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Conference thoughts

From the 13th March Socialist Alliance conference


 

Will McMahon

 

The conference went as expected. The SWP/ISG, as by far the largest bloc, won the day. The main question now is how do we move towards the creation of a party to the left of Labour? If the prognosis offered, that RESPECT will produce better national votes than the SA as it is a broader and deeper left wing coalition built on the lived experience of the anti-war movement, then if RESPECT is marginally succesful we will have taken an important step forward to that objective.

 

While for some a better electoral showing may be a difficult outcome to forsee it is not an impossible one. It might be the case that in one region, either the North West, London or the West Midlands, the RESPECT campaign might just get enough critical mass that the electoral threshold could be met. If it does not then RESPECT needs to garner enough votes across these regions and make a strong showing in perhaps two others to give us enough confidence to push on to the general election in May 2005. Such an outcome is entirely possible. If our core vote is 5%, and it recognises who to vote for, then the outcome may be between 7 and 9% in key areas. Not a seat – but good enough.

 

It is in all our interests that this process has the best outcome and for that to happen it is important for comrades to put to one side any ill feelings they have about the process and to campaign for the highest vote possible. I know that in the Socialist Unity Network there were different nuances in our shared position as to why local alliances should have had an option on whether to stand in the local elections. For my part I felt that this would add to the vote for RESPECT as there is a layer of activists who only campaign locally and would take the RESPECT message door to door in a local election either as SA or RESPECT candidates. I think the conference result will have demobilised them and it will have left voters walking into the ballot to vote for the “anti-war” Lib Dems or Greens in the locals with an obviously greater tendency to vote the same in the Euros. I also felt that it was not a good idea to set a tone of over centralism in a new project. This is not a means and ends argument but one of an inclusive process. These, for me, were tactical differences.

 

There is a deeper concern expressed about RESPECT – it is not socialist. This is not necessarily a negative aspect. We have to have a sense of how far we have come in the last ten years. Prior to the Zapatista rebellion the world looked very bleak indeed. Free market triumphalism was abroad and the liberal consensus seemed to be sealed. Post modernity was rife. Ten years on from the Zapatista rebellion against NAFTA and we can see millions and millions of people globally searching for an alternative to rampant free market global capitalism. It is true that we are faced by a deepening global crisis but this is not just a crisis of working people and the landed poor in the south – it is also a crisis of the rich and powerful. As is now obvious, wars of intervention are costly for imperialism and its allies in the south.  In the face of such a crisis working people have not submitted to diktat but are finding an ever increasing number of ways of expressing political resistance. One of these is the emergence and growth of alternatives to the left of traditional social democracy in western Europe.

 

It was never going to be the case that all of these people would gravitate to socialism as the first and only stop of their political journey. And it is not inevitable that millions of people will eventually bump into socialist ideas and recognise their capacity for human liberation.

 

Since the attack on Afghanistan a current of people have emerged that express a general opposition to the post Cold War global order. This current is made up of a new layer of young people, young trade unionists facing difficult working conditions, a significant radicalised part of the minority ethnic community, a significant sector of older activists from the left (and not necessarily the revolutionary left) and a broad layer of the peace movement. There is also a layer of people who have not found the reality of Blairism to their liking and have gravitated to the left as a result. A very clumsy way of describing this layer is 21st century Bennites. They believe in the general prospectus of Bennism as it was and as it is now offered, out with the Labour Party, in the RESPECT election manifesto. Whether they vote in that way on June 10th is still up for grabs.

 

This will not be a vote for socialism, or for a socialist organisation, but a vote for a radical left wing electoral vehicle that has socialism embedded within it. Because RESPECT has a number of socialist current within it does not make it either an explicitly or implicitly socialist organisation. What it does make it is an organisation that has the capacity to regroup a militant minority into an electoral and campaigning formation that can create a left bloc in society that, if it is developed properly, can pose an ideological and governmental alternative to the rule of  neo-liberalism. After a generation of set backs we may be able to say that there is an alternative – how ideologically socialist that alternative is will depend in part on what the socialist in RESPECT do.

 

 


Matthew Caygill

The Socialist Alliance Special Conference left a sour taste in my mouth and a lot of bad memories. It’s not so much the outcome – the Alliance has been calling for something bigger and better since the May 2003 Conference.  I’ve played a part in getting RESPECT on the road in Leeds by initiating a ‘British Politics at the Crossroads’ (and speaking at it on the behalf of the SA when Nick Wrack couldn’t) meeting in Leeds. I’ve repeatedly pointed out the huge difference in size between Leeds SA meetings and the audience that clearly exists for George Galloway and is clearly based in  the anti-war movement. I’ve opposed what I considered to be inward-looking and sectarian opposition to RESPECT. I’ve voted at every possible opportunity in favour of RESPECT.

What’s more the objective need for a political challenge to Blairism based on the antiwar movement is posed on a day to day basis. I went to an academic seminar at the University of Leeds with Emeritus Professor David Beetham speaking on ‘The War in Iraq and the Future of Democracy’. There was an uncomfortably  crowded audience of  around 75, including lots of students. Beetham spoke with admirable clarity, force and contempt about the degradation of democracy coming from the gap between the lies told in support of the war and the real reasons for the war (although he is keen to say it was not about oil). He concluded by saying this was all depressing and has undermined democracy. It’s obvious to me that he can reach this conclusion because he made no reference to the enormous global antiwar movement and I said so, getting a good deal of nonverbal support from the audience. Beetham’s response was to agree, but said that without this political energy being channelled it can easily turn into demoralisation – and it emerged his own solution, and he humorously admits the weakness of this, is PR. It was at this point we needed a clear voice to say RESPECT is the channel for that energy.

There’s more. In The Guardian (March 17th) had Polly Toynbee trying to persuade the left to defend the Labour government against the revived threat from the Tories and she explicitly framed this in terms of the anti-war demonstration on  May 20th and George Galloway’s latest press release. This was just an echo of the Labour game plan to stop  haemorrhage of support. The Independent (also March 17th) reported a three prong strategy to stop votes going to the Liberal Democrats by  stressing the danger of Lib-Dem letting in the Tories, its own progressiveness and a rightwing drift among the the Lib-Dems. This strategy is based on Labour’s clear awareness of the continuing impact of the Iraq War. The latest ‘YouGov’ poll for Sky News found 27% who voted Labour in 2001 were considering switching sides (as opposed to 8% who would switch to Labour). Added to this can be added the disaffection from Labour of increasing numbers of Muslims reported in ICM polls for The Guardian.

There is a vast space for RESPECT to win support against Blairism in elections and I would argue that it is a bigger space than that previously being worked on by the Alliance. Added to which there is all the evidence of trade unionists, especially in the RMT, FBU and CWU, looking, no matter how tentatively, for an alternative to the Labour Party and starting to listen to what RESPECT has to say and engage with it. I can easily keep myself persuaded that RESPECT is the right place for socialists to be and campaigning for its success vital. Opposing RESPECT still seems the wrong and sectarian choice for socialists to make. The way John Fisher put it at our conference, that RESPECT is the ‘only game in town’ makes a  lot of sense.

Why the bad taste then? Well, it’s mostly the tone and quality of the arguments at the Conference. I had no quarrel with the general thrust of Nick Wrack’s report as Chair  or Alan Thornett’s moving of the Task Group resolution (for the uninitiated, the Task Group is the working body set up body the present Executive to navigate us into the broader alliance called for by  the last AGM, its resolution basically sought for the SA to work through RESPECT) although I would still want to argue with specific points they had to make. I still think that talking about the advantages of the Euro and GLA elections because they are PR as opposed to ‘First Past the Post’ local elections misses out on the impact of having up to three candidates within constituencies – as there will be in Leeds on June 10th.

