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Smaller Goldfish, Bigger Bowl: Prospects for the London Socialist Alliance

Dave Osler

IMAGINE A self-proclaimed socialist electoral alternative where none of the major components is unreservedly committed to its success, and some would be secretly pleased to see it go belly up. Imagine that thousands of paper sellers are – appropriately enough – paper members. But this organisation doesn’t have its own publication, not even of the sporadic amateur fanzine variety traditionally beloved of the British left. Imagine endless incantations to left unity, half the time pronounced through gritted teeth. Welcome to the London Socialist Alliance (LSA). Oh, I am a supporter, by the way. I badly want it to work.

The British left is going nowhere fast unless it can break out of its current marginalisation and construct a new broad-based socialist organisation, sooner rather than later. The LSA – in partnership with the Socialist Alliances across England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party north of the border – is potentially a crucial catalyst for its creation. But, so far, all too few London activists seem conscious of the practical realities of what it would take to bring such a formation into being.

Professionalism constitutes an essential first step. Earlier this year, admittedly at the height of the media silly season, there was speculation that Blair might call a snap general election in October. If he had, the LSA would have been caught completely on the hop. There is no way it could get a serious campaign together in the time available.

All credible minor parties – the Greens, the UK Independence Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the British National Party, the unofficial Liberals, probably the Natural Law Party come to that – have some sort of secretariat. Not the LSA. There are no full-time staff. The affiliates – several of which employ full-time organisers, and most of which surely include unemployed and student members – can’t even get it together to ensure that an office is staffed part-time on a rota basis.

Of course, that could partly be because there isn’t an office. But even if there was one, there would not be too much for it to do. No London Socialist Alliance activity is discernible between elections. Most borough alliances exist in name only. In other words, the LSA plays no role in the social struggles of the exploited and oppressed in the capital city of one of the world’s major imperialist powers.

In that case, then, why have one? So far, the LSA has won acceptance, ranging from nominal to almost enthusiastic, from all far left organisations with London memberships stretching into double figures, if only because of the risk of being outflanked by rival groupings, and perhaps because the larger players gaze wistfully at the relative success of the Lutte Ouvrière/Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire bloc, so tantalisingly close at the other end of the Channel tunnel.

As a result, the LSA is somehow preserved in aspic as a steering committee meeting once a month or less, with intermittent attendance from selected second-division Trot hacks on a watching brief from their respective central committees, and the likes of yours truly.

At these meetings, there is talk of campaigning around abortion rights, or forming a youth section. But most of the affiliated participants appear to believe that their own organisation, rather than the LSA, is the more appropriate vehicle for such activities. In the Trotskyist press, more ink is spent debating whether or not the LSA should have a revolutionary programme than on whether or not it should enjoy a meaningful independent existence.

Beyond a handful of independents, few would cite the LSA as their primary political allegiance, viewing it instead an adjunct to the main task of building their own "party" or faction. Ask even the most enthusiastic participants from the larger revolutionary groups how they see the future of the LSA, and one is instantly struck by their studied vagueness about the whole project. Let’s just see how it goes, they reply. So much for Marxism being the science of perspectives! This "suck it and see" attitude risks condemning the project to failure in advance. That would be a tragedy for the entire left. Let’s look at the wider picture.

Although formally established several years previously, the London Socialist Alliance in its current incarnation took shape during the Greater London Authority elections. The result of this contest was – to paraphrase a popular reformist slogan from the early eighties – Livingstone to Power on a Non-Socialist Programme.

Livingstone’s victory represents arguably the single most important political punch landed on Tony Blair’s inane grinning mug since New Labour came into office. Actually, that is not saying all that much. Despite constant claims from Labour lefts that the Blairites represent only a thin carapace on what these lefts regard as the mass party of the working class, the Blair machine has so far proved tough enough to take the London mayoral contest defeat as a relatively minor blip. Small earthquake in the London Labour Party, not many dead.

