Inside The LSA - Winning Hand Or Busted Flush?

The regular RA delegate finding himself double-booked; it was time to blood a couple of "new boys" into the murky world of the LSA steering committee on December 12.

We may have been uncertain what to expect but it was business pretty much as usual for the rest of the delegates.

With the General Election now more than a mere dot on the horizon, the Socialist Alliances have decided to stand fifty-plus candidates nationally (enough for an election broadcast) and much of the discussion was taken up by reports on the progress being made in election work. The trouble is, there’s not an awful lot of progress to report.

The LSA candidate got 5.8% (55 votes) on a turn out of 0.5% in the recent E. London, Tower Hamlets council by-election in the Custom House and Silvertown ward. The general view of the meeting was this was a success, though it was pointed out by the Socialist Party delegate that the BNP, when they stood in the same ward in 1997, had got more than 700 votes. However, such a sobering view of reality was less than welcome to the majority of delegates. We were assured that campaign work in the White Hart Lane council By-election was progressing ‘excellently" and canvassers had already been promised 150 votes by the previous week-end. In the event, SWPer Gary McFarlane did achieve a "respectable" 6.9%, but some 89 of the promised votes failed to materialise.

Red Action has sait from the outset that we view the Left’s new willingness to confront Labour electorally as a real step forward. Unfortunately, any objective observer at the meeting would have to question how serious most of the participants are about the project. Delegates were informed that there were currently about 450 LSA members in London, though actual figures were "sketchy". Only three of the London constituency SA’s have so far chosen candidates and there is a grand total of £500 in the kitty. Readers who are aware that the post-GLA election rally in July reported an "individual" (ie. non-party affiliated) membership of over 3,000 and that the election deposit alone for each parliamentary candidate is more than £1,000 could be forgiven for expecting these tidings to have injected some note of urgency into the proceedings. Not a bit of it. Instead, we were treated to vague mumblings about the need to raise more money and to encourage those who attend LSA meetings to join. The same sense of turpitude continued, with a motion from the CPGB calling for the launch of a "daily paper of the Left" (for at least the period of the election campaign) being overwhelmingly defeated. Some might think that this smacks of the old "forward to the workers daily paper" style hokum, but the clear intention was to point out the gulf between where the Socialist Alliance is and where it needs to be if it is serious about competing for working class votes.

Red Action introduced a motion (later described as "carping" by the CPGB) that also sought to encourage honest appraisal of the political landscape. In mid-October, LSA candidate Diana Swingler received 134 votes (third behind Labour and the Liberals on 11.4%) in the Hackney Wick ward by-election.This was a respectable vote (though given the recent meltdown of the New Labour council, no more than respectable) on the back of which the LSA press office pronounced "London socialists now third party in Hackney". This on a turn out of 18.7%, when the third largest party (Tory) on the council has 9 seats and the Greens, with 2 seats, didn’t bother to stand! The RA motion condemned such "over the top" propaganda, pointing out that it could only hinder a realistic assessment of the work and political change needed if the LSA were ever really to become Hackney’s third party. However, the CPGB delegate kindly explained to the RA new boys that such self-publicity was necessary in the "game of politics" and with palpable contempt, the SWP chair moved to an immediate vote. The motion was defeated, eleven votes to one.

In our continuing belief that if you intend to dig yourself out of the hole you first of all have to acknowledge that you’re in it, we submitted a further motion which returned to the question of just how effective current LSA slogans around refugees and asylum seekers actually are. At a previous meeting on September 5th, RA’s call for an "urgent review" had been rejected. Yet the following week, Mike Marqusee, one of the leading nay-sayers, had performed a complete volte-face in the letters page of Weekly Worker, effectively arguing that current propaganda was lacking "class content" and "does not add up". In the intervening weeks both a MORI poll and the annual British Social Attitudes report had confirmed that the Left is losing the debate on asylum, immigration and race. Conscious previous efforts to stymie debate, the motion was worded to increase the chances of the issue being aired and so called for re-assessment "at a sub-committee level." The CPGB proposed an amendment (happily accepted by RA) that, given its importance, the issue be "critically re-evaluated" by the LSA manifesto sub-committee and the national SA Liaison Committee executive. RA were attacked by SWPer Weyman Bennett (he whose canvassers were instructed "not to raise the issue of asylum seekers unless they do" when he stood in August’s Tottenham by-election) for "trying to duck the issue of race", while other delegates testified to how "proud" LSA slogans made them feel. The motion was defeated by 10 votes to 4, with the SP, RDG and CPGB voting with Red Action. RA was grateful for the support of the CPGB delegate, but heavily outnumbered, would have preferred his contribution to the debate to have concentrated on why he believed the substance of the RA motion to be correct, rather than simply on where the re-assessment should take place. The majority of delegates at the meeting seemed content to view RA as a mere irritant, the real vitriol being saved for the Socialist Party. And to be fair, they don’t do an awful lot to help themselves.

In fairness to the SP, they do at least recognise that a working class orientation is key to the success of the SA. Years of consistent work saw Ian Page elected councillor in Lewisham’s Pepys ward earlier this year and their leading role in the successful resistance to the Council’s plans to privatise council 13,000 homes was partly responsible for the recent election of a second SF councillor (Sam Dias with 550 votes) in the same ward. The SWP found it impossible to disguise their envy at this, being unable to offer congratulations to the SP (or to a candidate they themselves had supported) and preferring instead to concentrate on their aforementioned "success" in Tower Hamlets. Some RA cynics were initially convinced that the SWP saw the LSA as a simple mopping up operation. For organisations like the AWL and Workers Power the appeal of "safety in numbers" is obvious. Even for the comparatively "large" Socialist Party this was the main motivating factor in initiating the Socialist Alliance. Given the apparent willingness of most smaller organisations’ delegates to cosy up to the SWP (even the CPGB seem to have no ambitions to expand their role beyond that of "loyal opposition"), time may well prove the sceptics correct. However, time may also prove there was no safety and, eventually, no numbers. Over a pint after the meeting, the CPGB delegate revealed that, at a recent get together of the "European Left" in Paris, a drunken Rob Hoveman had let slip the true state of the SWP. Using a criteria of "being active with any degree of regularity", true membership figures were "down to 1,000 - l,500".The numbers game is clearly beginning to look less like a winning hand than a busted flush.

H. Simon

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 10, March/April '01