Why did the Socialist Alliance break-down?

From Socialism Today No.79, November 2003

“Those on the left who have pinned their hopes on founding a new socialist party”, wrote the veteran Labour left-winger Tony Benn on the eve of Labour’s Bournemouth conference, “should note that the Socialist Alliance candidate only received 366 votes in Brent East and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was only able to get 111 votes, which does not promise well for that strategy”. (Morning Star, 26 September 2003)

It is true that the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP)-dominated Socialist Alliance polled badly in Brent East, in what was a (formerly) safe Labour inner-London seat, with a non-white majority electorate, in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Even compared to parliamentary by-election results achieved by the Socialist Alliance three years ago – 885 votes (5.39%) in Tottenham (June 2000) and 1,210 votes (5.7%) in Preston (November 2000) – 366 votes (1.73%) is poor. But by equating the idea of a new party with the pretensions of the SWP’s Socialist Alliance (and Scargill’s SLP), Tony Benn is evading the real issue, the responsibility of the left trade union leaders and Labour left MPs to give a real lead. If, for example, Tony Benn himself had contested Brent as an independent socialist candidate, explaining that he was standing not to begin a new extended parliamentary career [having retired as an MP in 2001 at the age of 76] but to advance the process towards a new workers’ party to challenge New Labour, who could say that he may not have won?

Similarly, although he does not have the same authority as Tony Benn, the newly-expelled MP George Galloway could play an important role in the next period. If, as has been suggested, he was to resign his Glasgow Kelvin seat and stand for re-election as an independent socialist, the subsequent by-election could have a dramatic effect, crystallising opposition to New Labour. The alternative suggestion that has emerged, of standing in London for the European parliament elections in nine months time (June 2004) – even though a vote of 10% or so would be sufficient to win a seat – may not have the same impact.

But whatever electoral option Galloway decides on, his campaign would need to be clear on the critical issue of what the Labour Party has now become, a thoroughly capitalist party which cannot be regenerated as a vehicle for working class political representation. The Guardian report (24 October) that “he hopes that if Mr Blair is replaced by a more sympathetic leader, he may yet rejoin the party”, if it is accurate, does not provide the clarity of perspective needed. The report also suggests, however, that Galloway “may yet help to form a new electoral challenge to New Labour from the left”. This could be an important development, as a precursor to a future situation where greater forces, particularly from the trade unions, become involved. But even this, a ‘pre-formation’ on the road to a new mass workers’ party, would need to be democratically organised and genuinely inclusive.

Lessons from the SLP

This is the most important lesson to be drawn from the failure of both the Socialist Alliance and Scargill’s SLP to make any headway. The SLP, launched in 1995, had some early electoral successes, winning 1,193 votes (5.4%) in the Hemsworth by-election (February 1996) and 949 votes (5.3%) in Barnsley East (December 1996). These results, before Labour was elected and when the mood was overwhelmingly anti-Tory, provide a favourable comparison with the performance of the SWP’s Socialist Alliance, six years into a Labour government.

The SLP also initially attracted some significant trade union figures such as Bob Crow, now general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT), and Mick Rix, the recently-departed general secretary of the train drivers union ASLEF. Unfortunately, however, Arthur Scargill used the prestige he had earned as the National Union of Mineworkers’ leader in the battles of the 1970s and 1980s, to ensure that the SLP was not organised with a structure that would have allowed different groups to collaborate under a common banner. Consequently, the SLP failed to take off and its trade union supporters dropped away.

The Socialist Alliance was established from this time, with the Socialist Party as one of its founding organisations. The Alliance at that point had a federal structure which allowed supporting organisations to work within a common framework while still pursing their own campaigning methods and promoting their own political ideas. It achieved some modest successes enabling, for example, 98 candidates to stand under one umbrella in the 2001 general election. At that stage, unfortunately, the SWP, having only recently joined the Socialist Alliance in 2000, moved to take it over.

Having abandoned (without explanation) their 20-year policy of opposing socialists’ participation in elections – because they felt that doing so gave credence to the false idea that parliament is the only mechanism through which society can be changed – they saw the Socialist Alliance as a vehicle for their electoral activity, on a par with the other front organisations they have set-up, such as the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and Globalise Resistance. Under the guise of promoting ‘individual members participation’ the SWP used their numerical majority at the December 2001 Socialist Alliance conference to abolish the constitutional rights of (current and potential future) affiliated organisations and ensure themselves control. With the Socialist Party effectively disaffiliated, Socialist Party members, including the then Socialist Alliance national chair and former Labour MP, Dave Nellist, had no option but to leave.

Since then the Socialist Alliance has failed to make any real progress, with all bar a handful of the non-SWP individual members falling away. Former Labour Party national executive committee member, Liz Davies, who replaced Dave Nellist as chair, hailed the new Socialist Alliance as “a more democratic, more participatory, and more inclusive organisation than any political party I have known” (Socialist Worker, 8 December, 2001). Within ten months she had resigned, along with the former editor of the Labour Left Briefing magazine, Mike Marqusee (until then, an uncritical supporter of the SWP within the Socialist Alliance), claiming that the trust necessary to ensure “the premise of the Socialist Alliance, that individuals and groups from different political backgrounds and perspectives could work together on a common political project”, had been irretrievably undermined by the SWP.

Role of the unions

The SWP’s undemocratic reputation has provided ammunition to union leaders who want to keep the Labour link. FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist, unable to advance positive reasons why the fire-fighters’ union should continue to fund Labour, has pointed to “something fundamentally different from the Labour Party” about the Socialist Alliance, “in terms of accountability and representation”. The Socialist Alliance is “not actually constituted so that organisations can affiliate” (Red Pepper, September 2002). Even the PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, the only non-SWP prominent trade unionist in the Socialist Alliance, conceded, in this Red Pepper ‘roundtable discussion’, that “Andy is right in pointing out that the Socialist Alliance, for instance, has a weak constitutional structure”.

Andy Gilchrist has also pointed to the Socialist Alliance’s mediocre electoral performance to reinforce his case against FBU disaffiliation from Labour. Of course, electoral success is never guaranteed, even with the right policies and approach. It has been difficult to achieve electoral breakthroughs, particularly in council and Westminster elections with a first-past-the-post electoral system. The Socialist Party, with a better electoral record than the SWP – when we were in the Socialist Alliance and outside it – has always recognised that our results (with four elected councillors) are just a foretaste of what could be achieved by a new workers’ party, initiated and built by the unions. The early pioneers of the labour movement, such as Keir Hardie and James Connolly, also suffered electoral setbacks, which no doubt reinforced the arguments of the right-wing that it was ‘premature’ for the unions to break with the Liberal Party. They responded, by continuing to contest elections, but also by ‘reversing the charge’ – by demanding the unions themselves form a labour movement party, to stand their own candidates. The SWP, however, by refusing to put their electoral activity in this context – and instead insisting that the unions’ task is merely to “back political campaigns and candidates” including the Socialist Alliance (Use the Unions’ Political Funds for Socialists, Socialist Worker, 14 December, 2002) – play into the hands of those opposed to breaking the Labour link.

The Socialist Party would support a credible electoral challenge emerging from the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement, although we will remain firm in our defence of a socialist programme and our right, within any joint electoral bloc, to present our own ideas. Given our warnings – which we made in advance of their realisation – on the negative lessons of the failure of the Socialist Alliance and Scargill’s SLP, we will press the case for democracy and inclusiveness with ever greater vigour.