Left facing both ways
The Socialist Alliance council voted overwhelmingly to engage with the RESPECT unity coalition, reports Peter Manson
Despite the previous insistence that the Socialist Alliance would only enter an electoral alliance that was "open, democratic and, of course, socialist", and that it would fight for any new coalition to adopt a socialist and working class platform, the SA national council, meeting on January 17, rejected attempts to make these promises a reality when it comes to next weekend's national convention of Respect. The council voted overwhelmingly to engage with the unity coalition, and "seek to influence the development of Respect along the lines of the decisions of the AGM and subsequent EC and NC meetings". But comrades then proceeded to vote down by a margin of around three to one a series of motions, put forward by the Democracy Platform of the Socialist Alliance, which were aimed at strengthening the coalition's draft declaration along working class and socialist lines. It seems that such "influence" is for the indeterminate future.
There were 70 or so delegates and executive members at Friends House, London for the national council. This attendance, bigger than for recent NC meetings, largely resulted from increased mobilisation by the Socialist Workers Party. In a circular to SWP members Rob Hoveman referred to the January 3 meeting of the SA national executive, where the SWP and allies "almost lost three vital votes", and stressed the need not to "take our eye off the ball" (January 9). Comrade Hoveman urged SWPers to ensure that, one way or another, "good delegates" were at Friends House in order to avoid what he termed "sectarian accidents" - ie, votes in favour of working class principle.
And so it turned out. The SWP and co voted down motions that sought to commit coalition election candidates to be "workers' representatives on a worker's wage"; to make freedom of movement and open borders coalition policy; to define socialism according to People before profit, the SA's 2001 general election manifesto; and to accept republicanism - again defined as in People before profit - as an aim. Delegates even rejected a motion calling for next weekend's convention to be organised in an "open, democratic and transparent" way, with "space for debate" for "different views, declarations and amendments"; and another which proposed that coalition candidates be similarly selected according to an "open, democratic and transparent" process.
Speaker after speaker from the SWP and its allies condemned these proposals as "ultimatums", despite the fact that Democracy Platform supporters made it clear that they were putting them forward as policies to be supported by the alliance within Respect. There was no question of walking away from the coalition if they were rejected on January 25.
SA chair Nick Wrack, in making the case for the executive majority, claimed that none of the Democracy Platform motions were aimed at engaging positively with the coalition. Rather they were aimed at stopping it. Comrade Hoveman alleged that their proponents had a dismissive attitude to broader forces and were only interested in "putting conditions".
Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group said that the SA majority wanted to "engage with Respect and take it where we want to go", whereas the minority was "trying to obstruct" the process. It was important only to put amendments "within the general framework" of the declaration, not those that seek to "change it into something different" (ie, more explicit and clear). In that sense the Democracy Platform's "ultimatums" were just "disruptive", he said.
Comrade Thornett did not satisfactorily explain why his own motion - to include in the Unity Coalition statement demands for taxing the rich, raising the minimum wage to £7.40 an hour and freedom for Palestine - were neither "ultimatums" nor "disruptive". This motion was carried with no votes against.
According to Simon Joyce, what was needed was not only the "right politics" (which, needless to say, Respect already had), but a "big organisation". He was confident that large numbers of "youngsters" from the anti-war movement would flood into the coalition. But would they "like what we say"? Would they think, "I'll have bloody more of that"? Not if we go beyond platitudes, it seems.
The next SWPer wanted to know, why all the fuss about programme and politics? After all, 'Land, bread and peace' was enough for the Bolsheviks. Brian Butterworth agreed. These amendments calling for socialism were just "nit-picking". What mattered most was achieving a "breakthrough" - politics are secondary, obviously.
Another SWP comrade reported that people from her union who would "never come to the Socialist Alliance" were "very enthusiastic" about Respect. "Don't scare people by being sectarian" (ie, pursuing class politics), she implored. Yet another thought we should "get among the people first, then build the argument".
