First the good news: the left is getting together in large numbers early next year. There will be a "Left Unity Convention", probably on 25 January, and a "Convention of the Trade Union Left", definitely on 7 February.
Now the bad news: the way these events are being set up.
A private conclave at George Galloway's house in London on Sunday 30 November apparently set the 25 January date; chose a name - "RESPECT Unity Coalition" - for a grouping to contest the June 2004 euro-elections with Galloway as figurehead and lead candidate; and drafted a political platform.
According to best reports, the conclave involved Galloway, leaders and associates of the Socialist Workers' Party, and Bob Crow of the RMT rail union.
The name, "Respect", finesses the rumbling grumbling about whether the coalition will be "socialist" by having the "s" stand for "socialist" (the "r" for resistance, "e" for ecological, etc.), so that if you want to see it as calling itself socialist you can, but if you don't, you needn't. No "w" for workers, that's for sure.
The draft platform has not been made public yet (some tweaking and arm-twisting to get initial signatures must still be going on behind the scenes) but a text is circulating. It is vague, not specifically working-class, and "socialist" only in the sense of formulas like "a world where solidarity rather than self-interest is the spirit of the age".
But it is more leftish than previous drafts. Its anti-euro stance has been toned down with a warning against "the xenophobic right wing". George Monbiot, once the bogeyman of coalition-doubters, seems to be no longer central to the business. The Muslim Association of Britain (British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) has been courted, but seems unlikely to join the coalition, if only (and this is a sad comment on the leftists involved) because MAB is pro-euro.
The SWP has been involved in talks with Galloway at least since New Labour started moves to expel him, in April 2003. The talks with him and with others have been done entirely over the head of the Socialist Alliance, the existing structured coalition in which the SWP is involved with other left groups and activists, though partly in its name.
Now it looks as if they can rope in the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) and maybe even the Socialist Party, as well as a number of trade unionists.
The last Socialist Alliance executive, on 22 November, rejected a motion from me against a Galloway coalition, and another from Lesley Mahmood calling for an Alliance special conference in January (i.e. in time to express an opinion on the new coalition before it is done and dusted). It authorised SA chair Nick Wrack (who is close to the SWP) to sign a political base-text for the new coalition on behalf of the SA if he is satisfied with it, without first having to come back to another committee meeting.
The open debate on this coalition-building, with definite proposals on the table, will thus be bunched into a tight sequence of meetings: SA Executive on 3 January, SA Council (exec plus local delegates) on 17 January, Left Convention on 24 January, and trade union convention on 7 February.
That there is debate about coalitions is good. What there will be a fight about is whether the guideline principle invoked by many in this business, independent working-class political representation, is discussed seriously or just given lip-service.
Galloway, after all, has proclaimed that he will aim to "unite socialists, liberals and conservatives". He declares that £150,000 a year is what he "need[s] to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system" (Scotsman, 19/05/03).
We are in favour of a coalition of the left. But on a principled basis. We are not sectarians and pedants. But there have to be bottom lines. We will fight relentlessly for three basic demands.
1. A working-class stance. A coalition's platform, policy and programme must be firmly set within the framework of independent working-class representation, of speaking up for the interests and struggles of the working class. It must advocate public ownership and workers' control of productive wealth. It must stand for workers' MPs on a worker's wage. It must help the trade unions along the road to demanding an independent workers' voice in politics, and ultimately a new mass workers' party.
2. Democracy. The policies and programme of the coalition must be decided through a democratic debate among its rank-and-file activists and supporting organisations, with the possibility of amendments and alternatives. The coalition must be pluralist. Its leaders must be accountable.
3. Break with Galloway. No political platform on paper can have credibility unless its public leaders and candidates represent it credibly. No coalition can have a credible working-class stance if its figurehead is George Galloway.
Galloway's sole claim to be considered left-wing, aside from long-ago tankie Stalinism, is the Iraq issue. But precisely on that issue, despite his opposition to the US/UK war, his record is right-wing (close links with the Saddam regime; personal links with Tariq Aziz; activity financed - on Galloway's own story - by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and by a businessman well connected to the Baghdad dictatorship).
Trade unions like the RMT have begun to think about alternatives to New Labour. It will be bad if they are dragged into alliances on a catch-all "anti-Blair" basis rather than moving towards a link-up with other union organisations and socialist groups to create a new force for authentic and accountable workers' representation.
- Convention of the Trade Union Left, Friends Meeting House, Euston, London, 7 February 2004: