Workers' Liberty #64/5


Prospects for the Socialist Alliances

The Socialist Alliances meet in conference this month. The issues are discussed by Martin Thomas.

Over the last five years, Tony Blair and his circle have constructed a neo-liberal "party within a party" on top of the Labour Party. With big-business funding, and now state patronage, Blair's machine has lifted itself away from the ties that the old Labour Party had to the organised working class. Millions of working class people have effectively been disenfranchised.

The trade union leaders have cringed to Blair, and thus the Millbank machine has not needed to move to cut all the mechanisms of Labour's trade-union link.

The main strategic task of the working-class socialist left is to turn the trade unions around, to reorient the mass organisations of the working class towards struggle and towards organising new layers, and to rebuild a political culture for self-emancipation in the working class. The "new anti-capitalist" mood burgeoning after the Seattle anti-WTO protest is an immense boost for our efforts here. But such work alone is not sufficient.

Either we abandon the whole arena of electoral politics to the Blair machine - saying, in effect, to working-class people, that we will help them fight on any number of single issues against the Government, but dare not counterpose an overall alternative to that government - or we take the fight for a workers' government into that arena, too, by standing independent working-class socialist candidates.

There is a political job which electoral activity can do and other activities - strike support activity, door-to-door paper sales, street demonstrations - can't. The other activities protest and fight against particular policies of the Government and the bosses. Our electoral challenges publicly counterpose an overall alternative to the very class nature of the Government. They raise publicly and actively the idea of workers' political representation.

It is vital that our candidates and our campaigns have a common underlying "big idea", rather than just be strung together around whatever left-wing demands seem most catchy at the time. Without that "big idea", our message is just a loose collection of "good causes". Voters may sympathise with the "good causes", but probably won't find them sufficient reason to vote for a candidate who does not look like winning.

The need for a "big idea" is indicated not only by political reasoning, but also by practical experience in France. The 1.5 million votes won by Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrire in France's 1995 presidential elections were the best electoral result by a revolutionary left candidate in Europe for many decades. She achieved it partly by persistence - standing in every presidential election since 1974 - and partly thanks to the dedicated effort of her organisation's members, but also thanks to a consistent political approach. While declaring herself openly to be a revolutionary communist, and taking stands as appropriate on current political issues, she has emphasised that her presidential campaigns are not about this or that current issue or programmatic goal. They are about allowing workers to use the ballot box to send a clear and simple message to each other and to the Establishment - that they want policies in the interests of "the world of labour" and not of profits. In the 1995 campaign this core message was spelled out, usefully I think, through a nine-point "emergency plan for the workers and the unemployed". The very idea of an "emergency plan" for the working class became a mobilising theme over and above the detailed demands.

The London Socialist Alliance has voted in favour of using wording such as "a workers' voice", or "workers' representatives on workers' wages", or "standing up for workers, the jobless, pensioners and students", and has sometimes used them. But it has rejected making this its "big idea" or unifying theme.

The other issues which have been contentious in the LSA and Socialist Alliances are the number of candidates we should stand in the next General Election; the "no paper sales" rule adopted by the LSA conference in June - that individual socialist organisations involved in the LSA cannot sell their own publications while on LSA activity; and whether we can go beyond our electoral alliance to broader unity.

To provide leverage for the broader struggle for working-class political representation, our candidates need to have a certain minimum of personal credibility and activist support. That suggests a relatively prudent and cautious approach to General Election candidacies - within the limits, of course, of having enough of them to make a visible impact.

On the other hand, if some components of the Socialist Alliance - specifically the Socialist Party - want to put resources into a broader spread of candidacies, it would be foolish and divisive to try to deny them Socialist Alliance endorsement. We need not argue about this, except in cases where the Socialist Party is intent on putting up Socialist Alliance candidates against Labour MPs who (as one LSA activist put it) "are recognised as left by the workers' movement". To stand against the left MPs is to renounce attempts to apply leverage to the contradictions within the Labour/union structure, and instead just to plant ourselves in our own corner and appeal to the working class to come over to us one by one. To recruit workers one by one is vital. But it cannot be the sum total of socialist strategy, least of all in a country like Britain with a long-established, deeply-rooted web of labour organisations to which class-conscious workers feel loyalty.

There are, of course, very few left Labour MPs, and most of them are weak. However, most of those few are in constituencies where the revolutionary left is also relatively strong. The tactical imperative to seek a "united front" approach to the workers who look to those left MPs has some practical consequences for us, and they should be accepted.

The majority at the LSA conference in June voted that "no such activity" as sales of affiliated organisations' papers "shall take place while canvassing on behalf of the LSA". The rational undercurrent here is that the LSA should come across to new people as a coherent force, and one welcoming the unaffiliated, rather than a stew of sects. For that sort of reason, when different activist left factions combine for opposition groups in trade unions, for example, they generally avoid ostentatious "party" self-labelling.

Some unaffiliated LSA supporters see the ban as protection for themselves and assertion of the LSA identity above factional identities. Actually, it may turn out otherwise. Given the greater numbers of the SWP, and its penchant for flyposting, if other political identities within the LSA are to be kept in purdah, then the casual observer is likely to assume that the LSA is the SWP in drag.

If the LSA functions as an extension of the SWP, but with the addition that it protects the SWP from electoral competition from other activist left groups and thus the chagrin it suffered in the late 1970s when it was outpaced electorally by the IMG and Socialist Unity, then that makes sense for the SWP. It does not make sense for the other factions in the LSA, nor for the LSA as a whole.

A proper development of the LSA requires that the press of the different revolutionary factions not be consigned to the Alliance's equivalent of a newsagent's top shelf, but instead read, discussed and debated.

To some comrades, especially in the SWP, to propose a united organisation which would frequently bubble with dispute reveals a morbid, introspective mentality. Why spend time indoors reading or discussing when we could be out on the streets and active? Who but a sectarian could want to do that? But out on the streets we are usually trying to promote ideas, with leaflets, papers, and so on. To spend time clarifying our ideas is no waste. After decades of Stalinist domination of the left - which has left its imprint on the anti-Stalinist left, too - and in a rapidly-changing world, we have a vast job of self-education and theoretical elucidation to do. Without a revolutionary theory, no revolutionary movement - as Lenin put it.

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