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A unity coalition

John Nicholson, RESPECT national executive (pc)


 

Background:

 

The forthcoming timetable of events for left politics in this country now seems clearer. There will be a Conference of "Respect - the Unity Coalition" on October 30th/31st. There will be a Conference of the Socialist Alliance sometime in December, to be held in London. There will be a Westminster General Election, some time between late this year and early 2006.
 
The first of the Conferences will not be open to anyone to turn up and attend (even if they join on the day), but will be for delegates (to be elected - one for every ten members - on an "area" basis). Given the absence of any constitution for Respect (not even the circulation of a draft, which would have to be approved at this Conference in any case), it is difficult to see how these "areas" can be defined. Outside of London, where the membership is spread out more unevenly, the "area" is likely to mean the town in which the meeting is held. With a stated membership of 3000, this still gives an absolute maximum of only 300 at what should have been expected to be a major event on the left.
 
The organising of the second of these conferences must be still uncertain, partly because it depends on the outcome of the first. Traditionally Socialist Alliance conferences have been open to supporters to turn up, pay their subscriptions on the day, and participate in full. Given that many (most?) SA members may no longer be paid up, and given that much (most?) of the leadership of the SA will be aiming effectively to close the organisation down, there must be some doubt as to what to do. Will the Executive insist on inviting paid-up members only - hardly capable of being managed, locally, on even the same delegate basis as the Respect Conference, as most branches no longer function, and hardly likely to deliver enough paid-up members to vote the "right" way? Or will former members be pressed into paying their subs in order to turn up and vote for the organisation to be wound up - hardly appealing, even to the most committed of organisationally-challenged of supporters?
 
Meanwhile the fuse may already have been lit by the Government for the next General Election, and most of the socialist left will not have agreed how or where to contest it, let alone have any candidates agreed and in place to build a campaign. This is despite a growth of anti-Labour sentiment since 2001, including a massive anti-war movement and some significant left election results, in recent local, European, London and by-election contests.
 
 

Respect - Neither a Coalition, Nor Unity:

 

Respect claims to be a "unity coalition". The idea of further development of such a coalition was initiated by the Socialist Alliance and in practice taken forward through various components of the Stop the War Coalition. But the current reality is that it is a coalition of the Socialist Workers Party (certainly not convincing all its own members) and sections of the "Muslim Community" (some excellent local anti-war campaigners and some significant members of the Muslim Association of Britain), together with one individual, George Galloway MP. This coalition has not included most of the traditional peace movement (such as CND), most of the trade union movement (except for some individuals, often with SWP links), nor most of the socialists involved in the Socialist Alliance (nor outside of this, such as the Communist Party of Britain; while recent ex-Labour members have been as likely to defect to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, if anywhere at all). Even George Monbiot, widely heralded as a mover of this direction, left almost before he joined.
 
Politically it may be argued that this sort of a post-anti-war coalition was not a good idea in the first place. Turning a broad (and often libertarian) anti-war movement into an electioneering organisation may not have been the right thing for socialists to be involved with. But the point is that it has not even worked, in its own terms, in producing any more significant unity among the left (in its broadest sense).
 
Electorally the argument may be more mixed. The particular local and European elections held this summer produced mixed results and conflicting analysis. Respect did very well in London. It has also been lucky (up to now) with the calling of by-elections in the Midlands and particularly Tower Hamlets, where its victory has to be seen as significant. On the other hand, the results were poor in almost all the south of the country, and underwhelming in the north. Exceptions were in those areas where people organised locally and built upon solid hard work (such as in Preston, where the elected Socialist Alliance councillor has creditably developed a base - a method similar to the Socialist Party's continuing success in Coventry, and to Walsall's persistent campaigning locally, almost regardless of whatever successive organisational structures exist nationally). And in any case these were not the right elections to draw conclusions from. A postal ballot, cross-region, election for European seats, revealed less than might have been seen from contesting local elections (something the leadership of Respect almost totally prevented happening, outside London, either through the Socialist Alliance or through Respect itself, despite some last minute changes of mind). In addition, Respect repeatedly claims its successes to be the rapid fruit of a "new" party; when undoubtedly it is gaining, electorally, from votes gathered over previous years by its predecessor organisations, notably by the Socialist Alliance.
 
