January 2009 NC: DSP perspectives towards the Socialist Alliance in 2009

By Dick Nichols

[The resolution (below) on DSP perspectives towards the Socialist Alliance was adopted unanimously by the DSP National Committee at its January 10-11, 2009 plenum.]
  • The DSP will support the proposal that the Socialist Alliance conduct a membership campaign early in 2009;
  •  The DSP will help the Alliance stabilise its state/territory membership data bases, membership renewal systems, ensuring prompt attention to membership inquiries and suggestions;
  • The DSP will help the Socialist Alliance with the production of Alliance Voices as a regular monthly production, laid out so as to allow state and local material to be added, and help ensure its distribution to all Alliance members;
  • Relevant Green Left Weekly sales and subscription data and campaigns shall become a permanent item in Alliance Voices.

The DSP will try to ensure that the Socialist Alliance carries out the following priority activities in 2009.

 FEBRUARY –MARCH

  • Relaunch of Alliance branches;
  • Intervention of Alliance into Climate Change Summit

Local branch relaunch conferences, linked to a membership drive;

  • Branches in multi-branch states to elect representatives on state executives;
  • First meeting of state executives, with attention to stabilisation of membership and contacting data bases, and openings for the Alliance in state politics;
  • Meetings to develop links and activities with Arabic-speaking communities

APRIL

  • Large Socialist Alliance input and presence at “World at a Crossroads” conference;

BETWEEN JUNE AND SEPTEMBER

  • Thoroughly prepared state conferences

Introduction

This report will follow a different procedure from the previous reports at this plenum because what we shall be voting on is simply the resolution, and not the general line of the report. That’s because there are differences in the National executive about how the Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance should interrelate, about the interface between the two organisations at this point in time.

I don’t believe we should be alarmed about this state of affairs. It reflects the real pressures on us as we try to build three organisations at the same time, after the faction fight and with, as everyone has said, a reduced core of cadres and a pressing need to concentrate on replenishing this core, especially through Resistance. At the same time we have more political opportunities and responsibilities, to a large degree created by the work we have been able to do through the Socialist Alliance over the latter years of the Howard administration and the first year of Rudd.

So, what we shall be voting on is what we agree on from the National executive. It’s very important—and I’ll keep restressing this until we’re all bored with it—that we actually implement the resolution. More than our discussion here (important though that will be), making the resolution real will give some answers to the issues in debate. Implementing a serious approach to relaunching the Socialist Alliance in 2009 in the simplest and most basic way (that is, getting more members, maintaining contact with them and getting them involved in work) will provide the collective experience that we need to decide on the issues in dispute.

(A small note of explanation: I had intended to ring all the branch organisers before doing this report, but that simply hasn’t been possible. We have a window of a month in which to do the annual maintenance of the Sydney Resistance headquarters, which this year coincided with the Israeli assault on Gaza. That created a whole extra pile of work, and something had to fall out of the intray. That’s simply a way of inviting all comrades here to say their piece.)

Political value of Socialist Alliance

I think it’s worth starting by again reweighing the value of the Socialist Alliance as a political asset. We can do this now without feeling any pressure that we have to do it—we are not trying to win an argument with people who can only compulsively repeat that it’s a pile of excrement. We are actually trying to work out for ourselves what the value of the Socialist Alliance tactic is.

Of course, it is a tactic. Not that I like that term because “a tactic” carries the implication that you could drop it tomorrow, and turn to something new next week.  Whereas the Socialist Alliance is a serious, ongoing attempt to build a broader organisation of socialists in this country, with all such a project necessarily involves if it is to be real.

But it is a project that we could decide is not worth the DSP’s effort, the cost. There’s a cost-benefit analysis that has to be made in relation to it, and we can now make that analysis free from the immediate pressure of those who have been shitting on it. Of course, they will continue obsessively to shit on it because that’s their political function in life. After the Alliance’s 18.9% result in the Victorian local government elections, they had a series of involuntary bowel movements on the Green Left Weekly discussion list.

But let’s just remind ourselves of the value. Obviously that Victorian local government election result tells us something, also because it was not the most brilliant election campaign in the history of Bolshevist organising.  It was a pretty last minute, get-the-thing-done, get-the-leaflets-around, cover-the-letterboxes performance. I’m not saying that it wasn’t done well—in the circumstances. But it wasn’t a grand operation, covering all the openings and done with military thoroughness.

