Will the Socialist Alliance fight?

The weakness of the left has been highlighted by the local election results in England, writes Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group. What kind of party is needed to overcome this?

The new Socialist Alliance has been discussing how we should intervene in the newly formed Campaign for a New Workers' Party. It has come to no conclusions. Yet the debate has highlighted some of the issues. How can we overcome the vacuum on the left in England? What kind of party can unite the left? How can we build an effective opposition to the loyalist and unionist parties of the British state - the Tories, Liberal Democrats, Labour and the British National Party?

The recent local elections provide us with more evidence of the failure of our so-called democracy and the crisis of Labourism. This is providing an ideal breeding ground for the BNP. It also shows us that the left in England has not been able to create a national alternative. Look at the range of left candidates, which included Respect, the Socialist Party, Alliance for Green Socialism, Socialist Alliance, Independent Working Class Association, United Socialist Party and Walsall Democratic Labour Party.

Among this array of organisations were some victories - by Respect, the SP and the IWCA. But overall the results were typical of the past. Respect can claim some success in Tower Hamlets, reflecting Galloway's victory in the 2005 general election. But the wide degree of unevenness apparent last year between muslim and non-muslim localities is now reproduced in Tower Hamlets. Candidates with muslim names did well. Those with names such as John Rees did not. This confirms what we already knew. Respect is not the answer to the problem of working class representation.

The left remains hopelessly divided and fragmented. Multiple organisations each have their own local bases - Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Coventry, Oxford, Walsall, Leeds and Liverpool. Different towns have different parties. There is no national dimension to left politics in England. This makes for a sharp contrast with left politics in Scotland. Here the Scottish Socialist Party has established itself as a national party whose ideas are neither British nor unionist nor loyalist.

The fragmented English left can be contrasted with the growth of the British right. In the 2005 general election the fascist British National Party won nearly 200,000 votes. It contested 120 constituencies, saving its deposit in about 40. At this year's council elections the BNP secured 50 seats. In Barking and Dagenham it won 11 and in Stoke three. It now has councillors in Essex, Solihull, Redditch, Burnley, Kirklees and Leeds.

In Barking, Labour councillor Liam Smith explained the BNP victory: "It's all about housing. Rumours claim that people from overseas are getting housing, which is totally untrue." Of course the BNP was given a massive publicity boost on the eve of the election by MP Margaret Hodge. Recognising the alienation of the working class from Labour and the political system, she warned that on the doorsteps Labour and working class voters were turning to the BNP. "Labour has a lot to answer for now," said local vicar Terry Gordon. Indeed it does.

George Morgan, BNP councillor, claimed his success was "a victory for the ordinary working man". Of course the BNP addresses social questions about competition for jobs and housing. These are identified through the prism of immigration and asylum. But they link this to the idea that the establishment is hiding the truth. A BNP spokesperson claimed "the electorate [is] waking up and casting off this cloak of censorship the politically correct brigade are casting over us "¦ we are going to expand the public debate about multiculturalism, British values and British identity."

No crude economism here. The BNP links social issues, such as housing and jobs, with the neglect of "the ordinary working man". This is bound together with an interpretation of national values, culture and history. 'Britishness', with its symbols of the crown, the union flag and the glories of empire, is the heritage the BNP shares with the other loyalist British parties. Lord Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar are conjured up to unite us into one national family. Recently we have seen Gordon Brown making his own pitch for Britishness and the union flag.

The BNP presents itself as the defender of British values and cultural identity against the betrayals of a corrupt, liberal establishment - represented by the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour. However, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales the left is posing an alternative national identity to that of Britishness. But in England the left are like lost souls wondering around in an historical-cultural desert. If we cannot be 'British' what can we do except retreat into localism - visible surely in the nature of our election results?

The left has to develop a national dimension that stands against Britishness and its symbols. We have to reach back and extract an alternative culture of democracy. We have our own national radical democratic and republican history. This links the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists and the suffragettes, etc. Two national cultures must confront each other - the British and the republican-democratic. The latter is no narrow nationalism. It is part of a wider international and working class culture of democracy. At this level the left must put clear blue water between ourselves and all the loyalist British parties, not just the BNP.

This brings us back to the question of the republican socialist party. From the launch of the Socialist Alliance last November, through the RMT conference on working class representation in January 2006, to the Socialist Party CNWP initiative in March, we have been struggling to identify what kind of party we need. The election results highlight the real state of play. In November 2005 the Socialist Alliance came out in favour of a "republican socialist party along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party". This remains subject to controversy.

At one level the case is straightforward. Capitalism concentrates wealth into the hands of a small minority, who own and control the bulk of the country's productive resources. The constitutional monarchy concentrates political power in the hands of a small minority of bureaucrats and politicians. Economic wealth and political power are united in the service of the ruling class.

A republican socialist party is therefore a party that aims to replace the constitutional monarchy with a democratic secular republic and the capitalist market economy with socialism. The party seeks fundamental change in the distribution of power and wealth in our society. Therefore at the most basic level a republican socialist party is what it says it is - a militant working class party that fights for a democratic republic and socialism.

But there is more to it than that. A republican socialist party identifies both political and economic objectives. However, the relationship between the economic and political is not one of formal equality. The political struggle takes priority because political power is the only way to bring about the socialist transformation of society. A republican socialist party is therefore a working class party that prioritises the struggle for democracy as the road to socialism. This is a break with the whole tradition of Labourism and reaches back to Chartism.

Long ago Marx and Engels made it absolutely clear that political power must come first. This means winning a democratic republic. As Engels explained, the working class can only come to power "in the form of a democratic republic". This is the essential first step in the socialist transformation of society.

The republican socialist party stands in contrast to economistic socialist parties. Economism recognises the economic, but not the political-republican objective. It tends to ignore, forget or downplay the significance of the democratic political aspect. This leads straight into the quagmire of reformism and Labourism. A Labour-type party is a party that accepts the existing British constitution as a means for social reform.

The SP's Campaign for a New Workers' Party reveals its own predilection for one-sided economism. The SP view of the kind of party needed is shown clearly in the campaign's publicity. A leaflet for the Coventry launch says: "A new party of the working class is needed to stand up for the millions, not the millionaires, and take up the issues such as cuts in hospitals services, school closures, attacks on working conditions, reductions in pension rights and other such matters that affect our daily lives. A new workers' party could put forward a programme that properly takes account of environmental issues, fights racism, withdraws troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and does not give in to the profit motive of the fat cats."

No democratic issues here. The vision conjured up by the SP is a left Labour Party. We are offered a thin gruel of economism. The workers will secure social reforms within the political framework laid down by the British constitution. This is old-style, out and out reformism, as practised by the Labour left and various Trotskyists - for some it goes in the guise of 'transitional demands'.

The case for a republican socialist party does not begin with the economic and social issues thrown up spontaneously by the attacks of the employers. The worship of spontaneity and economism means deriving your programme from current events. This is what the SP is doing. A republican socialist party takes as its point of departure not cuts, services, pensions or even a political question such as Iraq, but the obvious fact that we live in a capitalist market economy, governed through the institutions of a constitutional (or parliamentary) monarchy. These are two important defining characteristics of the economics and politics of the United Kingdom.

Mike Macnair is right to pose the question of party in strategic terms. He says we need a party that stands openly "for the independent interests of the working class as a class and for the need of the working class to collectively lay hands on the means of production as common property"; and, second, "for radical democracy both in the state and in the workers' movement" ('SA Discuss' email list). This refers in part to a democratic republic and a republican socialist party by any other name. This is not to forget that Mike makes an additional point about internationalism.

Does this mean that a republican socialist party ignores economic and social questions such as pensions or cuts in healthcare? Not in the least. On the contrary, such a party fights on these issues with greater effect by connecting them to the strategic goals of the party.

The fate of workers' pensions and healthcare is intimately bound up with the political question of who controls these matters. Why are they not under the democratic control of working people? How is that possible if we do not have a democratic system of government?

Pensions are not simply or even primarily about 'more money' - as if we should act like some pleading Oliver Twist in the workhouse. It is about the workers taking democratic control of the workhouse, so we can decide not only the size of the portions, but everything else.

At the SA conference the aim of campaigning for a republican socialist party carried the majority. This was supported by the Revolutionary Democratic Group and its allies. It won because it occupied the centre ground in the new SA when the alternatives to the right and left were defeated as a result of temporary alliances.

At the conference Mike Davis of the Alliance for Green Socialism opposed the idea of a republican socialist party because he opposed militant republicanism. But he was fairly isolated and defeated by a combination of the centre and left. The call for a Marxist party suffered a similar fate at the hands of a different alliance. However, when it came to the elections for the new SA executive, it was the AGS that won a majority of the seats.

However, after the conference the AGS leadership decided not to affiliate to the SA (although at its next meeting it reversed this decision by one vote). Concerns were expressed about the SA being in hock to the RDG and a view that republicanism implied the USA's political system was preferable to the UK. Of course, this perception was wrong on both counts. It would have been closer to reality if they had feared the SA was in hock to the AGS!

Since the RMT conference the other AGS comrades have begun to adopt almost the same Labourite position advocated by Mike Davis. Faced with the need to intervene in the SP's campaign, a new debate has started up inside the SA. As revealed at the SA conference and the CNWP conference, we still have three basic positions - on the right for an economistic Labour Party, promoted by the SP; in the centre for a republican socialist party; and on the left for a Trotskyist party, represented by Workers Power.

At the SA conference the RDG and CPGB seemed to stand in total opposition on this question. But the new debate has revealed a slightly different alignment. The AGS comrades are now seeking to delete the word 'republican' from 'republican socialist party', as previously argued by Mike Davis. It was unclear at first if the CPGB from the left (Marxist party) would join forces with the AGS on the right in opposing a republican socialist party. In fact the CPGB has taken up cudgels on the republican question.

One interpretation of the CPGB's arguments is that it is in favour of a republican socialist party based on Marxism, whereas the RDG favour one "along the lines of the SSP". The advantage of this is that it puts the RDG and the CPGB in a united front against economism, while at the same time highlighting our differences over the SSP and the Marxist party. It is not different to where we were before, but it presents the issues in a clearer way.

The fundamental question, as yet unresolved, is whether the SA is going to fight for a republican socialist party (whether Marxist or "along the lines of the SSP") or for an economistic socialist party. The latter is nothing but reheated British Labourism, now desperately peddled by many, but not all, Trotskyists. It offers no way forward for the working class movement.

If the SA decides the former, it will have a fighting perspective and a fighting chance of progress. If it decides the latter, it will simply become an appendage of the Socialist Party. That is what the members will have to decide, sooner rather than later.