Australian Socialist Alliance: a balance sheet

Submitted by AWL on 26 July, 2004 - 12:35

By Riki Lane and Janet Burstall

The Socialist Alliance (SA) began as an electoral alliance in early 2001 and has developed work in other areas, especially trade unions and anti-war campaigning. In local areas specific campaigns have also been taken up. Membership has grown, but the active membership core has not grown in proportion. The Alliance is changing as an organisation too, with a publication program, and organisational structures to include the affiliates and non-aligned members in Alliance decision making.
There are contentious issues here, with the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) being the largest group in the Alliance, and having more than half the active membership. The DSP and a section of the "Non Aligned Caucus" (which includes many ex-DSPers with DSP politics) will have a clear majority at the 2004 SA Conference in Melbourne in May.

The task of creating an effective socialist organisation with several political traditions and a diverse range of individuals could be at a turning point at this conference. It will depend largely on whether the DSP and its allies among the non-aligned maintain a sufficient willingness to ensure genuine inclusion of all points of view in publications and decision making bodies. The Alliance is accumulating some collective experiences of campaigning. The longer term health of the Alliance project depends on expanding this experience and critically evaluating it, incorporating insights from not only Alliance members but non-Alliance activists in broader campaigns. The Alliance's task is nothing short of generating a new body of socialist and working class campaigning knowledge that can inspire and attract honest activists in daily struggles to connect those struggles with a longer term socialist project.


Socialist Alliance continues to grow albeit slowly and unevenly. Votes in some electorate areas have shown a slow but steady increase. Some of the best results have been at particular council elections where local issues are seriously addressed as well as broader ones. There is generally a problem with an overbalance of "BIG" political issues, especially in local and state level elections where national and international politics tend to be the most prominent aspects of campaigning. This may attract an ideological protest vote, and distinguish the Alliance very clearly from other parties and candidates. But the price is that it does not relate to people who are voting and campaigning on issues particular to that level of government. The message taken by many working class people in the electorate is that the Alliance is not a serious voice for their practical or daily concerns, and by implication that socialism is more concerned with other remote people, than them.


Some progress on union activity has been made. In the teachers, NTEU and NSW PSA, SA caucuses have been increasing their influence and understanding. This should not be overstated, and the resignation by Michael Thomson - the most prominent SA member in the NTEU is a blow. Michael disagreed with a common assessment in SA that the result of the NTEU dispute was a defeat. I think he was right in this - the very successful national strike resulted in the government backing off on the anti-union provision of the Nelson agenda. This was a victory, and should be recognised as such by SA. The government did not back off on the anti-student provisions. However, there was no great support amongst NTEU members for further industrial action over the remaining issues.

The debate about priorities in trade union work has been interesting and useful. There are two different emphases in motions for the 2004 conference. Sue Bolton's draft motion puts the stress on "defending the militant union current" as the central political guideline. Our grassroots union work is then seen as aiming to extend that current. The alternative draft puts the stress the other way around - we have to build up the unions through grassroots activism, thus creating the basis for solidarity, militant challenges for leadership etc.

In this view, we also stress the need for union "unity in struggle" as a guiding principle. Socialist activists should not allow themselves to be portrayed as splitters. It is the sell-out leaderships who undermine the unity and strength of the members by doing deals with the boss behind their backs etc.


Seeing Red (SR) has appeared and shows considerable promise for attracting a wider readership and being a vehicle for debate and discussion. Having its own publication is a vital step for developing SA's profile and voice.

The long awaited Book on Socialism has yet to appear even in draft. An inclusive process of discussion is needed for it to help SA develop a clear conception (or conceptions) of what we mean by socialism. The inclusion of diverse Alliance opinions (e.g. about whether the USSR was socialist, relations between unions and social movements, unions and the ALP) will be a strong point, in both giving genuine meaning to the multi-tendency nature of the Alliance, and in making the book more educational internally and externally by providing a fair representation of the choices and issues engaging socialists.

The debate about SA's relationship with Green Left Weekly appears through a fog of smoke and mirrors. It is hard to see what is real and what is imaginary. The actual National Executive resolution merely says that we will continue a trial that aims to get more SA input into GLW. It is hard to see many objections to that. However, the discussion and the practice in many branches are quite different.

At one and the same time, Workers' Liberty members: hear in branches that GLW is the 'paper of SA' and should be sold by all members; hear that some branches are being asked to take bundles of GLW to sell; read in Alliance Voices (AV) that GLW has to remain an independent paper so that it will retain its broad readership; and read in AV that SA will gradually take over the DSP's relationship with GLW.

What this all really seems to mean is that the DSP will retain control of GLW, but that SA will start to take responsibility for it. There cannot be genuine SA responsibility, with commitment amongst the whole membership, without a sense of ownership of editorial and decision making resting with the whole of the SA, without one affiliate having a more powerful role.

Workers' Liberty would prefer that SA worked towards launching a new weekly paper, utilising the resources of all affiliate publications and non-aligned members, full of debate and discussion, broad and open to the working class and social movements. This should take into account the broadsheet experiences which have had limited success. This would require a very different set of proposals to conference which could be worked towards for the 2005 conference if it is not too late.

The best course for SA in 2004 - 2005 is to focus on building Seeing Red - building a good distribution base, ensuring lively debate, and increasing its frequency.

Iraq War

SA activists have played an important role in building the demonstrations against the US coalition occupation of Iraq. However, this has tended to slide into uncritical support for the military "resistance", without recognition of the reactionary nature of its main Ba'athist and Islamist components. Instead of supporting an independent working class alternative, SA has supported "our enemy's enemy".

Only lip service has been paid to giving support to independent unemployed, trade union and women's organisations. A resolution from Workers Liberty was carried at the NE to raise money for the Unemployed Union of Iraq. This has never been implemented, because the DSP and ISO do not like the politics of the UUI - which opposes both the Occupation and the Ba'athists and Islamists.

This points out a broader problem in SA - you can get motions passed, but they will not be carried out if they do not meet the priorities of the main forces.

Decision making structures

No consensus has emerged about the best way to go with SA leadership bodies. Current structures are workable, but have some problems. The National Executive (NE) has sometimes been a rubber stamp for the National Convenors (NC) and Working Groups (WG). The unelected WGs are really running SA. The NC is overloaded with work. The non-aligned NE members have not had a regular report back role in their states.

The current organisational proposals seem to have two main aims:

i) to reduce the influence of pesky small affiliates who raise difficult questions;

ii) to give the DSP more representation, because they represent perhaps 25% of SA's membership and a larger proportion of the active members, both in branches and in the National WGs

Unsurprisingly, the DSP has supported these proposals. There is some validity to the idea that the national bodies should more accurately reflect the composition of the membership. However, if it is based on Dick Nichol's idea that "those who work should lead", we may have a rather small representation from non-aligned members - certainly not 50% as is proposed. There is a problem with the definition of "work" - some people's political work is focused around specifically Alliance building tasks, running Alliance stalls, making placards, organising branch meetings, being on an Alliance committee. These tasks are definitely necessary. But what about other SA members whose main political work could be as a union delegate, as a community activist, or writing? They may not be seen at Alliance meetings or stalls very often. But does the Alliance value and recognise their work?

The latest Non Aligned Caucus NE WG proposal has a number of problems. It increases the power of the unelected WGs. It increases the load on the NC. It reduces the input from affiliates and states to bimonthly. It means that there will be no election at the national conference at all. A quite unrepresentative NE could result if state conference elections of NE delegates are by slate, as majority votes could result in all non-aligned delegates being of a similar viewpoint.

The best options at this point are: to continue the current structure with improvements - an increased working role for NE members, formal report back requirements to state conferences, etc; or elect a working NE by proportional representation.

Proportional representation

Whatever structures are decided upon, we need to entrench the principle of proportional representation (PR) at all levels of SA. A slate system has the advantage that everyone knows whom he or she is voting for, and there is an obligation on all proposers to appear to be relatively inclusive. However there is equally the prospect that significant unpopular minorities could be deliberately excluded and squeezed out, which would be an undesirable development. A slate system gives no guarantee of minority representation - 50%+1 decides and can exclude all other voices.

Proportional Representation can be messy and unpredictable - but that is the point! That is what democratic votes are all about - people deciding who they support and the result is the collective expression of those choices. It puts the onus on everyone to be open to discussion and persuasion in order to try to create a cohesive whole, a spirit which is needed in the class struggle as a whole, and which SA should on principle model.

This is particularly important if the latest NAC NEWG proposal is adopted - otherwise the larger affiliates will have complete control over which non-aligned members represent the states on the NE.

Where to now?

The last year has seen increasing dissatisfaction amongst many non-aligned members and members of the smaller affiliates, including Workers' Liberty. This has been reflected in a shift in voting patterns on the NE - with the Non-Aligned Caucus no longer voting as a block. Many SA members feel that, slowly but inexorably, the DSP is increasing its influence over SA.

This raises questions - do we want to sell a basically unchanged GLW? Are we happy to be marginalised minorities in an SA that adopts the DSP world view? Can the DSP restrain themselves from pushing for organisational domination?

The SA is a long-term project still in its early stages. There are achievements being made in establishing connections with working class communities. The work in trade unions has been valuable in itself and debates on union issues have been extremely valuable in educating the SA membership - affiliate and non-aligned alike.

This points up one of the best things about SA - the joint campaigning work and discussions are forcing affiliate members to relate seriously to other conceptions.

We will not be selling GLW any time soon, but we are very happy to sell Seeing Red. The DSP's and ISO's different worldviews will continue to dominate SA in the medium term. However, SA remains the best possibility of developing towards a working class party that can be a voice of and for working class struggle at all levels of politics, elections, industrial campaigns, street campaigns and community campaigns. An outward focus by the SA on what we can offer working class people in struggle is what will enable the SA to unite in making progress towards being such a party.

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