More alliance, no socialism?

Submitted by martin on 19 October, 2003 - 12:44

Things do not look good for the Socialist Alliance, the coalition of socialist groups and activists which gained some momentum in 2000 and ran 98 candidates in the 2001 General Election. A National Council meeting in Sheffield on 18 October voted to rally to the proposal for a mushy "progressive bloc" in electoral politics announced by George Monbiot and Salma Yaqoob in the Guardian of 13 October 2003.
As is regrettably usual with the Socialist Alliance these days, this major political turn was not spelled out in any precise resolution. The Council's vote was to defeat a motion "that the Socialist Alliance will not dissolve itself into a new liberal or non-socialist coalition, and the manifesto of the Yaqoob-Monbiot initiative defines it as such a coalition".
That leaves the Alliance's top leaders free to pursue a course vaguely defined by Alan Thornett (Resistance/ ISG), when he opened the Council debate, as "opening up a dialogue".
The Alliance has already called a rally in London on 29 October (7.30pm, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road) which looks set to be the scene for film-maker Ken Loach and MP George Galloway (likely to be expelled by the Labour Party on 22 October) to announce they are joining the "dialogue".
According to the Guardian, Monbiot and Yaqoob plan a "convention" before the end of this year, but maybe not. The Socialist Alliance has sponsored a "convention of the trade union left" for 7 February 2004, evidently with the hope of using it to rally union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT (railworkers) to the "bloc".
Another vote at the Socialist Alliance Council defeated attempts to make the Alliance's next conference earlier than March 2004. By then the "progressive bloc" may be a done deal. The next democratic forum of any size in the Alliance is a Council meeting (Executive, plus delegates from local branches) on 17 January; in the meantime, various strands of the Alliance opposition will gather to discuss directions on 8 November (11.30 to 3.30, United Services Club, Gough St, Birmingham).
Moving the proposal to define the Yaqoob-Monbiot project as a non-socialist coalition from which the Socialist Alliance should maintain political independence, I said that their manifesto contains some points with which we could agree. (Repeal of anti-union laws; opposition to further privatisation and tuition fees; more progressive taxation; cancellation of Third World debt. It also contains some warm words "opposed to all forms of discrimination", including on grounds of sexual orientation).
Nevertheless it is not - it makes no claim to be - any sort of socialist or working-class manifesto. We can ally with people like Yaqoob and Monbiot in many campaigns. To rally to their manifesto would be to tell voters that we consider socialism and working-class struggle as marginal extras, ideas that need not be included in the broad outline of a political alternative to the status quo. It would cut against building a political alternative through grass-roots activism, as an authentic voice of working-class representation.
I also questioned procedures. Both Yaqoob, an anti-war activist who defines her political
stance as "Muslim", and Monbiot, a greenie journalist, have worked closely with the SWP (the dominant group in the Socialist Alliance) for some time. In an article for Red Pepper magazine, Yaqoob had written that "senior members from... the Socialist Alliance, various trade unions, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Student Christian Movement and the Non-Violent Communication Network have... expressed an interest in participating..."; and that Alex Callinicos of the SWP had given "valuable feedback".
Yet no information at all on talks with Yaqoob and Monbiot had been given to the Alliance before the report in the Guardian.
Under questioning in a short session of the Alliance Executive before the Council meeting, Rob Hoveman (Alliance secretary and an SWP member) conceded that he had met Yaqoob and Monbiot to discuss the initiative in late August. John Rees (also SWP) hinted that maybe Yaqoob had rushed into print quicker than he thought prudent, saying that he had told her that "intellectual production had outrun political reality".
No more information was given. It is impossible to be confident of any accountability in the "dialogue" to be "opened up".
My proposal was an amendment to a motion from Stockport Socialist Alliance, moved by John Pearson (Weekly Worker). Pearson pointed out that Yaqoob-Monbiot "support independently owned and operated companies which are socially responsible". (They object to big capitalist corporations - on the grounds of their size, not their capitalism). It was "petty bourgeois utopianism". Alan Thornett had said that involvement with the Yaqoob-Monbiot initiative was necessary in order to establish a "credible" alternative to New Labour. Why, asked Pearson, did Thornett not think socialism "credible"?
A good question. Clive Searle (close to SWP) responded to my criticism of Yaqoob-Monbiot by saying that if I was right then he himself was not a socialist, because he agreed with most of the Yaqoob-Monbiot text. The authors were moving to the left. We couldn't stand outside the process.
Although they are quite experienced political activists, many other people in the meeting seemed to share Searle's incomprehension. Or perhaps it was because they are experienced politicos. Disappointments and setbacks over the years have eroded their awareness of what they are working for into a vague blur, leaving them essentially only as "anti" activists, anti-this, anti-that, but pro they're not sure what. To them "socialism" is no longer the bright vision they would have had when they were young - the free association of producers on the basis of social ownership of productive wealth, under the control of a workers' democracy - but a catch-all term for an oppositional stance.
Alan Thornett described the Yaqoob-Monbiot text as "a very sophisticated proposal, very well written... a very good start for discussion around a broad alliance". The surprising thing about it was it had "so much agreement" with what the Socialist Alliance says. It set a good template for "a broader formation of which the Socialist Alliance will be an active and organised part". For John Rees, it was "part of a process". Matthew Caygill (close to SWP) insisted that we must support anything that "builds the movement".
Seven delegates voted to keep the Socialist Alliance independent - Alison Brown and Peter Bird (Sheffield SA), Sue Blackwell (South Birmingham SA), Pete McLaren (Coventry SA), John Pearson and Sabrina Nutter (Stockport SA), and myself from the SA Executive. All the other sometimes-dissident members of the Executive missed the meeting or at least the vote. Two delegates abstained: Dave Landau (Islington SA) and Tim Oxton (Colchester SA). The majority had twenty or thirty votes.
It was a sad business. The question now is how many Socialist Alliance activists can be rallied to continue the fight for working-class politics. The next station along the road is the Alliance opposition get-together on 8 November.
* Yaqoob-Monbiot manifesto, and other background. For ideas on a socialist alternative to the "pink-green bloc" orientation, see www.independentsocialistalliance.net.

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