From a 'front' to a living political force
Motivation for the proposals from Janine Booth, Alison Brown, Pete Radcliff and Martin Thomas (Workers' Liberty)
The Socialist Alliance must take on the job of fighting to recreate independent working-class representation as Blair closes the channels for that representation which used to exist in the Labour Party structure.
Our job cannot be done just by raising a "profile" and waiting for workers to flock to it. It requires years of working to recreate a broad socialist confidence in the working class, and to establish a doorstep credibility for the Socialist Alliance as a force sensitive to and active on every democratic, socialist and working-class battle.
It requires serious political work in the trade unions around the aim of reasserting on a new basis the working-class parliamentary representation which the Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party has, effectively, taken away from trade unionists. That should be done alongside, and in part on the basis of, work to organise the rank and file in the unions against the bureaucrats and for union democracy.
We need to take the Socialist Alliance forwards. No longer just an electoral "front"; no longer, even, just an electoral and ad-hoc campaigning "front" the Alliance should become a living, breathing, interventionist political force, one which fights effectively for the labour movement to transform itself and create a workers' government.
Unfortunately our December conference will discuss only constitutional and structural issues. We will have to address the generation of a proper political life for the Alliance "backwards" or at one remove, by way of discussing what constitution and structure best encourage a proper political life.
We have submitted three constitutional amendments and two supplementary resolutions.
1. Transparency in decision-making. Regardless of election procedures and other constitutional details, no activist movement can develop a proper political life of its own unless its members can know exactly what political decisions have been taken, why, by whom, and against what counter-proposals or objections. We had an understandably very brief and rushed policy discussion around our 10 March conference in Birmingham. The important recent discussions about union political funds (and whether we should campaign for unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party) and about state bans on fascists have been more like fragmentary muttering than debates where everyone can clearly hear what's said. Now that we are reorganising ourselves for a long-term effort not just a quick dash to a General Election we need to institute proper procedures.
This amendment also proposes "federalism" in the proper sense, i.e. not elaborate vetoes-and-quotas, but an explicit agreement that until the Alliance has developed a common political culture of its own, through experience and debate, it cannot presume to impose centralist discipline on local Alliances and participating groups.
2. Election of the National Executive. We are in favour of the conference voting between alternative entire slates for the National Executive; we proposed this approach ourselves, a while back, and Workers' Liberty supported a similar method in the Australian Socialist Alliance. It is the simplest way of ensuring that the Executive that we elect is reasonably balanced. However, it does not ensure that unless voting-by-slates is combined with fallback guarantees for minority representation. Otherwise, it is all too easy for a majority to use voting-by-slate to snuff out minorities.
A stroppy individual may annoy the majority, yet represent a substantial minority viewpoint in the Alliance - either an organised faction, or a looser "unaffiliated" body of opinion. Under straight slate-voting, an impatient majority can exclude that individual from its slate, and then the minority's chances of getting her or him onto the Executive depend entirely on how good their guesswork is about who on the majority slate is least popular and should be bumped off in order to compile an alternative slate which includes their chosen spokesperson.
If we write fallback guarantees of representation for stroppy minorities into the constitution, then quite likely we will never actually have to use them. The mere existence of the guarantees will make majorities more patient. Yet the guarantees which we propose are workable - and they should be there.
Even if a balanced slate is proposed and elected this year, acceptable to almost everyone, that is no guarantee for the future. Democracy includes minority rights as well as majority rights. If your union elected its Executive by slate, would you be happy with a right-wing majority in the union saying that "democracy" implied their right to vote through an Executive which contained no representative of the left at all?
3. Editorial sub-committee. We should have a monthly SA paper. The Alliance cannot develop a proper political life unless it can develop a proper written political discussion, both between the Alliance and wider circles of working-class activists, and within the Alliance.
Our "additional proposals" address what we see as legitimate concerns raised by the Socialist Party. We do not support the Socialist Party's full-blown proposals for an eight-section Executive and elaborate vetoes and quotas in local Alliances. They are, paradoxically, too centralist: we cannot at this stage prescribe in such detail for local structures. More crucially, they would push the political life of the Alliance towards haggling and power-broking rather than transparent political debate. Such haggling and power-broking tends to produce domination for the strongest blocs rather than proper minority rights. However, there are several good ideas in the SP's submission. There is much that we support in the alternative proposed constitution from Workers' Power, too. We would argue for the debate at the December conference to be conducted in such a way that members can choose to combine elements from different submissions. We ourselves have pruned and refined our proposals accordingly.
We are against the constitution including clauses which suggest the parliamentary constituency or, in general, relatively small units as the proper basis for local Socialist Alliances. Just as the Blairite push to abolish constituency General Committees is calculated to gut political life in Labour Parties even where the ward organisations are adequate for electoral and campaigning work, so also our Alliance needs the broader political interaction allowed by borough or town meetings. Moreover, the parliamentary constituency is a unit for nothing much in politics outside parliamentary elections (i.e. nothing much at all, in most areas, for the next four years); a borough or town is a better unit for most sorts of campaigning. Borough or town Socialist Alliances can of course develop special, more compact, sub-groups for smaller geographical areas or for particular campaign efforts.
