The vast demonstration against Bush on 20 November once again opened wide the increasingly intolerable contradiction on the British left. These demonstrations in 2003 were far greater than anything in the 1960s or indeed at any other time before or since, yet when the crowds have dispersed, there is so little sign of any political result. The huge Labour majority cannot even prevent parliament from moving yet another step closer to the privatisation of the health service. The Tory opposition moves further to the right, flirting with a return to capital punishment, and the Liberal Democrats, though they pretend to be suspicious of the warmongers, are, as always, extremely nervous of any forthright opposition to the capitalist and imperialist establishment. It is futile to stand back and jeer at the fact that there is no representation of the biggest political movement in modern times. The question is: what can be done about it?
There are plenty of signs that the mass mobilisation against the war reflects a deep hostility to the government on many other issues. Wherever it is possible to raise socialist alternatives – public ownership and comprehensive education – people respond enthusiastically. How can we combine these attitudes effectively enough to make a real impact on the Blairite Labour/Tory/Liberal consensus? And how can we do that without stumbling once again on the obstacle that has held up the socialist left for so long – sectarianism?
When a collection of socialist organisations formed the Socialist Alliance in 1999, the main object was to present a united front of organisations whose members were no longer prepared to devote their time and energy to attacking one another. The alliance has had a lot of success in quite a short time. But it has failed to make the breakthrough many of us hoped for. Indeed, some of the founding organisations have left the alliance and struck out once again into glorious, and useless, isolation. The alliance’s outstanding success in England and Wales – Michael Lavalette’s election in Preston – was achieved by a genuine attempt to seek out and represent large numbers of people in Preston who were against the war and against racism. Elsewhere, the alliance has been less successful, even in Brent East where, against a background of profound disillusionment with the government and an excellent alliance candidate, we only just managed to get clear of the ruck of independent candidates who cluttered up and divided the left opposition. If we are to make any headway in the vital business of transforming the mass opposition into a fighting socialist force we need to look again at the organisation and structure of the British left.
The building blocks for a new structure are plain for everyone to see. The expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party for his opposition to the war in Iraq; the hostility to Blair and co among large numbers of trade unionists, including trade union leaders like Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka and Dave Ward, and the growing disgust with capitalism that emerges from organisations like Globalise Resistance, the European Social Forum and large elements of the green movement. In all these areas, there is a common cry for new organisations, broadly-based in the community, that go deeper into the popular consciousness than the alliance has done so far.
Such an argument can easily be taken too far. A coalition calling itself something like ‘Peace and Justice’ for instance, seems to me undesirable – not only because it means all things to all people but chiefly because it seems to reject the socialist alternative at a time when the argument for socialist solutions is stronger and more popular than ever. On the other hand, both the name and the intentions of any new coalition need to engage as many people as possible, even if they do not regard themselves primarily as socialists. The principles should be as simple as possible – for public ownership and comprehensive education, and against privatisation, imperialism, the war in Iraq, the New Labour government and its Tory/Liberal allies. The simple aim of the new coalition should be to recapture some of the loyalty to socialist ideas and principles that used to inspire people to campaign for and vote for Labour. Candidates who run in elections for the new coalition should explain how they will speak and vote on all the relevant issues. In London, for instance, as Blair, Prescott and Clarke proceed to tear up the comprehensive system of education, coalition candidates, locally and nationally, should set out precisely how they intend – as elected councillors, assembly members and MPs – to fight for, restore and improve comprehensive schools.
The coalition’s approach to organisations that join it should be both tolerant and impatient: tolerant of the right of individual parties to proceed with their own agenda, impatient of any attempt to make sectarian capital out of the coalition. I would hope that my own party, the Socialist Workers Party, would enter such a new coalition with all the enthusiasm with which we joined the Socialist Alliance, and would work as powerfully as we can for the new coalition in the hope, but not the condition, that its success would be our success.
The huge ‘Bristish Politics at the Crossroads’ meeting in London on 29 October laid the basis for such a new coalition. I hope it proceeds quickly. We have no time to lose.
At our first post-election meeting in June we set ourselves three targets.
First, we wanted to establish ourselves in the ward, to represent people and effectively deal with casework. This meant establishing regular surgeries, putting out newsletters and being available to deal with people’s needs: becoming ‘community shop stewards’. But we recognised that if we just focused on these issues we would be in danger of being drawn into localism.
Our second aim therefore was to engage with national political issues and forge links with local unions and campaigning groups. We need to campaign for more resources for council services across the country, not just in Preston – or even worse, ‘our’ ward.
Finally, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the big ideological battles shaking British society. We won our election in Preston as a result of our anti-war work. We were able to win people because of our politics and our activity in organising local demonstrations and transport to national activities against war and occupation. We wanted to emphasise that we are an organisation that takes on the ‘big issues’.
Thus it has been important for our project that we have managed to take large groups of people to the September demonstration against the occupation and the protest against Bush in November. It is from these people that we can recruit our activists. But we also wanted to make an impact locally. Thus the idea of the twinning campaign.
The Palestinian issue is very popular among the local Muslim population. Local mosques regularly organise trips to the West Bank (the last being in August this year). We wanted to engage with this audience but do so in a way that allowed us to ‘secularise’ the issue to some extent; to emphasise that local trade unionists and socialists are active supporters of Palestinian rights.
It also gave us a chance to open up debate within the local Labour Party. Our hope was that by raising this issue we could work closely with the left in the local Labour group and so establish our credibility as a real alternative to New Labour locally and nationally.
Finally, during the war on Iraq there was a very successful petition in Preston calling on our local Labour MP to oppose the war. The local mosques and the Stop the War group managed to get 10,000 signatures in eight days and present these to Mark Hendrick MP. The number was very important – it was almost the size of his majority!
Hendrick’s response was twofold. He claimed that those who signed the petition would ‘come back to Labour’ once the war was over. And to re-establish his links with the local Muslim population he went to Palestine over the summer – and made sure this was well covered in the local press. We wanted to emphasise that we too were fighters for Palestinian rights.
After speaking to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) we decided to try to twin Preston with Nablus.
I approached Labour councillor Elaine Abbott and asked her to second the motion. She had been heavily involved in Stop the War work and immediately agreed. We informed other anti-war councillors of our plans and submitted the motion on the first week in September, allowing seven weeks for campaigning. At this stage we had six councillors we knew would vote to twin.
We wrote to Mark Hendrick asking him to speak at meetings in support of the twinning (we received a short reply declining the invite).
Over the seven weeks of the campaign we held local meetings about the twinning – in part this involved explaining what twinning was and why our plan was not the usual council junket. We had weekly organisational meetings that planned our activities. We organised constituents to lobby councillors and got a petition of 3,000 names supporting the plan.
The Thursday before the vote we held a political meeting that 500 people came to. This is as big a political meeting as we have ever held in Preston. What was remarkable about it was that there were no national speakers. Speakers included regional CWU and FBU officials, two imams, a vicar, a Jewish socialist and Elaine Abbott and myself as the seconder and proposer of the motion. We also received messages of support from Tony Benn, George Galloway, Lindsey German and Betty Hunter that were read out to the meeting (and used extensively in our press releases). We got a huge amount of coverage from the media. I was interviewed on Granada and BBC news, Radio 4, the BBC World Service, Lancashire Radio, West Midlands Radio and the Asian Network. Both the Guardian and the Independent covered the story, as did the local press and Asian News.
But more interestingly, the size of the meeting and the volume of coverage started to open up debate within the local Labour Party. To paraphrase one Labour councillor, in the council chamber, he said, ‘If we vote this through Michael Lavalette will get all the credit, if we do not the Labour group will get the blame – our only hope is to embrace this issue as our own.’ The consequence was that, on the day, we got a credible 18 votes – one Tory (out of 13), two Lib Dems (out of nine), 12 Labour (out of 25), two Labour independents (Terry and Joyce Cartwright) and myself.
As the vote was announced a number of furious rows erupted between Labour councillors. There are now a couple of councillors who we will be talking to about the new unity coalition.
Locally we have not finished with Palestine. We have established a local PSC group. We are trying to get the local unions, churches and mosques who were involved in the campaign to ‘twin’ with similar institutions in Nablus anyway. We are planning a delegation visit to the West Bank next summer – and we will bring back the twinning plan to council at some future date, hopefully after the next elections when we will have more councillors elected on the new unity ticket.
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