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Kicking off my boots, going back to my roots...

Organising the left in a small town by Lewis Jones

Wrexham is a former mining and steel town in North Wales with a mainstream Labourite political background. Twenty-five years ago it had a thriving SWP branch, 15 years ago it had an active Militant branch but more recently it had no real organised left presence at all.

Like many small towns, the activists know each other. Whether it was anti-apartheid, the miners' support group, poll tax, anti-opencast or a host of smaller disputes we've managed to co-operate and work together despite various allegiances. It has been a case of concentrating on the stuff that unites us because the sectarian blinkers are off.

To formalise that situation, a group of us formed the Wrexham Socialist Forum because - as the name suggests - it was a forum for socialists in Wrexham. It invited speakers from Tower colliery and Plaid Cymru, held public debates with the local Labour Party, took to the streets to organise against low pay among agency workers but also served as a focus in a fairly dark time politically for the revolutionary left.

The 50 or so people on the mailing list were mainly non-aligned with a half dozen Cymru Goch, three SWP, a Green and one Plaid Cymru.

The launch of the Welsh Socialist Alliance gave us an opportunity to join up with like-minded socialists across Wales and we took a decision as a forum to affiliate. We soon had the biggest branch in Wales with 20 members and stood a candidate in the 1999 Assembly elections, although under the ill-conceived United Socialists banner because the SWP was outside the WSA at the time. Having built up some kind of track record as WSA, standing under a different name didn't help and that confusion coupled with a relatively poor vote - 2.3% - in Clwyd South saw a turn away from the WSA as it became more and more dominated by the SWP.

We returned once again to being a forum (it was almost like a safe house in the wilderness) and were well-placed to initiate the anti-war group (at the time of the Afghan war), we formed the firefighters' support group and did some anti-fascist stuff. The forum also enabled us to build links with the Labour left, including local Assembly Member John Marek, who was turning up at anti-war and firefighters' meetings on a regular basis.

When he broke with Labour in 2003, it was natural that he and his ex-Labour supporters linked up with the socialist forum as the only left organisation in the town and we worked together to get him re-elected as an independent in the May 2003 Assembly elections. Another candidate standing again in Clwyd South took 12% of the vote on virtually the same platform as the United Socialists four years earlier, taking fourth place ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

Things have moved on since then with the formation of Forward Wales, which fielded 26 candidates in the borough elections in May 2004 and got an average 23% of the vote. Without the forum, I doubt that would have happened. The forum was key to building an alternative left grouping in what was/is a typical working-class Labourite town. It was there to capitalise (unfortunate word) on a set of unusual circumstances and comrades from the forum have since led the way in successfully fighting the sell-off of council housing, school playing fields and transforming the local trades council into an active campaigning body.

I hope this is of some use to other independent socialists who may be despairing in some other small town. There's nothing stopping half a dozen activists setting up a forum as we did that concentrates on the grassroots stuff that unites us. We can always argue in the bar afterwards about the stuff that divides us.

It may be sneered at as localism, but there's plenty of potential for local, grassroots socialist activists to link up with other like-minded socialists in a network or - god forbid - a new party in the future. That's what's happened here in Wales. In my experience, building from the roots upwards has proved to be a far more enjoyable and ultimately successful way to build socialism than an artificial lash-up of left groups from the top down.


November 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism