What happened to the Socialist Alliance?

This month marks twenty years since the Socialist Alliance conference, on 1 December 2001, which brought the organisation under the complete domination and control of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This effectively ended an initiative that had previously had the potential to play an important role in bringing together different socialist organisations, trade unionists, community campaigners, and activists from the then emergent anti-capitalist movement, as a ‘staging post’ towards a mass alternative to Tony Blair’s New Labour government, a new workers’ party.
With the issue of how to organise an inclusive pre-formation on the road to a new mass party once again to the fore, following the defeat of Corbynism within the framework of Sir Keir Starmer’s revived Blairite Labour, we are reprinting two articles on the experience of the Socialist Alliance.
The first article, written by HANNAH SELL and published in The Socialist No.231, 23 November 2001, is a preview of the issues at stake at the December 2001 conference, which had been called to agree a new constitution for the Socialist Alliance. The second, on page 27, by CLIVE HEEMSKERK, is abridged from a feature in Socialism Today No.79, November 2003, written as the SWP were winding down the Socialist Alliance after its failure to develop against the backdrop of the mass anti-war movement and the tremors rocking the Blair government.
Twenty years on, the contrast is stark between the ‘majority-takes-all’ approach which the SWP imposed on the Socialist Alliance and which sealed its demise, and the democratic federal structure of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), within which the Socialist Party has played a key role but which has been providing an inclusive framework for an electoral collaboration of different forces for over ten years now.

From The Socialist No.231, 23 November 2001

The constitutional questions being debated at the Socialist Alliance conference involve fundamental political differences on democracy, the nature of the Socialist Alliance, and the role it will play in the socialist electoral challenges of the future. If on 1 December the largest component group, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), force through their proposed constitution, the Socialist Alliance will be reduced, in essence, to little more than an SWP front.

The Socialist Alliance was founded in the mid-1990s as Labour was being transformed into an out-and-out party of big business. The vacuum created by the lack of a party which even only partially reflected the interests of working class people could, the Socialist Party argued, be filled by a new mass workers’ party, which would come into existence primarily as a result of workers’ own experiences of struggle.

The first foreshadowing of this process has been shown by public sector workers who have stood in elections, such as the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CATP), Hackney council workers and the Tameside care-home strikers.

Socialists, however, have a key role to play in speeding up the development of a new workers’ party, by arguing for a socialist programme, standing in elections and campaigning on the issue in the trade unions.

Inclusive alliance

The Socialist Party, the only force in the Socialist Alliance at this stage with elected councillors, has independently undertaken such activity. But we also helped to initiate the Socialist Alliance, small as its numbers were, as a force that could potentially play an important contributory role in the development of a future workers’ party.

Key to the potential role of the Socialist Alliance, however, was its open, inclusive approach. The Socialist Alliance aimed to bring together different socialist organisations and individuals on the basis of the maximum possible principled unity, whilst at the same time preserving the rights of all those who participated.

This meant that ourselves and others could appeal to local community campaigners and trade unionists to stand under the banner of the Socialist Alliance, without asking them to give up their own independent organisations and views.

In the last two years however, following the decision of the SWP to join, the Socialist Alliance has moved away from the inclusive, federal basis on which it was founded. Of course, we want maximum unity between socialists and welcome the decision of any left organisation, including the SWP, to take part in alliance work, provided that it is done on a principled basis.

The SWP however have not taken a principled attitude to the Socialist Alliance. Instead they have sought to dominate it by using weight of numbers to ride roughshod over the rights of the other component parts.

Consequently many organisations and individuals (the Leeds Left Alliance, the Preston Independent Labour councillors, the Leicester Radical Alliance etc) have become disillusioned with the SWP’s approach.

Front organisation

Unfortunately, where it has been dominated by the SWP, the Socialist Alliance itself has taken an equally arrogant attitude to forces moving into struggle, such as the Hackney council workers, the CATP, and others.

The SWP imagine that declaring the Socialist Alliance as the electoral alternative for the working class makes it so. They then accuse groups of workers of ‘sectarianism’ for failing to recognise the Socialist Alliance as the only legitimate voice of the working class.

On 1 December, the SWP are likely to again try to use their weight of numbers, this time to force through a constitution which will consolidate their grip on the Socialist Alliance. It is clear that the SWP already see the Socialist Alliance as simply a tool of their party. In their recent conference documents they talk about the central importance of building the SWP by working through different so-called ‘united front’ organisations, including “the campaign against the war, Globalise Resistance, the Socialist Alliance (and the SSP in Scotland), rank and file groupings in certain industries… the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, the Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Defend Council Housing and the Anti-Nazi League”.

