Another reply to Ernie

Nigel Irritable nigel_irritable at
Wed Apr 17 14:13:45 MDT 2002

Ernest and Jess's second report, the one on the
Socialist Alliance Trade Union Conference, is also
interesting, though more deeply flawed. The basic
problem seems to be a misunderstanding of who was at
the conference.

> The atmosphere was electric.

Here writes somebody who has never been at a big SWP
event before. The atmosphere is always excited.
Hysterical is occasionally a better word.

> Over 1100 delegates registered for the conference,
> most of them from the major unions in the country
> with the largest delegation from Unison, the
> largest union.

Here is where the problems start. Apart from the
slight exaggeration of the attendance the really
misleading part is the description of the "delegates".
There were almost no delegates at the conference at
all. Very few were delegated by anybody.

It would be more accurate to say that there were 1000
individual trade unionists at the conference, which is
an impressive attendance without the spin. (I am aware
that the "delegate" claim originated with the SA/SWP
itself rather than with the writers).

When the composition of our thousand trade unionists
is examined the gloss is further removed. Fully 600 of
them were SWP members. Now that might seem like a lot,
but remember that the SWP could muster 600 trade
unionists at any stage over the last three decades
without it meaning very much. Many of the rest were
members of the various tiny groups still in the SA,
members of the Socialist Party or loyalist members of
the Labour Party. Very few were ordinary trade union

[New Labour membership]
> A newspaper report said the membership had dropped
> from 405,000 to 380,000 over the last five
> years, but a letter in the Guardian from a Labour
> Party member says it has
> dropped from 400,000 in 1997 to 250,000 in 2002.

This in an organisation a few decades ago numbered its
membership in the millions. Even these statistics
don't tell the whole story. Most of those 250,000 are
middle class.

> Some estimated that at least 25% of the delegates
> were not members of the Socialist Alliance.

Given that the 25% would include some members of the
Socialist Party and those Labour loyalists who had
come to defend their organisation, 25% is about right.

> From what we could see - not that we are familiar
> with them all -- most of the major left groups on
> the British Left were present.

Not quite. Leaving the SSP aside, the biggest
organisations of the British Left are the SWP, the
Socialist Party, the CPB and the Socialist Labour
Party. The SWP made up the overwhelming bulk of the
conference. The SP sent some representatives. The CPB
and the SLP ignored it entirely.

> The Socialist Workers Party is the largest grouping
> in the Socialist Alliance. It plays a key role in
> building it, guiding it, and holding it together.

That's a novel way of describing the running of a
front group.

> Socialist Outlook, the supporters of the Fourth
> International in England, are also in
> the Socialist Alliance and were actively involved in
> supporting and building the conference.

Socialist Outlook is the name of the paper of the
International Socialist Group. The ISG function as a
tiny auxiliary of the SWP. There was even talk of them
being formally absorbed last year.

> The Socialist Party (S.P) - better known as the
> Militant group -- were also in attendance and
> participated actively in the debates. They had
> formally pulled out of the Alliance earlier in the
> year because they were unable win
> support for their idea of consensus way of decision
> making, which would have effectively given them veto
> rights in the organization. We got this
> explanation from a Socialist Alliance activist.

Perhaps it would have been better to ask a member of
the Socialist Party why we left the SA rather than
relying on the frankly dishonest account of an unnamed
SA member.

We have been through this before on this list, but for
those with short memories:

The Socialist Party argued for a federal constitution
for the Socialist Alliances, which would have strong
guarantees for all minorities. We made it clear,
though, that we would accept any constitution or
amended constitution which would contain democratic
rights and guarantees for minorities.

The SWP mobilised enough of its membership to push
through its choice of constitution, which placed total
control of the "alliance" in its hands and then
proceeded to voted down any amendment which would have
limited their dominance in any way. At that point the
Socialist Party walked out.

Since then almost all of the organisations which set
up the alliance have left, and local alliances which
irritate the SWP have been crushed.

To talk of the Socialist Alliance as an organisation
now is almost misleading in itself. It has been
reduced to just another SWP front, to go with
Globalise Resistance, the ANL, the Campaign for
Palestinian Rights and so on. Each is taken out,
dusted off and used while useful and then placed back
into storage at the whim of the SWP Central Committee.
When the war started it was inconvenient so it
disappeared. Now that there are council elections
coming up it has reappeared. After the predictably
poor results in May it will be packed away again.

Saying that irritates some leftists abroad. They like
the idea that the Socialist Alliance is motoring ahead
succesfully and that all is sweetness and light. They
don't want to hear that the SA is effectively dead,
but it's sadly true.

> Supporters of the S.P. (the Militant Tendency)
> raised the question of the need for different kind
> of funding structure to be set up in the union than
> what was being proposed by the conference. They said
> there are indications that unions would be prepared
> to set up another fund, alongside the Labour
> Party fund and that "we are being gifted with a
> third political fund" (which would be used,
> presumably, to fund political parties other than the
> Labour Party.)

This is a tactical issue peculiar to Unison. The
undemocratic nature of the union means that any
attempt to seriously discuss the existing political
funds at conference can be ruled out of order. It is
however, possible to discuss setting up a third union
fund without that happening.

A third political fund could be used to fund
candidates who represent union policies and members.
That would hopefully include members of Socialist
groups, but at this stage would probably mainly
involve independent union candidates given the
peripheral standing of the far left (in electoral
terms the SSP has an MSP, the SP has six councillors
and 12 members of union executives, the rest of the
left has almost nothing. That doesn't exactly make us
overwhelmingly appealing to the unions).

> They called for support for the their S.P.
> candidates, rather than those of the "capitalist
> bourgeois" candidates of the Labour Party.

That puts a rather more sectarian gloss on it than is
strictly accurate. We call for support for socialists
and left activists in the unions and socialists and
working class campaigns in elections as opposed to
representatives of any of the three main bosses
parties, New Labour, the Liberals and the Tories.
Sometimes those candidates will be members of the
Socialist Party. Mostly they won't be.

> Disaffiliation from the Labour Party was seen by
> some of them as being the central issue in the
> unions.

In my view there are two major issues in the unions:
opposition to partnership deals and the fight for
working class representation. Disaffiliation from New
Labour is certainly part of that.

> Another supporter of the S.P. position, from Camden,
> told of his experiences with a meeting of nursery
> care workers, who in reference to the Labour
> Councillors, said, "these people are not listening.
> I've had to explain the fund but as soon as I
> mention Labour, they are turned off. We
> need a separate fund, another political fund. The
> majority of workers are moving away from the Labour
> Party."

> But there was not much support in the panel for the
> S.P. position, even though it was very well argued.
> We later discovered that the main challengers to the
> S.P.'s idea of a "third fund" were supporters or
> members of the SWP.

The second sentence is the important one. Socialist
Party members didn't get much support from a mostly
SWP meeting. Not really a surprise.

Is mise le meas,
Brian Cahill

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