Some of the worst contributions came from opponents of RESPECT – describing it as an alliance with ‘the crook and the mullahs’ is objectionable rubbish and a gift to the comrades it is meant to oppose! But at the same time I  think that Chris Bambery seemed to be auditioning for a role as a special prosecutor in a political show trial when it came to his view that if RESPECT lost narrowly in say the Eastern area its comrades there would be justified in questioning those individuals in the Alliance who might have supported SA local candidates over their responsibility for losing. And as a supporter of Amendment A to the Task Group motion, designed to get local alliances that wanted  to stand locally to stand as RESPECT, but then seeking to avoid uselessly pissing off comrades who weren’t convinced, I was somewhat appalled by Kevin Ovenden’s (opposing Amendment  C moved by the Democracy Platform, which basically called for allowing SA candidates to stand in local elections, but taking the opportunity to attack all the amendments), speech which described the Socialist Unity amendment as offering only ‘Platonic support for RESPECT’, while praising the other amendments for having the ‘virtue of  honesty’ in their opposition to RESPECT (i.e. Amendment A and its movers were dishonest). Having seen Animal Farm at West Yorkshire Playhouse this week the character of  ‘Squealer’ did come to mind.

The most annoying thing was the way in which the Socialist Alliance was compared unfavourably to RESPECT. I was making notes and time after time I’ve written ‘BAD COMPARISON’, there’s even a ‘fallacious comparison’ somewhere. Of course there are, as I’ve pointed out, huge opportunities for RESPECT.  Such opportunities don’t come along every year.  But time after time it seemed to be posed that not only was the Alliance not moving forward, but couldn’t have moved forward as effectively as RESPECT.

This is a phoney comparison. Comrades refer to current events – the RMT being kicked out by Labour and their turn to other political groups and currents (not stated at this conference, but this includes social movements and a special interest in the social forum movement and the forthcoming European Social Forum) for instance. Good, let’s hope we see more of this and let’s work for it, but remember it was the opening up of a relationship with the Scottish Socialist Party that started this whole process and our Alliance was not in the frame surely because it has been overtaken by RESPECT.

Many comrades referred to the positioning of RESPECT in relation to the antiwar movement. Excellent and again let’s hope for more and do what we can to build more, but it’s just annoying to say that ‘the SA wasn’t able to do this’ as if it just happened that way – it happened that way out of design. The crucial comparison is that between the determination and enthusiasm for building RESPECT on the March 20th 1994 demo and the famous lack of enthusiasm and determination to build the Alliance on February 15th 2003. Now I don’t want to push this too far. A member of the SWP helped me carry the Leeds SA banner on that demo, and in fact if it hadn’t been for him I would probably have left it in the coach’s boot for the day. The refrain that it was the granting of Charles Kennedy a place on the platform on Feb 15th that enabled the Lib Dem to win the Brent East by-election several months later always struck me as an approach to political equivalent to voodoos. But the key thing about the relationship between the Alliance and the antiwar movement was that the Alliance was sidelined and that this was a political choice. This is not to argue that the Stop the War Coalition shouldn’t have been initiated or built. I fully recognise the STWC as one of the major achievements of the British left. I keep on saying ‘hats off to the SWP’ for their role in this (an explicit copy of Tariq Ali talking about the ANL in the 1970s). But the Alliance was sidelined and it never recovered.

There is a need for an honest stocktaking of the history and lessons of the Socialist Alliance. It will surely never recover from Saturday’s conference. Even if RESPECT falls flat on its face (and we should hope it doesn’t, only sectarians will be helped if it does) the perspective of  putting the Alliance in the chill-freezer in case it needs taking out again isn’t going to work. The Alliance already has a problematic history, starting it seems to me with the resignation of Liz Davies (seemingly forgotten by both sides of the argument at this conference), exacerbated by the democratic coup in Birmingham and finished off by the bitterness engendered by the politicking at this conference. Nick Wrack might well be right when he says that there is no proposal to wind up the Alliance, but ‘constructive dismissal’ looks like an appropriate analogy! 

So the sour taste from this conference comes from the trashing the Socialist Alliance received and the bad arguments comparing the inadequacies of the Alliance to the wonders of RESPECT. But strip away the hype we are left with the view that RESPECT is now the only game in town. We need to do what we can to ensure it is as good a game as possible.

 

March 2004

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