The Socialist Alliance in England held its biggest ever conference in London last Saturday. Nearly 700 people came together to discuss how to turn the Socialist Alliance into a more effective, outward looking organisation. The day kicked off with an anti-war rally. There was an enthusiastic reception for guest speaker Gennoro Highore from the left wing Communist Refoundation in Italy.
He spoke of the strength of the movement after Genoa, and how it was crucial to bring together the anti-capitalist movement with the movement against the war in Afghanistan. Writer and campaigner Tariq Ali also addressed the conference. He said, 'We should congratulate ourselves on building a mass anti-war movement in a record space of time.
'I sense a shift in generations, with a new generation knocking at the door, ready to take over. Those of us who support the Socialist Alliance have to build on this. There is much more anger that has still to surface.' The rest of the conference was spent discussing the future of the Socialist Alliance.
Unfortunately the day was marred when the Socialist Party, one of the six main left wing parties involved in the Alliance, walked out of the conference after it failed to win its constitutional proposals. The Socialist Party has now abandoned the whole Socialist Alliance project. At stake in the argument were two very different visions of the Socialist Alliance. On the one hand was the argument put forward by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the International Socialist Group and many independent socialists, including Mike Marqusee, Nick Wrack and John Nicholson.
That vision hinges on turning the Socialist Alliance into a democratic organisation which is attractive to the thousands of people who are disillusioned with New Labour. As independent socialist Nick Wrack put it, 'What we are really discussing is how to build a socialist alternative to New Labour, its pro-capitalist policies, its neo-liberal agenda, and how to raise the banner of an alternative form of society.'
On the other hand the Socialist Party sees the Socialist Alliance as essentially an alliance of existing left wing groups, rather than providing a political home for those who feel disenfranchised from New Labour. This pessimistic view was encapsulated in the Socialist Party proposals for the new constitution.
These included the idea that any six members in a parliamentary constituency and any three members in a ward organisation would be able to form a platform which would have the right of veto over any decisions of the local Socialist Alliance. That would mean that in a large constituency, such as Hackney South, any six Socialist Alliance members could override the wishes of 150 other members.
The Socialist Party vehemently opposed the proposals for one person one vote to decide the election of the national executive and the selection of candidates. The Socialist Party had already issued an ultimatum in an article in its paper, The Socialist, before the conference took place. These threats angered several delegates who spoke out against the Socialist Party's proposals.
Liam McQuade from Tower Hamlets said, 'It is deeply sectarian to use the ultimatum of a walkout. There is pessimism about the future behind this. It assumes the Socialist Alliance won't grow. I don't want to be sitting in a room in a year's time with the same handful of Socialist Party and SWP members. If you don't want these groups to dominate, then go and recruit more members.'
James White from Barnsley said, 'The effect of the Socialist Party's proposals will be to encourage horse-trading between parties which belong to the alliance. 'It will create an off-putting environment for the new members we are trying to win.' In a secret ballot the Socialist Party's proposals won just 122 votes out of 656.
The conference overwhelmingly backed the proposals from the SWP, ISG and others by 345 votes. This was 35 votes more than all the other five proposals on offer put together. After it lost the vote leading Socialist Party member Clive Heemskerk even declared, 'Instead of democratic rights we now have the benevolent dictatorship of the majority,' and claimed the new proposals 'give ultimate power to the SWP'.
The national chair of the Socialist Alliance, former Labour MP Dave Nellist, abandoned chairing the conference to lead the walkout. In a press release the Socialist Party later claimed the new constitution and election procedures 'mirror the procedures adopted by the control-freak Millbank tendency of Blair's New Labour Party'.
All this is a travesty of the truth. The new constitution makes the Socialist Alliance into a far more democratic organisation. It introduces one person one vote for deciding the election of officers, on policy decisions and on the selection of candidates. It also includes a charter of members' rights. As author Mike Marqusee said, 'As an independent I believe there is huge importance in these proposals. It makes the Socialist Alliance attractive to those not yet involved-not least to Labour Party members and those young people who have not been involved in politics before. This will make people feel enfranchised, and the Socialist Alliance will be a more effective democratic organisation.'
The new constitution also gives the Socialist Alliance a far more effective national organisation. This includes the election of a new national executive of 21 members, who include 13 independents, three SWP members, and one representative each from the smaller left wing parties in the alliance.
Building a challenge to Blair's New Labour
Many of those at the conference felt a sense of shock and disappointment at the behaviour of the Socialist Party. People expressed worries that socialists would be standing against each other in future elections. But everyone was determined to try to make the Socialist Alliance into a mass pole of attraction for those disillusioned with New Labour.
As John Nicholson from Manchester said, 'We have to build on our success during the general election campaign and in the fight against the war. We have to go forward.' And Nick Wrack summed up the feeling of many people when he said, 'I have mixed emotions. On the one hand there has been a tremendous achievement. On the other hand I feel disappointment and sadness that the Socialist Party has decided to walk away. We now have an important task and responsibility on our shoulders. There is a vacuum on the left of British politics, and the Socialist Alliance has the opportunity to step into that vacuum. We have to go out and build local Socialist Alliances and to build a national organisation. We need to draw in young activists beginning to challenge global capitalism, trade unionists fighting privatisation, and those shedding off support for New Labour.'
Liz Davies, a former member of Labour's national executive, gave a speech to round off the conference. She too spoke of her disappointment at the walkout of the Socialist Party. Then she said, 'Our job is to get on and build the Socialist Alliance. We are at the beginning of the Socialist Alliance challenge to the bipartisan approach of the major parties. Now we are a more democratic, more participatory, and more inclusive organisation than any political party I have known. We have to face the challenge of the local elections in May. We have to continue to campaign against privatisation, and have a duty to carry on opposition to the war.'