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Socialist Alliances Conference: Progress, at a Snail’s Pace

Ian Donovan

A RECENT ICM opinion poll conducted for Radio 4 produced results that illustrate starkly the vacuum of left politics in Britain today. While of course one should not give too much weight to a single opinion poll, nevertheless the results were so clear and startling that they should give some food for thought to those on the left who falsely maintain that the election of the Blair government represented a "class vote" against the established capitalist parties. In a period where other opinion poll surveys have shown that the Blair government’s political support is substantially the same as at the time it was elected (in other words that there has been no major disillusionment with the government as yet among the population at large), the results were revealing. Apparently, contrary to the myth that modern neo-liberalism has led to the majority of the population becoming "middle class", according to the ICM poll 55% of the population consider themselves to be "working class", while only 41% consider themselves to be "middle class", and 1% " upper class". On further questioning: "45% thought the government was committed to all classes equally, but 47% that it was committed to one social class. And which class is that? Why the middle class, of course. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of the people who think the government has a class bias believe it is toward the upper and middle classes, compared with 27% who believe the government is committed to the working class" (London Evening Standard, 25 September).

This survey of attitudes to "class" among the British population blows completely out of the water the view of many opportunist leftists that the landslide vote for Blair’s New Labour in May 1997 represented a "class vote" of the workers against the bosses. On the basis of this data, one can see clearly that the minority of around 12% of the population who believe that Blair’s New Labour stands for workers as a class are the most gullible section of the population, not the vanguard of the proletariat. The bulk of the working class, it appears, knows better, and in the absence of a working-class political entity to support, has opted for "lesser evil" bourgeois politics insofar as they supported Blair.

The vacuum of working class politics once again underlined by this survey, and indeed obvious to anyone who lives in the real world, demands an understanding of the realignments that are possible, and a constructive but serious attitude to attempts to achieve them, to maximise the influence of revolutionary politics in the realignments to come. Currently the most important of these attempts is the Socialist Alliances movement. On 6 September, around 120 assorted leftists met in what was billed as the "launch meeting" of the Socialist Alliance movement as a national organisation. Quite heated debates took place during the day, particularly on what kind of structure the movement should adopt, as well as on the attitudes of socialists towards the European Union and single currency. No real resolution was achieved on these questions; this was mainly because real differences of opinion exist on a national level, on a variety of questions, and also because the structures in which national discussions could take place are extremely inadequate at this point.

While the National Liaison Group bulletin, the All Red and Green, published some contributions preparatory to this discussion, this was pretty minimal. Indeed, the title of the Liaison Group bulletin reflects the softness and illusions in "Green" politics held by some leftists today, and many in the Alliances as they stand rightly and emphatically do not identify themselves as "Green". Though, of course, in many ways the youthful anarcho-type militants and other pro-working class elements who identify themselves as "Green" are the potential leaven of a socialist youth movement, for our movement to identify itself as "Green" is to reinforce their illusions in this false ideology that locates the source of environmental degradation in technological progress per se, not in its misuse by the bourgeoisie. This overlap of environmentalism and left social democratic elements such as the Socialist Party (SP), the Labour MEPs Hugh Kerr and Ken Coates and the Independent Labour Network (ILN) they have initiated, and such local splits from Labour as Dave Church’s Walsall Democratic Labour Party, could potentially dilute the working-class character of the Alliances. Though it is also true that subjectively, despite their illusions in some aspects of environmentalism, the bulk of the militants of at least the SP and ILN base their opposition to New Labour on a clear pro-working class basis, and the practical imposition (were it to happen) of a real class-collaborationist bloc on the Alliances would produce considerable internal differentiation, and probably wreck the whole project. In any case the bulk of the Green Party is hostile to the SA project.

There will now be a six-month pre-conference discussion period before another conference next spring. Thus the outcome of the conference was not as straightforward as many of those attending hoped, and in fact it indicated that the road to a new working-class party in Britain will inevitably be fraught with political tensions and disagreements and will not be a straightforward process. Despite this, however, the very size of the gathering was itself significant, and marked a re-aggregation of forces towards the project of a new working-class party. The latest initiative in London, the formation of a branch of the ILN, which overlaps with the Alliance, must also be seen as part of the same development. Though there is obvious potential for conflict and division here, it would be a tragedy if any such organisational schism were to develop. It should be recognised that all involved in these overlapping projects are part of the same necessary historical development - the splintering away of the best working-class elements from Labour and the formation of a new broad workers’ party. Any attempt to decree adherence to social-democratic shibboleths as a condition for involvement in this project would lead to the putative party becoming a carbon copy of treacherous "old Labour", and repeating its treachery to the working class.

