frontline 9

The Socialist Alliance - where next?

As Tony Blair's government reveals even more anti working class policies against the firefighters, James White, the secretary of Barnsley Socialist Alliance gives his personal view on how to build a socialist alternative to New Labour.

The Socialist Alliance (SA) conference on March 5th comes at a crucial time for the SA. The impending war in the Middle East, the ongoing FBU dispute, and the increasing unpopularity of the Blair government are creating significant opportunities for the SA and the Left in England generally. The question is whether the SA is in a position to make the most of the favourable political situation that is developing.

the SA to date

There can be no doubt that the very existence of the SA is a step forward for the Left, one that would have been difficult to envisage 7 or 8 years ago. The SA has been able to partially overcome one of the main deterrents to people, particularly young people, becoming involved in socialist politics, namely the perception that the Left is hopelessly divided. The internal culture of the SA seems reasonably sound, debates at conferences and National Council can be quite sharp but are conducted in a comradely way. In the local groups the position is a little more mixed, and there are clear problems in a few areas, but the biggest problem in the localities is not how meetings are conducted, but whether local groups meet at all, and what sort of attendance they have. At a recent meeting covering half of one of England's largest cities, there were 15 present. National membership now stands at just over 2,000, far less than the claimed membership of all the supporting organisations, let alone independents.

Most of the SA's activity to date has been electoral. Around 100 candidates were fielded in the 2001 General Election, averaging 1.72% of the vote, and around 200 stood in the 2002 local elections, averaging 3.53%. A full analysis of the SA's election results to date would be outside the scope of this article, but overall the SA's performance has been reasonable, no more. The Socialist Workers Party's (SWP) John Rees has recently claimed that the SA is beginning to achieve results comparable to the SSP, citing the 13% share of the vote achieved by Paul Foot in the Hackney Mayoral campaign. Since that result the SA has stood in 2 council by-elections in Hackney, receiving votes of 6% and 8%, (121 and 126 votes), and has also recently stood in a by-election in Lewisham, polling 1.58% (41 votes). In May last year, the same comrades stood in the same seats in Hackney, and received 10% and 16% of the vote. Last month the SA stood in a by-election in Tottenham, receiving 68 votes, 5% of a 15% turnout. There is absolutely no basis for Comrade Rees's assertion, and the recent election of a fifth BNP councillor, in Halifax (on the same day as the Tottenham result), puts the SA's modest achievements into perspective. It is worth noting that the SSP does enjoy the considerable advantage over the SA of operating within a proportional electoral system, which gives smaller parties a better chance of achieving representation.

On a campaigning level, SA branches have often engaged well with local issues, and have played a good role in some campaigns. The Political Fund, trade union conference was a major success, although time will tell how well the SA policy of simply calling for democratisation of the political fund fund holds up. There has been an intervention in the national anti-war demonstrations, although at a local level the SA as an organised force has a very low profile in the anti-war groups. Independent members of the SA who attended the European Social Forum report that the SA was virtually invisible there, and had produced no material for the event.

Overall, the picture has been one of modest progress up to last year's local elections, and stagnation since. The resignation of Liz Davies as Chair of the SA has knocked back the confidence of independents in how the organisation is being run, and has done the standing of the SA in the movement no favours at all. It would again be outside the scope of this article to go into the matter in detail, but what was of particular concern was the way in which other members of the National Executive closed ranks against Liz, and concentrated on criticising the way she raised her concerns, rather than dealing with the actual issues she was raising. SA members were kept in the dark about what was going on for weeks after Liz's resignation, and minutes of National Executive meetings have not been circulated to the membership, despite previous promises and repeated requests.

the current debates

In the run-up to the conference in March, a number of key themes are emerging.

The first is around the internal structures of the SA, in particular the issue of the election of the National Executive and Appeals Committee, and the SA's policy around allowing organisations (trade union branches, campaigning organisations, other socialist organisations) to affiliate to the SA.

There is a widespread feeling amongst independents that the current system of electing national bodies, using a slate system is undemocratic and unduly prone to horse trading and backroom deals, and there will be a move from the independents group to replace this system with elections by Single Transferable Vote (STV). In any election of this nature in an organisation such as the SA there is bound to be a certain amount of "brokerage" around candidates, but the STV system at least makes the system a little more transparent, and fits better with the reality of the SA as it is now - an alliance, not a party. It is likely that the SWP and some of the other groups will oppose STV, as it is less predictable than a slate system and could lead to their favoured candidates losing out.

On the issue of affiliations a motion will be put, again by the independents group, to allow affiliations at local regional and national level, on a sliding scale of fees. This would allow the SA to try to forge relationships with groups who are not prepared to immerse themselves fully in the SA as a whole, but are prepared to consider closer working and some kind of formal link. The vote on this motion will be an important test of whether the groups in the SA, particularly the SWP, are committed to adopting an inclusive approach to other organisations, such as the newly created Alliance for Green Socialism.

