Passing the buck

Party notes by Jack Conrad

How to explain the Socialist Alliance’s disastrous performance in the Brent East by-election? And have no doubt - it was disastrous. Despite the palpable discontent with Tony Blair’s government and the unprecedented democratic movement against the Iraq war our candidate, the excellent Brian Butterworth, only managed to get 361 votes. That is a mere 1.73% of the poll, in what is a solidly working class area which over the years has benefited from successive waves of migrants.

The SA could hardly ask for better circumstances or a better constituency. So how come it is Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats who are riding high on the anti-war anger, not us?

Though dominating the SA at every level, the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party has been frantically passing the buck. Socialist Worker’s ‘What we think’ column - presumably written by editor Chris Harman - targets the long list of leftish candidates in Brent East. If they had “thrown their weight” behind comrade Butterworth, “the left would have got much closer to the critical mass which is needed for a real breakthrough”, he maintains (September 27). This begs a rather awkward question, of course: why did the SA fail to attract them in the first place?

Should we really expect single-issue campaigns and small sects to throw in their lot with the SA? No, we should not, at least while it is run - high-handedly, capriciously and irresponsibly - as an SWP on-off “united front of a special kind”. Is it fair or constructive to blame Fawzi Ibrahim (Public Services Not War), Kelly McBride (independent, anti-army), Harold Immanuel (Independent Labour), Iris Cremer (Socialist Labour Party), etc, for the SA’s failures? Frankly, no, it is not. Instead we should try looking at ourselves hard and square.

In the aftermath of Brent East the SA must confront some other uncomfortable questions. Would obstinate and independent-minded protesters - and there are many of them throughout the country - be reassured by the SWP’s coups in Beds and Birmingham? Hardly. What message does the crude attempt to cut out Martin Thomas - representative of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - from the executive send them? The physical assault on CPGB members at Marxism 2003 certainly casts an ugly pall over the whole SA project. Why then does the SWP leadership steadfastly refuse to apologise or issue a reassurance that such an outrage will never occur again? Blithely telling us that it is no “crime to mobilise one’s own members and supporters to gain leadership positions” - and by inference remove minority viewpoints - rides roughshod over the SA’s founding principles of toleration and inclusivity. It also repels.

However, the main cause for the SA’s inability to make any headway is said to lie with “those leftwingers who cling to Blair’s Labour Party”. They also bear the “biggest responsibility for allowing the Lib Dems to capitalise on the anti-war feeling in Brent”.

Maybe those who handed Kennedy a totally undeserved platform on February 15 should also be blamed. The current popularity of the Lib Dems derives in no small measure from the common perception that he opposed the war. Turning Kennedy down as a speaker would have run counter to the SWP’s short-sighted numbers strategy and doubtless the mother of all rows would have ensued. An ideal opportunity, however, to publicly draw the clearest line of demarcation between the anti-war party and the Lib Dems … just before they patriotically rushed to back our troops when the war started a few weeks later.

And what about doggedly promoting the Muslim Association of Britain as the joint sponsor of every event? Was that clever politics? After all MAB used the sudden prestige and prominence it gained from the mass protests to support the Lib Dem candidate, Sarah Teather, in Brent East, not the SA. She was described as the “best choice for muslims” because of her stance on the war.

But Socialist Worker shuns any hint of self-criticism. Instead it is determined to pass the buck: this time on to Ken Livingstone and trade union leaders such as Derek Simpson, Mick Rix, Tony Woodley, Kev-in Curran and Billy Hayes. If only they “stopped arguing” that all we can do is stick with Labour, then the task of mounting a credible left challenge “would be much easier”. Indeed it would ... and if pigs could fly.

The trade union left is not about to quit the Labour Party - certainly not significant sections. Their campaign to reclaim Labour - if by that is meant restoring some trade union influence - is gathering weight and momentum and has the added advantage of being eminently realistic. Quite conceivably a Labour Party led by Gordon Brown could be shifted marginally to the left - thus saving it as a bourgeois workers’ party. Banking on the labour bureaucracy coming to the rescue of the SA is by contrast thoroughly unrealistic, ignoring as it does the material stake this privileged social caste has in British capitalist society and its state institutions. It is also another indication of the SWP’s disorientation.

In that same desperate spirit comrade Harman’s editorial warns that it would be a “tragedy” if the Liberal Democrats “continue to be the main beneficiaries” of the anti-war movement and the vacuum in British politics. Again, yes, it would. So what are we going to do about it? Comrade Harman concludes with the pathetic plea for people to “stop clinging on to the Labour Party”.

Paul McGarr, a Socialist Worker staff writer, uses almost exactly the selfsame formulations. Only by abandoning the “mirage” of reclaiming Labour can the left ensure that Kennedy does not continue to “reap the political benefit” from the “wave of radicalisation”, etc, etc. Obviously the buck-passing line originates in the SWP’s political committee. So expect to hear it mechanically repeated again and again from the lips of almost every SWP activist in the days and weeks to come.

Blaming others and waiting for the left of the trade union and labour bureaucracy to break from Labour is a recipe for continued paralysis and eventual collapse. Nothing else can come from it. But there is an alternative, a way out of the present impasse. The SA could commit itself to the aim of a new workers’ party. Not old Labour mark two; rather a revolutionary party basing itself on a clear Marxist programme.

Riddled with left nationalism though it is, the Scottish Socialist Party can nevertheless be used to illustrate what can be done. Jo Harvie, writing in Scottish Socialist Voice, caustically remarks: “… the words ‘Liberal Democrat’ tend to induce as many blank looks in Scotland as their mighty 15 votes in the recent Drumchapel by-election suggest” (September 26). By contrast the SSP’s candidate, Andy Lynch, took second place with 18% of the vote. And, in spite of John Rees’s dogged insistence that the SSP’s success is down to proportional representation, it should be stressed that this was in a first-past-the-post contest. The very same rules under which Tommy Sheridan became a Glasgow councillor (in a seat Keith Baldassara has successfully retained).

Leave aside comrade Rees’s nonsense. Quite clearly in Scotland it is not the Lib Dems who are primarily benefiting from the anti-war movement. Rather it is the SSP. Why? Well, for a start, by not following the sorry example of the SA and going into hibernation for the duration. Efforts were doubled and doubled again. Scottish Socialist Voice was sold everywhere and naturally SSP speakers were ensured at rallies and demonstrations. The results are indisputable - six MSPs and branches the length and breadth of Scotland.

The springboard for this advance is easy to locate: a bold and authoritative pro-party lead. Scottish Militant Labour - the biggest faction in what was the Scottish SA - set itself the aim of forming a party in order to challenge New Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Lib Dems, etc, and eventually bid for power. Financial resources, full-timers and a paper were given over. Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes cannot be criticised for meanness. Other factions and groups were won over too (guarantees to respect minority rights and sensibilities helped). Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International did not walk out, as his Socialist Party did in England and Wales. It could not afford to. Likewise on May 1 2001 the SWP felt compelled to join at long last despite having to end public sales of Socialist Worker.

Passing the buck gets the SA nowhere. Instead we should look to ourselves - not only in terms of problems, but answers too.