What role for the Socialist Alliance?

A few weeks ago I was persuaded to speak at a debate organised by Workers Action, on the subject “What role for the Socialist Alliance?” In a contribution variously described as “grumpy and right wing” and “unpleasant and sarcastic”, my blunt answer to that question was “none whatsoever”. I didn’t see it as any kind of positive development that sections of the “revolutionary” left had joined forces to intervene in the general election. It was, I asserted, just another example of the far left’s apparently endless capacity for sectarianism, self-delusion and muddled thinking. In this article I would like to revisit some of the arguments I put forward to back up that assertion, hopefully expressing them in a rather less ranting and incoherent manner than I did at the Workers Action debate.

If you want an illustration of the muddled thinking of the “Marxist” left over the issue of the Socialist Alliance, you only have to look at the special general election issue of Action for Solidarity, published by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Here we are told: “Working class people need representatives in Parliament who will fight for the working class – the kind of people who are fighting in this election under the banner of the Socialist Alliance.” Which of course rather overlooks the point that not a single Socialist Alliance candidate stands the remotest chance of actually getting elected to parliament.

You don’t have to exercise immense political intelligence to work out that, if we really want socialists in the House of Commons to defend the interests of working people (and I think we should), then the best way to ensure that is by campaigning for the candidates of the Labour left, particularly those in marginal constituencies – in Meriden, for example, where the Tories are defending a majority of less than 600, and an effective mobilisation by the left could help win the seat for Christine Shawcroft. But, with the exception of the comrades from Labour Left Briefing, none of the organised left shows the slightest interest in this. All their talk about the need for workers’ representatives in parliament is just so much hot air.

Of course, while members of the British far left aren’t exactly the brightest people on the planet, none of them honestly believes that there’s a realistic prospect of one of their candidates winning. So what is the purpose of the Socialist Alliance’s intervention in the general election?

Again, we turn for enlightenment to Action for Solidarity, which informs us: “If we can get 5% for the Socialist Alliance in a number of seats, then Tony Blair will have to sit up and take notice. He’ll have to see that there is a real force to his left, willing and able to speak up for working class people.”

Well, actually, he won’t. If Socialist Alliance candidates were able to get, say, a consistent 10% of the vote across England and Wales, then that would certainly cause the Labour leadership to sit up and take notice – if only because it would result in the loss of a number of seats to the Tories or Liberal Democrats. But an average Socialist Alliance vote of 2% or so, with a handful of candidates saving their deposits (which is the most the Alliance can realistically hope for), won’t demonstrate that there is a “real force” to the left of Labour – quite the opposite.

In fact I think we can confidently state that the only Socialist Alliance candidate who could possibly get anything like 10% of the vote is the chair of the Alliance, Dave Nellist, in Coventry North East. The reason for that, of course, is that Nellist is a former Labour MP and consequently a good proportion of the electorate in that constituency know who he is and what he represents politically. Moreover, in his case, because he was undemocratically excluded from the Labour Party, standing against the official Labour candidate has some legitimacy in the eyes of Labour supporters. As we know from the examples of Ken Livingstone, Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan, these are the circumstances in which it’s possible to mount a meaningful electoral challenge to Labour from the left.

But hardly any of the other Socialist Alliance candidates are in that position. In the overwhelming majority of the constituencies where it’s standing, the Socialist Alliance is asking disillusioned Labour supporters to give their votes to a candidate they don’t know from the Man in the Moon, standing on behalf of an organisation they’ve probably never even heard of. It doesn’t require some towering Marxist intellect to work out that it won’t happen. If Labour voters disillusioned with Blair are going to express that disillusionment electorally, they’ll do it by abstaining – or in some cases by voting for the Liberal Democrats, who are positioned programmatically to the left of Labour these days and represent some sort of credible political alternative. They certainly won’t do it, at least in any significant numbers, by voting for the no-hope candidates of the Socialist Alliance.

