This week Socialist Alternative marked our first birthday as an independent organisation. We’re very proud of our progress and achievements over the past 12 months – both in terms of engaging with a complex political situation and making strides in building Socialist Alternative. This anniversary is an opportunity to look back on some of the key moments and factors in this process.
In July 2019, we were effectively expelled from the Socialist Party of England and Wales for refusing to follow its leadership’s mistaken walkout from the Committee for a Workers’ International, the world socialist organisation of which it was part. Work began straight away to set up the infrastructure of a new organisation which would stay true to working class internationalism. We held our first congress on 14-15 September in Manchester, which was attended by 80 delegates who discussed political perspectives as well as electing a national committee (NC) and deciding on our name. Since then, the NC has met on a monthly basis, and we’ve already held our second congress, in early March, where we elected a new NC, discussed further our political perspectives and agreed our constitution and other policies. These structures and regular meetings have been essential in building an organisation based on the maximum active involvement of the whole membership in democratic decision making.
Our founding members had been drawn together over the course of a hard, nine month ‘debate’ inside the Socialist Party – united by our opposition to (amongst other things) bureaucratic methods of leadership. This was characterised by the rush towards a damaging and unprincipled split in our international organisation to avoid being in a minority and a refusal by the former leadership to abide by democratic decisions of our elected international bodies. We also opposed a conservative approach to intervening in social movements and a pessimistic perspective on the period society was heading into. We recognised from the start that it would not be immediate or easy to establish, from this starting point, the politically coherent, revolutionary organisation we were determined to build.
Forging our political identity
And yet in just one year, we have begun to develop an independent political identity and coherent approach across England, Wales and Scotland. This is not a coincidence – it reflects two things. Firstly, while individuals were drawn into opposing the majority of our former leadership for different reasons, the underlying political basis was the same. Secondly, and most importantly, the launch of Socialist Alternative immediately preceded significant political developments in Britain and beyond, which sped up the process of clarifying our approach.
Just one day after the vote to establish a new section of International Socialist Alternative (then the CWI) in England, Wales and Scotland, Boris Johnson’s victory as leader of the Tory party was announced. A few days before our founding conference Johnson took the unprecedented step of proroguing (suspending) parliament in an attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the final stages of the Brexit arrangements. And it was just a few days after the first meeting of our newly elected National Committee in October that the 2019 general election was called.
The political context for our fledgling organisation was one of instability, unpredictability and rapid changes. To consolidate and grow, we would need to be flexible and bold. And with Johnson as prime minister, our perspective for the likelihood of big struggles – of workers and young people, and also of groups facing special oppression – was made even more clear.
We didn’t waste any time in getting out on the streets campaigning, supporting strikes and protests. Our first national action was on 29 September at the Tory Party conference protest, where we had over 40 members attending. We were proudly armed with the second issue of our newspaper, Socialist Alternative. We have brought out six printed editions of our paper, plus two digital editions (due to Covid-19) and two supplements. Overall sales have been fantastic and we have been able to more than cover our costs – meaning that it is viable to continue producing on a monthly basis, something which was uncertain when we were first formed.
And it’s not only on our paper that we have taken a serious approach to our finances. In order to hit the ground running in terms of building the organisation, we had to very quickly set up a way of collecting money to spend on our campaigning material and employing our organisers. At the rally we hosted immediately following our expulsion from the Socialist Party, with speakers from the US, Hong Kong, Sweden, Germany and Ireland, we launched a finance appeal which raised over £17,000, showing the determination of our members to rebuild a genuine section of the ISA in England, Wales and Scotland.
Since then we have consistently raised over £5,000 a quarter in ‘fighting fund’ from consistent campaigning on the streets, fundraisers and individual donations from supporters. We are also building up a solid financial base with our ‘subs’ – the monthly fees that our members pay. The serious attitude to our finances is a reflection of our determination to convert our ideas and analysis into a viable organisation that can be a factor in the events that are taking place.
In many ways, the most significant political developments for us to respond to since our formation have been related to the Labour Party. In the last year we have witnessed great (but unharnessed) potential for Corbyn’s Labour in the general election, Corbyn’s gravely mistaken decision to stand down as leader under pressure from the right after that election, and his subsequent replacement by Starmer, which drew five years of Corbynism to a close.
