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Socialist Alliance Conference: The Issues At Stake
THE SOCIALIST Alliance (SA) meets this weekend for a critical conference to discuss its future structure. SA executive member CLIVE HEEMSKERK answers questions about the Socialist Party's constitutional proposals.
Q. Hasn't the SA reached the limits of its effectiveness as a federal Alliance?
We agree completely that the SA needs to develop its structures but it can do so while still retaining its federal character, its ability to bring together different socialist organisations, individuals, community campaigners and trade unionists, without them having to give up their own independent organisations, activities and views.
There has been a smokescreen put up in the debate, counterposing this federal approach to the idea that the SA should be a 'party'. Yet internationally, organisations with incomparably greater social weight than the SA, such as the Italian Rifondazione Communista, the Portuguese Left Bloc or the Spanish Izquierda Unida, have been able to retain different degrees of 'federalism' in their structures.
The early Labour Party also was a federation - until 1918 individuals had to join via one of the affiliated organisations - yet are people really saying it wasn't a 'party'?
On electoral activity, in fact, the early Labour Party had the approach that the affiliated organisations were to be "left free to select their own candidates without let or hindrance, the one condition being that, when returned to parliament, the candidate should agree to form one of the Labour Group there". We're not proposing that minimalist structure but are going well beyond it in our constitution.
Q. So you don't agree with the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) when they say in their conference submission that the SA's federal approach was revealed as having 'major weaknesses' in the general election campaign?
The SA's relatively modest election performance, confirmed in the Ipswich by-election, was primarily due to objective factors, the level of consciousness at this stage, rather than subjective weaknesses, least of all its federal approach. In fact, its inclusive approach was its 'major strength' - the fact that it could allow different forces to stand under one umbrella, to contest 98 seats in England and Wales.
'Federalism' also worked electorally. The Socialist Party, for example, contributed a higher percentage of SA votes (15.5%) than it did candidates (12%), while other organisations, such as the SWP, contributed a higher share of candidates than votes. Are those who criticise the SA's election campaign really saying that it would have been better if the Socialist Party wasn't on board?
But again, our proposals go beyond what happened in the general election. In fact, our controversial 'consensus rule' for local alliances is an attempt to compel the different parts of the SA, including ourselves, to reach agreement, making principled compromises where necessary to reach an outcome which, if not what everyone wants, is at least acceptable to everyone.
Q. But doesn't the 'consensus rule' deny democratic rights to individual members, who are not members of the component political organisations of the SA, such as the Socialist Party and the SWP?
Our constitution actually enhances the rights of individual members. For example, we are proposing a section on the national executive to be elected by individual members only, so they can choose their own representatives and not have them chosen for them by the political organisations.
Locally the 'consensus rule' that we're proposing is effectively an 'electoral college', where agreement has to be reached between those political organisations with significant support in a locality plus the majority of individual members. That's real power for the individual members over the political organisations.
Q. But under your consensus rule won't six people be able to veto decisions made by an SA of 200 members?
Another smoke-screen. Firstly, let's not exaggerate how many members of the SA there are. There are 1,690 members nationally (with at most an additional 1,000 or so who are local SA members only) organised in 60 or so local SAs - there can't be, and there aren't, that many local SAs with 200 members!
The figure of six (or 10% of the SA membership, whichever is the greater), which a 'Members Platform' needs in a constituency before it can invoke the consensus rule, relates to the minimum membership requirement we're proposing before a constituency or borough Alliance can be formally recognised.
We're proposing that this should be ten, so a Members Platform of six would constitute 60% of its membership! In fact, if today there were SAs up and down the country with memberships of 200, 300 or 400, there currently wouldn't be that many 'Members Platforms' that would be big enough to invoke the consensus rule.
Ultimately though, all constitutions involve a 'veto'. In the existing situation where the SWP have a numerical majority, 'one member, one vote', (OMOV) gives them, the majority, a 'veto' over what minorities can do. That contrasts with our consensus rule where no one organisation can dominate.
Q. But are the SWP really intending to turn the SA into a new Anti Nazi League-type front organisation?
Unfortunately, it appears so - and that's why our constitution has attracted support from many independents, such as Steve Godward, an FBU official and chair of Birmingham SA, the Preston Independent Labour councillors group, and the Leeds Left Alliance.
Of course, there's no easy answer to the central problem the SA faces of how to conciliate the rights of different groups and individual members. We didn't claim that our proposals were the only answer - we looked forward to discussing any alternative proposals that came forward.
Yet, while we've made it completely clear all along that the SWP's 'majority-takes-all' approach, summed up in their constitution, was unacceptable to us, the SWP have made no effort to discuss this with us.
For example, if there had been genuine concerns that the threshold we proposed (before a 'Members Platform' could invoke the consensus rule) was too low - at six members or 10% of the SA membership, whichever is the greater - why couldn't they have proposed another figure? Yet they have said nothing about the rights of the political organisations at local level, promising only a non-binding 'protocol' for national executive elections to ensure a 'balanced' 'leadership slate'.
This is typical of their top-down approach - they actually say in their conference submission that powers to resolve local problems over candidates, boundaries etc "should in the first instance reside with the national executive". But it also seriously misses the point. Their 'protocol' is just another pledge that, with their majority position in the SA, they will use their 'veto' over everybody else 'responsibly'. We don't want 'wise rulers', we want democratic rights.
We want to participate in an alliance of equals, with the right to conduct our own activity with our own ideas and methods, while working in common where we can.
We believe that the new forces that will emerge to fill the vacuum created by the crisis of working class political representation - community campaigners, trade unionists fighting privatisation etc - will also wish to preserve their autonomy, while working with others. But that means we need an Alliance, with a federal constitution, and not a structure that allows the domination of any one organisation.
By-Elections Test For Socialist Alliance
THE SOCIALIST Alliance's biggest electoral test since June took place on 22 November in the Ipswich parliamentary by-election and two council by-elections in Burnley.
With turnout in Ipswich down to 40%, Labour's total vote fell by over 8,000 compared to the general election. Yet the Socialist Alliance (SA) candidate, the SWP's Peter Leech, also lost support, polling 152 votes (0.55%) compared to the 522 votes (1.34%) the SA and the Socialist Labour Party together had polled in June (this time the SA was the only socialist option on the ballot paper). The Greens, in their first parliamentary campaign in Ipswich, polled 255 votes and the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, 236.
In the Burnley council by-elections the SA candidates polled 50 votes in Trinity ward and 32 in Lowerhouse. Although Burnley is one of only four councils with a Socialist Alliance councillor (along with Coventry, Lewisham and Preston, where the Socialist Party has SA councillors), the higher than normal profile for the SA didn't stop its vote being squeezed by the call to 'vote Labour to stop the BNP' - the neo-Nazi British National Party who had polled over 4,000 votes in Burnley at the general election. The BNP failed to make a breakthrough, although they came second in Trinity ward with 181 votes (18.9%) and polled 283 votes (23%) in Lowerhouse.
Overall, the by-elections show that a sense of proportion is necessary when discussing the prospects for the Socialist Alliance. There is still no authoritative force yet in existence capable of pulling together those disenchanted with New Labour - trade unionists, public services users, environmental campaigners and young people - into a mass alternative, a new workers' party, to represent their interests.
In The Socialist 30 November 2001: