The special conference of the Socialist Alliance in London on 13 March voted effectively to shut down the organisation in favour of the Galloway/ SWP coalition "Respect". A one-third minority, which withdrew from the conference after the decisive vote, resolved to continue the Alliance.
Not wishing the name "Socialist Alliance" to be freely available to the minority, the majority postponed any formal decision to wind up the SA until late 2004. For candidates in the June council elections, for example, the minority will have to resort to titles like "Democratic Socialist Alliance".
The essence of the majority decision was that the SA will stand no candidates in the June council elections - not even where Respect is not standing, despite the fact that Respect has no great plans for the council elections, and despite the fact that Respect has no local government policy whatsoever.
Since the SA majority (around the Socialist Workers Party, SWP) defines the SA as an "electoral united front", and since it proposed no non-electoral activities for the SA either, this means putting the SA into cold storage. In some local SAs, such as Cambridge, SWPers have already pushed through decisions to cease meeting.
The minority consists of the AWL, most of the remaining unaffiliated activists in the SA, and some smaller groups such as the International Socialist League, Revolutionary Democratic Group, and Workers' International.
The conference opened with a number of challenges to the Conference Arrangements Committee about speaking times (John Pearson), order of debating amendments (Pete McLaren), motions having been ruled out of order (Steve Freeman), method for choosing speakers (Margaret Manning), and whether the proposed ban on local SA candidates contravened the SA constitution (me).
All were defeated. As if to endorse John Pearson's contention, in his defeated challenge to Conference Arrangements, that the proposed speaking times were unequal, the conference then had a 15-minute "chair's introduction" from Nick Wrack (close to SWP), arguing for Respect.
Ten contributions from the floor were taken in "general discussion", about half unqualifiedly pro-Respect, about half arguing for the possibility of SA candidates alongside Respect on the basis of local autonomy. Only one anti-Respect speaker was taken, Toby Abse, and his speech did not focus on his opposition to Respect. Only one speech directly against Respect (mine, moving an AWL/ Stockport SA composite motion) would be taken in the whole conference.
The conference then ploughed through the main motions and amendments with a perfunctory four minutes for and four minutes against each proposition.
Alan Thornett (Resistance) moved the main no-SA-candidates motion. He repeated the claim of SWP speakers that Respect was a burgeoning "mass movement". Since Respect has now decided to license Respect candidates for local council elections as well as the Euro and Greater London Authority elections which will be its main focus on 10 June, SA candidates could make no sense, said Thornett.
Sue Blackwell took the speech against Thornett, from the viewpoint of one who supports Respect with misgivings but wants to preserve SA autonomy.
John Nicholson moved the "softest" of three amendments to loosen the main motion's ban on SA candidates. His amendment would require any potential SA candidates to plug Respect in their election literature. If they agreed to do that, they would then have to consult with the local Respect organisation, the SA Executive, and the Respect Executive. If they had still not been dissuaded or cajoled into standing as Respect instead, they would not be absolutely banned.
Nicholson's amendment was backed by the "Socialist Unity Network", a grouping of people close to the SWP but desiring more civilised procedures, including SA office worker Will McMahon. Nicholson argued that the main motion was too "London-centred" and too focused on the "boring" Euro-elections.
John Rees (SWP) opposed it. Lee Rock moved the second amendment, from the CPGB/Weekly Worker, which is the only group other than the SWP and Resistance to have decided to join Respect, but wants to establish an oppositional stance within it. His amendment would allow local SA candidates after "consultation" but without the requirement to endorse Respect.
SWP national organiser Chris Bambery's speech against stirred cries of protest from some of the supporters of Resistance, normally the SWP's most docile allies. Bambery went to war against those who spoke of supporting Respect with qualifications, or "critically engaging" with it.
The Euro-elections were not boring at all. They were the chance for Respect to break through the barrier imposed on the left by the perception that it is not electable. If Respect should fail by one per cent or so to reach the score required for a Euro-seat (eight or nine per cent in some areas, under the proportional representation voting system), then he, Bambery, would know who to blame: the fainthearts who had critical reservations about Respect, or tolerated other political ventures alongside it.
