The Socialist Alliance conference will take place on Saturday 5 February.
Members will be faced with a choice. Either the SA will be placed in cold
storage or wound up, as the Socialist Workers Party will propose; or we will
elect a new leadership with a new perspective. Supporters of the Republican
Socialist Tendency within the SA will be supporting the latter and opposing any
move to freeze or end the alliance.
A new direction is indicated by our call for a republican SA. This means an SA
committed to campaigning for a democratic republic and for a mass republican
socialist party, along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party. We will be
proposing changes to the SA constitution to encompass this shift in direction -
necessary if the alliance is to survive this crisis and then begin to grow.
The SA is inactive, if not moribund. Why should anybody fight to keep it going?
We have to start by understanding what the SA represents. It comes from, or
reflects, a deeper instinctive striving for unity among a politically conscious
and active part of the working class in the face of New Labour. Workers have
little time for socialist sectarianism and disunity, which helps the employers
and New Labour. The desire for socialist unity was given concrete form in the
Today no socialist organisation can be launched without including words about
‘unity’ or ‘united’ in its name. Thus we have Respect, the Unity Coalition, the
Liverpool-based United Socialist Party (TUSP), as well as the Socialist Unity
Network and a new electoral bloc called the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. Yet
none of these have reached the level achieved by the SA in 1999 to 2001. The SA
is still the standard to beat. These new unity projects are merely pretenders to
the socialist unity crown.
At its height the SA contained some leading activists from the Labour Party. In
Dave Nellist, Liz Davis, Dave Church, John Nicholson we had an ex-Labour MP, an
ex-Labour parliamentary candidate and ex-Labour council leaders. Alongside them
were the SWP, Socialist Party, CPGB, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Workers
Power, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, International Socialist Group, etc. Had
this organisation been built during the anti-war movement, there would have been
plenty of room for George Galloway and others to join and play a leading role.
The SA set the high water mark for socialist unity in England over the last 20
years. The unity tide has been going out. But the achievement of the SA was real
enough. This is why those who are still fighting for socialist unity are
determined to defend the SA and continue to put over its socialist unity
message. The SA shows what can be achieved. The left in England can unite not
only in theory, but in practice.
It is necessary to criticise the CPGB on this point. From being a partisan
supporter of the SA, the CPGB is now reduced to following the SWP’s twists and
turns. The significance of the SA has been forgotten. The CPGB supported the SA
when it was the most advanced socialist unity movement. The CPGB is more or less
absent from its defence. Now the CPGB seems to see the significance of the SA
only in the presence or absence of the SWP. If the SWP is not on board what’s
The defence of the SA is not about its debts, website or its ability to mobilise
a mass membership. It is the defence of the idea of socialist unity. Before
rejecting the need to defend an ‘idea’ it is worth pondering on the history of
the CPGB. In 1991 the bulk of the membership up and left. A tiny group of
comrades kept the name alive. They were defending the idea of a Communist Party
in practical form.
To defend the SA is to defend the idea of socialist unity, even if we are
reduced to less than a hundred members. The task of communists is to be in the
vanguard of that defence. CPGB members must prove themselves the best fighters
for socialist unity. This includes the defence of the SA against the
liquidators. If not, the CPGB is relating to the rightward-moving SWP, but not
to the unity aspirations of the advanced part of the class.
Of course defending the SA is not simply a matter of wanting it to continue. We
have to understand the present predicament in the politics that have led to its
virtual extinction. For this we have to go back to 1999-2001, when the SA was
rejuvenated through the involvement and leadership of the SWP. A new SA (mark
two) was born. Not surprisingly this reflected the political weaknesses of the
SWP. In the 1990s the programme and strategy of the SWP was confused. The party
was disorientated. High-level revolutionary rhetoric was matched with low-level
economism. The party was opposed to standing in elections at a time when it was
more important than ever to challenge New Labour. The SA seemed to offer a way
forward. It became the means by which the SWP entered the electoral field. But
it imported all its ideological problems into the new SA and produced a strange
political brew of ‘economist electoralism’.
