine detail. He certainly complains any time he thinks we have misrepresented him. “No,” he said. “Giving you 50p would be an act of solidarity.” So there you are. The national chair of the SA expects the CPGB’s members to carry on paying twice as much as other principal supporting groups, while the SWP bars them from the STWC, attempts to remove them from SA positions and physically assaults them. Quite frankly something stinks.

The CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee will, of course, be writing to the SA executive soon and naturally Weekly Worker readers will get to see our letter and the reply - if we get one. In the meantime let me stress that we communists have no intention whatsoever of ending our financial contributions to the SA. Our members will keep up their dues payments and the PCC will hand over in full our renegotiated contribution. But a changed political balance and a changed internal climate means a change in financial commitment. Perhaps the principal groups should pay according to the number of executive seats or their claimed total membership. Either way, the present arrangement is no longer tenable.

The next session began with comrade Wrack announcing a scaling back of the SA’s intervention on the September 27 demonstration - because of the absence of the CPGB’s cheque! Comrade Rees bore bad news too. The Stop the War Coalition had decided to turn down the SA’s request for a speaker. If the SA was allowed, who else? I should have asked comrade Rees how he and the other SWP comrades on the STWC voted on this question (we do not know - the SWP ganged up against us, to prevent the CPGB from even sending an observer to meetings). In all honesty the question did not occur to me at the time. It is still worth asking though. Did the SWP argue and vote for the SA to have a speaker?

Weyman Bennett followed with a totally uninspiring report on anti-racist activity. The British National Party is talking of standing 1,000 candidates. In response the SA will join with mainstream parties and MPs in condemning them. Oh, and SA branches should invite black speakers along during black history month. The discussion around Europe and the European Social Forum proved no more uplifting. Eg, John Fisher, our representative on the ESF, did not know quite why we should go to Paris in November or what we should do when we got there.

There was some discussion over the dating of the SA’s next conference. Should it be March or October? One day or two? Contributions were also requested on the method of electing the new executive. The slate system suits the SWP and its ISG/Resistance allies. But no one else. So thankfully there might be a rethink. The CPGB favours a straightforward first-past-the-post system of individual election with a committee appointed by conference to recommend a list which takes into account factional affiliation, geography, industry, gender, age, etc.

Finally Beds SA came up in correspondence. Eric Karas wrote, complaining that the branch has been closed since January. After the SWP ousted from office and then tried to expel Danny Thompson and Jane Clarke - both supporters of the Revolutionary Democratic Group - he and other SA members had been left in limbo.

We were provided with an accompanying letter from Keith Woods, Beds SA secretary, which was written for purposes of ‘clarification’. He admitted that the branch had not been meeting. Apparently to hold an AGM and allow the two dissident comrades, Thompson and Clarke, to stand for election would undermine “our credibility”. As if SWP purges and not meeting for the best part of a year promotes credibility.

Nevertheless the ‘secretary’ of ‘Beds SA’ rightly complained that the appeals committee has so far taken 18 months to consider the issue! In my view a disgrace and an insult to natural justice. For comrades Thompson and Clarke to still have disciplinary charges hanging over their heads after all this time is oppressive. A form of persecution and a denial of their elementary rights as SA members. The executive agreed to seek an update from the ‘new’ appeals committee - elected at the March AGM.