The SWP comrades were forced to resort to sophistry and demagogy in the absence of any convincing argument. As I pointed out, on the one hand they tell us that the Respect declaration is socialist to the core, while on the other arguing that we must not put forward socialist arguments within it.
For example, Sarah Cox, was sure that now "we are mainstream. Now we express the feelings of millions". Leaving aside the wishful thinking, the implication was that the posing of a clear working class alternative would reduce us to the margins once again. John Rees, by contrast, pretended that Respect's draft declaration already posed that alternative. He declared in his usual bombastic style that we had "all stood on this programme" already: "It is identical, identical, to material the Socialist Alliance has put out".
Funny, that - especially since the greens also want to claim the declaration, sent to them by comrade Wrack, as their own. According to Hugo Charlton, Green Party chair in England and Wales, "Clearly the policy statement distributed by the 'unity coalition' is very close to Green Party policies - the policies that we have campaigned on in the past and those that we will take into next year's elections. While part of the statement is in the very long tradition of social justice policies, to which the Greens also subscribe, much of it is clearly based on existing Green Party policies. "This has prompted us to wonder why people who evidently support our policies didn't simply decide to support the Green Party, which already has MEPs, MPs, London assembly members and councillors with a proven track record in terms of the policies the organisers of Respect want to promote" ('Why the greens won't be joining' Morning Star January 20).
Compare this to what comrade Wrack had to say on January 17: "The declaration is extremely good - every socialist can and should support it. It is implicitly socialist, expressing opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism. Its demands are in essence a précis, or pared down version, of People before profit, and a lot further to the left than people anticipated. It calls for a 'world based on need, not on profit'. It has socialism and trade unions in its title "¦ We've got the majority of People before profit there."
Declan O'Neill, a supporter of the Democracy Platform, wondered why we could not propose "workers' representatives on a worker's wage" to the coalition. "Are people worried we might actually win it?" At this, while SWPers snorted in derision, comrade Thornett was nodding vigorously.
That was the point, comrade Thornett later told the meeting: "We don't want to put amendments that would rupture the process. They would probably win and do damage - that would be ultra-left." That was why he also opposed the inclusion of the demand for open borders: "That's one of the most contentious issues. For example, the Socialist Party wouldn't back it."
Comrade Thornett's idea was to "work on a long-term basis. We'll be voting today not to support things we actively agree with", such as workers' MPs on a worker's wage, which he "absolutely" supported. At least comrade Thornett is honest about his opportunism - in contrast to the SWP, whose line is completely incoherent as a result of trying to face both ways.
The CPGB's Marcus Ström was one of several comrades to deny that the Democracy Platform was in the business of putting ultimatums. But he reminded comrades of the wording of the resolution we had agreed at annual conference. The SA would "insist" (an ultimatum?) only that any new coalition was "open, democratic and, of course, socialist". Since neither George Galloway, nor George Monbiot, nor the Muslim Association of Britain (invited to join by comrades Galloway and Rees) thinks the declaration is socialist, Democracy Platform comrades were simply aiming to spell out what comrade Wrack said was implicit - make it explicit, in other words. He urged council not to "keep our own politics under wraps. Let's not be scared of our own shadows."
Dave Church said that it was simply a question of putting our socialism to the vote. If we were the majority we would win. If not, we would lose. But of course the SWP knows full well that it will in all probability be able to win the vote. Unlike comrade Thornett, however, it cannot admit that it wants the coalition to adopt some woolly platform that is broadly leftwing - but definitely not based on working class socialism. Since the left reformist politics upon which the SA contested elections have not brought the desired results, perhaps moving to the right will do the trick. Electoralism, anyone?
As I say, the SWP cannot admit this. So it hides behind absurd claims such as Sean Doherty's. Respect's statement, he said, was "radical and socialist" (while at the same time it would "rally all those opposed to New Labour"). A good vote for Respect would apparently "help break the grip of reformism on the working class".
SWPers continually accused Democracy Platform supporters of not being sufficiently enthusiastic about Respect. A comrade from Birmingham said that the national council meeting was not at all inspiring. As a 22-year-old, she was speaking for young people, who wanted to be "going out on the streets, not arguing this, that or the other." Engaging and shaping was much more important. "If I thought this meeting was what socialism was about, I wouldn't be in it." Long debates "just put everybody off", she said to loud applause from her comrades.
This brought a rebuke from Matthew Caygill: "Your enthusiasm sounds more like revivalism," he remarked. He pointed to the "real problems" ahead. Would it be possible to keep SA branches going at the same time as running Respect? He suspected that the alliance would once again be put in the "deep freezer".
Comrade Ström commented that the denunciation of everybody who was insufficiently enthusiastic and who raised constructive criticisms was "deeply anti-democratic. This is not a rally. It is a serious decision-making body." Pete McLaren said he had been "saddened" by the level of debate and reaction to Democracy Platform motions, when all we had been trying to do was "keep the socialist strand going". Declan O'Neill referred to the SWP's "single transferable speech".
It is certainly easy to become depressed when faced with SWP philistinism. But it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Despite that organisation's tendency to gush (at the expense of both honest analysis and principle), Respect does indeed present us with an opportunity of engaging with broader forces, including those drawn into politics by last year's anti-war upsurge. The opportunity will be wasted if we do not use it to fight for what is needed - crucially a working class party. Comrade Wrack reported that he was due to meet Socialist Party comrades to discuss their attitude to the new coalition. He further stated that the Muslim Association of Britain had declined the invitation to become involved. Although it agreed with much of the declaration's contents, it could not support its "commitment to gender rights". Nevertheless, according to comrade Wrack, the MAB would support the coalition "from the outside" (like they supported the Liberal Democrats at the Brent East by-election?).
Comrade Rees taunted those who had claimed the SWP was prepared to ditch gay and women's rights in order to attract the MAB to a 'peace and justice' coalition: "You were wrong. You were scaremongering." He made great play of the fact that it was a practising muslim, Salma Yaqoob, who wrote that section of the declaration. I must say, I found this less than convincing. As Steve Godward pointed out, it was comrade Rees's partner, Lindsey German, who had declared at the SWP's Marxism summer school that gay and women's rights should not be regarded as "shibboleths". And, as comrade Ström pointed out, if the SWP was prepared to drop issues like open borders and a worker's wage in order to pull in 'broad support', then why not "gender rights" too?
The main contribution of Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty was to move a motion calling on the coalition to "break its links with George Galloway MP". It won four votes. However, this did show that accusations about the moving of motions aimed at disrupting Respect were not entirely without foundation.
After the main debate, national council briefly discussed methods of election to the executive. A motion proposed by comrade Thornett and supported by the SWP, calling for the continuation of the slate system, but with nominations published in advance, was adopted as a recommendation to be put to the March 13 special conference. An amendment from comrade Ström was accepted by the mover and will also go forward as a recommendation. This called for the conference to elect an elections preparation committee to oversee balloting and ensure proportionality in accordance with the SA constitution.
A motion from Mandy Baker and Will McMahon, calling for the replacement of the council tax by an income-based service tax was withdrawn for redrafting after some of its details were queried.
Finally, motions from Martin Thomas (solidarity with former inhabitants of Diego Garcia) and John Pearson (defence of refugees and asylum-seekers) were passed unopposed.
In a moving moment at the beginning of national council, comrades paid tribute to Cecilia Prosper, who died on January 8. SWP member and SA candidate in local, Greater London and general elections, Cecilia was, said John Rees, somebody who was "admired and envied". There was "no-one more convincing when talking to ordinary people". That conviction came from her own experience as a single mother, militant trade unionist and committed fighter for her class.