Phoenix from the ashes

Dave Craig argues for a democratic conference and a new Socialist Alliance that unites revolutionaries and reformists

The statement below in defence of the Socialist Alliance identifies the key questions that must be addressed if we are to go forward from the SA debacle. When did the SA fail and why did it fail? What lessons can be drawn and applied that take us forward? The statement may not include everything that destroyed the SA. But its analysis goes to the heart of the matter located in the short history and evolution of the SA. The departure of the Socialist Party was not the cause of failure. But it was a setback. It tilted the SA more firmly onto the path set by the Socialist Workers Party. It put the SA on a particular trajectory, giving more weight to the theoretical mistakes of the SWP which translated into SA practice. The watershed or break point for the SA was the run-up to the Iraq war. This was the moment when the SA failed. Of course it was not because the SA was in favour of war. All SA members opposed the war drive and now stand for an end to the occupation. This did not divide us nor was it the cause of the SA's failure. We have to locate the politics of the SA that were a barrier to SA intervention and leadership of the anti-war movement. Some have pointed to the reluctance of the SWP to have SA speakers on anti-war platforms. But this was a symptom of the problem, not its cause. We have to go back to the politics of the SA in 2000-2001 to find the source. Two crucial features of SA politics left it impotent before the war drive - economism and anti-partyism, both apparent at the SA conferences in 2000 and 2001. The major political weakness of the SA was economism. This is the failure to understand correctly the connection between the struggle for democracy and socialism. In the UK, with its constitutional monarchist state, economism expresses itself in a failure to fight for a democratic republic. Economism takes its stand on the struggle for economic and social reform. It seeks to improve the social position of the working class within the existing political-constitutional framework. Republicanism sees it the other way round, giving priority to political struggle. The struggle between the economistic and republican perspectives in 2000-2001 shaped the political character of the alliance for the next period. At the 2000 conference the demand for a democratic republic was included in People before profit. But it was put in cold storage during the 2001 election with a priority pledge not to campaign for democracy and a republic. The SA never put the republican part of its programme into operation as agitation, campaigning and mobilisation. To say that SA republicanism was a paper tiger would be an insult to paper tigers. At first sight it seems difficult to imagine how the failure to fight for its republican programme contributed to the SA's political demise. However within two years the SA would be facing a political earthquake which would shake the Blair government and the credibility of the system of government itself. How would an economistic SA relate to that? A second major failure stemmed from the SWP's dogmatic belief in a two-party model. The SWP favours two socialist parties - one for the reformists and another for the revolutionaries. In current conditions of rampant capitalism, with working class politics in retreat, this dogma is a barrier to the unity of the class. The SWP is opposed to building one party of socialist unity. But an electoral front was thin gruel for rebels from the Labour Party and soon left them highly dissatisfied. This issue was fought out at the 2001 conference, with victory secured by the anti-party bloc led by the SWP. The electoral front was a major step forward from the previous disunity. But after the 2001 general election it offered no valid way forward. It was useless as a means of waging the class struggle. The firefighters' dispute and the anti-war movement found the SA unable or unwilling to fight for a new party or champion the cause of political democracy. The US war drive brought millions of protesters onto the streets. The rising mass movement showed up the failings of the politics imposed on the SA by the SWP. The war in Iraq and the crisis facing the Blair government was the decisive turning point in the development of the SA. The war exposed the weakness of parliament, the lack of any genuine democracy and the need for a new working class party. It revealed that the SWP had no political answers for the SA except to run away. We can rebuild what has been lost, but this time it must be on firmer foundations. Demand a democratic conference The degeneration of the SA and the failure its leadership to defend SA democracy means it is very likely the closure motion will be pushed through near the beginning of the meeting. It will be interesting to see if the SWP and their allies simply steamroller the minority who stand opposed to closure. As it stands, the closure of the SA is unconstitutional. The SA constitution (paragraph C15) says: "The Socialist Alliance may be dissolved by a resolution of a special meeting, called for this purpose by the national executive or the national council or by request of 25% of the membership." This is the AGM, not a special meeting called for the purpose of closure, even though there is a closure motion on the agenda. The question is whether the conference will be unconstitutional and undemocratic or just the former. If we leave aside the question of the constitution, what would be the democratic way of conducting conference business? If we assume an SWP majority, then there is more to democracy than simply imposing a decision on the minority. Democracy must include the rights of the minority to be heard and win their case, even if the SWP imposes a three-line whip on their members voting. The SA still has a relatively positive reputation on the left in terms of democratic norms of behaviour. It has been losing this reputation because of the failure of the executive in carrying out their duties. It would be a shame if this conference added to that. Any member who defends socialist democracy should oppose any attempt to steamroller the conference and demand a full and proper debate on the future of the SA. We should demand that conference business is dealt with in the following way: * First, there should be a report from the conference arrangements committee. That will allow any challenge to the constitutional legitimacy of the conference and any challenge to the order of the agenda. * Second, we must be able to deal with all matters arising from the SA business during the previous year. Members have a right to hear executive reports on finances, outstanding debts and SA activity since the last conference. The executive accountability to members is the first principle of any democratic organisation, regardless of whether the organisation is wound up or not. This session should also deal with the complaints by members of maladministration. Members must be able to hear these complaints. The executive has the right to answer them. It seems to me that the CPGB motion belongs here. * Third, we should have a full debate on the future of the SA. There should be a serious debate about all the options before us. There seem to be five basic options within the motions. These should be brought out and presented as option A, B, C, D and E, etc (agreement on the exact number of options can be clarified before the conference). There should be a number of speakers for each option. All associated motions should be moved. After movers and seconders have been heard, it should be opened to speakers from the floor with balanced distribution of speakers for each option. Option A, submitted by members of the Socialist Unity Network, is basically to close down or dissolve the SA. Option B, submitted by the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform, Merseyside SA and Coventry and Warwickshire SA, is to keep the SA going with the same name but with a change in the aims to include that of a workers' party. Option C is to keep the SA and its name but change its aims to become an alliance of socialists campaigning for a republican socialist party, along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party. This is supported by the Republican Socialist Tendency. Option D calls for setting up a provisional committee to relaunch the SA. Finally Option E is for keeping the SA but changing its name to Democratic Socialist Alliance and is submitted by Stockport SA and Steve Wallis from Manchester. When this session is finished the motion for closure, if it is not ruled unconstitutional, should be put. Amendments to this motion should be taken. We should then move to the vote on the motion as amended. At this stage it would be sensible to have a brief recess. If the closure motion is passed those who oppose this should not return. The conference will formally come to an end and the current executive will oversee the winding up. The remaining motions will fall. If the closure motion is defeated, those members who oppose the SA should not return after the recess. The conference will then be resumed with the election of a new chair to conduct the rest of the business. Statement For a republican Socialist Alliance Between 1999-2001 the SA expanded and adopted a new programme and constitution. We became the main vehicle for socialist unity in opposition to New Labour. We were able to stand over 90 socialist candidates in the 2001 general election. This was a major step forward for the fragmented socialist movement in England. However, at the same time the SA decided to limit our own effectiveness. A majority decided not to campaign for democracy (ie, a democratic republic), not to campaign for a new workers' party, and not to produce our own national paper. Between 2001 and 2003 these decisions fatally undermined the ability of the SA to respond to the firefighters' dispute, the changed international situation after September 11 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the growing anti-war movement. With this limited 'electoralist' perspective, the leadership of the alliance was unable to meet the new challenges. The SA leadership did not draw the correct lessons from this failure. They did not admit the previous mistakes. They did not try to raise the politics of the SA to a higher level to meet the new situation. Instead they decided to launch a new alliance around Respect - the Unity Coalition, on the basis of a less democratic organisation with a more restricted programme. The promise that Respect would gain success at the polls was enough to bring about the virtual collapse of the Socialist Alliance. Since the 2004 conference the SA is virtually moribund. Most members no longer pay subs. Branches don't meet. The alliance is no longer able to unite members in activity. No work has been done to build for an electoral challenge in the forthcoming general election. The SA has more or less collapsed. We cannot match even the limited achievement of 2001. The existing SA leadership is unable or unwilling to build the alliance or mount any challenge to Labour. Despite all this the SA was a step forward for the socialist movement. In 2001 we had the support of the majority of socialist organisations outside the Labour Party, including the Socialist Party, Workers Power and the Green Socialist Network. Even now the SA still has the formal 'support' of the SWP, ISG, CPGB, AWL, RDG, ISL and Workers International, as well as a number of independent socialist activists. The SA cannot survive with its current failed perspective and an executive that has given up trying to build the organisation. This will accelerate the loss of members, supporting organisations and credibility. If the SA executive is not able or willing to fight for socialist unity and prepare for the general election then the principled course of action is to resign and enable the membership to elect a new leadership. Instead it seems the current leadership intends to close the SA down. This will not only destroy the alliance, but intensify divisions within the socialist movement. It will be a setback for those who want to see an independent socialist alternative to New Labour. It will make future initiatives for socialist unity more difficult to achieve. It will make united socialist resistance to New Labour weaker. It will weaken the left in the working class movement. The responsibility of this will rest with those on the executive who have destroyed the organisation. The only viable alternative is to recognise previous mistakes and belatedly try to rectify them. We should therefore elect a new SA leadership with new aims and a new perspective. The SA should remain an alliance of socialists who want to work together and debate issues and perspectives across the boundaries of socialist groups and parties. We should be prepared to stand in elections where we have credible candidates and a local base. But this should not be either the prime or sole activity. The Socialist Alliance must become a campaigning organisation rather than an electoral front. The war in Iraq has made the failure of parliamentary democracy more transparent, and the need for radical democratic change more urgent than ever before. The SA should redefine its purpose as campaigning for democracy as well as socialism. Consequently we should set the objective of winning support for a broad-based republican socialist party, drawing on the experience and success of the Scottish Socialist Party. Our aim must be to create a party that mobilises the working class to completely democratise our system of government from top to bottom. (ie, a democratic republic) and thus prepare the way for socialism. The Socialist Alliance must become a republican Socialist Alliance working for a new party. Dave Church, Gerry Byrne, Steve Freeman, Terry Liddle, Darren Williams, Jeremy Butler, Peter Morton, Nick Rogers, Tony Greenstein, Chris Jones, Danny Thompson, Jane Clarke, Steve Godward