This very mixture of conclusions, electorally, unfortunately enables Respect to claim (and believe?) that it is more popular and that it represents more of a coalition than it does. While it appears to have grown in members, to a larger level than the Socialist Alliance (at most about 2,400 members), it is very uneven in its geographical and political content. But what it is not doing is acting as a coalition for unity, especially regarding socialists, left-leaning greens, libertarians, peace campaigners or anyone with an activist background outside of the approved.
 
 

Immediate Response:

 

The calling of a Founding Conference, on a delegate basis, should be opposed, loudly and widely. While there are practical arguments for and against any method of conference organisation, this event is intended to put Respect on a formal basis, capable of fighting future elections, on a unity ticket, across the whole country. But without opening itself up to anyone who genuinely wants to develop a unity coalition, the organisation will have defeated one of its main aims right from the outset. Just as Arthur Scargill declared that the Socialist Labour Party membership depended on acceptance of a constitution that no-one else had yet seen, Respect is now effectively preventing potential supporters from joining or participating in the full prior knowledge of what they are getting involved with.
 
In practical terms, even if Respect branches can be set up and operated in London (following the successes of Greater London Assembly campaigns), there is little possibility of an effective branch structure being truly in existence in the next couple of months outside of the capital. Consequently "areas" will be arbitrary, and meetings predominantly filled with people local to the venue. Politically there is no likelihood of relatively small meetings electing delegates other than totally supportive of the Respect head office. This has to mean a preponderance of SWP delegates, or very close supporters (potential future SWP members, in other words). Respect is therefore preventing its foundation from looking and being anything other than monolithic in its political culture and composition.
 
There is another significant issue, which similarly clouded the development of the SLP. The "country" of organisation should mean England; yet Respect has constituted itself, for electoral registration purposes, as capable of fighting elections in Wales (genuinely a debatable issue) and in Scotland (where the Scottish Socialist Party is established and still, remarkably, comradely in its remarks about Respect). This issue will not go away.
 
And there is another particular reason for the left to question the nature of the Founding Conference - that is what the Respect leadership trying to achieve here. Without raising unduly conspiratorial delusions, it is highly probable that the main intent of the local area delegate basis of participation is to exclude one particular section of a potential political coalition - individuals or organisations making up the activist, socialist, left, whose presence at a conference would certainly raise issues of democracy, pluralism, and unity. A willingness to debate differences can only make a coalition stronger. Removing the possibility of this, before it even happens, can only make it weaker.
 
 

Looking Beyond - Irrespective of Respect:

 

The demand for an open, participatory, founding event should be made across the whole of the left, whatever the expectations of success of such a demand. If and when this is lost, there is a strong case for another event, to take place in November, at which socialists can seek to develop unity, irrespective of Respect. At such an event, the tactics of intervention at the Socialist Alliance conference taking place in December would also have to be considered. Some will no doubt want to see this organisation continue, on a national basis. Others will feel that, sadly, the initiatve has been degraded by the events of this year. Locally it may be possible to continue Alliances, and these may be able to link with other locally-based groups, in the kind of federation that the Socialist Alliance sought in its early days, with a view to developing into a party in due course. But the practical tactics for dealing with the December event would need consideration.
 
At the same time, there is a need to identify an election strategy for any potential unity of socialists to carry out. This may need to look long term, and accept that there is not going to be a fully co-ordinated intervention in the next Westminster Election, and instead to concentrate on the following Election (2009-2010?). On the other hand, it may be possible to identify the seats that socialists could realistically fight and do well in (based for example on the contests at the 2001 Election) and to come to an electoral agreement on candidates, under an umbrella of socialists acting together in unity, with or without different variations of electoral names under which the seats are fought. To declare that these are the contests that socialists will fight, before Respect sets itself up, may be the most effective way to proceed, both for ourselves and for any possibility (however remote) of successful negotiation with either Respect or Green campaigns, between now and the Election.
 
In any case, we should be finding ways to unite in practical campaigns, locally and nationally, and we should be wary of filling our time trying to respond to proposed constitutions whose outcome we cannot affect.

 

August 2004

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