What did it reveal? That Socialist Alliance Victoria got its finger on the pulse on a section of the working class and of people who chose to vote Socialist Alliance rather than Green in a situation where the Greens were standing. Yes, there’s a certain obfuscation here, in that everyone stands as an independent in local government elections in Victoria, but in most cases the Greens identified themselves as Greens (the shamefaced with a small triangle, the rest with a large one on their propaganda!), so that there was a test. And yet we find 810 people, 18.9% of the formal vote, voting for Comrade Stuart Martin.

This and the big vote in Moreland and Geelong (where the Socialist Alliance had never stood in local government elections) showed that the campaign hit a social nerve. The propaganda was pitched right, pitched on the issues, articulating the socialist approach in a very concrete way that made people respond: “Yes, I agree with these people—they’re saying the right thing.”

How strong that attachment is, whether it will be repeated in the next election, whether it will translate to the state level and to more people joining and becoming involved in the Socialist Alliance – all that is yet to be seen, but it is a real and important political phenomenon. Also, we should not forget to register here the vote for the Socialist Party’s Stephen Jolly in South Yarra. That 30%, the highest of all candidates in his ward, showed that serious and consistent work, where you take up and fight for the issues that concern people (where they need someone to fight for them and to help them fight and organise), will be appreciated and rewarded.

That is the Socialist Party (or Militant Tendency) approach around the world. It’s why, of the small left groups, they have achieved the greatest level of parliamentary and local government representation. That’s an important part of building a social and political base, and it’s what we’re interested in, too.

The second thing I want to stress (although it has been said at this plenum it bears repeating), is the work the Socialist Alliance has been able to do in the unions and, particularly, through the position of comrade Tim Gooden at Geelong Trades Hall Council. Getting the work organised so that Tim could get his material into the Geelong Advertiser and the mainstream media more broadly and also take initiatives (such as the first demonstration in support of Noel Washington and against the Australian Building and Construction Commission) measurably increased the impact of, and respect for, the Socialist Alliance among militant unions.

The best measure of this, as I always stress, is the way the opposition reacts. For example, Kevin Rudd was booked to do a community cabinet meeting in Corio on the same weekend as the Socialist Alliance Sixth National Conference. Previously Tim put out a little email in November alerting everyone to this and saying that it wasn’t suggesting anything, but that it might be an opportunity to do something about the ABCC and/or the miserable greenhouse gas emissions targets that climate minister Penny Wong and Rudd were set to announce in the first week of December.

This provoked an extremely nervous reaction from ALP people, who wanted to know from Tim if the Socialist Alliance was planning to demonstrate against Rudd’s Corio meeting. Nothing can be proven, but it’s an unusual coincidence that the decision to suspend the charges against Noel Washington and postpone the announcement of the greenhouse gas emission targets occurred at that time.

This shows that the actions and plans, possible and real, of the Socialist Alliance are a variable in the calculations of the Labor Party. That obviously doesn’t mean that we are going to knock them over next week – it means they cannot plan their course of action irrespective of what the Socialist Alliance might be able to do by itself or help set in motion. Noel Washington had to have his charges dropped rather than have huge demonstrations against the Rudd government less than a week after the tabling of the Fair Work Bill.

I think that this also applies to the Greens. Let me give a little anecdote here. In the New South Wales electricity privatisation fight, which has gone underground for the moment but will re-emerge, Greens MLA John Kaye has done a fine job, with lots of information on his web site and powerful speeches around the state. Nonetheless, the Greens were absent from any committee which was actually doing anything, from any local People’s Power group. Their role was basically confined to our man in parliament doing a good job from the bear pit to help out the movement.

At a certain point it became clear, after it emerged that Rees was going to implement the Iemma-Costa power privatisation plan behind heavy camouflage (“We’re not going to privatise electricity generation, but we will give private electricity wholesalers management rights within the publicly owned power stations”), the Greens made a decision that they had to get more actively involved in this campaign.

Thus, in December 2008 John Kaye came along to his first Sydney “Power to the People” organising committee. Clearly, the Greens see an opportunity to get more space and influence in the general context of decay of support for Labor in New South Wales (where it is most marked). However, to reach the shining goal of a higher Green vote they have to go beyond electoralism, they have to “do something”. This is a good thing—it increases the activist detachment within the movement, and it potentially helps shift the balances of forces within the Greens against their purely parliamentarist right wing.