There are real political tensions in the Alliances, of the kind that are probably inevitable for an organisation that contains a broad spectrum of opinion on what the programme and policies of the new party should be. Such tensions are broadly, though not entirely, similar to the kind of tensions that blew up the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) last year and fundamentally tarnished that attempt to build a new working class party. The more social-democratic elements in the Alliances are quite uneasy about the subjectively revolutionary people they are forced to work with; they regard the "far left" with considerable suspicion. The contradiction that they are caught in is in part historical, however. The Scargill leadership of the SLP sought to strong-arm subjectively revolutionary militants with a bureaucratic constitution that meant Scargill could (in theory) override the membership and thus keep the subjectively revolutionary elements in a subordinate position. However, carrying this out in practice meant using methods that embodied all most corrupt aspects of Stalinism and old-Labourism. In doing this, most notably at the December 1997 Congress, Scargill destroyed the credibility of the SLP as a potential political alternative. The left-reformist elements in the Alliances are thus constrained by the real possibility that if they were to repeat Scargill’s treatment of left-wing dissent, they would suffer the same consequences in terms of political discredit. Thus while there has been grumbling and a nasty blow-out in the Manchester Alliance in particular, the tensions in the Alliances have been generally possible to manage and there looks to be a real space for political debate, as well as co-operation in building a new working class alternative.

It must be said, however, that the organisation in the Alliances that appears to many to be the standard-bearer of revolutionary politics, the CPGB/Weekly Worker, is really incapable of taking full advantage of the possibilities. This is in part a result of its tendency to a certain organisational paranoia, in part a legacy of the nasty and undemocratic treatment of CPGB supporters in the SLP. The CPGB’s tactics in dealing with Scargill’s antics were often quite hysterical and took no account of the consciousness of the SLP membership and their loyalty, for often far from base motives, to Scargill. Such people were often simply accused by the CPGB of being "McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunters", an over-the-top characterisation the CPGB often extended even to those who critically defended them but who refused to endorse their tactics of continual organisational confrontation with the Scargillites. Thus the CPGB played no role in the decisive confrontation of the SLP membership with Scargill’s bureaucratism at the December 1997 Conference – their people had effectively been blown out months before. There have been rumblings of this kind of accusation by the CPGB in the Alliances, particularly in response to the apparently disgraceful ousting of their people from the leadership of the Manchester Alliance by more social-democratic elements. Such hysterical over-characterisation of indefensible actions does not clarify to the Alliance membership the real issues involved in such conflicts, though it might satisfy CPGB leader John Bridge’s desire for purely verbal revenge. Counterbalancing this, however, the CPGB have played a positive role in initiating the all-London Socialist Alliance body, which has certainly been a positive development in London. The CPGB’s latest action in seeming to threaten to run its own slate of ten candidates in the Euro-elections in London against other anti-Blairite candidates is not really very smart in this regard, and seems to pose organisational confrontation once again with other pro-working class elements in the event that the CPGB does not get its own way. Though of course this is a bargaining position, it actually threatens to undermine its own good work in initiating the London SA.

The major political weakness of the CPGB’s work in the Alliances is its so-called "anti-economism"; instead of criticising the reformism of the social democratic elements in the Alliances, it attacks them for seeking an orientation to workers’ struggles and counterposes its own propaganda in favour of essentially a bunch of constitutional reforms to the British state. At the Rugby conference the CPGB thus proposed an alternative constitution for the national Alliance movement that was excellent in its organisational proposals to make the Alliances an inclusive, federal type organisation that would draw in other working-class organisations that wished to affiliate by giving them automatic representation on the leading committee. Yet the political objectives of the Alliances that they proposed in the same draft document were focused on a series of democratic tinkerings with the existing state, and failed to mention either the need to fight against the special oppression of women, racial, ethnic or sexual minorities, etc or the need for a socially owned economy under democratic workers’ management. For all their revolutionary rhetoric (which has stirred some hostility from the more social-democratic components of the Alliances), for the CPGB, at bottom, a democratic bourgeois republic will do. The author of this article has submitted an amendment to the CPGB’s proposal that keeps their positive organisational proposals, but replaces their mainly "democratic" political "objectives" with others that are more clearly socialist.

