Grand coalitions

Party notes

Establishing what is optimistically billed as a “credible” alternative to New Labour in time for next June’s ‘super Thursday’ elections (for the European parliament and the Greater London Authority) is tentatively moving from the drawing board to the realm of practical politics.

Apparently behind-the-scenes negotiations are proving fruitful. George Galloway even claims that the October 29 ‘British politics at the crossroads’ Friend’s House rally in London actually “launched” a “grand coalition of dissent”, and since then he has been appealing for individual members on his website (Morning Star November 1). There is to be a conference of some description in January.

Basically the aim is entirely laudable: harness and qualitatively transform the huge popular movement which has taken to the streets against the US-UK war on Iraq and the subsequent occupation.

Incidentally, it is worth noting, that the executive committee of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain is cleaved down the middle. Eleven voted in favour of the new coalition, with exactly the same number voting against. The CPB is split between, on the one side, pro-coalitionists - crucially Andrew Murray (who has always fawned before power and is accused by his internal critics of having gone ‘native’ as chair of the Stop the War Coalition) - and, on the other side, the ‘traditionalists’ around general secretary Robert Griffiths and industrial organiser Kevin Halpin, who back the ‘reclaim Labour’ perspective. Supposedly the issue will be finally settled at the CPB’s forthcoming national congress. In the meantime the Murray wing was placated with a national tour in which Galloway spoke alongside various CPB office-holders.

Not that the STWC will be the main vehicle of the new coalition. Under the hegemony of the Socialist Workers Party its political programme remains tightly circumscribed - kept to the barest minimum of two or three slogans. Nevertheless certain individuals and groups brought together in the leadership of the STWC have concluded that the politics of saying ‘no’ - no to war, no to occupation - are today inadequate (they never were adequate, of course). Unless the Liberal Democrats are to be allowed to continue reaping the harvest of anti-government anger, a positive programme is urgently needed.

A foretaste of the kind of thinking that is going on came from George Monbiot and Salma Yaqoob. Their programme contained some worthwhile and eminently supportable points: eg, “repeal of anti-union legislation”, “repeal of secrecy laws” and “opposition to all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious belief (or lack of them), sexual orientation, disabilities, national origin or citizenship”. However, in general - despite the “valuable” help from the SWP’s Alex Callinicos - vague platitudes about peace, sustainability and justice abound and substitute for definite, concrete demands. Nor is there any vision of superseding capitalism - the highest ambition seems to be a tamed, downsized, civilised capitalism. In other words a radical petty bourgeois utopia.

The Monbiot-Yaqoob programme, it must be stressed, is a working document. Doubtless there will be other inputs from those with a distinctly socialist viewpoint. For instance, the Socialist Alliance is formally committed by conference resolution to a “socialist” coalition. Not that there is any room for complacency, though.

Our movement rightly stresses bottom-up democracy, transparency and accountability - not as add-on luxuries, but as principles which are vital if we are to realise the goal of socialism and human self-liberation. In that light, while there have been a series of well attended public meetings, it is worrying that so far the new coalition is a thoroughly top-down and distinctly murky affair.

There is whispered talk, for example, of some kind of national steering committee being formed. Yet, instead of this authoritative body being elected and recallable by a fully empowered rank and file, it appears to be concocted on the basis of secret appointment from above and horse-trading. Hence we understand that the national committee already has a fixed composition: there are two comrades from the Socialist Alliance - presumably John Rees and Nick Wrack - and they are to sit alongside Salma Yaqoob, George Monbiot, George Galloway, Ken Loach, Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka.

Non-accountability and shadowy deals are inherent dangers with any such top-down coalition. That is why communists will, of course, fight for definite structures and the most thorough-going democracy. Put another way, we shall continue to fight for a party.

Without branches, elections, specialist committees, conferences, binding votes, membership rights, duties and responsibilities, and the will for political power, we fear that the new coalition will perform in exactly the same dismal, disappointing and demoralising way already seen with the Socialist Alliance. Eg, something which virtually liquidated itself for the duration of the US-UK war against Iraq, has no paper and appears in front of the public more or less only come elections. The result? Despite millions protesting against the Iraq war the Socialist Alliance’s Brian Butterworth managed little more than 1.7% of the poll in the September 18 Brent East by-election.

There are no short cuts to electoral success - whatever the SWP’s central committee might imagine. People tend neither to trust nor vote for on-off united fronts, even those of a “special kind”. They vote for parties - parties which over a sustained period of time have established a known presence and record of activity and stand on a fully rounded and testable political programme.

For the Socialist Alliance to suddenly reappear, almost out of the blue, just prior to June 2004, albeit with the addition of a few ‘big names’, but perhaps forced to run under another official title, invites an altogether apathetic reception. More than that, if by chance there was the slightest perception that we might do even moderately well, our programme will be mercilessly prodded and probed by opponents. Weaknesses, short-comings and contradictions will be sought out, savaged and severely punished.

As a first necessary step our coalition needs to know exactly what it is for. Is it merely about registering a protest vote, however “grand”, or is about aiming to form a government? The signs are not particularly promising. George Monbiot writes threateningly of “hurting” Tony Blair in his column in The Guardian. But what about replacing the Labour Party? George Galloway urges Ken Livingstone not to return to the Labour fold. Yet he cannot commit himself to forming a new party. He has an eye on becoming an MEP; but is this before triumphantly going back to Labour himself and getting a hero’s welcome? John Rees thinks his confessional sect is the revolutionary party and, will block any attempts to move from a loose, short-term, coalition to a party. Meantime, afraid of public criticism, he wants to keep “out the sectarians”: ie, bar other Marxist groups from leadership positions in the new coalition.

Then there is politics. True, the new coalition is firmly united against the US-UK occupation of Iraq. But what are we for? George Monbiot wants to replace the US-UK with the UN and does not believe that there can be “life after capitalism”, without an attendant authoritarianism; Salma Yaqoob is committed to sharia law, the islamic version of justice; George Galloway dreams of “completing” the British revolution and in the meantime eschews any suggestion of living on the average wage of a skilled worker; Bob Crow nostalgically remembers the USSR and wants the death penalty restored; Mark Serwotka supports the introduction of the euro; the SWP would campaign for a ‘no’ vote in any euro referendum. In all likelihood the end result of all this will be a lowest-common-denominator compromise: ie, a minimalist programme hatched from above.

If there is full democracy, if in the course of joint work debate and discussion are viewed as opportunities for clarification, not as something akin to treachery, then all limitations, problems and differences can be positively overcome. Certainly any opportunity for communists to address a wider audience should be grasped with both hands. And we promise to do everything in our power to positively build, shape and direct the new coalition towards the formation of a revolutionary workers’ party - the party question remains the key contradiction.

Boycotting the new coalition, especially at this early, embryonic, stage would be a profound error, and not one we shall make. Laying down unalterable preconditions - eg, that everyone must agree with People before profit or that George Galloway must live on a workers’ wage - is sterile gesture politics and alien to our tradition. We shall leave such antics to our friends in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - that is, until they find their way back into the bosom of the Labour Party. Remember, supporters of the CPGB joined Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party despite his national socialist politics and dictatorial tendencies; we also joined the original Network of Socialist Alliances despite its pink-green platform.

So taking part in the Socialist Alliance’s coalition with people such as Monbiot and Yaqoob, Loach and Galloway, Crow and Serwotka in not particularly problematic for us - on the contrary it is another opportunity to raise the fight for the reforged Communist Party our working class needs.