Socialist Worker

The future of the Socialist Alliance

Issue No. 1746

The future of the Socialist Alliance

LINDSEY GERMAN, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, looks at the prospects ahead

THE SOCIALIST Alliance is taking off in the run-up to the election. Candidates are standing in towns as diverse as Blackburn, Lowestoft and Northampton, as well as in the major cities. Their selection meetings have been enthusiastic, attracting people on a scale which has not been seen for years.

Those people include would-be activists completely new to politics, plus many from the older generations who have survived the defeats of the past two decades who now sense that something is changing. Socialist ideas are back on the agenda, and nowhere more so than in some of the working class towns where left wing organisation has long been dormant. The prospective election is helping to win support in the localities from experienced and respected trade unionists, who are often reluctantly but firmly breaking with the politics and priorities of New Labour.

There is a new mood around, and the Socialist Alliance election campaign can help transform the activity of every socialist and forge a new left. It is attracting a significant minority of former Labour activists and councillors-people who were absolutely central to holding Labour's organisation together in the constituencies, and who lived through the Thatcher and Major years only to find their erstwhile policies and beliefs abandoned once Labour gained office.

Their break with Labour marks the first significant break with Labourism certainly since the Second World War. The discussion inside union branches up and down the country about whether to transfer the political levy from Labour to the Socialist Alliance only underlines the fundamental breach which Blair has created between the party and many of its trade union supporters.

THERE IS a widespread feeling that the alliance should continue to develop when the election is over. The level of unity and activity created from what seemed until quite recently a diffuse and demoralised left is unprecedented, and has left many old socialists heartened. It has also attracted a very significant layer of independents and ex Labour members who want to build something which exists between elections.

If we want a break from Labourism we have to provide a joint socialist home where we can work together. Many of these people will not have the same politics or history as those of us in revolutionary socialist organisations-but they are crucial to the alliance and we want to work with them on a sustained basis. In addition, one of the attraction points of the Socialist Alliance is that it is not simply an electoral machine but a campaigning activist organisation. Many people who represent something inside the working class movement want to see the Socialist Alliance building an alternative to Labour.

The Socialist Workers Party has thrown itself into building the alliance over the past year. What should we be arguing about its future? There are a number of options. The first is to leave the alliance pretty much as it was before the election, and to turn towards other activity once the election is over.

The problem with this option is that it fails to recognise the impact the alliance has had on the whole left, and its strategic importance for the future. It would represent an abandonment of a highly successful movement which we are very important in building.

We would effectively turn our backs on much of the work that we have done and reduce the movement back down to what the SWP can do. If we took this approach we would also find ourselves isolated from many of the people with whom we work most closely in the Socialist Alliance.

THE SECOND option is to argue to turn the Socialist Alliance into a new mass working class party. This has its attractions. It would attract hopefully significant forces to a new and more permanent home than the alliance is able to do. It is a path favoured by some of those in the existing alliance, such as the Socialist Party and various others.

In general socialists should be for the maximum unity on the left where it is possible to reach agreement. But there are two problems with building what is sometimes termed a "new mass workers' party". Firstly, despite our very real successes, we are starting from a low base inside a country which has sustained some of the worst working class defeats anywhere over the past two decades.

We are also faced with the historic problem of Labourism-which whatever its growing weaknesses is still there, and still holds the allegiance of the bulk of the organised working class. So the movement is still relatively small (we see 5 percent as a good share of the vote) and can only grow really significantly into a mass party when linked to much greater levels of struggle than we have seen in Britain in recent years.

In the absence of a real mass movement, any attempt at creating a unified party at present would of necessity mean that the SWP would dominate. This might not seem like a problem to the SWP, but in practice it would not be a genuinely mass workers' party of the sort that we would all like to see. The danger is that it could develop into a party full of factional arguments with relatively few independent forces on the ground.

The second problem is one of politics-we have built the Socialist Alliance as an inclusive organisation which does not demand the adoption of a full revolutionary programme for people to join. But what about a party which did that? What would happen every time there was a crisis-not just a war but a controversial strike or a real racist backlash? The danger is that a party simply built on minimal demands could fudge or divide down the middle every time it was faced with a big test-a recipe either for paralysis or for splits.

In certain circumstances socialists might decide it was right to build a party which encompassed people holding quite disparate views. But that would most likely come out of a mass movement of struggle involving much bigger forces than ourselves, including large groups of workers who had only partially broken with Labourism and reformism.

Then different groups and ideas could fight within a much larger, more diffuse party in order to win their positions. However, that is a very different situation from what exists today. The danger with building such a party prematurely is that it does not have the organic connection with sufficient numbers of leftward moving workers and so simply becomes the terrain of argument between different groups. That could lead to the worst sort of resolution-mongering which occasionally occurs at Socialist Alliance meetings or conferences. The result would be a faction-ridden internal regime coupled with a degree of organisational paralysis which could only damage the organisation.

THE OBVIOUS third way-for want of a better phrase-is to construct a serious alliance between the various groups and a series of individuals at a local and national level. That would need a bigger structure than exists at present, since the tasks of the Socialist Alliance and the demands on it are much greater than when it was first established. Now it is run by a handful of officers, none working full time.

There would need to be an office, full time staff, and a system of affiliations which would help finance the operation. There should be a national steering committee which would consist of a reasonable representation of the groups and individuals (similar to that achieved by the London Socialist Alliance last year). In addition there should be delegate meetings perhaps three times a year, plus a conference or AGM. Local groups would obviously vary in terms of energy and activity, but as well as maintaining an electoral presence (there are after all a number of elections coming up in the next two years) it should campaign. The Socialist Alliance adopted election pledges at its conference which are the basis for its manifesto and campaign. These can be the basis of future activity around housing, pensions, asylum seekers and the other issues on which the Socialist Alliance is campaigning electorally.

There should be newsletters and other forms of propaganda to raise the profile of the alliance. This is obviously something short of a full party, but is considerably more than the alliance has been. It would be committed to campaigning around elections and the issues which come up in the working class movement-strike support, campaigns and so on. It should have a good presence on the Genoa anti-capitalist demonstration in July, for example.

In this way the alliance can answer some of the needs of working class activists and socialists without demanding that they declare a unity of ideas which they might not necessarily share.


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Sat 5 May 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1746
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