SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003


What happened to the Socialist Alliance?

"THOSE ON THE left who have pinned their hopes on founding a new socialist party", wrote Tony Benn on the eve of Labour’s Bournemouth conference, "should note that the Socialist Alliance (SA) candidate only received 366 votes in Brent East and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was only able to get 111 votes, which does not promise well for that strategy". (Morning Star, 26 September)

It is true that the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP)-dominated Socialist Alliance polled badly in Brent East, a (formerly) safe Labour inner-London seat with a non-white majority electorate, in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Even compared to parliamentary by-election results achieved by the Socialist Alliance three years ago – 885 votes (5.39%) in Tottenham (June 2000) and 1,210 votes (5.7%) in Preston (November 2000) – 366 votes (1.73%) is poor. But by equating the idea of a new party with the pretensions of the SWP’s Socialist Alliance (and Scargill’s SLP), Tony Benn is evading the real issue, the responsibility of the left trade union leaders and Labour left MPs to give a real lead. If, for example, Tony Benn had contested Brent as an independent socialist candidate, explaining that he was not standing to restart his parliamentary career but to advance the process towards a new workers’ party to challenge New Labour, who could say that he may not have won?

Similarly, although he does not have the same authority as Tony Benn, the recently-expelled MP George Galloway could play an important role in the next period. If, as has been suggested, he resigns his Glasgow Kelvin seat to stand for re-election as an independent socialist, the subsequent by-election could have a dramatic effect, crystallising opposition to New Labour. The alternative suggestion that has emerged, of Galloway standing in London for the European parliament elections in nine months time (June 2004) may not have the same impact (even though a vote of 10% or so would be sufficient to win a seat). Whatever electoral option Galloway decides on, however, his campaign needs to be clear on the critical issue of what the Labour Party has become, a thoroughly capitalist party which cannot be regenerated as a vehicle for working class political representation. The Guardian report (24 October) that "he hopes that if Mr Blair is replaced by a more sympathetic leader, he may yet rejoin the party", if it is accurate, does not provide the clarity of perspective needed.

The report also suggested that Galloway "may yet help to form a new electoral challenge to New Labour from the left", subsequently confirmed at a London rally on 29 October. This could be an important development as a precursor to a future situation where greater forces, particularly from the trade unions, become involved. But even this, if it is to play a positive role as a ‘pre-formation’ on the road to a new mass workers’ party, would need to be democratically organised and genuinely inclusive. This would also answer any fear of a repeat of the ‘Ken Livingstone experience’, when the former Labour left-winger stood for London mayor as an independent but with no structures behind his campaign, securing himself a position but with no accountability.

The need for democracy and inclusiveness is the most important lesson to be drawn from the failure of both the Socialist Alliance and Scargill’s SLP to make any headway. The SLP, launched in 1995, had some early electoral successes, winning 1,193 votes (5.4%) in the Hemsworth by-election (February 1996) and 949 votes (5.3%) in Barnsley East (December 1996). These results, before Labour was elected and when the mood was overwhelmingly anti-Tory, provide a favourable comparison with the performance of the SWP’s Socialist Alliance, six years into a Labour government. The SLP also initially attracted some significant trade union figures such as Bob Crow, now general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT), and Mick Rix, the former general secretary of the train drivers union ASLEF. Unfortunately, however, Arthur Scargill used the prestige he had earned as the National Union of Mineworkers’ leader in the battles of the 1970s and 1980s, to ensure that the SLP did not have a structure that allowed different groups to collaborate under a common banner. Consequently, the SLP failed to take off and its trade union supporters dropped away.

The Socialist Alliance was established from this time, with the Socialist Party as one of its founding organisations. The Alliance at that point had a federal structure which allowed supporting organisations and individuals to work within a common framework while still pursing their own campaigning methods and promoting their own political ideas. It achieved some modest successes enabling, for example, 98 candidates to stand under one umbrella in the 2001 general election. At that stage, unfortunately, the SWP, having only joined the Socialist Alliance in 2000, moved to take it over.

Having abandoned (without explanation) its 20-year policy of opposing socialists standing in elections – on the grounds that doing so gave credence to the false idea that parliament is the only mechanism through which society can be changed – the SWP saw the SA as a vehicle for its electoral activity, on a par with the other front organisations it has set-up, such as the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and Globalise Resistance. Under the guise of promoting ‘individual members participation’ the SWP used its numerical majority at the December 2001 SA conference to abolish the constitutional rights of (current and potential future) affiliated organisations, and thereby ensure themselves control. With the Socialist Party effectively disaffiliated, Socialist Party members, including the then SA national chair and former Labour MP, Dave Nellist, had no option but to leave.