In 2000-2001 the SWP thought election campaigns could succeed without having
built a base in the working class. In Bedfordshire we had a classic example of
electoralist politics. In the months before the election, Vauxhall decided to
close its car plant in Luton with thousands of redundancies. The SA had a
candidate in place. But the SWP decided to intervene as the SWP. It effectively
undermined the SA candidate. The SWP rationale was that industrial struggle was
for the ‘revolutionary party’, whereas the SA should concentrate on elections.
This division of labour between ‘class struggle’ and elections was highly
divisive. It caused much frustration to non-SWP members, who saw it as
manipulation. It was not fundamentally different after the election with the
firefighters’ dispute and the massive anti-war movement. Of course the SWP had
no objection to the SA tagging along behind these movements. But the idea of
trying to build the SA by leading these movements and proving our worth in
struggle was not accepted. That was the job for the SWP. It was no different on
the question of a national SA paper. Why would we want a paper if all we really
needed was election leaflets?
A similar story was to be heard over the kind of politics the SA would preach.
The SA would advocate economism. The SWP saw the SA as a site for disillusioned
Labour Party members and voters. The politics of old Labour is ‘economistic’,
promising economic and social reform through the institutions of the
constitutional monarchy. Was the plan to become her majesty’s Socialist Alliance
government and then renationalise the railways, as Clement Atlee had done? This
is so absurd as to be discounted. Perhaps the SA merely hoped that by stealing
enough protest votes from New Labour it would persuade Blair to renationalise
the railways and improve the health service on our behalf?
The Scottish Socialist Party makes an interesting comparison. The SSP sees
itself as a party aiming to win power and then implement its programme. But it
seeks power not simply within the confines of the British constitution. It makes
a priority of changing the political laws which govern the constitutional status
of Scotland. The SSP intends to win power through the process of changing the
power structure. Nothing like that seems to have entered the heads of our
The SA’s political strategy was ‘incredible’. It defined itself as no more than
a formation in search of protest votes, not a serious party seeking to win
power. Fortunately all this did not go unchallenged. On the local level we had
the struggle in the Bedfordshire SA. This showed up the political differences
between the SWP and the other SA members. Nationally there was a parallel
‘political and pro-party’ wing of the SA. At the 2000 conference we proposed
democratic and republican demands, some of which were accepted reluctantly and
then binned afterwards. At the 2001 SA conference we put forward constitutional
proposals to adopt the example of the SSP and prepare for a republican socialist
In 1982-83 some SWP members, including myself, had been arguing for a united
front perspective against Tony Cliff’s ‘downturn’ theory. This theory concluded
that the party must isolate itself from a movement that was going down to
defeat. We observed the same downturn, but drew the opposite conclusion. We saw
it as an employers’ offensive and the united front was the means to fight it. No
sooner was Cliff’s theory firmly in the saddle than the 1984 miners’ strike
began. The struggle of the miners blew Cliff’s sectarian conclusions out of the
water. For some months into the strike the SWP continued to operate on its own
without any united front. The rest of the left joined the miners support groups.
Of course, Cliff could see the reality. Soon the trumpets sounded and the SWP
retreated from its isolation to join the united front support groups. The point
of this story is that theories are tested by mass movements.
The same is true today. The theory of ‘economistic electoralism’ was exposed by
the Iraq war, which produced a mass democratic movement of historic proportions.
Such movements require socialists to put forward democratic demands and slogans
to raise the level of political consciousness and put new tasks before the
people. Preaching abstract socialism or demanding the renationalisation of the
railways can not do that. The politics and leadership of the SA was tested and
found wanting. ‘Economistic electoralism’ made the SA unfit to lead the anti-war
movement. What was the point of having SA speakers on the platform? This was a
war, not an election. But it was not just a crisis for Blair’s government and a
test for the system of government itself. It was a major and possibly fatal blow
to the SA. Blair is still in power, but the SA has never recovered.
