Tina Becker argues that we urgently need to start the process of building a real political alternative
Around 20 people attended the monthly meeting of the Sheffield Anti-Cuts Alliance (Saca) on November 1. This was the second time I have attended the “extended Saca steering committee meeting” and I am starting to understand the dynamics behind it - and they are not pleasant.
We are in what seems to be a major crisis of the capitalist system. We are facing the potential break-up of the European Union. The bourgeoisie is shitting itself, because they have no answers to the crisis. On November 30, millions of people will be on the streets of Britain, demonstrating against the pension ‘reforms’ - and so much more. Around the globe, thousands of people are taking part in the ‘Occupy’ movements, looking for alternatives to this decaying system. What kind of answers do we give them?
Well, Saca for one will not be providing any. It is tightly controlled by the Socialist Workers Party, which has organised the affiliation of various union branches and front organisations, so that as many of its local members as possible have a vote. Because the Socialist Party in England and Wales does not have enough members on the ground to challenge the SWP’s hegemony, it only ever sends a couple of people, who do not intervene much, if at all. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty normally sends two or three members, who put up a slightly more energetic fight (though on November 1 only one AWL member made it). The couple of reps from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain are playing foot soldier to the SWP.
SWP comrades are using the outrageously undemocratic method of ‘consensus’ to keep a tight grip on proceedings and block anything they do not like. Take November 30. Tens of thousands of people from all over South Yorkshire will come to Sheffield to attend a rally organised by the regional trades union council. Ridiculously, this rally at noon is going to last all of 30 minutes. Quite rightly then, Saca comrades discussed organising something else for that day. At our October meeting, the AWL’s Camila Bassi made the very sensible suggestion that we hold a Saca meeting in the afternoon, where we could discuss the way forward for strikers and the anti-cuts movement. Although there was a lot of nodding when she spoke, nothing ever came of it - so I picked up on it again at the latest meeting.
SWP member after SWP member tried to rubbish the idea. “Every group will be doing their own thing on the day,” said the chair (judging by the amount of ‘advice’ she got from leading local SWPer Maxine Bowler, I would guess she is also a member). Comrade Bowler thought that “people will have these discussions at the picket lines” and her comrade, Ben Morris, said that “people will mill about too much - you won’t get them into a meeting”.
He then suggested that Saca should instead help organise a demo through the city centre back to the rally point, to be followed by a second rally - this time called not by the regional TUC, but “local trade union branches”. Oh, and by the way, there had already been a (non-advertised) meeting where this was agreed, he announced. In other words, SWP members with any sort of union position had got together a few days earlier and made their own plans, looking for Saca to rubber-stamp it.
Still, there was a big minority present who thought that we could surely do both: “We should try to politically engage the tens of thousands of people who will come to Sheffield by putting on an interesting debate in the afternoon,” said Lee Rock, acting PCS branch organiser in the local department for work and pensions. “For example, we could discuss if ‘All out, stay out’ - for a week or however long - is really such a good slogan.”
The SWP chair only reluctantly allowed a show of hands: Eight people were in favour of putting on a meeting, about the same number were against. In any normal meeting, the chair would have at least counted the votes. But not so in Saca: “There is no consensus on this, so there will be no Saca meeting,” she announced and went on to the next agenda point.
A similar method was used to prevent an item entitled ‘The way forward for Saca’ from reaching any concrete or coherent conclusions. A young anarchist and former SWP member had tabled a discussion paper that correctly outlined many of Saca’s problems: chiefly, it is incredibly small and has no actual profile of its own. His answer - to link up with various local disputes and actively invite them to Saca - is a step in the right direction.
In fact I think we should go further: we urgently need to start the process of building a real political alternative. We could begin by uniting the various national and local anti-cuts groups into a single, much more powerful organisation (a motion along those lines fell off the agenda last time and was not re-tabled for discussion - no wonder the independent mover has not been keen to attend Saca meetings again).
Also, we must start to actually talk about politics at these meetings. Myself, comrade Bassi and a handful of other comrades supported a modest proposal to start the monthly 90-minute meetings with a political opening of a maximum of 30 minutes. But again, the chair simply moved on when SWPers (and one CPB member) argued against it. You see, Saca “has only one purpose and this was identified at our first public meeting: it is an umbrella that brings together different campaigns,” as Dick Pitt put it.
If this really was the main purpose of Saca, clearly it is failing badly. Otherwise, it would surely attract more than 20 people to its regular organising meetings - and surely its hardly ever updated website might have registered more than 9,995 visits (embarrassingly, there is a counter). Clearly, as things move on and change, we have to do the same. At a time when the level of attacks increases and the European bourgeoisie is in turmoil, we have to raise our game. Who cares what decision was made at the “first public meeting”? Is it set in stone?
In reality, Saca is merely a tool that the ‘organised’ left (chiefly the SWP) can utilise in order to advertise and push forward their own meetings - or worse.
For example, at the October meeting, SWPers said that Mark Serwotka would be available to speak at a Saca meeting on November 10. Much time was allocated to discussing who will book the room, who would approach more speakers, etc. At the November 1 meeting, SWP member Ben Morris then dished out the leaflet for the event: Miraculously, it is no longer a Saca meeting, but is now organised by the SWP’s latest front campaign, Unite the Resistance.
The leaflet lists a long line of trade union branches supporting the event and comrade Morris breathlessly informed us that he was just about to “send the invoice for the printing costs to Saca when it turned out that union branches had already donated enough money”. But, funnily enough, the leaflet does not even mention Saca. When I asked about this, I was told by a clearly embarrassed comrade Morris that “Saca hadn’t agreed a firm donation yet”. But they were supposed to pay for the printing …
Call me cynical, but it seems to me that the SWP is not interested at all in building Saca or any other anti-cuts campaign. The smaller these groups around the country stay, the larger the SWP and their various front organisations can loom.