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Defend the Socialist Alliance

Steve Freeman argues for a republican Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance conference will take place on Saturday 5 February. Members will be faced with a choice. Either the SA will be placed in cold storage or wound up, as the Socialist Workers Party will propose; or we will elect a new leadership with a new perspective. Supporters of the Republican Socialist Tendency within the SA will be supporting the latter and opposing any move to freeze or end the alliance.

A new direction is indicated by our call for a republican SA. This means an SA committed to campaigning for a democratic republic and for a mass republican socialist party, along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party. We will be proposing changes to the SA constitution to encompass this shift in direction - necessary if the alliance is to survive this crisis and then begin to grow.

The SA is inactive, if not moribund. Why should anybody fight to keep it going? We have to start by understanding what the SA represents. It comes from, or reflects, a deeper instinctive striving for unity among a politically conscious and active part of the working class in the face of New Labour. Workers have little time for socialist sectarianism and disunity, which helps the employers and New Labour. The desire for socialist unity was given concrete form in the emerging alliance.

Today no socialist organisation can be launched without including words about ‘unity’ or ‘united’ in its name. Thus we have Respect, the Unity Coalition, the Liverpool-based United Socialist Party (TUSP), as well as the Socialist Unity Network and a new electoral bloc called the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. Yet none of these have reached the level achieved by the SA in 1999 to 2001. The SA is still the standard to beat. These new unity projects are merely pretenders to the socialist unity crown.

At its height the SA contained some leading activists from the Labour Party. In Dave Nellist, Liz Davis, Dave Church, John Nicholson we had an ex-Labour MP, an ex-Labour parliamentary candidate and ex-Labour council leaders. Alongside them were the SWP, Socialist Party, CPGB, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Workers Power, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, International Socialist Group, etc. Had this organisation been built during the anti-war movement, there would have been plenty of room for George Galloway and others to join and play a leading role.

The SA set the high water mark for socialist unity in England over the last 20 years. The unity tide has been going out. But the achievement of the SA was real enough. This is why those who are still fighting for socialist unity are determined to defend the SA and continue to put over its socialist unity message. The SA shows what can be achieved. The left in England can unite not only in theory, but in practice.
It is necessary to criticise the CPGB on this point. From being a partisan supporter of the SA, the CPGB is now reduced to following the SWP’s twists and turns. The significance of the SA has been forgotten. The CPGB supported the SA when it was the most advanced socialist unity movement. The CPGB is more or less absent from its defence. Now the CPGB seems to see the significance of the SA only in the presence or absence of the SWP. If the SWP is not on board what’s the point?

The defence of the SA is not about its debts, website or its ability to mobilise a mass membership. It is the defence of the idea of socialist unity. Before rejecting the need to defend an ‘idea’ it is worth pondering on the history of the CPGB. In 1991 the bulk of the membership up and left. A tiny group of comrades kept the name alive. They were defending the idea of a Communist Party in practical form.
To defend the SA is to defend the idea of socialist unity, even if we are reduced to less than a hundred members. The task of communists is to be in the vanguard of that defence. CPGB members must prove themselves the best fighters for socialist unity. This includes the defence of the SA against the liquidators. If not, the CPGB is relating to the rightward-moving SWP, but not to the unity aspirations of the advanced part of the class.

Of course defending the SA is not simply a matter of wanting it to continue. We have to understand the present predicament in the politics that have led to its virtual extinction. For this we have to go back to 1999-2001, when the SA was rejuvenated through the involvement and leadership of the SWP. A new SA (mark two) was born. Not surprisingly this reflected the political weaknesses of the SWP. In the 1990s the programme and strategy of the SWP was confused. The party was disorientated. High-level revolutionary rhetoric was matched with low-level economism. The party was opposed to standing in elections at a time when it was more important than ever to challenge New Labour. The SA seemed to offer a way forward. It became the means by which the SWP entered the electoral field. But it imported all its ideological problems into the new SA and produced a strange political brew of ‘economist electoralism’.

In 2000-2001 the SWP thought election campaigns could succeed without having built a base in the working class. In Bedfordshire we had a classic example of electoralist politics. In the months before the election, Vauxhall decided to close its car plant in Luton with thousands of redundancies. The SA had a candidate in place. But the SWP decided to intervene as the SWP. It effectively undermined the SA candidate. The SWP rationale was that industrial struggle was for the ‘revolutionary party’, whereas the SA should concentrate on elections.

This division of labour between ‘class struggle’ and elections was highly divisive. It caused much frustration to non-SWP members, who saw it as manipulation. It was not fundamentally different after the election with the firefighters’ dispute and the massive anti-war movement. Of course the SWP had no objection to the SA tagging along behind these movements. But the idea of trying to build the SA by leading these movements and proving our worth in struggle was not accepted. That was the job for the SWP. It was no different on the question of a national SA paper. Why would we want a paper if all we really needed was election leaflets?

A similar story was to be heard over the kind of politics the SA would preach. The SA would advocate economism. The SWP saw the SA as a site for disillusioned Labour Party members and voters. The politics of old Labour is ‘economistic’, promising economic and social reform through the institutions of the constitutional monarchy. Was the plan to become her majesty’s Socialist Alliance government and then renationalise the railways, as Clement Atlee had done? This is so absurd as to be discounted. Perhaps the SA merely hoped that by stealing enough protest votes from New Labour it would persuade Blair to renationalise the railways and improve the health service on our behalf?

The Scottish Socialist Party makes an interesting comparison. The SSP sees itself as a party aiming to win power and then implement its programme. But it seeks power not simply within the confines of the British constitution. It makes a priority of changing the political laws which govern the constitutional status of Scotland. The SSP intends to win power through the process of changing the power structure. Nothing like that seems to have entered the heads of our English economists.

The SA’s political strategy was ‘incredible’. It defined itself as no more than a formation in search of protest votes, not a serious party seeking to win power. Fortunately all this did not go unchallenged. On the local level we had the struggle in the Bedfordshire SA. This showed up the political differences between the SWP and the other SA members. Nationally there was a parallel ‘political and pro-party’ wing of the SA. At the 2000 conference we proposed democratic and republican demands, some of which were accepted reluctantly and then binned afterwards. At the 2001 SA conference we put forward constitutional proposals to adopt the example of the SSP and prepare for a republican socialist party.

In 1982-83 some SWP members, including myself, had been arguing for a united front perspective against Tony Cliff’s ‘downturn’ theory. This theory concluded that the party must isolate itself from a movement that was going down to defeat. We observed the same downturn, but drew the opposite conclusion. We saw it as an employers’ offensive and the united front was the means to fight it. No sooner was Cliff’s theory firmly in the saddle than the 1984 miners’ strike began. The struggle of the miners blew Cliff’s sectarian conclusions out of the water. For some months into the strike the SWP continued to operate on its own without any united front. The rest of the left joined the miners support groups. Of course, Cliff could see the reality. Soon the trumpets sounded and the SWP retreated from its isolation to join the united front support groups. The point of this story is that theories are tested by mass movements.

The same is true today. The theory of ‘economistic electoralism’ was exposed by the Iraq war, which produced a mass democratic movement of historic proportions. Such movements require socialists to put forward democratic demands and slogans to raise the level of political consciousness and put new tasks before the people. Preaching abstract socialism or demanding the renationalisation of the railways can not do that. The politics and leadership of the SA was tested and found wanting. ‘Economistic electoralism’ made the SA unfit to lead the anti-war movement. What was the point of having SA speakers on the platform? This was a war, not an election. But it was not just a crisis for Blair’s government and a test for the system of government itself. It was a major and possibly fatal blow to the SA. Blair is still in power, but the SA has never recovered.

Clare Short MP, a cabinet minister at the start of the war, draws out some important political lessons. She says: “The mistakes on Iraq and support for the US war on terror are the most spectacular and serious manifestations of a deep malfunction in the British political system and in British constitutional arrangements. Under the Thatcher government, but much more seriously under the Blair government, the checks and balances of the British government system have broken down” (C Short An honourable deception? London 2004, p277). Short goes on to claim that “the errors we are making over Iraq and other recent initiatives flow … from the style and organisation of our government”. In her resignation speech she explains that “the problem is the centralisation of power into the hands of the prime minister and an increasingly small number of advisors who make decisions in private without proper discussion” (cover).

“The consequence of this is that parliamentary majorities are taken for granted. Parliament is downgraded and ignored, the power of the prime minister is enhanced and the cabinet sidelined” (p278). She concludes that the system of government is seriously flawed, “leading to increasingly poor policy initiatives being rammed through parliament, which is straining and abusing party loyalty and undermining the people’s respect for our political system” (cover).

The Iraq war did not cause the failure or bankruptcy of the political-constitutional system. But the question of war heightened the crisis, and put the system of government under closer public scrutiny. When two million march in protest, the failure of democracy and manipulation of public opinion is brought under the spotlight. The ‘crisis of democracy’ requires and demands answers from the socialist and working class movement. The economism of the SA meant it had no democratic message for the people.
The war in Iraq was therefore the decisive turning point in the development of the SA. It exposed the weakness of parliament, the lack of any genuine democracy and the need for a new working class party. The SA should have intervened in the anti-war movement to make the case for democratic republicanism and a new party. Mass opposition to the war provided fertile ground to win support for such a party. Yet the SA failed to put over the arguments. The SWP’s indifference to democratic questions dominated the politics of the SA. These policy failures were exposed by the Iraq war.

It is true that the whole of the SA was united against the war. But the SA had nothing distinctive to say, especially about the need for ‘regime change’ in the UK. It failed to act as a united front. Instead of building SA unity in action and taking such united activity to a higher level, the SA’s constituent organisations began acting on their own. The SA failed to provide socialist leadership for the anti-war movement. Despite the role played by SA members in the anti-war movement, the SA failed as an organisation.

After the war ended the SWP and its allies continued to sideline the SA. They began looking for a new initiative. It was only a short step for the SWP to convince itself to ditch its failed SA and resurrect ‘economistic electoralism’ in partnership with George Galloway. Thus Respect was born. Galloway would front a more effective electoralism, whilst the token concession made in the SA to republicanism could now be finally dropped. The SA began to collapse, as the leadership abandoned the organisation and placed all its support behind Respect.

Where does this leave us now? Despite all its failings, the SA (mark two) is a real part of the experience of the socialist movement. It falls to us to defend what was achieved without taking responsibility for its political failings. However, the SA cannot be saved simply as an ancient monument to socialist unity. It can only be revived politically if it consciously breaks with ‘economistic electoralism’. If the Socialist Alliance survives, it can only be as a smaller but much more focused campaigning organisation, prepared to take up the fight for a democratic republic and to unite the left and the advanced part of working class in a republican socialist party.

The ‘crisis of democracy’, the political vacuum to the left of Labour, the weakness and disunity of the socialist movement, and the growing alienation of sections of the trade unions, such as the RMT and FBU, all point in one direction - to a mass republican socialist party along the lines of the SSP. A democratically organised, republican socialist party alone is capable of uniting socialists, communists and sections of trade unionists in one party behind the fight for a democratic republic and socialism.
However, if objective factors point in this direction, mass political consciousness does not. There is a massive gap between the two. Neither can we leap over that gap nor pretend it is not there. We cannot simply declare a workers’ party and think everybody will unite. This is the mistake that the Liverpool based TUSP seems to be making. We need an alliance as a bridge to span the gap. The socialist movement is still at the stage of alliances, whether they are called Respect, the SA, the SA (Democracy Platform) or the Socialist Green Unity Coalition.

This is why we propose a different kind of alliance - a republican Socialist Alliance - the midwife of a republican socialist party, which alone can unite our movement in building a mass democratic movement to change the way we are governed. There is no other road to socialism. It is not Clare Short nor the Labour Party that can do this, but the political organisation of the working class. A republican Socialist Alliance would be an important step in the right direction.

January 2005


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