But was Livingstone’s success a blow for the left, or even from the left? Livingstone consciously stood as a populist courting cross-party support, rather than as a socialist. Martin Sullivan argued ("Lessons of the London Elections", What Next? No.16) that this was an approach the left should have backed. I am not sure whether Sullivan claims to be a revolutionary or not, but in any event, his entire case is premised on classically reformist – and thus classically faulty – logic. To my mind, he seriously misreads the content of the Livingstone candidacy.

Summarising an earlier article in the What Next? London Election Special, Sullivan writes: "By defying Millbank, Livingstone would also demonstrate to the entire labour movement that Blair could be beaten, which would perhaps even encourage the trade union bureaucrats to adopt a rather less abject attitude towards the Labour leadership. The prospects for a fightback within the party, I concluded, would be greatly improved. If these consequences were to follow, though, it was first of all necessary for Ken to win. From that standpoint, a degree of political compromise in the conduct of his election campaign was entirely justifiable."

OK, but have these entirely desirable consequences come about? More pertinently, does Livingstone intend them to come about? Let’s extend the benefit of the doubt. We will have to see what the man does in office, and what the impact of the "Re-admit Ken" campaign will be. But early auguries are not promising.

Livingstone was an inconsistent leftist even during the GLC period, and his current trajectory is towards the right. His motivation probably owes at least as much to personal advancement as to any desire for socialism from below. His mayoral campaign was remarkable for its lack of trade union/working class orientation, while jobs have been found for former Tory parliamentary candidates and the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi. That’s right, the boss of the ad agency that famously maintained "Labour isn’t working" is now working for the man they used to call Red Ken.It may well be Livingstone’s main desire to prove himself a trustworthy pair of hands, and thus a suitable person to be readmitted to the Labour Party and given a cabinet job.

As for the impact of the Livingstone victory on the Labour left, the short answer still seems to be – what Labour left? It is increasingly old, increasingly disorganised and increasingly non-activist, its already weak influence waning year by year as thousands fail to renew membership. Meanwhile, radical youth are, quite understandably, actively repelled by New Labourism. Realistically, there is zero chance of winning this crucial layer to revolutionary socialism from inside the Labour Party.

Challenging Labour at the ballot box – the most heinous political act imaginable, some supporters of this journal would have us believe – is now the only alternative to conceding the electoral arena exclusively to bourgeois candidates. Thus the LSA and similar formations have their work cut out upholding the very idea of working class political representation.

These remarks are not intended to be triumphalist. The LSA has little to be boastful about. Let me "fess up" to being disappointed – but far from heartbroken – at its performance in the London Assembly election. I was hoping for something like 4% across the city.

After all, the LSA was the only contestant to mount a full-scale traditional political campaign, complete with mass leafleting, house-to-house canvassing and public meetings. But these days, no amount of this sort of activity – the very meat and potatoes of political campaigning only 10 or 15 years back – substitutes for lack of media coverage and lack of dosh to dish out on newspaper and billboard advertising. Given the amount of effort put in, the actual tally of votes – at 1.6% on the list and an average of 3.1% in the constituencies – was scant reward for a hard slog. Historical experience shows that far left candidates in areas with a reasonable working class population can expect around 2% simply by virtue of standing. The low turnout in the London Assembly contest should have artificially inflated the far left’s percentage poll, if not the absolute numbers.

Some LSA activists sought consolation in calculation, arguing that the total London "left" vote last May came to 88,000, marginally over the 5% threshold for securing an Assembly member. Sadly, the logic here simply does not stack up. Many of Peter Tatchell’s backers will have voted for him on the basis of his track record on gay issues rather than his commitment to socialism. Certainly it is a bit rich for Peter to be calling for left unity after the contest having spurned the real unity initiative beforehand. Pat Sikorski will be delighted that the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation out-polled Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, presumably strengthening Sikorski’s hand inside the RMT in the process. Scargill and the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star carry on in their own sweet ways, sadly content to blag the fractions of a single percentage point currently on offer to their respective organisations.