Clare Short MP, a cabinet minister at the start of the war, draws out some
important political lessons. She says: “The mistakes on Iraq and support for the
US war on terror are the most spectacular and serious manifestations of a deep
malfunction in the British political system and in British constitutional
arrangements. Under the Thatcher government, but much more seriously under the
Blair government, the checks and balances of the British government system have
broken down” (C Short An honourable deception? London 2004, p277). Short goes on
to claim that “the errors we are making over Iraq and other recent initiatives
flow … from the style and organisation of our government”. In her resignation
speech she explains that “the problem is the centralisation of power into the
hands of the prime minister and an increasingly small number of advisors who
make decisions in private without proper discussion” (cover).
“The consequence of this is that parliamentary majorities are taken for granted.
Parliament is downgraded and ignored, the power of the prime minister is
enhanced and the cabinet sidelined” (p278). She concludes that the system of
government is seriously flawed, “leading to increasingly poor policy initiatives
being rammed through parliament, which is straining and abusing party loyalty
and undermining the people’s respect for our political system” (cover).
The Iraq war did not cause the failure or bankruptcy of the
political-constitutional system. But the question of war heightened the crisis,
and put the system of government under closer public scrutiny. When two million
march in protest, the failure of democracy and manipulation of public opinion is
brought under the spotlight. The ‘crisis of democracy’ requires and demands
answers from the socialist and working class movement. The economism of the SA
meant it had no democratic message for the people.
The war in Iraq was therefore the decisive turning point in the development of
the SA. It exposed the weakness of parliament, the lack of any genuine democracy
and the need for a new working class party. The SA should have intervened in the
anti-war movement to make the case for democratic republicanism and a new party.
Mass opposition to the war provided fertile ground to win support for such a
party. Yet the SA failed to put over the arguments. The SWP’s indifference to
democratic questions dominated the politics of the SA. These policy failures
were exposed by the Iraq war.
It is true that the whole of the SA was united against the war. But the SA had
nothing distinctive to say, especially about the need for ‘regime change’ in the
UK. It failed to act as a united front. Instead of building SA unity in action
and taking such united activity to a higher level, the SA’s constituent
organisations began acting on their own. The SA failed to provide socialist
leadership for the anti-war movement. Despite the role played by SA members in
the anti-war movement, the SA failed as an organisation.
After the war ended the SWP and its allies continued to sideline the SA. They
began looking for a new initiative. It was only a short step for the SWP to
convince itself to ditch its failed SA and resurrect ‘economistic electoralism’
in partnership with George Galloway. Thus Respect was born. Galloway would front
a more effective electoralism, whilst the token concession made in the SA to
republicanism could now be finally dropped. The SA began to collapse, as the
leadership abandoned the organisation and placed all its support behind Respect.
Where does this leave us now? Despite all its failings, the SA (mark two) is a
real part of the experience of the socialist movement. It falls to us to defend
what was achieved without taking responsibility for its political failings.
However, the SA cannot be saved simply as an ancient monument to socialist
unity. It can only be revived politically if it consciously breaks with
‘economistic electoralism’. If the Socialist Alliance survives, it can only be
as a smaller but much more focused campaigning organisation, prepared to take up
the fight for a democratic republic and to unite the left and the advanced part
of working class in a republican socialist party.
The ‘crisis of democracy’, the political vacuum to the left of Labour, the
weakness and disunity of the socialist movement, and the growing alienation of
sections of the trade unions, such as the RMT and FBU, all point in one
direction - to a mass republican socialist party along the lines of the SSP. A
democratically organised, republican socialist party alone is capable of uniting
socialists, communists and sections of trade unionists in one party behind the
fight for a democratic republic and socialism.
However, if objective factors point in this direction, mass political
consciousness does not. There is a massive gap between the two. Neither can we
leap over that gap nor pretend it is not there. We cannot simply declare a
workers’ party and think everybody will unite. This is the mistake that the
Liverpool based TUSP seems to be making. We need an alliance as a bridge to span
the gap. The socialist movement is still at the stage of alliances, whether they
are called Respect, the SA, the SA (Democracy Platform) or the Socialist Green
This is why we propose a different kind of alliance - a republican Socialist
Alliance - the midwife of a republican socialist party, which alone can unite
our movement in building a mass democratic movement to change the way we are
governed. There is no other road to socialism. It is not Clare Short nor the
Labour Party that can do this, but the political organisation of the working
class. A republican Socialist Alliance would be an important step in the right