The Socialist Alliances project has something of a transitional quality for many of those involved in it. As an organisational form, a bloc of leftists of varying views aimed mainly at posing an electoral challenge to the now unashamedly neo-liberal Labour Party is a project that has a limited life, though exactly how long this may be is not clear. However, ultimately, such a formation must either fall apart back into its component parts, or else become a more coherent formation, in other words a party. Despite the fact that there are many shades of opinion on many different questions among the various leftist groupings involved in the Alliances, a sufficient level of agreement must be achieved as to what can be the basis of such a formation at its initiation. The formation of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), in a way, shows that such an agreement is at least possible, though the concession to Scottish nationalism involved in forming a separate Scottish organisation is to be regretted. The apparent refusal of the majority of the SAs to challenge this separatist development in the formation of the SSP and to call for them to unite with the movement in the rest of this island is also detrimental to the project of a new workers’ party – it could easily lead to a fragmented and ineffective movement, particularly as Scottish independence is by no means a foregone conclusion.

In my opinion, given the multiplicity of views on a range of questions that exist in this movement, the policies of the new workers’ party must initially be quite minimal. Such policies must centre around demands for the smashing of all the anti-union laws and the defence of all social gains for workers and the oppressed such as welfare, the health service, etc. This formation must quite clearly stand for the removal of basic industry, transport and services from the hands of the capitalists and for their control by the organised working class – that is, it must stand for the abolition of capitalism. It must stand for the abolition of unemployment through sharing out all available work among the whole working class without any loss in pay. It must take a clear stand against racism, for full social and economic equality for women, for defence of the rights of gays. It must stand for the defence of immigrant communities against attack by the police, the fascists and racists, and it must fight within the working class and its organisations for the maximum political and physical support for such struggles.

It must be a party that not merely stands for elections in the manner of the old Labour Party, but that mobilises workers on the ground to fight for their own interests against the bosses. However, in this period in particular, where the openly anti-working class Labour Party nevertheless retains the support of the servile trade union bureaucracy, which acts to stifle every manifestation of initiative by workers in defence of their class interests, it must seek every possible opportunity to use the platform of bourgeois elections to confront the neo-liberal ex-reformists and reassert basic class politics. At the same time, such a party must be non-exclusionist of leftist tendencies who are prepared to affiliate to it. It must be a active, campaigning organisation, but it must also be a party that actually encourages programmatic and political debate. In particular, there must be a determined struggle by the revolutionary elements in the Alliances against the traditional social-chauvinism on international questions that is characteristic of social democracy. Though co-operation with left social-democratic elements is essential, the contamination of the new workers’ parties with the kind of B-52 socialism that infected the Labour left, for instance the support of some "lefts" for NATO military actions against Iraq and the Bosnian Serbs, must be firmly resisted. Ultimately, the new party must be capable of programmatic development beyond left reformism or mushy centrist ambiguity, in a clearly revolutionary direction. That, at least, is the positive outcome that revolutionaries should fight for, by sensible tactics that take account of the existing consciousness of those who support this project and try to develop it in a revolutionary direction. There is no guarantee of success, of course, but to refuse to try represents the worst kind of sectarian passivity.

All in all, the Rugby conference represented progress, though at something of a snail’s pace. It represents the beginnings of a recovery of the struggle for a new workers’ party from the consequences of Scargill’s bureaucratic sabotage of the potential of the SLP. It is fragile, but of considerable importance. Of course in the years to come, with a new economic recession on the horizon whose depth we cannot yet predict, the Blair government will assuredly face at some point a revival of working-class struggle. Insofar as the Alliances and the movement around them represent the possibility of building a new working-class party which could in time develop a revolutionary potential, they deserve the critical, but positive adherence of every socialist and communist.