So where will the Socialist Alliance get its votes? Well, there’s always a tiny section of the electorate that will give their support to a far left candidacy, however hopeless. In addition, the evidence of the 1997 general election and the GLA elections last year suggests that black or Asian candidates will get support on an ethnic basis – a reflection of the disgracefully low number of candidates from the minority communities who have been adopted by the main parties – although such support is on a small scale. And the backing given to the Alliance’s campaign by figures like film director Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger might attract some radically-minded Guardian readers who are rightly turned off by the Blair government’s enthusiastic promotion of social authoritarianism and free market economics. But it is doubtful whether, outside of that rather narrow layer of society, disaffected Labour voters will be particularly impressed by the revelation that their local Alliance candidate enjoys the support of Harold Pinter.

In short, the impact of the Socialist Alliance’s intervention in the general election – in terms of its effect on the development of mass politics in Britain – will be approximately zilch. From that standpoint, it’s a complete waste of time.

Except, of course, it isn’t strictly true to say that the Socialist Alliance plays no role. What it does is help to advance the narrow political and organisational interests of the various groups who have formed the Alliance. In the case of the Socialist Workers Party, this takes the fairly crude form of wanting to sell more papers and recruit more individual members. The International Socialist Group (publishers of Socialist Outlook) has a rather more sophisticated approach, seeing the Socialist Alliance as a step towards some new “party of recomposition” in which the supporters of the Fourth International will seek to establish a hegemonic position. But the basic sectarian method is the same.

Marxists, needless to say, approach politics from an entirely different standpoint. Their concern is not with the narrow objectives of small groups but with the wider question of what advances the interests of the labour movement as a whole. They would want to address questions such as how the Blairite offensive within the Labour Party can be rolled back, around what policies and democratic issues opposition can be maximised, what sort of alliances the left needs in the fight against New Labour, how the trade unions can be pressured into taking a stand in support of their own policies within the structures of the Labour Party, and so on.

In the case of the unions, which are of course the basic mass organisations of working people, there is the more fundamental problem of how they can be strengthened. With some 7 million members, the unions have recovered slightly over the last couple of years, but their total membership is not much more than half what it was two decades ago, and this in a situation where there are now far more people in paid employment than there were then. If the time and effort spent on pointless electoral stunts by the groups comprising the Socialist Alliance were instead devoted to some straightforward agitational and propaganda work aimed at persuading people to join a trade union, this could have some useful effect.

However, that isn’t of any great interest to the far left. For most of them, the labour movement is simply an arena in which to pursue their own sectarian aims. And at the moment it isn’t a very fruitful arena for that sort of thing. In the current circumstances, how many members can a pseudo-revolutionary group hope to win as a result of work inside the Labour Party? To pose the question is to answer it. Far better to denounce Blair from the outside, advertise yourself as the true socialist alternative to New Labour, and appeal to people to rally to your spotless banner. That way you might at least make a few recruits. And this, essentially, is the role of the Socialist Alliance – to enable a number of politically irrelevant far left groups to perpetuate their own irrelevant existence!

Of course, it is a feature of sectarians that they never admit to their own sectarianism. I’ve never yet been to a meeting where someone has got up and said: “What we need, comrades, is more sectarianism. We must on every occasion put the narrow interests of our own small organisation above those of the working class as a whole. Sod the broad labour movement – all we’re interested in is selling more papers and recruiting more members.” Though this is, in fact, the way they behave.

What sectarians have to do, therefore, is to rationalise their own sectarian behaviour. They need to pretend to be doing something other than what they really are doing. So, in the case of the Socialist Alliance, whereas in reality they are turning away from the labour movement, what they claim to be doing is rebuilding the labour movement.

According to one version of this self-justifying fantasy, the Socialist Alliance is playing the same role now as the ILP did in the 1890s. Just as socialists in that period sought to break the working class from the Liberals and win the trade unions to the idea of a new workers’ party, so socialists have to proceed today in relation to the Labour Party. Greg Tucker wrote an article in Socialist Outlook last year which explicitly drew this parallel, and the AWL, with its talk of forming a new Labour Representation Committee, is essentially putting forward the same line. Indeed, when I recently argued with a leading member of the AWL that the Socialist Alliance was a diversion from the real task of conducting a struggle within the Labour Party, he accused me of taking the same position as John Burns, who in the 1890s rejected the fight for independent labour politics and stuck with the Liberal Party.