Yet, despite everything, the LSA vote was credible in the circumstances, and as such an important morale booster for participating groups. This was followed by the clear fourth place achieved in the Tottenham by-election, ahead of the Greens. Nevertheless, we need to be well aware that the Assembly contest offered us outstanding electoral conditions, including the boost provided by the Livingstone breakaway campaign and proportional representation, while Tottenham offered an ideal opportunity for an outstanding candidate to make inroads into the reservoir of support built up by a popular local leftist MP. These plus-points certainly won’t obtain at the next general election, whenever it is. A half-arsed campaign followed by an ignominious thrashing at the polls, with the far left picking up fewer votes in the capital than the far right, would be grist to the mill of the "pick up the ball and go home" tendencies within the LSA’s constituent organisations. Yet that scenario is entirely possible.

Thus it is important to set ambitious but realistic goals for the LSA and the wider Socialist Alliance project, standing at least as many candidates as are required to secure a television broadcast. Our expectations should not be too high. There will be better political chances for us in high-profile Westminster by-elections, council seats and the 2003 Euro-elections, which will be fought on a proportional representation basis. We may find ourselves rewarded for our consistency, in the same way that Arlette Laguiller has built up the credibility of Lutte Ouvrière by standing in every French presidential contest since 1974.

Much of the responsibility for the future of the LSA lies in the hands of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and anyone aware of their past track record in united campaigning activities could be forgiven a certain cynicism. SWP leading lights involved in the project are broadly enthusiastic, albeit in an untheorised kind of way. It is unclear whether they see the LSA as a component of a future party of recomposition, part of a bigger SWP trading under a new brand name, or indeed how they envisage the outcome of the process at all. Chris Bamberry recently remarked that "the Socialist Workers Party would be happy to be a smaller goldfish in a much bigger bowl", but few of us would relish the role of political fish food. To its credit, the SWP has at least put its money where its mouth is. Frankly, there is more chance of sub-Saharan Africa repaying its debt to the western banking system than there is of the London Socialist Alliance repaying its debt to East End Offset.

But then one does not need an elephant’s memory to recall the SWP’s prevarications over the 1999 Euro-elections, and never-confirmed suggestions that it unilaterally offered Scargill a clear run for his Assembly slate if Scargill backed Paul Foot in the mayoral race. There are also unconfirmed reports of differences of opinion within the SWP central committee. Such uncertainties are less than helpful.

On paper, the Socialist Party argues that Labour has become an outright bourgeois party, and that the job of the left is to build a new mass workers’ party. But its support for the very process that may bring this about has been lukewarm at best. The Socialist Party did play a leading role in the establishment of Socialist Alliances, in London as elsewhere. But, wary of SWP attempts to use its numbers to dominate the proceedings, its position on the Assembly elections was all over the shop, crazily going so far as formally to back the Sikorski group in the list vote. Expect controversy, too, over its plans to stand general election candidates in two London constituencies where it has a relatively strong local base, despite them both being represented by Campaign Group MPs.

On the right of the LSA, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty sticks to its calls for a new Labour Representation Committee, by which they insist they do not mean the recreation of Old Labour. On the far left, the Communist Party of Great Britain/Weekly Worker and Workers Power are at least for the Alliance’s transformation into a party, albeit a democratic centralist revolutionary party.

Socialist Outlook has the best understanding of how it might form part of a small-mass left centrist party of the Scottish Socialist Party type, rightly understanding that to insist on the adoption of a revolutionary programme would defeat the purpose of such a formation in bringing together the class-struggle left wing under a common roof. Instead, it should be federalist in character, allowing both revolutionary and reformist tendencies to work together within a democratic framework.

It is in this way that the far left in Britain can learn the lessons of decades of failure and finally construct an organisation worthy of the tradition we represent. The alternative is further decades in the wilderness.