The second key debate is around the issue of the SA's response to racism and fascism. The growing hate campaign by the media against asylum seekers, and the disgraceful attacks by New Labour, combined with the electoral successes of the BNP, require a clear response from the SA. There are some welcome moves in the North West to produce regular campaigning material to counter the BNP, but there needs to be an agreed national position. In December the SWP successfully pushed a motion through National Council that the SA affiliate to the ANL, (although this issue should surely have been decided by conference), but there is a growing feeling that the ANL's apolitical, "don't vote Nazi" approach is inadequate to the task. David Landau, a Jewish Socialist Group member, from Islington SA has drafted a policy that deals with the issues in a thorough and clear way, and proposes a genuine united front approach as opposed to pretending that the united front is the ANL. The reaction of the SWP and the other groups to this move will again be a key test of their willingness to deal with the issue seriously.

The third, perhaps most crucial debate, will be around the future direction of the SA. The position of the SWP, recently reaffirmed at their conference, is that SA is one of a number of "united fronts" through which the SWP operates, the others being the ANL, the Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance, Campaign to defend Council Housing etc. The SWP recruits by drawing people towards it through these campaigns, and brings them into its organisation either directly or through "Marxist Forums". It is then very much a case of "horses for courses" for the SWP, who operate in the various united fronts as the SWP, not the SA. It is clear in the larger cities that the SWP has a number of comrades identified as the people who "do" the SA, others "do" Stop the War, and so on. The SA is therefore in a Catch-22 situation, where its biggest component is not prepared to put even 50% of its resources into building it, but the only way to change this is to recruit more people into the SA.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that if the SA does not go forwards, it will start to go backward. Some independent comrades are on the brink of leaving the SA, and are waiting to see what happens at conference before making a final decision. A few members and supporters of the SA have already gone to the Greens. The next 12 months will be crucial in deciding the fate of the project.

the way forward

The objective situation is increasingly exposing the limitations of the SA. The transformation of the Labour Party into a bourgeois, capitalist party has opened up a political space that needs to be filled by a broad-based, but explicitly socialist party of the SSP type. As Murray Smith argues in his reply to John Rees, The division we are faced with is not between revolutionary and reformist brands of socialism, but between openly pro-capitalist politics and those who are opposed to capitalism as a system and have a socialist perspective. An Alliance that sees itself as being there primarily to "offer a home" to disillusioned Labour supporters, as the SWP have posed it, will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up in the unions, the anti-war movement and the anti-capitalist movement.

In these areas a layer of activists are coming forward who have never had any illusions in Labour and who have always seen it for what it is, another capitalist party.

The SA needs to set itself the aim of working towards a new socialist party in England. This party may not come about simply by the SA one day declaring itself a party. There may be moves in the future from Left Trade Union leaders and/or what remains of the Labour Left, towards a new formation, in which the forces around the SA could play an important part. But SA members who support the Party position, in particular within the independents group and around the Socialist Resistance paper, need to make the socialist party perspective the central plank of interventions in the internal debates in the SA. The logical conclusion of this is to organise a Members Platform in the SA, which actively seeks to win people to the Party position, producing leaflets and campaigning material. There may even be potential for this to develop outside the SA, and become a campaign in the movement as a whole.

The SA has existed in some form or another for several years, but to date has never had a genuine Members Platform which has organised around a set of polices to take the SA forward. Independent members have simply been asked to choose from a menu of resolutions and policies presented to them by the different groups within the SA. The development of a Members Platform is not "premature" or "divisive", as some comrades have argued, rather it is the minimum necessary to give the SA the political direction it urgently needs.

The SA also needs to take some campaigning initiatives which raise its profile amongst key sections of the working class, and which enable local groups to establish an identity as people who fight around issues that concretely affect working class people. The Margaret Manning/Socialist Resistance proposal for a campaign for a national childcare service should be supported at the March conference. The proposal to hold the youth-oriented "New Imperialism, New Internationalism" conference, also deserves support. A national publication of some kind is needed, to act as a baseline resource for local groups.

We do need to try to get the SA to act more like a Party between elections, particularly as we are hampered by an unfavourable electoral system, but we also need to link that effort to an open political struggle to win SA members (including members of groups) and others on the Left to the Marxist perspective of a Socialist Party. There is no doubt that many members of the SWP are class fighters who are an asset to the socialist movement, but a strategy that places its emphasis on persuading the SWP leadership of this or that course of action misses the opportunities we will have, to gain support from those who are being drawn into socialist/anti-war/anti-capitalist activity. We cannot "build a Party bit by bit, so nobody will notice it".

Much of this article has painted a rather bleak picture of the position of the SA, and no doubt some will argue that it has been "unhelpful" or "sectarian". There is much for Socialists to be optimistic about in the current situation, but we urgently need to address the strategic and organisational weaknesses of the English Left, or we will continue to fail in our duty to provide an alternative to Blairism and the far right. Developments on an international scale are showing the potential that exists, it is time to start putting the case in England, loudly and clearly.