Since then the Socialist Alliance has failed to make any real progress, with all bar a handful of the non-SWP individual members falling away. Former Labour Party national executive committee member, Liz Davies, who replaced Dave Nellist as chair, hailed the new SA as "a more democratic, more participatory, and more inclusive organisation than any political party I have known". (Socialist Worker, 8 December 2001) Within ten months she had resigned, along with the former editor of the Labour Left Briefing magazine, Mike Marqusee (until then, an uncritical supporter of the SWP within the SA), claiming that the trust necessary to ensure "the premise of the Socialist Alliance, that individuals and groups from different political backgrounds and perspectives could work together on a common political project", had been irretrievably undermined by the SWP. (Press statement, 21 October, 2002)

Of the best performing candidates of the ‘unified Socialist Alliance’ in the 2001 general election, not one of the non-SWP members remains involved. The Merseyside Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leader, Neil Thompson, for example, who polled 2,325 votes (6.88%) in the high-profile seat of St Helens South against the Labour candidate, the former Tory MP Shaun Woodward, stood as an independent in the 2003 local elections. The SWP’s one electoral success has been to win a council seat in Preston in May this year as ‘Socialist Alliance Against the War’, with the backing of a local imam in a ward with a large Muslim population. This, indisputably, was a success, but the SWP has erased from history the fact that there were three Socialist Alliance councillors in Preston three years ago (two of whom – including the November 2000 Preston by-election Socialist Alliance candidate – remain as independent socialists on the council) who are no longer in the SA.

The SWP’s undemocratic reputation has provided ammunition to union leaders who want to keep the Labour link. FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist, unable to advance positive reasons why the fire-fighters’ union should continue to fund Labour, has pointed to "something fundamentally different from the Labour Party" about the Socialist Alliance, "in terms of accountability and representation". The SA is "not actually constituted so that organisations can affiliate". (Red Pepper, September 2002) Even the PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, the only prominent non-SWP trade unionist in the SA, conceded, in this Red Pepper ‘roundtable discussion’, that "Andy is right in pointing out that the Socialist Alliance, for instance, has a weak constitutional structure".

Andy Gilchrist has also pointed to the SA’s mediocre electoral performance to reinforce his case against FBU disaffiliation from Labour. CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, too, has argued that "we only have to look at [the] votes received on a national level by parties such as the Socialist Alliance" to see that "it is a diversion to suggest there is some meaningful political life outside the party". (Campaign Group News, March 2003) Of course, electoral success is never guaranteed, even with the right policies and approach. It has been difficult to achieve electoral breakthroughs, particularly in council and Westminster elections with a first-past-the-post electoral system. The Socialist Party, with a better electoral record than the SWP – when we were in the Socialist Alliance and outside it – has always recognised that our results (with four elected councillors) are just a foretaste of what could be achieved by a new workers’ party, initiated and built by the unions. The early pioneers of the labour movement, such as Keir Hardie and James Connolly, also suffered electoral setbacks, which no doubt reinforced the arguments of the right-wing that it was ‘premature’ for the unions to break with the Liberal Party. They responded by continuing to contest elections, but also by ‘reversing the charge’, by demanding that the unions themselves form a labour movement party, to stand their own candidates. The SWP, however, by refusing to put its electoral activity in this context – and instead insisting that the unions’ task is merely to "back political campaigns and candidates" including the Socialist Alliance (Use the Unions’ Political Funds for Socialists, Socialist Worker, 14 December 2002) – plays into the hands of those opposed to breaking the Labour link.

The SWP is likely to keep the SA in existence, although it has not realised the exaggerated claims made on its behalf by the SWP in the past. Recognising this – but not its own responsibility for the SA’s failure – the SWP is attempting to construct a ‘broader’ electoral list for the June 2004 European elections, with individuals such as the anti-capitalist author George Monbiot, and now George Galloway. The Socialist Party would support a credible electoral challenge emerging from the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement, although we will remain firm in our defence of a socialist programme and our right, within any joint electoral bloc, to present our own ideas. Given our warnings – which we made in advance of the event – on the negative lessons of the failure of the SA and Scargill’s SLP, we will press the case for democracy and inclusiveness with ever greater vigour.


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