They go on to say: “the ups and downs of the struggle mean that the importance of particular united fronts also rises and falls. A campaign that is absolutely central at one point may become much less so later on”.

This approach has been graphically confirmed by their attitude to the campaign against the war [on Afghanistan, launched in October 2001], during which they have largely ignored the Socialist Alliance. Instead they have put the Socialist Alliance on the ‘backburner’; like an occasionally useful tool that they will dust off and use again at a later stage when it suits their interests to do so.

We do not object to the SWP’s right to organise or to build their own party. On the contrary, we have fought for the rights of all organisations within the Socialist Alliance to do so, including ourselves. By contrast the SWP have accused anyone who dares to raise the rights of organisations within the Socialist Alliance of being ‘sectarian’, summarised in a constitution that does not even recognise the existence of different organisations within the Socialist Alliance.

Of course, the rights of the SWP will be protected because, in effect, they take the decisions in the Socialist Alliance. The only conclusion is that the SWP is not prepared to respect the rights of any organisation, including the Socialist Alliance, other than the SWP itself.

Consensus v domination

The SWP’s proposed constitution can superficially seem democratic, because it is based on one member one vote (OMOV). The SWP claim this will give maximum rights to individual members of the Socialist Alliance who are not part of any organised group. Yet, in reality, the SWP constitution will take all rights away from individual members because, at bottom, the SWP are currently able to mobilise enough people to outvote all other forces in the Socialist Alliance.

This does not mean that the SWP necessarily want to numerically dominate the structures of the Socialist Alliance. For example, their constitution proposes that the executive should be elected on a slate system. In other words, the SWP will put forward a list of who they want on the executive, and use their weight of numbers to vote it through. The new executive will undoubtedly include many non-members of the SWP, but they will be put there only by the grace and favour of the SWP, regardless of their lack of a social base.

And once elected this new executive will have phenomenal powers. It will, for example, be able to “disaffiliate local Socialist Alliances and remove individual membership or refuse to ratify candidate selection”. In other words power will be taken out of the hands of local Socialist Alliances and put into the hand of an executive, chosen by the SWP and watched over by an SWP-dominated National Council.

By contrast, the constitution put forward by the Socialist Party sees local Socialist Alliances as the key unit where campaigning and electoral decisions should be taken. Our constitution strengthens the rights of both organisations and individual members of the Socialist Alliance, by codifying our ‘consensus’ approach so that decisions are taken on the basis of the widest possible consensus between all organisations with a base in a local area, and with the support of a majority of individual members.

This ensures that no one organisation would be able to force through its own agenda with disregard for the rest of the Socialist Alliance. Instead discussion and, where necessary, open and principled compromise, would be the only way forward – the essence of an alliance.

Genuine alliance

If the SWP’s constitution is forced through on 1 December it would mean the end of the Socialist Alliance as a genuine alliance. This would be a tragedy. The Socialist Alliance is a small force but it is nonetheless an important step forward that, for over five years, socialists have worked together under its banner.

The Socialist Party is enthusiastically in favour of the Socialist Alliance but not at any cost. In the same way we welcomed the launch of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1995 because we saw the potential it had to become a significant force. However, we were not prepared to participate in the SLP on the basis of the extremely undemocratic constitution that Arthur Scargill imposed.

We correctly argued that the SLP would be stillborn as a result of its authoritarian approach. Similarly if the SWP’s constitution is forced through we will have no choice but to recognise the reality that the Socialist Alliance is no longer an alliance but, fundamentally, a plaything of the SWP. On this basis we would have no alternative but to cease participating in the Socialist Alliance.

If this setback does take place we would, of course, remain advocates of genuine alliance work – that is, the maximum possible principled unity between socialists. We would call on the Socialist Alliance to open discussions with all other left forces, including ourselves, to try and ensure that socialists don’t stand against each other in next May’s local authority elections. If such attempts were blocked by the SWP’s new ‘Socialist Alliance Party’, inevitably workers would find a democratic expression of their desire to maximise socialist unity.

The derailment of the Socialist Alliance by the SWP would undoubtedly be a setback, but we are confident it would not prevent the future growth of genuine alliances between socialists, anti-cuts campaigners, trade unionists and others.

In the struggles to come many thousands of workers will begin to draw the conclusion that they need to create a force to provide independent political representation for the working class. Unfortunately, on the basis of the SWP’s approach to workers inside and outside the Socialist Alliance (summed up in the constitution) the Socialist Alliance would not be able to act as a conduit for the building of such a force. It could then even become a certain obstacle on the road to the development of a new workers’ party. For this reason, above all, we appeal to all forces within the Socialist Alliance to mobilise to save the alliance and reject the SWP’s constitution.