Building the new

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group looks at the newly established Socialist Alliance

The new Socialist Alliance has been launched. A new constitution has been adopted and a new executive elected. The SA executive will meet at the weekend. The central question will now become how the alliance can be built into an effective fighter for socialist unity and campaigner for a new party. In the next few months we will be able to see what progress is possible. Certainly the SA conference on November 12 was a good start. It brought together a broad range of ex-members, including non-aligned socialists (or 'independents'), members of the Alliance for Green Socialism, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, CPGB, Democratic Socialist Alliance group, International Socialist League, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Republican Communist Network (Scotland), United Socialist Party and the Socialist Unity Network, as well as members from SA branches in Coventry and Warwickshire, London, Merseyside, Southampton and Stockport. The first step for the new SA is to establish a clear political identity. The new SA has all the necessary features which define it as a socialist alliance. It places emphasis on the struggle for non-sectarian socialist unity. It brings together non-aligned or independent socialists and socialist organisations. It stands on the basis of the People before profit programme. It has a federal structure with majority decisions. All these characteristics can be traced bask either to the SA mark one (1997-2000) or mark two (2001-05) or both. However, the new Socialist Alliance is new not simply because it has just been relaunched. It is new because it is different. New means new politics. The SA was redesigned by the conference to take on board lessons of the failed Socialist Alliance mark two and take the project to a more advanced political level. The new SA is an alliance committed to republicanism, internationalism, socialism and the environment. It is committed to the fight for a new working class party. It has adopted an inclusive and democratic federal structure. This makes the SA mark three different to all its predecessors. The politics of the new SA has not come out of thin air. In 2001 there was an alternative perspective put forward by the minority that was critical of the political direction proposed by the Socialist Workers Party. As part of that minority the CPGB argued strongly that the SA should make a priority of the fight for democracy and a democratic republic. The RDG proposed that the SA take steps towards launching a republican socialist party along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party. We put forward the constitution of the SSP. Finally on the eve of the Socialist Party leaving the SA some independents, such as the Pete McLaren, Dave Church, together with the AWL and the RDG, argued that a different form of federal structure could maintain SA unity. The new SA draws these different strands of the opposition into a unified whole. But, of course, in 2001 the SWP had an overwhelming majority for its perspective. The SWP was able to put its own ideas for the SA into practice. Now we can see that the SA mark two did not succeed. It failed. The closure of the SA in February 2005, mainly through the votes of the SWP, is proof of its failure. Closure was the SWP's admission that its ideas for building the SA were a failure. The minority had not abandoned the SA but went along with democratic decisions which, as we had predicted, did not work. Some may say we wasted our time. But our patient struggle has given us the right and the possibility of implementing an alternative. It is possible that no socialist alliance would succeed. But it is also possible the SA minority in 2001 were right after all. Now we can test the alternative perspective. The SA mark three comes from the militant wing of the old alliance and not without a struggle against our own backward, sectarian elements. The very moment when the new SA was born was the same moment that the remnants of economism and sectarianism, clinging to the constitution designed by the SWP, were defeated. They have now gone off to lick their wounds. The lineage of the new SA is clear. In 2001 the SA had a democratic, republican and pro-party minority and in 2003 this began to take shape in the Democracy Platform. The SWP led the SA majority towards Respect and in 2005 these political divisions had become a split. The SA majority liquidated the SA because they were also the majority in Respect. Now the SA minority has become the new SA. At this point we should focus on republicanism, one of the most obvious differences between Respect and the new SA. The demand for a democratic, secular republic is one of the central demands of the new SA. As Dave Spencer's letter in the Weekly Worker indicates, it is not properly understood by many socialists (December 1). The source of the confusion is the distinction between the queen as head of state and the constitutional monarchy as a system of government and state power. The majority of people in England, compared to Scotland and Wales, tend to be either supportive or tolerant of the monarchy. This is deeply embedded in our national culture. We are born, brought up and educated either to love the crown or at least recognise that other political systems would be worse. Of course, attitudes to monarchy have changed. We no longer doff our caps to our social 'betters' or stand to sing God save the queen after watching a film at the local cinema. Yet tolerant attitudes to monarchy still hold sway even in the socialist movement. Labourism is the vehicle for transmitting such liberal values. Since this is the seasonal edition of the Weekly Worker perhaps a Christmas story would serve our purpose. Imagine the constitutional monarchist system represented by a Christmas tree. It has deep roots in our historical soil. Its branches spread into all parts of society. On the top is the bright star of a fairy queen. But the soil is exhausted after years of overuse. The tree has rotted away and is now in danger of falling over. But nobody has taken notice of the tree because everybody is enthralled by the shining star at the very top. Labourism asks, what is the point in expending energy getting rid of the star? It is nice, bright, inoffensive and does no harm. This misses the point completely. Republicanism is not about removing the star. It is about the much more serious and difficult business of chopping down the tree and replacing it root and branch with a democratic alternative. The star exists to fool the people and the people most fooled and distracted by it are socialists. For that reason it should be dispatched to the dustbin of history with due haste. Last week a case brought by 2,000 Chagossians came before the high court. They are British subjects forcibly evicted from their homeland, the British Indian Ocean Territory, to make way for the US military. This is the location for Diego Garcia, the US air and naval base on the biggest atoll in the Chagos archipelago. In 2002 a report in the Washington Post claimed this base was a site of one of the US government's "black prisons" - secret facilities where leading terrorist suspects are thought to be held and tortured. The islanders were evicted from the late 1960s and forced to resettle in Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they are now mostly living in poverty. All this was done without the approval of