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We're Still Alive and Kicking

Nick Wrack

THE ARGUMENTS for the Socialist Alliance have become stronger in the three years since our first major electoral intervention at the Greater London Assembly elections in 2000.

Contrary to the suggestions that the Alliance is in crisis (Tribune July 25), we have, in fact, doubled our membership over the past 18 months and are continuing to grow.

In May, we saw the election of our first councillor, Michael Lavalette, in Preston in what had been a safe Labour ward. That result alone shows that a socialist and anti-war activist, with a track record of supporting workers in dispute, can win electorally.

The Socialist Alliance was established to build a campaigning organisation and to give people a chance to vote for something radically to the Left of all the established parties.

When two million people march in the capital to protest over the war on Iraq, something profound is clearly happening in British politics. Now, in the aftermath of the military conflict, a deep questioning about the war and the continued occupation is taking place, not least among those who were misled into supporting an invasion. Some Labour MPs are openly talking about the need for Tony Blair to resign. The once seemingly-impregnable leader looks increasingly vulnerable.

The question is: what should socialists do? Try to reclaim Labour or build a serious socialist alternative to it?

The election of a new generation of Left-wing trade union leaders points to a desire for more militant action by union members. Some of the new union leaders, although not all, see the fight as one to win support for union policies inside the Labour Party.

For many union members, however, the trend is in the opposite direction. Firefighters, for example, are unlikely to join a party whose ministers vilified and threatened them, holding down their pay while worsening their conditions and preparing to slash 6,000 fire service jobs.

In other industries, those opposed to privatisation will not rush to join the privatising party. A new generation of political activists was created in opposition to the war. But school students, prominent on all the anti-war protests, will not rush to join the pro-war party.

We will back any fight to win support for Left-wing policies in the Labour Party, but I fear those who choose to soldier on inside 'New' Labour will find it a task with little significant reward. The replacement of Blair will not in itself change anything. There needs to be a complete reversal in policy on every major issue. However, the structures of the Labour Party have become so undemocratic that a campaign for policy reform will come to nothing.

In the meantime, what of all those millions of people who now feel they have no one to vote for? The turnout at the 2001 general election was the lowest since universal suffrage was introduced. This wasn't due to apathy, but to a serious assessment made by millions that there was little to choose between the three major parties.

The Socialist Alliance has a sense of proportion, as well as a sense of purpose. We do not expect the vast bulk of Labour's supporters to rush to us overnight. Nor do we have the benefit of proportional representation that our comrades in the Scottish Socialist Party have had. Nevertheless, their success, together with the early steps we have made, already show that there is considerable support for an independent socialist challenge.

Therefore, we voted overwhelmingly at our annual conference in May to concentrate on two things. These were, first, to redouble our efforts to build the Socialist Alliance itself. Second, to reach out to all those outside Labour who want an alternative to Labour, with the aim of ensuring there will be more socialist candidates at next year's Greater London Assembly and European elections and in every seat at the next general election (including those with Left-wing Labour candidates).

As a result, we are reaching out to the anti-war movement, including the predominantly Labour-voting Muslim community, which has been radicalised by the conflict. But to suggest that the Socialist Alliance will abandon its commitment to lesbian, gay rights and women's rights in order to win support is entirely untrue. It is also deeply offensive to the thousands of Muslims with whom we have been working in the Stop the War Coalition.

And we intend to continue building inside the trade unions, where we have already had success with the campaign to democratise the political funds, now union policy in the RMT, and likely to become so when the FBU has its next conference.

Our aim and we firmly believe we can achieve it is to build a socialist electoral challenge by reaching out to the millions of disenfranchised and disillusioned voters who will be attracted by a radical socialist programme.

Nick Wrack is chair of the Socialist Alliance

This article appeared in Tribune, 1 August 2003.