Proposals from Janine Booth, Alison Brown, Pete Radcliff and Martin Thomas (Workers' Liberty)
1. Transparency in decision-making
1. The Socialist Alliance must be a model of civilised democracy, in contrast to the bureaucratism and control-freakery of New Labour. We need efficient decision-making on the Alliance's responses to political events; transparency and accountability in decision-making; maximum discussion before all important decisions; decision by consensus wherever possible; and autonomy for groups within the Alliance.
2. All important decisions should be taken through written resolutions of appropriate conferences or committees. All decision-making bodies of the Alliance must keep minutes of their proceedings which include the text of all proposals adopted, defeated, or remitted, and details of votes. These minutes must be circulated promptly to all Socialist Alliance members who request them, either free by email or, on payment of an extra subscription sufficient to cover costs, by ordinary mail.
3. Membership of the Alliance carries an obligation not to obstruct campaigns decided on by the Alliance. We recognise, however, that from time to time the Alliance may decide by a majority on a policy or a campaign to which a minority has a clear political objection. In such circumstances we recognise the right of the minority publicly and actively to promote their own views. Groups joining the Alliance, and local Alliances, retain the right to campaign autonomously according to their own priorities. The Alliance will encourage joint discussion and joint action wherever possible.
2. Election of National Executive
1. A National Executive shall be elected as a bloc from conference. Its composition should include the principal minority trends of the Alliance and ensure a reasonable geographical and gender balance. The National Executive elects the officers of the Alliance.
2. Any body of 20 or more members may propose a slate for the National Executive. Voting will be by alternative vote, between slates. Any member of the Socialist Alliance may nominate themselves to be considered for inclusion in these slates.
3. The proposers of every slate must include in their proposal information for the conference on the political affiliation and locality of each nominee, and on the gender balance of the slate.
4. As a fallback guarantee, any group of members may declare themselves a caucus and be entitled to representation on the National Executive in proportion to their numbers, i.e. a caucus including x% of the members of the Alliance is entitled to x% of the places on the Executive (with the number rounded off downwards, e.g. if the entitlement works out at 2.9 places, the caucus gets 2 places). This guarantee should be implemented by requiring every slate to include the stipulated number of places for the caucus in question.
3. Editorial sub-committee
1. The National Executive should elect an Editorial Committee.
2. This Committee will be responsible for producing a regular Socialist Alliance paper.
3. The Editorial Committee should ensure that Socialist Alliance newsletters, newspapers, and public bulletins both are geared towards agitation on the issues and campaigns on which there is wide agreement in the Alliance and give appropriate space to minority views, debates, and controversial letters.
4. The Editorial Committee should also produce a Socialist Alliance information and discussion bulletin. The bulletin will include circulars, briefing papers, minutes, etc., and all discussion articles up to 500 words in length submitted by Socialist Alliance members. It should be circulated to all Socialist Alliance members who wish to subscribe to it, either free by email or, on payment of a sum sufficient to cover costs, by ordinary mail.
5. In electing the Editorial Committee, the National Executive should make sure that the Committee reflects the political diversity of the Alliance. The Committee is answerable to the Executive, but may include people who are not members of the Executive.
4. Safeguards on candidate selection
1. The SA does not claim a monopoly on independent working-class politics. We support the broad labour movement asserting itself politically and electorally against Blair's New Labour, even if the self-assertion does not at first express itself in a full socialist platform. When genuinely representative independent working-class candidates emerge from the broad labour movement, the Socialist Alliance will generally support them, and participate in their campaigns with our own identity and ideas. We cannot however have a blanket rule which would oblige us to defer to "campaign" candidates even if they have only narrow support and only a narrow populist platform. We recognise that problems and differences of assessment will arise over particular candidates how broadly representative are they, how far do they have a clear working-class character? We will seek to resolve these issues through wide and patient discussion. Generally, our initial response to pro-working-class candidates will be to discuss with them the idea of them standing under the combined banner of their campaign or trade-union organisation and of the Socialist Alliance.
2. The SA will deal with all issues involving electoral candidates who have a substantial prior electoral profile their own political profile, prior to the profile they have just as Socialist Alliance representatives through negotiation and a search for compromise and consensus, rather than by simple majority rule, either local or national. The SA will seek to develop a unified and coherent public profile, but by way of developing cooperation and trust over time rather than by majority decree.
[We also propose that the existing section D of the constitution - the provisions for electoral activity made by the Coventry SA conference - should stand, with the obvious updating amendments, rather than being deleted from the constitution].
5. Guidelines for local Alliances
- The Socialist Alliance will encourage local Socialist Alliances scrupulously to observe the traditional labour movement norms of procedure. Minutes should be kept and checked. Socialist Alliance meetings should have time ring-fenced for debate and discussion from the floor rather than the top table. Committees should be elected and accountable; include representatives of minority opinions; and keep, circulate, and check minutes. Officers should make reports and be open to question.
Local Socialist Alliance meeting schedules should include a proportion of debates sessions where speakers from different viewpoints in or near the Alliance spectrum are deliberately invited to promote debate and exchange of ideas.
A broad range of magazines, newspapers, and leaflets from the Alliance spectrum should be made available in Socialist Alliance meetings and at Socialist Alliance activities. On Socialist Alliance public activities, it is important that we 'front up' as the Socialist Alliance, rather than as a conglomerate of groups. It is also important that we are, and are seen to be, pluralist just as a democratic trade-union branch containing different political factions can present a clear union policy and profile to a workforce while also making clear that it respects the rights of minorities.