Lesley Mahmood moved the strongest of the three amendments, one from the SA minority ("Democracy Platform") that would remove support for Respect from the main motion and positively endorse SA council candidates.
She debunked SWPers' lavish claims for Respect as a "mass movement", all based on talking up scattered interest from trade unionists. (One RMT branch has voted to back Respect, nine have agreed to take speakers, one PCS rep in East London who was already an SA member has agreed to be a Respect candidate...) Standing in, or organising, independent left election campaigns for over ten years now, under various banners, she had always been able to get that sort of level of trade union support, and more. We still needed to fight for the socialist politics of the SA.
Kevin Ovenden (SWP) opposed. I moved the AWL/ Stockport composite opposing Respect outright, arguing that to ditch the working-class politics of the SA for the sake of an alliance with George Galloway, with his pro-Saddam political record and dodgy financial links would be to betray the Iraqi working class and to give up (after scarcely starting) on the attempt to build a working-class electoral alternative in England like the SSP in Scotland or the LCR-LO in France.
Candy Udwin (SWP), speaking against, made no reply on Galloway or on Respect's lack of working-class politics, but simply repeated the SWP line about putting all shoulders to the wheel for an electoral breakthrough.
The "soft" (Nicholson) amendment was defeated by 46 votes to 142. AWL and other "harder" oppositionists voted against it, as well as SWP.
The "middle" (Weekly Worker) amendment was defeated with 48 votes (numbers against not counted). The "hard" (Mahmood) amendment did better than either of the would-be soft or fallback options, with 63 votes in favour.
The unamended no-SA-candidates motion was carried by 121 votes to 64 with four abstentions. The votes for were all, as far as I could see, SWP or Resistance. The abstainers, I believe, were dissident Resistance people. The AWL/ Stockport motion fell.
The minority then withdrew to meet separately. We had been in our meeting only an hour or so when we heard that the rump conference had not only taken its lunch break but also run through the remaining 14 motions on its order paper and finished its business early.
The minority meeting, organised by the SA Democracy Platform, had a solid consensus on continuing to organise to do what the SA set out to do. The Democracy Platform committee will draft a statement from the meeting, based on the Democracy Platform leaflet issued when we walked out of the rump conference and text presented at the minority by myself and Steve Freeman.
Proposals from myself on the way forward (see below) were discussed but left on the table for further discussion at a Democracy Platform meeting on 3 April.
There was some debate on whether to "continue in the SA" (Chris Jones and others) or "launch a new organisation" (Dave Church and others). To my mind the argument is academic.
We are not leaving the SA. The official structures of the SA are leaving us. If we continue SA work, we will have to break, to some degree, with the official SA structures, for example to stand candidates in June. If we, the SA minority, are launching a new organisation, by what quirk would we not want to claim the name of the SA for it?
Proposals made to the minority meeting and remitted for further discussion on 3 April
1. Support and encourage local Socialist Alliances to continue to meet, to be active, and to contest council elections.
2. Support and encourage local groups of SA activists who wish to continue to meet, to be active, and to contest council elections on the basis of the broad founding ideas of the SA, but are blocked by local majorities who wish to wind down the SA.
3. Facilitate the coordination of those active local groups through a federation of independent socialist alliances.
4. Work with that federation to promote:
- A working-class presence in elections;
- Non-electoral political campaigning on various issues, on a democratic, working-class, and socialist basis;
- Cooperation with other socialist groups;
- Involvement in the trade union movement and with the various initiatives now afoot for working-class political representation and towards a new workers' party.
5. Work towards a new democratic alliance of socialists.
Letter of resignation from SA Executive by Steve Godward and Martin Thomas
We have consistently opposed unprincipled coalitions of the Respect type, and argued for the Socialist Alliance to build on a working-class socialist basis.
The decisions of today's conference commit the Socialist Alliance national structure to a course which leaves no room for the politics we argue for. We are therefore resigning from the Executive. We will continue to work and argue for the rebuilding of the Socialist Alliance as rank and file members.