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The Socialist Alliance: A Regional View

Andrew Coates

FUELLED BY his legendary fondness for East Anglian barley products, newly elected Ipswich MP, Jamie Cann, took time in his 4am acceptance speech on 8 June (majority 8,081) to denounce the "Trotskyists" who had dared to stand against him. Votes of 305 (Socialist Alliance) and 217 (Socialist Labour) – that is, 1.4% – are unlikely to have provoked such ire. Cann may be an oaf, but he recognised that the socialist campaign had had a real effect on the town. As a leading member of the SWP said, "We’ve got all activists together and we’re not going away".

Fortunately for the left, the Socialist Labour Party does seem to be going away: the parachuted candidate for this group was not seen during the campaign and a sole Stalinist is all that remains of Scargill’s group in the constituency. By contrast, the Socialist Alliance picked up backing from key union activists in the CWU, T&G, NATFHE, FBU, NUT and GPMU, as well as individual support from UNISON members.

Oh yes, and myself. I resigned from the Labour Party, having served as branch secretary for the two largest wards of town (around one-third of the membership) for the last six years, and with a party membership of over twelve. The East Anglian Daily Times (26 May) reported the news: "Labour stalwart says ’enough is enough’."

Activity by the Socialist Alliance made the local press for more pressing reasons: a successful campaign to halt the deportation of Kosovan asylum seekers. Suffolk Radio gave a voice to the SA press officer, and the candidate, Peter Leech, was present on the platform at hustings organised by the NUT and the churches. A former Green Party parliamentary contender gave her support to the Alliance. Although hardly numerous, some posters for the socialists went up in the vast council estates that make up most of Ipswich. Leafleting teams and a town centre stall were run professionally and involved up to twenty activists – often larger than Labour’s depleted team.

Some may pour scorn on the national score of the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party – a few percentage points, and a handful of saved deposits. Having worked with the "Alternative" list (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, Parti Socialiste Unifié, Parti pour une Alternative Communiste, and my group the Fédération pour Une Gauche Alternative) in Paris for the legislative elections in 1986, where we scored 0.26%, I’ve seen a lot worse.1

I note that since 1986 the French far left has evolved into such a significant electoral force that the French radio daily carries reports of the effect that the left of the left will have on Jospin’s Presidential prospects. As a European phenomenon the presence of Marxists in elections is shown elsewhere, notably with the Dutch Socialist Party, the Danish Socialist People’s Party and the Swedish Socialist People’s Party. With the rightward drift of social democratic and labour parties, and the incoherence of the Greens, the socialist left has a ready-made political space to occupy. This, I would suggest, it is beginning to do, even in notoriously conservative Britain.

New Labour as a business
If there was one theme that pushed many into the arms of the Socialist Alliance it was privatisation. The election campaign saw Tony Blair’s remorseless determination to push through this programme of selling off and contracting out public services. His resolve to destroy the institutional foundations of social democracy – council housing, state health and education services, a publicly run civil service, and, not least, the London Tube – has been steeled by the results.

The traditional betrayals of which the left has accused every Labour administration pale into insignificance. Internationally the British Cabinet remains tied in to American plans to unleash a new wave of militarism, only outdone by Berlusconi and his "post-fascist" allies. It took Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder to stand up to Bush over climate change and the Son of Star Wars. From the British Prime Minister, hardly a bleat.

In The Retreat of Social Democracy John Callaghan suggested in his conclusion that the dropping of socialist policies by social democratic parties may eventually lead to the "recruitment of significant cohorts who subscribe to the new values". He went on to state that this development becomes "path dependent": "parties are changed permanently".2 It is hard to deny that this is exactly what is happening with New Labour. It is difficult to gauge who reads the drivel pumped out by Millbank, and even Blair fans routinely bin the videos of the Leader’s speech that are helpfully sent to all Party officers. Yet they have gone along this far with the Project, and they are going a lot further at a swift speed. The Labour Party has mutated in directions far from its origins. The category of a "bourgeois workers’ party" cannot cope with the 21st Century Party proposals to end delegate structures and constituency links with the unions.3

Having lost over 100,000 members since the last election, the Party is increasingly dominated by a small number of professional politicians – able in many parts of the country to make a full-time living as councillors. Branch meetings are minuscule (my own last one, of a branch which comprises in theory around 180 members, had three people present, one a full-time regional official). Members’ Forums provided an excellent means of channelling discontent, until people realised the futility of sending in contributions that disappeared in final Party documents. The manipulation of the National Policy Forum was obvious to all but the most naïve. The purge of Grassroots Alliance supporters from that body is well underway. In local government, socialists and working class councillors – both a shrinking and ageing group – are marginalised by the Cabinet system.

New Labour’s core cadre is now likely to be working lobbying in pro-privatisation bodies such as the New Local Government Network. Perhaps symbolised by David Ball of Capita (and former leader of Ipswich Borough Council), they argue that municipalities are "businesses" – ripe to be exploited for their own personal benefit. New Labour could well be described as a "business" rather than a democratic political party.

The ability of the left of the Labour Party to mount any kind of serious resistance to these changes is severely limited. Seddon back on the National Executive won’t make much difference. The NEC has few powers and, as Liz Davies described it, is frozen in an ultra-Blairite time warp. Union General Secretaries may protest against Bush’s Missile Defence plans but they are caught up in the "new unionism" of John Monks and the TUC.

In some ways understandably, Monks wants to push the line that European Union labour law is the best that can be expected in present circumstances. It’s hard to deny that Continental legislation is more progressive than the UK’s. But the right to be consulted about redundancies has not stopped Marks and Spencer employees being sacked. Nor does it look likely to prevent Blair’s privatisation plans. At a recent London seminar (2 May) Alain Gautheron (head of the French CGT postal workers’ federation) explained how in his country the mail service is being restructured on "flexible" lines only too familiar to the British.

Despite their vote at Labour conferences, no union is likely to oppose head-on, in a way which will have any effect, the wholesale sell-offs now being worked out. There is a very simple reason: no large bloc exists in the House of Commons that can oppose Blair.

A sceptical welcome
The British far left may well be infected with sectarianism, as Bob Pitt comments.4 Yet what does the experience of Marx and Engels, which he recommends, show with regard to how to deal with this? In the First International they had to cope with intransigent sects, with practically no common language and doctrine. The Minutes of the body reveal, however, that affairs were dominated by the reality of working class life, from the Day Working Bookbinders, helping refugees from the Paris Commune, to strikes by Hanover’s power-loom weavers.5

Most local Socialist Alliances are not interested in Sean Matgamna’s opinions on bureaucratic collectivism, the CPGB/Weekly Worker’s stand on Hal Draper, or the Permanent Arms Economy, and all the rest of the burden many of us spent happily debating in our youth. Those who backed Western imperialist intervention in the former Yugoslavia are thin on the ground. It is precisely the First International genre of issues that genuinely animates regional political life: the postal workers’ fight, flogging off council houses, teachers’ pay, defending asylum seekers. The Labour Party has largely ceased to exist as a forum where these topics can be raised. Force of circumstance is driving activists to co-operate. The future structure of the Alliance needs to be clarified, but all the signs are that it is not going to go away.

In Britain the last two years have seen an unprecedented plague of tomato blight. The fruit, just reddening, suddenly starts to rot, and the whole plant eventually dies off. New Labour has spread like this virus through the labour movement and the welfare state, abusing people’s quiet unspoken loyalties for short-term political gain, and turning their dreams into an uneatable mush. The last social democratic formation to go so far down this road was Craxi’s Italian Socialist Party. When the masses turned against him they flung coins at the party offices in Milan and the old crook slunk off into exile with below 1% of the vote. I hope to be amongst those who sling their silver against blighter Blair.


1. Andrew Coates, "French Alternative," Socialist Society Bulletin, Autumn 1986.

2. John Callaghan, The Retreat of Social Democracy, Manchester University Press, 2000.

3. David Wilkinson, "21st Century Party", What Next? No.19, 2001.

4. Bob Pitt, "What Role for the Socialist Alliance?", What Next? No.19, 2001.

5. The General Council of the First International: Minutes, 1866-1868, Progress Publishers, Moscow, no date.