The Socialist Alliance's National Council met on 14 December. Gerry Byrne reflects on the debate.
It may have been the fact that the firefighters' action had been called off the week before, pending discussions with ACAS, or a hang-over from the "Liz Davies affair" (the National Council voted overwhelmingly to accept the EC's report on the matter) but I felt this National Council was rather desultory. It left me with a sense of missed opportunity and a nagging question: does the Socialist Alliance see any independent role for itself?
The firefighters' dispute encapsulates both the opportunities and problems faced by the SA. On the one hand, it's a gift: revived class struggle, a Labour Government waging class war on a popular group of workers, and the SA clearly standing for our class against treacherous "new Labour". On the other, the SA is small, often seems deluded about its actual influence, and is divided into competing groups, who put their own work, papers, meetings before the Alliance.
I was shocked at the ferocity of the attacks on the firefighters in the press and hearing that garbage regurgitated by working class people. But I also know that there was a huge well of support, based on class "instinct", that was thirsty for arguments to counter those of our class enemies. The SA could have, should have, been at the fore, delivering the basic political solidarity. It could have benefited from being seen as a united left force putting forward working class politics (as to some extent seems to have happened in Scotland with the SSP). Coulda, shoulda, if my auntie had balls she'd be my uncle
The one motion on the table on the SA and the firefighters was from Martin Thomas of Workers' Liberty. It included the call (which proved most contentious) for Labour-affiliated unions to campaign for a recall Labour conference. Many comrades complained that the discussion revolved round the motion, rather than what the SA might do in the dispute more broadly. But that's what you get if it's the only motion.
The discussion actually summed up the whole problem. The motion was an attempt to address what should be the SA's political response to the fightback against Blair which is happening on an industrial level - the idea of re-founding an independent working class political party. So what did the 40-50 people who voted against the motion think we should be doing?
Many comrades expressed confusion about why the SA should bother itself with a recall Labour conference. Why not have our own, they said. In fact the demand is about labour movement accountability: unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and are still its main funders. That's our money, we should be getting something for it.
Comrades seem to believe that declaring the SA as the alternative to Labour makes it true. But that is confusing wish-fulfilment with reality. There are major differences about what the SA is and could potentially be, how we get from here and now to an independent working class party, which we all profess as our goal.
There were big differences too in the discussion about opposing war on Iraq. The only motion was from Marcus Strom (Weekly Worker), condemning the terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, and calling for the SA to promote our distinctive socialist politics within the anti-war movement. An amendment from Martin Thomas, calling for opposition to joint sponsorship of Stop the War activities with the Islamist Muslim Association of Britain fell heavily. An amendment from Mark Hoskisson of Workers' Power, to delete any mention of the SA promoting secularism, democracy and freedom of religion, was carried. The resulting mutilated motion was carried, 22 to 20, with the SWP voting against.
In the discussion, John Rees (SWP) had explained: "we do not put forward our full position, e.g., 'one Palestine whole and free from the river to the sea' but a minimum programme, as part of a broad strategy which everyone can agree on". Apart from the fact that secularists can't agree on a coalition with people who want an Islamic state, what role does that leave for the Socialist Alliance? If socialists within the SA are not going to argue socialist, secularist, democratic politics, what's the point of the SA?