We were determined from the outset not to be passive observers or commentators in this process. It is necessary for socialists to take a principled position in relation to the development of big left wing political trends – supporting all moves to the left and steps forward for the movement, while at the same time, pointing out the limitations of their programme and strategy. We were fiercely critical of Corbyn’s failure to meaningfully take on the right and to mobilise his supporters to secure the Labour Party for anti-austerity forces. But at the same time it is necessary to engage with such developments and be in the fight alongside the best workers and young people mobilised by them. We took a clear position in the general election of taking part in the fight for a Corbyn-led Labour government coming to power. We explained that the election was “a chance to land an almighty blow to the capitalist class”.
And we emphasised that the only way to do this was for Corbyn not to remain within the confines of parliamentary politics but to reach out to the mass or ordinary people and make this: “a people versus the 0.1% election”. We highlighted at every stage that what is needed is a political voice for the mass movements to come – a party of struggle. Following Starmer’s victory, and subsequent events including large-scale resignations from Labour and the removal of Corbynite Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet, we have analysed that this party of struggle is now very unlikely to develop inside the Labour Party.
This approach has meant many current and former Labour Party members or supporters have got in touch with us to discuss getting involved, or to work alongside us and regularly attend our meetings. For a very small organisation, we have become to be seen by a layer of the best activists, both inside and outside Labour, as collaborators in the fight for working-class political representation.
This has been one of the most significant sources of recruitment since our launch, increasing our membership by 50%. We are still small compared to our tasks but we are growing! Those who have joined are young people, workers, former (and some current) Labour Party members, trade unionists and campaigners. All of them have been convinced by their experiences that capitalism as a system has to go, and we need to build an organisation capable of ushering in a new socialist world. Most of our new members are young, which is important. We want new members of all ages but it is young people who will be vital leaders in the class struggles to come. You can read the reasons why they have decided to join here.
We have been able to be a pole of attraction to those looking for a way to fight back. We have, at times, been inundated with requests to join such as receiving 100 requests for more information or to join Socialist Alternative in the 48 hours after the general election. Our sharp political analysis, along with a dynamic social media presence and consistent campaigning, means that we can reach those people. We held a recruitment drive during the first weeks of lockdown, with 18 new members joining during the drive and a further 17 after we finished the drive!
Many of the young people who have joined us in the last year have been attracted by our bold approach to taking part in social movements. An essential part of our founding ideas was an understanding that globally the fights against climate change, racism and the oppression of women and LGBTQ+ people have formed an increasingly important part of working class struggle in recent years. These have then impacted on trade union and workplace struggles and vice-versa. We looked at the worldwide climate strikes and the #metoo movement, for example, and saw that a significant number of those being mobilised on these issues were being drawn towards far-reaching anti-capitalist conclusions, and could be won to a socialist programme for change. This has only been confirmed by developments in the last 12 months.
Regular climate strike events continued up until lockdown and our members took part everywhere we have a presence. We’ve played an important part in linking up students and workers, for example working alongside the trades council in York to facilitate meetings between school students and both workers and management at the Nestle headquarters there. In Coventry Socialist Alternative members in UNISON initiated gathering support from other unions, a meeting of representatives from these which then held a joint rally with striking school students with over 200 people attending
These initiatives reflect that we have also been able to strengthen our work in the trade unions and workplaces. We have organising groups for our members who are in UNISON, Unite, the National Education Union, University and College Union and USDAW shop workers union, as well as a national trade union bureau which meets bi-monthly. We have organised a national trade union meeting for all members and a training school for those new to the trade unions. But we have also ensured that we have been on picket lines up and down the country – including CWU postal worker walkouts and the UCU university workers’ strikes – to offer solidarity but also to discuss with strikers about how they can win.
Our members in the trade unions have played key roles during Covid-19, for example in UNISON, to name just one example, winning agreements that have ensured sick pay for workers and key health and safety guarantees.
The re-eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement compelled thousands to protest, despite ongoing lockdown restrictions, and our members responded enthusiastically to this too. A righteous rage has been unleashed by the killing of George Floyd, and the mood on the protests across Britain has been to boldly assert that this is not only a problem in the US – “the UK is not innocent”. While taking the necessary safety precautions, we spoke to hundreds of protesters, distributed our material and gathered dozens of names of people interested in discussing socialist ideas further.
Socialist Alternative members have always recognised, and discussed regularly, the urgent need to improve the diversity of our membership to more fully reflect the make-up of the working class. Part of this process must include engaging with the debates in the Black Lives Matter movement, such as how best to organise demonstrations, and political issues such as the roots of racism and role of British imperialism in the slave trade. Importantly within the trade unions we are making the point that the labour movement must show concrete solidarity with the BLM movement, that goes beyond solidarity statements and messages of support. Many who have been radicalised by their experience of racism to participate in the BLM movement are working their way towards revolutionary conclusions.
In this context we have made special efforts to educate all of our members on these issues. That has included a series of local branch meetings, discussions of our political committee and national committee and plans to produce further educational material. This is part of a general approach we have taken since our launch of placing huge importance on our political education and development as an organisation. Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution stated – “Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.” We are building a party of experienced Marxists who can all assist in our analysis of the huge economic, social and political crises that we are living through, help to develop our programme and demands, and become ‘leaders’ in their workplaces, communities and places of education. In fact, we are currently in the process of a consolidation drive, to ensure that all new members feel like they have been welcomed into our organisation and are assisted to find their role within it.
We have a national party building team, which as well as helping the branches with recruiting new members, has had a focus on political education. We have a four-part new members’ pack with information on how to be a member such as writing articles, selling the paper and introducing discussions as meeting, but also introducing those who are joining us to the basic ideas of Marxism and our politics. There have been hundreds of local, regional and national meetings on current events, historical events and theoretical ideas. Some of our women members have led the way in building a vibrant socialist feminist caucus, which meets monthly to discuss in detail on socialist feminist theory and our work in this area.
The most recent challenges, and opportunities, for Socialist Alternative have been presented by lockdown due to Covid-19. The pandemic has starkly revealed the destructive nature of capitalism, and it’s inability to offer even the most basic right to life and health to the mass of working class people. This has inevitably led to a questioning of what the alternative to this chaos is, which has played a big role in many of our new members taking the step of joining. We have constantly evolved our programme in relation to the virus and the lockdowns as the situation has developed, taking up new issues such as the reopening of schools and the crisis in the care sector.
We had to move swiftly to online meetings and digital editions of our publications, but we have met these challenges. All of our branches have been able to continue to meet weekly and we took the initiative to have weekly national online live rallies too. We have so far held 12 of these on a variety of topics from how health and education workers are organising against coronavirus, to the blood-soaked history of British capitalism. Hundreds of new people have attended.
It was on the initiative of Socialist Alternative members that Health Campaigns Together and Keep Our NHS Public, with the backing of several trade unions, called a day of action for the NHS at the start of this month. In Leicester our members in the local health campaign played an important role in publicising some of the more scandalous practices and conditions in care homes during the crisis. The pandemic has revealed pre-existing weaknesses in the NHS and that the Tories have no interests in saving it. It has also brought into stark relief the essential role of health and care workers in society. We therefore believe that struggle in this area is very likely – both community campaigns in defence of the service, and workers demanding improved pay and conditions. Socialist Alternative members will continue to be central to this.
We have also made important steps forward internally in these months, including the dividing of the Greater Manchester branch into separate Manchester and Salford branches, a new branch in the South West, and a new group in Scotland. We have launched Student Socialist Alternative and aim to build groups in universities and colleges this Autumn.
Fighting to build a revolutionary International organisation
Our international, the principled defence of which was so central to our formation, has been a vital source of support in the last year. We have had visits by members from the US, Ireland and Hong Kong who have spoken at our conferences and public meetings, and many others taking part in online events. We also sent two delegates to the ISA world congress in January and were able to contribute to the election of a new international leadership. Just this week we have over 100 members attending the ISA’s Virtual Marxist University as part of a total attendance of over 1,300 members from around the world.
We have achieved so much in only a year and are preparing for much bigger leaps forward in the year ahead. If you want to help play a part in the struggle to change society and to fight for socialism we urge you to join Socialist Alternative!