The organisers of the meeting wanted to set up an alliance like the Socialist Alliances in the UK, or even a new party like the Scottish Socialist Party. So as we registered we were given a thick 'information file' quoting various Marxist groups calling for unity, and containing information about alliances in the UK, France and Portugal. The initial speakers were also upbeat, talking about how their groups (London Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and Fourth International) had managed to put aside their differences and come together to further the great cause of getting votes in elections. So far, so lovey-dovey.
[This is a personal report from a Workers Solidarity Movement member, these reports are posted to the Ainriail list when first written]
After the break, and a short speech by Mick O'Reilly (head of the ATGWU) which barely mentioned the alliance project, it was time for the speaker from the SWP. This was the real start of the meeting - the SWP are one of the biggest, and probably the most visible, of the Leninist groups. Up until recently they'd always called for a vote for Labour in elections, rather than standing themselves. They also have a (deserved) reputation for being sectarian - never joining another campaign if they can set up their own, dropping every issue as soon as they've got their quota of recruits. But without their numbers the alliance project was dead.
But the SWP were in favour of the alliance. After giving us a potted history of the last 20 years (in a style familiar to anyone who's read one of their articles), they said they were all for it. Of course there were some conditions - it would be a an electoral alliance only, and those who'd hoped for the formation of a new party would be disappointed. And while they (along with everyone else) talked about how it was necessary to put forward 'strong Marxist slogans' etc etc, when it came down to it, what they wanted was a programme of minimum agreement, a couple of feet to the left of Labour.
This kind of speech would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but its not so surprising now. Especially when you look at what they thought they had to gain. The last election was the first the SWP contested, and their vote was pitiful. While I'm sure all of their members were told that the vote wasn't important, that rings kind of hollow when your vote is barely into three figures. Without an alliance, they would have a hard time improving on that - within an alliance, their numbers would mean their members would be contesting about half of the alliance seats, and people who'd never consider joining the SWP would be their election workers.
On the other hand, the Socialist Party are the ones you'd expect to join an alliance. Since they were kicked out of the Labour Party they've put all of their efforts into electoralism. They wouldn't be worried about watering down their policies. Their election posters don't have any slogans, just the face of their candidate, and their literature looks more like a Labour pamphlet of 50 years ago (nationalise large industry, increase public spending etc) than that of a revolutionary party.
But naturally they refused to join any alliance - there was nothing in it for them. While the SWP run general political campaigns on racism, or against wars - campaigns that any student can join - the SP have worked almost completely in the communities they target for elections. In these communities, where SP members have been going door-to-door for ages, why would they allow a non-party member to profit from their work?
Of course they didn't put it like that - instead they ruled out alliance because other groups don't have a 'mass base'. Naturally the SP is in favour of alliances (or so they said) but only with a real 'mass workers party'! At the same time they admitted that they had been trying to set up an alliance with Seamus Healy (an independent left TD in Clonmel), even though his politics are only slightly left of Labour. The contradictions in the SP's policy was pointed out by many at the meeting, but it makes perfect sense - like the SWP, they'll join an alliance if they see something to be gained, not something to be lost.
After the SP's statement, the meeting went downhill fast. The SWP made wild predictions about a fascist party arising if a socialist alliance wasn't formed. The Spartacists attacked everyone for not defending 'communist China' (or Russia, Korea, Afghanistan, etc, etc). Other small left groups and independents joined in, mainly to attack the SP, but also criticising the minimalism of the SWP. It was quite clear that, without the SP as a counterbalance, no-one was going to join an alliance dominated by the SWP.
I read out the statement we'd agreed on being invited , but as time went on it was clear I may as well have been speaking in Martian. Building class self-confidence is obviously all well and good, but the burning question facing every socialist today is whether or not the Labour party should rule out coalition with Fianna Fail (the largest Irish party). For all the talk early in the meeting about elections being only part of the work of a socialist alliance, it was quite clear that that was practically all anyone cared about. The one bright spot in the meeting was when someone got up to remind us of a quote from Larkin, about the duty of a revolutionary being to ask the worker what he wanted, not to tell him. It was politely applauded, and then the talk went back to minimal programmes and electoral candidates 'embedded in the community. It was the kind of day that makes me glad I'm an anarchist, so I don't have to sit through this kind of shit all the time.