The Revolutionary Democratic Group give their analysis of the Socialist Alliance of England’s conference in December 2001
The Socialist Alliance conference on December 1st 2001 was an important moment to gauge the development of the new left emerging in England and throughout Britain. The SA movement has provided the greatest advance for left unity for many years. In Scotland it led to the SSP. In England and Wales it has not gone as far but much has been achieved.
This rapprochement on the left was reflected at the SA (England) conference in the six stem constitutions put forward by the SWP, Socialist Party, CPGB, Workers Power, the RDG and Pete McLaren. In addition to these options, the AWL and the ISG and many Indies (independent socialists) were also fully involved in the process.
The submission of the RDG, one of the smaller groups on the UK left, may be of particular interest to SSP comrades. The Group submitted the SSP constitution as one of the six stem constitutions on offer. At first site this might seem like an odd thing to do. But the RDG wanted to take the opportunity to point out that the SSP provided very important lessons for the left in England not just to follow, but hopefully improve upon.
The RDG argued that the SA must make the move to a broad based republican socialist party. This was a party that could unite comrades from both a socialist Labour and revolutionary communist tradition. It was a party that made democratic political change and in particular republicanism the cutting edge of its politics. The SSP is a concrete example of this type of party emerging during the final epoch of the British constitutional monarchy, even if it has so far given more emphasis to nationalism than republicanism.
Emphasis on real democracy & popular sovereignty
The RDG put forward an amended version of the SSP Constitution. We kept the amendments to a minimum, in order to keep within the general approach of the SSP. We obviously had to change the name. We could simply have changed the name of the SSP to the ESP. But we wanted to put the emphasis squarely on real democracy and popular sovereignty, and not nationality. We therefore changed the name to the Republican Socialist Party.
We dropped the call for Scottish independence. It makes no sense for England and in any case we don’t agree with it in current circumstances. So we amended the SSP constitution aims and objectives clause 5 to say as follows
The [SSP] RSP will campaign for [delete an independent socialist Scotland] a voluntary federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and a united Ireland, with the aim of establishing a [delete Scottish] socialist republic in a broader alliance of democratic socialist states. Recognising that [delete in Scotland] sovereignty resides, and ought to reside in the people, the republic will fully recognise the right of the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales to self determination and always seek the people’s prior consent to any transfer of powers outwith [delete Scotland.] the republic.
[our amendment to the SSP constitution are in bold and deletions in italics] Apart from a few other minor amendments such as changing the regions from Scottish to English we stuck faithfully to the SSP constitution. We put forward four concrete steps to move us towards a republican socialist party on the SSP model. First conference must include in its constitution the aim of becoming a party. Second it must decide to publish a regular SA newspaper. Third it must adopt a democratic federal constitution. Finally conference must recognise the importance of the experience of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and the success of its transformation into the Scottish Socialist Party.
Our comrades were able to make some important political points from the platform, not least of which was that we should follow the Scottish road. We called on conference to recognise the experience of the SSP and learn from it, rather than simply copy it. We are not, for example, in favour of encouraging English nationalism in order to copy the Scottish nationalism of the SSP. Our aims are internationalist. We want to win the class to the democratic, republican politics which can unite the English, Scottish and Welsh workers.
Three distinct blocs
For these proposals we secured twenty one first preference votes. Not many. So it is more useful to see where the SSP position fitted into the overall alignment at the conference. What was to emerge was three distinct positions. The first was the
Democratic and Effective bloc, which stood for greater centralism. The second was the
Democratic Federal Unity bloc which wanted the unity of the Alliance and believed that a democratic federal constitution was the only way to maintain unity. Thirdly was the Socialist Party which had a distinct position of its own.
The D&E bloc comprised of the SWP, ISG, CPGB and various independents most notably Mike Marqusee, John Nicholson, Declan O’Neill and Nick Wrack. After conference Socialist Worker (8 December 2001) claimed that
the new constitution gives the SA a far more effective national organisation. The key feature of this bloc was that they voted for the SWP constitution, as either first or second preference. Estimates by Martin Thomas (Action for Solidarity 14 December) indicate this bloc had approximately 280 SWP, 50 pro-SWP independents, 35 CPGB and 15 ISG.
The DFU bloc comprised of AWL, Workers Power, RDG, and various independents, most notably Pete McLaren and Dave Church. This bloc supported a federal constitution with democratic majority decision making. A central concern was to maintain SA unity with a constitution that was democratic, but could keep everybody on board the project. The votes going to DFU were estimated to be about 60 AWL, 30 Independents, 29 Workers Power and 21 RDG.
The third position was a federal constitution based on consensus, with a right for a minority to veto decisions it did not agree with. This was proposed by the Socialist Party. Clause 1.4 of the SP’s draft constitution includes
provision for a consensus vote to be taken when required. Here is the essential difference between democratic federalism based on majority decisions and consensus federalism which gives a veto to any minority.
This overview does not show up the contradictions within each of the three blocs. This requires further analysis. But if each bloc had voted in a consistent way, we would have had the following result
|Consensus federalism (minority veto)||122||19.00%|
What was the politics of the D&E bloc? With 280 votes the SWP gave the bloc its overall political character. It was overwhelmingly opposed to adopting the aim of a party or an SA paper. It was opposed to a democratic federal constitution. It was opposed to following the SSP model.
The D&E bloc failed, whether by accident, negligence or design, to seek out a principled compromise with the Socialist Party and thus avoid a split. Consequently the official regrets emanating from the SA leadership were crocodile tears. Whilst some in the Socialist Party appeared ready to leave, the majority of the D&E bloc were happy to say goodbye. The conclusion is that the D&E bloc was overwhelmingly anti-party and pro-split. Of course the D&E bloc was not homogenous. It contained its own contradictions. Not least of these was the CPGB which found itself at odds with its D&E allies when promoting pro-party positions such as an SA paper.
Democratic Federal Unity was pro-unity. It was within this bloc that there was the greatest sympathy to the SSP model. If the key issue had become what type of party did we want instead of how to maintain unity it seems most likely that this bloc would have become clearly identified with the SSP model. Had this bloc taken a consistent position it would have produced 147 first preference for McLaren and 147 second preferences for the SSP. Quite clearly this is not what happened. The majority of the DFU bloc were in favour of making concessions to secure the unity of the SA. Whether it can be called a pro- party bloc is more contentious. There were clearly fifty pro-party votes.(WP 29 and RDG 21). The RDG also had 20 second preference votes for the SSP. Had we switched to second preferences we should have had at least 41 second preferences. Had the AWL given its sixty second preferences to the SSP, then 70% of the DFU bloc would have voted for an SSP type party. Although we did not achieve that we were not very far away. We did enough to suggest that the SSP model will become a major way forward in the future.
So what advances did conference make? First there is the creation of a unified national membership. Integrating the local membership into a single national membership is an obvious and relatively simple way of doing this. But it is not without its problems. Local members joined a local organisation. It is not necessarily the case that they want to join a national organisation, especially one that has just split. So we have a job to do to create a genuine national organisation.
Second the SA has adopted the principle of majority decision making. This was already in operation in many parts of the Alliance. We now have a more uniform system. Both constitutional reforms could have been achieved without the SWP constitution. They are both quite compatible with democratic federalism. So what did the SWP constitution actually achieve in addition to the above two points? Unfortunately it achieved the departure of the SP. There is some debate as to whether the SP jumped overboard or were pushed. Although they were ready to leave, the Democratic and Effective majority bloc was not looking for a compromise. Their attitude to the SP was take it or leave it. Unity cannot be imposed. It has to be won with steadfastness, patience and some concessions. The prize of left unity is worth persevering with because the unity of the class is at stake. The left is full of sectarian attitudes and traditions, in which splits and expulsions are easier than facing the difficulties of struggling for unity.
The departure of the SP was a set back. Perhaps the single greatest political asset of the Alliance was its capacity to overcome some of the historic divisions on the left. Advanced workers were attracted by an organisation that seemed capable of putting divisions into context, and able to unite in successful electoral and campaigning activity. An active minority of working class militants looking for a new political organisation found hope in the unity of the Alliance.
If we were to sum up the conference on balance we describe it in Lenin’s famous phrase, as
one step forward and two steps back, a view not dissimilar to the AWL’s
two steps back and one forward! (Action for Solidarity 14 December). What we hope we have achieved is to put down a marker for a Scottish republican road and a republican socialist party.