All of this merely demonstrates the inability of the far left to learn any serious lessons from history. A moment’s consideration would reveal the absurdity of comparing the Socialist Alliance to the ILP, or the Liberal Party of the 1890s to the Labour Party of today.

The Liberal Party was not a workers’ party of any sort, had never been a workers’ party, and was not perceived as such by working people. The ILP was therefore able to stand candidates on the basis of independent labour politics and get quite respectable votes. As for the trade unions, within two years of the ILP leadership making its turn to the “labour alliance” it had persuaded the TUC to set up the Labour Representation Committee and lay the foundations of the Labour Party. The reason for this was that, with the exception of the miners, no trade union had any organised presence within the Liberal Party, and they were therefore receptive to the argument that the working class needed independent political representation. Contrast that with the situation in the Labour Party now, when the trade unions have nearly half the vote at annual conference and important positions at all levels of the Party – the National Executive and its various subcommittees, the National Policy Forum, regional boards and conferences. In these circumstances, the prospect for persuading a single national trade union to break from the Labour Party and support the Socialist Alliance is non-existent – which doesn’t stop speakers at Alliance rallies regularly advocating this course of action.

To give them their due the AWL, who retain some vestiges of political sophistication, baulk at this particular piece of nonsense. As Jill Mountford has pointed out in Action for Solidarity: “The way to get the unions to protest against the government is not to campaign for unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. If a large enough group of unions were prepared to do that and to set up a radical workers’ party immediately, then they would also be able to use their positions in the Labour Party to mount a major challenge to Blair there, and rally other unions and constituency Labour activists around them…. As things are with the unions today, the only likely success for a disaffiliation campaign would be to get one or two unions to cut their Labour links and abandon political activism, as much on a sentiment of general disillusionment with politics as on any positive programme.”

And so say all of us. But this argument, eminently sensible though it is, runs entirely counter to the view that the left is involved in a rerun of the fight for independent labour politics. The call for unions to break with the Labour Party, however stupid it may be, flows logically from the very existence of the Socialist Alliance, whose basic premise is that it is impossible to conduct any kind of effective struggle within a Blairised Labour Party.

Interestingly, of all the components of the Alliance, it is the SWP which is the least committed to this idea that socialists are confronted with the challenge of building a new workers’ party. Writing in the latest issue of the SWP theoretical journal International Socialism, John Rees took a very sober view of Blairism, pointing out the anti-working-class record of previous Labour governments and emphasising that the mass of working people still look to Labour as their party. If anything, Rees could be criticized for bending the stick too far, and playing down the argument (which I would accept) that Blair and Co, having swallowed great chunks of Thatcherite ideology, are something qualitatively different from previous Labour leaderships.

The SWP’s motive for obscuring the extent to which Blairism represents a rupture with traditional right wing Labour politics is their opposition to the organisational conclusions drawn by those within the Socialist Alliance who hold that view. A recent article by Lindsey German in Socialist Worker, which utilised the argument that the masses have not yet broken with Labourism in order to reject the proposal for a new party, underlined this point.

It is clear that the SWP leadership has a pragmatic, not to say cynical, attitude towards the Alliance. As a temporary electoral bloc it serves their purpose, in that it can be presented as an exercise in “left unity”. On that basis people like Loach, Pilger and demoralised former Labour Party members like Mike Marqusee and Liz Davies, who would be unlikely to support an electoral intervention by the SWP alone, can be persuaded to give their backing to the Alliance, thus providing the whole futile exercise with slightly more credibility than it would otherwise have.

However, the development of the Alliance into a new multi-tendency socialist organisation, with the SWP at its core, would give the SWP leaders nothing but headaches. Not only would they gain little in terms of numbers from a fusion with the other, much smaller groups who make up the Alliance, but they would be confronted with a state of permanent factionalism in the new “party”, with tightly organised far left sects competing with each other and with the former SWP to promote their own political agendas. Having encouraged Sean Matgamna and his friends to join the International Socialists (the SWP’s predecessor organisation) during another, ill-fated attempt at “left unity” back in the late ’60s, and having suffered a couple of years’ continuous political disruption as a result, the SWP leadership is hardly going to risk repeating the mistake today.

In her Socialist Worker article, Lindsey German proposes a “third way”, in which the component parts of the Alliance would continue to co-operate with each other after the general election, though this collaboration would stop short of an organisational merger between the various groups.

Some would argue that this might have some potential. After all, they reason, it marks some sort of advance that the British far left can rise above their usual small-group squabbling, find some common ground and engage in joint activity. If the Alliance could be steered away from its electoral foolishness and persuaded to concentrate on some basic campaigning activity, the argument goes, then it might perform a useful role.

This argument may have its attractions, but it doesn’t stand up to serious examination. The Socialist Alliance’s intervention in the general election isn’t exactly an uncharacteristic error by the far left. It’s not as if Britain’s would-be revolutionaries generally show a capacity to analyse a situation objectively, to assess the relationship of forces accurately, to estimate realistically how much can be won in the concrete circumstances and to develop the tactics and strategy necessary to achieve those objectives – but then, faced with the question of the Labour Party and electoral strategy, they suddenly morph into stupid sectarians.

No, not at all. The revolutionary socialist groupings behave like this all the time! Stupid sectarianism runs through the far left like the letters through a stick of Blackpool rock. It’s all-pervasive. Their sectarian outlook lead them to indulge in propagandism designed primarily to advertise, and gain adherents to, their own group – they’re not actually interested in winning anything in the real world. Because of this, they show an almost complete inability to organise any effective campaigns, whether of an electoral or non-electoral character.

Take, for example, the campaign against the anti-union laws. As Blair notoriously pointed out during the 1997 general election campaign, Britain possesses the most draconian anti-union laws in the western world (though this isn’t strictly true – apparently a case can be made that labour legislation in Haiti is marginally worse). Year after year, the International Labour Organisation issues a report condemning Britain for defying the ILO Conventions, to which this country is a signatory. Here is an issue around which a substantial campaign could be organised, putting the Blair government under real pressure to carry out some significant legislative reforms. Such a campaign could draw in trade union bureaucrats, the liberal bourgeois press – and even a section of the bourgeoisie itself. Instead, the far left insists on making its central demand the complete abolition of the anti-union laws – a policy which is a minority position within the trade union movement itself. This allows the “revolutionaries” to occupy the moral high ground, and denounce the treachery of the Blair government, but it doesn’t improve the legal position of the unions one iota.

And on the rare occasion when a part of the revolutionary left does get involved in building a serious campaign, it finds itself roundly denounced by rival groups. A case in point was the campaign against the NATO bombing of ex-Yugoslavia two years ago. The SWP, to be fair, played a largely positive role in the movement organised by the Committee for Peace in the Balkans – at least it was able to grasp that the basis for a broad campaign was the elementary demand for an end to the bombing. For this, the SWP was subjected to bitter attacks from most of the other groups now collaborating with it in the Socialist Alliance. Socialist Outlook more or less boycotted the campaign because it wouldn’t adopt the slogan of self-determination for Kosovo, while the AWL would have nothing to do with it because they opposed the call for an end to the bombing, on the grounds that this would aid Milosevic!

To conclude, the problem with the groups comprising the Socialist Alliance, as I say, is not that they have made some isolated error in connection with the general election; rather, their blundering over electoral strategy is part and parcel of a false political methodology. What we have on the far left in Britain is a number of groupings who, under the banner of Marxism, are engaged in building precisely the kind of sects which Marx and Engels spent their lives fighting against. If the Socialist Alliance is to have any positive outcome, it will only be if some of the more serious comrades involved with it reassess that approach, renounce sectarianism and resolve to return to the methods of Marx and Engels. But, frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it!

First published in What Next? in 2001