Martin Thomas reports on attempts to build unity amongst the London left in the prelude to the European Parliament elections this summer.
Last November I was asked to go as the Alliance for Workers' Liberty representative to meetings with other left groups to discuss the possibility of a united socialist list for London in the Euro-elections. The meetings are small, and at the start were rather haphazard. The people there I knew only from a distance or not at all. I tried to "feel my way" into the discussions, cautiously.
The first meeting I attended had before it a sketch platform for a united list, drafted by Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party. It had some of the peculiar Socialist Party/ Militant features - a bit too much like a blueprint for an ideal government, rather than a statement of a line of struggle - but it was a reasonable basis for discussion. Worried about the platform dissolving into a bland list of "good causes", through a dual process of sharper working class commitments being softened to accommodate the cautious, and miscellaneous demands being added to court particular interests, I argued for a short text - as short as or shorter than Hannah's draft - with a clear working class and socialist focus. Plainly some disagreed. "We don't want far-left language... people will be put off by talk of the working class and nationalisation... we want a broad appeal."
The issue was remitted to a sub-committee: AWL, SWP, Socialist Party, Independent Labour Network. In the 1970s and '80s we used to criticise Militant, forerunner of the SP, as making a dogmatic fetish of the demand "nationalise the top 200 monopolies". Now, after some speeches from Socialist Party people which seemed to me too conciliatory, I found myself taking aside the SP rep on the sub-committee and urging her not to compromise on the substance of this demand. I was fussing too much. Julie Donovan from the SP spoke well on the question, and we got the gist of the demand into the platform, thanks to a felicitous reformulation from the SWP.
In the sub-committee meetings, there was a genuine exchange of ideas. We were able to work together, with our different "angles" and nuances, to keep and even strengthen a working class and socialist focus for the platform. On issue after issue, discussion eventually led one of us to propose a wording that the others quickly recognise as suitable. The ILN reps, though clearly from a different political culture from us "Trots", were constructive, open-minded, thoughtful. We got agreement, ratified by the full committee.
The last time I was involved in such committee meetings with the SWP was to prepare for the "Time To Go" conference on Ireland. That was more a matter of negotiations than of discussions. At the conference itself Chris Bambery, the SWP rep on the planning committee, went round to all the SWP members there issuing imperative (and effective) instructions that they must not under any circumstances speak to AWL members.
I have recently spent six months in Australia: there I am banned for life from public meetings of the SWP's local offshoot, the ISO, because I criticised (rather gently, and without speaking out of turn or heckling!) their slogan of "no free speech" for the far-right politician Pauline Hanson. Free speech on the left? "No," ISO leader Ian Rintoul yelled at me as he strode off down the street, "we only believe in free speech for sensible people!"
Here, when I miss a meeting of the Euro-election committee because my elderly father is in hospital, on my return I have SWP representative Rob Hoveman asking me how my dad is! Quite like one human being talking to another. Unfortunately the new approach is, for now, I think, for SWP Central Committee use only, as they try to fix up a "package" of united-left election activity which will then be presented to the SWP members as a ready-made, all-set-to-go new turn. On the demonstrations against the bombing of Iraq it looks as if the idea of dealing with other Marxists as human beings, or even comrades, rather than demons, has not yet "trickled down" to SWP activists, any more than stock market wealth trickles down to the poor. I meet one SWP organiser who worked at my older daughter's nursery, a likeable, outgoing woman. Does she ask how the little girl is? She does not. She acknowledges my greeting, curtly, and busies herself elsewhere.
Will a new spirit, of cooperation and serious debate on differences, eventually filter down? Over-optimism would be foolish. There are exceptional and technical pressures for unity in the Euro-elections: to run a single candidate costs as much as running a full slate of ten. A few Independent Labour Network people from outside London have been denouncing their London comrades as having fallen captive to the "ultra-left", and threatening to construct an alternative "broad" left slate against us. The SWP has not been very cooperative outside London, so far, or in most trade unions. The Socialist Party, very amiable and cooperative on the committee, have so far refused to reply to a letter from the AWL suggesting talks on further joint activity and debate.
It remains, however, sometimes true that hypocrisy is the beginning of virtue. And on our side there is the pressure of facts. The growing working class anger against Blair - still lacking confidence and focus - demands a realignment by the activist left, and a joint effort to point the way towards trade union self-assertion and a reconstruction of working class politics.