parliament by civil servants and executive powers. In 2000 the high court ruled that the expulsion of the islanders was unlawful and foreign secretary Robin Cook promised to accept the court's ruling. However, last year the royal prerogative was invoked to overturn it. The privy council issued an 'order in council'. This is an archaic mechanism by which civil servants and government can legally bypass parliament and avoid any public scrutiny of their actions. Whilst this rests on the existence of the crown, of course it does not mean the queen thought this up or indeed had any role in it whatsoever, except perhaps to sign the paper. Bringing the action, Chagossian exile Louis Bancoult said the 2004 order in council was a "secret law shamefully used to bypass parliament". He said: "The British government has treated us - its own citizens - very shamefully, and shown contempt for its own institutions and the judgment of the high court." Dozens of Chagossians demonstrated outside the court. Democratic, secular republicanism, then, is not primarily about the queen in her symbolic role as the star on the top of the Christmas tree. Not that we should underestimate the debilitating effect of monarchist ideology or its power to mobilise the masses. But the fundamental problem of constitutional monarchy is not the monarch. Hereditary monarchy is the excuse, distraction and smokescreen for a system of unaccountable government in a culture of unaccountability and secrecy. The shining star is there to ensure we cannot see it for what it is and cannot see the need to get rid of something so 'harmless'. The Iraq war is just one example of how that system works in practice. Because it created a national crisis we took more notice than normal of how we are manipulated every day. We saw the failure of parliament to penetrate the blanket of secrecy and call Blair to account. The powers vested in constitutional monarchy are exercised by civil servants, ministers and especially the prime minister. The executive has rights and legal authority to act behind the backs of the people. When the security services claim they are defenders of the realm, they are really defending their own unaccountability. Respect, the unity coalition, is neither democratic, nor secular, nor republican. It is a redesigned version of the SWP's SA mark two. It was the SA relaunched with a rebel Labour MP on board, along with some muslim activists, but without the left wing of the Socialist Alliance. Whilst Respect is more popular in areas where muslims are alienated from New Labour, it is not popular with the socialist and trade union left. Would it surprise us to find the SWP praying to Mecca three times a day? Not because they believe in it - they are atheists, after all. It would be to show that they are the friends of muslims and respect their religion. The problem is that the SWP does not respect democracy, secularism, republicanism and, by extension, the working class. Respect for democracy has never been the SWP's strong point. The leopard has not changed its spots, as members of the International Socialist Group/Resistance were reminded at the recent Respect conference. Even mild criticism was too much for the SWP leaders, who behave like desperados under siege. We will begin 2006 with a political choice. The socialist movement is divided not into two, but three membership-based alliances or coalitions: the Labour Representation Committee, Respect and the Socialist Alliance. These are not exclusive alliances. The SA, for example, contains comrades who are in Respect - most obviously the CPGB. We also have comrades who are members of the LRC. The SA is an independent, but not an exclusivist organisation. The opportunity to have serious discussions about the LRC and Respect can only inform and strengthen our work and make it more honest and less sectarian. These three alliances will offer to take the working class movement in three different directions. It is important these are clearly identified and discussed. The LRC sees its task as coordinating a fightback within the Labour Party. It is the best representative of the ideas of Labourism, which has maintained an iron grip over the labour movement for a hundred years. Blair and New Labour have blown a massive hole in Labourism, symbolised by the rejection of clause four. Whether the LRC aims to recapture the Labour Party or set up another Labour Party is not clear to me. Both Respect and the Socialist Alliance see the need for new formations organised independently of the Labour Party. In the 21st century the Labour Party stands in relation to the labour movement as the Liberal Party did in the 19th century. Today Labour is a party of big business and part of the constitutional structures through which the rich and powerful govern the United Kingdom. As in the 19th century, the official trade union leadership in tied to the bosses' party, if for no other reason than they fear the Tory alternative. We have to follow the pioneering moves made by those 19th century socialists and form a new party by breaking from New Labour, the modern liberals. However, after a hundred years of reformism we should not repeat or replicate the failed politics of Labourism. Both Respect and the Socialist Alliance stand for a new formation independent of Blair's New Labour. That is where the similarity starts and ends. Respect never set out to build a new working class party. On the question of party and class, Respect is playing ducks and drakes. Of course the state identifies anybody standing in elections as a party by dint of the fact that you have to be registered as a party to stand candidates. But as Marxists we know there is much more to being a party than state registration or even including the word 'party' in your name. A party is part of a definite class. Bourgeois parties always deny or try to hide their class basis. They present themselves as parties of all the people, not representatives of sectional or class interests. They do so not least because under universal suffrage their very access to power depends on winning votes from the working class and the petty bourgeois masses. But a working class party has no need to be modest about the class interests it aims to serve. The SA is miles, if not light-years, away from any kind of mass base. However, it is openly in favour of a new mass working class party. Respect is not. Respect does not define itself or see itself in class terms, but as an alliance between socialists and muslims. This is why Respect has not and does not call for a working class party. It does not address working class muslims as part of the working class, but as muslims. The working class is not protestant, catholic, jewish or muslim, despite the fact that working class people adhere to many faiths and none. This is why democracy, secularism and the republic serve the interests of the working class and Respect with its current programme cannot. The difference between Respect and the SA is that, whilst neither claims to be a working class party, the SA openly advocates a working class party and will openly campaign for its formation. Respect has a high-profile MP who has defied the Blair over the Iraq war and been expelled for his stand. Due respect can and should be given to that. But in terms of working class politics the Socialist Alliance is pointing the movement in the right direction: for socialist unity, a democratic, secular republic, internationalism, a sustainable environment - and a working class party that will lead us to socialism.