Rebranding exercise

What is the content behind the image? Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group recommends 'Arise'

In 2002 McDonalds made its first losses in its 50-year history. The McLibel case and the film Supersize me added to the image of a multinational corporation in trouble, living beyond its sell-by date. Falling profits reflected changing consumer attitudes. In the USA lawyers were lining up to sue the business, held responsible for a growing obesity epidemic. Yet by 2004 McDonalds had turned the corner and was back in profit.

McDonalds' management opted for a rebranding exercise. They kept their brand name, but set out to give it a new image and identity. They became the world's largest seller of salads, not forgetting bottled water and fruit. Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who organised the massive exploitation of cheap labour, once remarked that he did not know what McDonalds would sell in future, but that they would sell most of it. The new 'health-conscious' McDonalds began sponsoring fitness and sporting events. The new slogan, "I'm lovin' it", hit the screens.

Rebranding is part and parcel of modern business and politics. Blair and Mandelson invented 'New Labour' as a means of rebranding the Labour Party. This was not just spin. The new image had real political substance. Blair changed the aims of the Labour Party. He removed the socialist clause four and adopted business-friendly policies. Now the Tories have begun their own rebranding.

David Cameron was recently spotted going to the cinema to see Brokeback Mountain. Gay rights activists have responded favourably. The website, pinknews.co.uk, called Cameron "a leader of the future". They claimed that "Gay young professionals are the perfect group to support the Conservatives" (The Economist January 21). But of course it has not stopped there. Bob Geldof has been brought in to advise on global poverty. Green activist Zac Goldsmith has been made policy advisor on the environment. All this image-making has begun to yield results. The Tories at 39% have taken a four-point lead over Labour. An opinion poll in mid-January found that Cameron "had already gone a long way towards neutralising the Tories' negative brand image".

Is this all spin and flim-flam, or does it have any substance? To what extent is the Tory Party repositioning itself? Is it moving towards the centre? That will become clearer when we see the new Tory policies and programme. Oliver Letwin's policy review will report in a year or so. Even the Tory hard right, who are suspicious of where Cameron is taking them, have been reluctant to challenge him. One thing all Tories are united about is the need to win political power as soon as possible.

For business, rebranding and positioning is about selling and profit. But for political parties it is about the class struggle. What class policies does the party have and how can these be presented to the masses in the most appealing way? It used to be called propaganda. That was then and this is now. Branding, like propaganda, serves parties and hence classes in their struggle for power. Socialists might like to think that they are a morally superior breed, above all this kind of thing. But that is either ignorant or dishonest.

Socialists have just fought for and captured the Socialist Alliance brand name. The value of this brand stems from 10 years of socialist cooperation and struggle. In 2001 the SA achieved the highest degree of socialist unity attained in the last 20 years. The socialist movement invested real time and money and a great deal of hope in the SA. It is still a recognised brand name on the left. It was mentioned positively by speakers from the platform at the recent RMT conference on working class representation. When the Socialist Workers Party decided to ditch the Socialist Alliance in 2004-05 it knew the SA brand was still an asset. It tried to burn the house down rather than let other members take over occupancy.

The image of the Socialist Alliance was badly damaged by the failure of the previous leadership in 2003-04. They decamped more or less en masse to Respect. They claimed the SA rather than their own leadership had failed. They sought to replace the SA with a new and 'exiting' brand called Respect. It was to be an anti-war party for muslims and socialists. Recently George Galloway, single-handedly, went into the Big brother house to promote Respect's brand image. Perhaps if George, coming out of Big brother, had met David Cameron coming out of the cinema, they could have compared notes about what works best.

The value of the SA brand has been seriously diminished. Many comrades associated the SA with the SWP, from which they had been alienated. The Democratic Socialist Alliance group (DSA) recognised this. They decided to create a new brand name which would distinguish them from the Socialist Alliance. Perhaps they hoped that with a new brand name nobody would notice if they continued with the economistic-Labourite politics promoted by the SWP in the SA. Certainly those who want to rebuild the SA face an uphill task. If a much bigger and more representative SA failed, why should a much smaller version succeed?

The Socialist Alliance therefore faced a stark choice. Change the name and create a new brand, such as Respect or the DSA group. Or alternatively keep the name and rebrand the organisation by giving it a new identity and image. But before we can create a new image for the SA we have to create some new politics. The provisional SA began the process of changing the politics. Our November 2005 conference confirmed the direction that the SA(P) proposed. The SA remains based on People before profit, but we now have a new constitution with clearly redefines aims and provides for a new federal structure.

The new SA is a pro-party socialist alliance. It is for republicanism, internationalism, socialism and the environment, and against racism, fascism and all forms of social oppression. We have agreed to campaign for a democratically organised republican socialist party along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party. But building the SA into a strong organisation has to be more than gathering together a collection of groups and indies. There has to develop a core politics around which a majority can coalesce. The core politics must be developed not only by conference decisions and educational events, but through our intervention in campaigns and struggles. The politics of the new SA has to be forged through struggle.

Since the conference the SA has made some modest progress. We have been able in the last two months to secure the affiliations of the Alliance for Green Socialism, Communist Party of Great Britain, International Socialist League, Republican Communist Network (Scotland), Revolutionary Democratic Group, United Socialist Party and Walsall Democratic Labour Party. Martin Thomas has agreed to recommend the affiliation of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and we are optimistic about gaining affiliation from Socialist Unity Network.

There are SA branches in Coventry and Warwickshire, London and the South East, Merseyside, Southampton, Stockport and Swindon. We have won most of them to affiliate to the national SA. We will soon be in a position to encourage the formation of new branches in Manchester, Wales, Bedfordshire and Birmingham. The Council of Socialist Organisations held its first, relatively successful meeting on January 14. The Socialist Party introduced a session on the workers' party campaign. Peter Tatchell addressed the council about campaigning for a new Chartist movement.

Now the SA has begun to re-establish itself it has to decide how it should rebrand itself. It is by no means agreed how this should be done. The first thing we have to get over is that we are a new Socialist Alliance. The term 'new SA' means different from the old, failed, SWP-led SA. Looking at the history of the SA we are the third version. The first (1997-2000) was led by the Socialist Party with a federal constitution functioning around the 80-20 formula and marketing itself as 'red-green'. In 2001 the SWP took over and a new programme (People before profit) and constitution were adopted. The second SA (2001-05) dropped the 80-20 formula and adopted majority decision-making. It was 'electoralist', reflecting the new electoral ambition of the SWP. It presented itself as the continuation of the economistic politics of real Labour.

Now we have launched the third SA, or SA mark three. We have maintained the traditional aim of socialist unity. We have located the strand that runs from the original SA down to the present. This is the genuine desire for all the most progressive parts of the socialist movement to work for unity, to develop political dialogue, and to establish non-sectarian relations. The members of the SA and its affiliates are committed in practice to socialist cooperation.

The new SA takes majority decision-making and People before profit from SA2. The federal structure and the environmental aims go back to SA1. But we have something new and distinct to offer. We have adopted a different set of campaigning aims. SA3 stands for the best traditions of the previous versions, but we have something new to bring into working class politics. This is not a nostalgia trip for ex-SA members.

The question of rebranding and positioning the Socialist Alliance has been the subject of some controversy. One proposal put forward by comrades to the SA conference was to use the acronym 'Arise'. The SA(P) adopted a set of aims which stressed the positive things we were for rather than against. The resolution passed at the Birmingham conference in March 2005 identified socialism, internationalism, republicanism and the environment. It was suggested that if we rearranged the terms we could summarise this as 'Arise'.

Since 'Arise' was a word in its own right it was easy to remember. It gave a positive political message about what we stood for. It was a simple and clear way of expressing the idea that we were different. The word 'Arise' has strong connections with radical and working class politics. It was, for example, part of the slogan 'Workers arise' on the 1972 dockers' strike banner. It is the first word of the Internationale. It is a revolutionary message for people to rise up and change the old conditions. It can be a call to rebel against the closure of the SA. The new SA can take on the mantle of a phoenix 'arising' from the ashes of the old SA.

The old SA was seen in terms of the unity of socialists. There were traditionally described as 'reformists and revolutionaries' or 'Labourites and Trotskyists' or, more politely, as 'democratic socialists and Marxists'. 'Arise' suggests a different and complementary way of thinking about socialist politics in the 21st century. The new SA could be seen as bringing together international socialists, green socialists and republican socialists. The three different strands of socialist thought should unite into one alliance. Such a combination would be a real strength.