The Party's Over... but the action is just beginning
The Socialist Alliance has set itself up as the new alternative to the Labour Party. It is urging the electorate, who are fed up with New Labour’s move to the right, to join and support it. However, it has not set itself up as a party as yet. This is because it is made up of an amalgam of various parties along with a smattering of ‘non-aligned socialists’.
Many of the non-aligned socialists are ex-Labour Party members who have finally realised that they were fighting a losing battle with Blairism. Some want to see a new party emerge based on a vision of an old Labour Party that never really existed. Others want to scare the Labour leadership into renouncing the rightward drift and return to a more centre-left position. This would allow them to re-join and engage in the historic right-left battles of the past, where they feel happiest.
The main parties involved are the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). These two have been vying with each other within the Alliance since its inception. Both have their own agenda and see the Socialist Alliance as an opportunity to extend their influence.
The Socialist Party is basically the remains of the Militant Tendency who were expelled from Labour and forced to set up their own party and come clean about their Trotskyism. Their expressed aim is to get votes, and they see the Socialist Alliance as a vehicle for this. Their idea is for the Alliance to build a branch structure, and then these branches would eventually merge with the Socialist Party, absorbing any other smaller groups along the way. The SWP, on the other hand, are a revolutionary Leninist party and have no real interest in building an electoral party of the left. They have always defined their politics in relation to the Labour Party, whether it was asking us to "vote Labour with no illusions" (‘97), or urging us to "defend socialists in the Labour Party" (‘80s). They wish to use the Socialist Alliance in much the same way. They see it as a vehicle to spread their ideology and to recruit members. They are trying to keep one foot in the electoral camp while, at the same time, trying to keep in with the anti-capitalist movement by also espousing a crude version of direct action politics.
The only thing holding the Socialist Alliance together is their opposition to Tony Blair and New Labour. This was demonstrated recently in Preston, Lancashire. Here, the death of left-wing Labour MP Audrey Wise right in the middle of a mini-crisis for the Labour Party saw the hurried forming of the Lancashire Socialist Alliance (LSA). The initiators were the SWP, who quickly contacted everyone they could. I even received a call but explained that taking part in elections was against my principles even as a tactical manoeuvre.
After some initial confusion over whether they would stand if Valerie Wise, the daughter of the MP, also decided to stand, they chose an ex-Labour councillor, Terry Cartwright, to represent them. He had resigned from the Labour Party and stood as an Independent Labour Candidate in the local elections and increased his majority. The LSA stated that it was not just being formed for the by-election, but intended to be a permanent grouping of the left. An attempt was made to get the official backing of the Radical Preston Alliance, a loose campaigning and information network, but this was complicated by the fact that the Green Party candidate was also a Radical Preston Alliance member.
There was celebration after the vote because the LSA had managed to save its deposit. However, this was mainly due to the reputation of Terry Cartwright (most of his votes came from the area he represented as a councillor), and the abysmal turnout of less than 30%. They announced their intention of fighting the seat in any future general election.
This soon changed as tensions that were ever present during the campaign emerged. Terry Cartwright has indicated that he will not stand again. This is a blow to the LSA, as they have no other credible candidate. The reasons have been given as not having a say in press releases and leaflets, having his election agents foisted on him, in-fighting between the Socialist Party and the SWP, and the behaviour of some of his supporters, especially those bussed in by the SWP.
There was an agreement that in the door-to-door canvassing and on the LSA stall, the parties would not sell their papers or push their own literature. Needless to say this agreement was broken with people being asked if they wanted to buy papers on the doorstep and at the stall if no-one was looking. When this was mentioned to the LSA, they chose to ignore it as not to cause any disruption. Another factor was that most of the campaign funds were being supplied by the SWP.
This scenario or very similar will be repeated across the country, indeed, it is already. The fact is, the Socialist Alliance is a paper-thin alliance of convenience. The SWP regard themselves as the vanguard party of the working class; the Socialist Party think much the same. How can these two ever work together in any sort of formal alliance? The answer is, they cannot.
The Socialist Alliance is simply New Old Labour with a few added frills. It is pursuing the same old political agenda that has constantly failed the working class of this country. They have claimed that anarchists are involved. Either they are very lost and confused, or they are not anarchists.
It is time to go forward and not back, re-hashing the failings of the past. It must be hard for many on the left to break with a tradition that has revolved around the internal politics of the Labour Party for the past 100 years. Direct action is being talked about but in a superficial way at the moment, simply as one tactic among many. What we need is for it to be taken on board as a whole political culture, a way of approaching our everyday lives and the problems that confront us. Only then can the final break be made with the failed ideas of the Marxist brand of socialism.