Now, this political asset that is the Socialist Alliance and which has been painfully constructed over eight years has been able to take root because of the “crisis of legitimacy” of the major parties.  I want to revisit the discussion of this phrase, which started yesterday, because it refers to a real socio-political trend. It’s important not to get caught up on words, but put our collective finger on what we are talking about here.

There are three million people in Australia who are not voting either Labor or Liberal, 20% of the electorate. On some issues, and at the local government level, that percentage increases. At the federal level over one million of that “pool” votes Green in the Senate, a percentage that has been steadily increasing ever since the Greens first appeared on the state and federal electoral map. At the same time the degree of attachment, of “rusted-on-ness”, of traditional ALP people is declining. The academic surveys show that people increasingly vote Labor not because mum and dad, grandma and granddad, voted Labor, but on the basis of lesser evilism, or because we’ve had enough of these bastards, we’ll give the others a go.

That’s what I think the term “crisis of legitimacy” refers to. We’ve noted it time and time again over the last 25 years (since the emergence of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984), but it’s a long way from this general “crisis of legitimacy”—maybe “decay of legitimacy” is a more precise term—of traditional two-party politics to a specific crisis that also points towards the crystallisation of a force seen by millions as an alternative to decaying status quo. But the actual openness, preparedness, need even, to look towards an alternative in politics—which can’t express itself in day-to-day political life—then comes out in specific political contexts quite sharply.

The best recent example of such a context was, of course, the death of the Iemma government in New South Wales, a remarkable event which all the mainstream players in politics and the media have an interest in burying, given their permanent imperative to maintain mass political amnesia and torpor.

But when was the last time that 20 ALP MPs felt such pressure from the ranks that they told the premier: “We’re not going to vote with you, mate”? And when the premier tried to manoeuvre out of this crisis, his own faction said: “You’re not going to take your revenge on us because of the way you’ve been running things: you’re going to obey our command”?

 The “crisis of legitimacy”—largely but not only caused by Iemma’s decision to ignore the 702-106 NSW ALP conference vote against electricity privatisation—led to the election of the first “left” Labor leadership of a NSW government since World War II. Not that anyone noticed the difference—the NSW Labor primary vote is presently at 25% in opinion polls.

It’s highly likely that the Liberals, by doing nothing and by making sure that they maintain low profile, will win in 2011. That’s how Iemma won in 2007. But it also means that the 2011 NSW state poll will be a big opportunity and challenge for the Greens and for the Socialist Alliance, a chance to build on the gains we registered in 2007, and take NSW politics further away from the traditional two-party schema, a situation that’s anathema to big capital.

So that’s the political asset that the Socialist Alliance is today. We know that Socialist Alliance, and the DSP within it, is positioned to take initiatives that count when conditions are ripe—in the anti-war movement, in environment (the Climate Action Summit), union struggles, LGBTI, sexual equality and civil liberties struggles and Indigenous rights. In all these issues Socialist Alliance has established enough profile and its activists enough respect to be looked to when leadership and initiative is needed.

That profile is a very important asset—it’s must be very irritating for our political competititors to have nearly every protest action described by the average, lazy hack journalists as “organised by the Socialist Alliance” , like the Melbourne rally against Israel’s assault on Gaza in the Herald-Sun’s account.

The costs of building the Socialist Alliance

However, this positive advance has been happening in a period in which the Socialist Alliance as an organisation has shrunk, and shrunk quite seriously. If you look at the financial membership statistics at mid-December 2008 (which still lack Western Australian data) the financial membership for Australia declined over 2008 by 282 — a big fall.

The areas where it has most declined have also been those where we most have had trouble with DSP branches, where comrades haven’t been able to do everything, have least been able to put effort into maintaining the Socialist Alliance, and where morale has been such that comrades haven’t been able to throw themselves at building it.

So, what we’re addressing when we face the problems of the Socialist Alliance is organically related to the discussion we had under the last report and the discussion we’ll have under the Resistance report.

I won’t go into detail with these statistics: comrades can read them at their leisure—but the message is very clear. The degree of political outwardness, of activity, of all-round political healthiness of the DSP, Resistance and Socialist Alliance branches are strongly correlated.

The DSP has also paid a political cost for maintaining the Socialist Alliance. We’ve already begun a discussion about the gains registered by Socialist Alternative, and what we are going to do about their gains in Melbourne.  I’m not saying anything about what we should do, but part of the price the DSP has paid from the amount of cadre time it has had to put into the Socialist Alliance is that we have had to evacuate, to a degree, the space of “Marxist politics”, such that Socialist Alternative has been able to present themselves as the people with the “Marxist” view. That’s their whole life: they go to a Gaza demonstration and they plaster it with leaflets “Why Socialists Call for the Destruction of the Zionist State”.  If they get five people to a discussion after a rally and they recruit one of them that “intervention” has been a success.

Our tendency has not been able to match that, and Socialist Alternative will continue to grow while we fail to do so. That’s clear:  why wouldn’t they grow? There is a vacuum there, a demand, an appeal to what Bob Gould calls the “young seekers after truth”, especially on the campuses—the young people wanting to know how the world works. I instinctively hate it, how do I understand it?

We can crack the self-comforting joke that Socialist Alternative are “Jehovah’s Socialists”, but they are Jehovah’s Socialists who recruit to their sect. I, for one (and I’m getting off the point here) am concerned about the growth of these ersatz Marxists. But it’s not really off the point—it’s part of the price we’re paying for committing to maintaining the Socialist Alliance.

Another thing we’ve noted is the retreat of some of our older comrades, who have become part of “normal” Australian society, are doing less, have more family responsibilities, etc. Well, there’s nothing indictable about that trend, but it takes away valuable energy, even as it also aids us, because it helps us get our tone, propaganda and language right for the broader working-class and radical audiences whose attention and interest we try to engage.

And we’ve also seen a slipping our revolutionary morale, zest and discipline—all the things we talked about in the last report.

I want to stress a contradiction here, and it would be very interesting to hear what comrades think about it. Socialist Alliance has put us in touch with broader milieux—old CPers, dissident left ALP people, independent leftists, dissident and disillusioned Greens, left Greens and now, increasingly, workers and activists from migrant communities. That is all a big step forward. It has also meant that we have had to learn to talk to people in a language that they would understand, putting the socialist point in a concrete and sharp way, not in an arcane tongue that causes people’s eyes to glaze over. That’s all a step forward.

But at the same time—and this produced the visceral reaction of the Percyite sectarians—this trend has had a tendency to dilute the political culture of the revved-up revolutionary organisation trying to meet its finances, sales and recruitment targets and organise tight interventions in the movements—which is all absolutely essential. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.

This is the contradiction from which our sectarians fled by identifying in the Socialist Alliance a poisonous undermining of revolutionary spirit, ideology and organisation. Hence, although they could never prove it, the charge of “liquidationism”. It was just a word they stuck on a real tendency, a trend which we should acknowledge, weigh and seek to counteract.

Of course, Socialist Alliance has also meant we have had to deal with the difficult people and strange characters the left always attracts on a larger scale. You have to find the ways to help draw out their good sides at the same time as putting up with a lot of crap in many cases—and not say that. But that’s how you build a broader socialist organisation, and people who don’t like dealing with such difficulties, who don’t have the resources to do it, flee from the challenge and find comfort and sustenance in the creation of their own groupuscule.

State of Socialist Alliance building

Now, all these positives and negatives have been occurring when the Socialist Alliance is not, in general, being built properly, when members are not being looked after, when people who could be recruited are not being recruited, and attention to them and the potential contribution they could make is not being made.

We already have warning signs here, comrades in the Socialist Alliance sending us letters saying that we haven’t done anything.  They write that they are just being left out in the cold. “We used to have a little group here that used to meet. Now, nothing happens. So, we’re joining the Greens, or we have become active around local issues.”

That’s a warning sign. Of course, we are not going to panic about it—there may have been nothing we could have done. But it does indicate that the work is not being done to the level that it needs to be done, and it comes down to very simple things, the degree of organisation of membership lists, of contacting. Do members actually get anything for being members?

Comrade Annolies in Perth says: “I don’t invite people to join the Socialist Alliance now, because what can we offer them?” You give us money, and we won’t ring you, we won’t organise you, we won’t keep you up to date with our activity. Obviously, that’s connected to the state of our DSP organising, but it’s the beginning of the end for Socialist Alliance organisation unless turned around.

This state of affairs was epitomised at the Socialist Alliance’s Sixth National Conference. What balance sheet do we make of it? Afterwards, I deliberately didn’t ask comrades their opinion, for fear of twisting their reaction. However, the range of unsolicited opinions went from “solid” to “excellent”.

The conference confirmed that the Socialist Alliance is the real political factor we say it is. It’s got genuine red-green politics, an ongoing real effort to develop and debate those politics, a real and widening network of influence, etc. There were also real gains that came out of the conference, in people being rejuvenated and reconvinced about the project. And a good spirit over the whole weekend.

Having said that, we have to weigh up what the conference revealed about the state of the Socialist Alliance itself. It was a well made and successful conference but it was, to a degree, a “Potemkin conference”.

Resolutions? Not one branch put forward a resolution. Pre-conference discussion? There was no pre-conference discussion, that I know, that actually happened (correct me if I am wrong).[1] The conference resolutions turned up at the very last minute, so that although they were discussed there and the discussion was real, there was very little sense in which this was a discussion coming out of the concerns and work of the branches.

The aim of the first day public form, which I still think was a good thing to do and certainly kept audience attention, involvement and interest, was only very partially fulfilled, because the idea was to present the multiple environmental crises through David Spratt and Cam Walker to an audience of worker-militants, especially worker-militants from Geelong, and spark discussion about where we are and where we are going in the construction of a red-green political political axis for sustainability. That really didn’t happen.

Finally, the last session was something through which we would not want to go again. By the time most people had gone—probably a blessing in disguise—we had to go through the trickiest and most difficult things, where there were differences over constitutional amendments without sufficient time to debate them, and comrades were tired after a three-day conference that had been squeezed into two days.

This was not the way you should have a discussion around constitutional changes and the election of leadership. Normally we would have put that on the beginning of the second day, but couldn’t do it because of the way the whole conference was structured as a public forum cum decision-making event.

Now, this is not breast-beating, this is not saying that we made awful mistakes about this or that aspect of the conference, but simply trying to analyse through the X-Ray of the conference the actual condition of the body of the Socialist Alliance.

It confirmed the core problem we face, namely that, even while there is a broad disenchantment with existing bourgeois politics, the vast majority of disenchanted people are passive (“Good on you, you’re doing a good job!”). The discontent is generating only a small layer of activists (including people we have managed to make active) yet we have given ourselves as the DSP the job of trying to organise and energise a bigger leadership to strengthen and give direction to that disenchantment. That’s the key problem. That’s the root source of the stress we all feel.

DSP tasks in the Socialist Alliance

The DSP’s main task for the Socialist Alliance in 2009 has got to be to try to help it overcome this condition as much as possible, at the same time as we do all the other things we’ve got to do within the DSP and Resistance.

How can we resolve as much as possible this contradiction? We can’t rely on the objective situation—hopefully the struggles will come along. Rather, we have to have a worst-case plan, a base plan that helps us solve this problem, even if 2009 is like 2008. And, of course, the body that is most central to addressing this challenge is this DSP National Committee.

The situation means one thing at least, and it lies at the heart of the resolution we are voting on. There is no way to address the situation without putting more energy and time into relaunching the Socialist Alliance in those branches where membership and activity has declined most, and to then maintaining a consistent minimum.

If we can’t do it, we have to make a decision—why have a completely empty branch, one where people who wanted to be members are getting upset because nothing is happening? Why do that?

I would say that we can’t repeat 2008 in 2009 and expect the Alliance to survive. We shouldn’t debate that specific judgment, but a decline from 750 to 460 financial members obviously can’t be repeated.  We have to set in place systems that avoid that.

Now, how do we do this when we are flat out already, or when the central cadres of the DSP are flat out and many others are still not fully engaged. And the “magic answer” is…I don’t know. I don’t have a magic answer, but we have to try to work this out together.

If you want to talk about our conundrum in terms of economics, are we stuck on the budget line, so that to get more of X we have to have less of Y?  We simply can’t afford to accept that way of putting the question, because we have a minimum set of tasks for Green Left Weekly, the DSP, Resistance and the Socialist Alliance. We have to find some way to create more total energy for the overall task-load and make the expenditure of that political energy more efficient. In particular, we have to try to inspire comrades to become involved in building the Socialist Alliance, in expanding and re-energising the Socialist Alliance membership.

I’m convinced we can do it. The path is to look carefully at the best examples of integrating Socialist Alliance, DSP and Resistance work that we have before us. Not that particular branches (like Illawarra and Brisbane) are models that can just be applied across the board, but there are a whole series of lessons here about how we can solve the conundrum. Comrades from the branches that are struggling should study them carefully.

I now want to go through to the resolution. The argument I am outlining here continues, but it continues in the form of rationales for the various points in the resolution.

 “1. The DSP will support the proposal that the Socialist Alliance conduct a membership campaign early in 2009.”

Obviously, if we just say “membership campaign” like that it will be one more thing to do. We’ll “do” a Socialist Alliance membership blitz at the same time as we’re doing a Green Left Weekly sales blitz, and at the same time as Resistance is gearing up to win more presence on campus. Is this going to happen? It won’t, in all likelihood, happen.

So how can it become real? It obviously means a planned Socialist Alliance membership drive has to be discussed on DSP executives. It has to be thought out. There has to be a calendar of Socialist Alliance events thought out. But I think the way we do this is to make recruitment to the Socialist Alliance an integral part of all activities.  That is to say, an integral part of Green Left Weekly stalls, with a “Join Socialist Alliance here” corflute on every one.

We shall chat with all our Green Left Weekly buyers, and hand them the new recruitment brochure that we will be bringing out in the Socialist Alliance National Office. We shall hand out a new Socialist Alliance brochure with every copy of the paper sold. We shall—very subtle technique! ask them to join.

I don’t think that there is any other way to do this. We cannot stop everything else that we have to do and “have a blitz”. It will be voluntarism this way, grab a few more members, then, “Thank Christ that’s done”, and rush off to building the Green Left Weekly dinner dance, or whatever. There is no other way to do this membership campaign other than by integrating the work.

The Socialist Alliance National Office will provide, finally, as we get our head above water, the material that we need for this campaign—membership cards, badges, new recruitment leaflets etc. There’ll be the new edition of the Climate Change Charter, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Charter, and we’ll get the booklet on socialism out as soon as we can.

From a situation where we actually have nothing we can give to people other than the latest Socialist Alliance statement on a specific political issue, we shall start to have a propaganda arsenal. As part of this the National Conveners—we’ll discuss this on the first National executive for 2009—will be available to do talks which can be slotted into branch’s calendars. However we present them—”Why You Should Be a Socialist?” or whatever—these will be recruiting talks done as imaginatively as possible.

 “2. The DSP will help the Alliance stabilise its state/territory membership data bases, membership renewal systems, ensuring prompt attention to membership inquiries and suggestions.”

There have been a number of cases of Socialist Alliance members complaining to the National Office: “Nobody has got in touch with me.”  It means that the new, interested person—the most important thing—has disappeared somewhere between coming off the web site and being forwarded to the branch, and potential recruits to the Socialist Alliance (who continue to come at the same rate as they have over the past four years) just seem to evaporate.

So the next thing the DSP branches are going to have to discuss is how to ensure the proper functioning of Socialist Alliance membership systems. Can we be certain that as soon as someone gets in touch with the Socialist Alliance they are spoken to, they get the material they need to get, and they are made to feel part of the organisation?

I have no feeling in the National Office—there’s no reason why I should—of how well this is happening. All I know is that we get this steady stream of complaints from people, emails wanting to know why they have not been contacted.

I think part of the problem here is that we separate out Socialist Alliance contacting as one more goddam thing that harassed and overworked DSP organisers can’t find a comrade to do—abstracting it from our general contacting task, when there’s no reason why it can’t be included in the general contacting effort.

Another thing that I’m concerned about is to what degree Alliance Voices and Socialist Alliance statements get out to the membership. They go to the branches, but how far do they go beyond? I have this strange feeling—comrades can correct me if I am wrong—that we have a list of contacts, which around the country would amount to over 5000 people, who are either members, former members, or interested in the Socialist Alliance, along with Green Left Weekly contacts and subscribers. How many get the information about what the Socialist Alliance is saying about this or that issue?

This leads to the next point in the resolution

“3. The DSP will help the Socialist Alliance with the production of Alliance Voices as a regular monthly production, laid out so as to allow state and local material to be added, and help ensure its distribution to all Alliance members.”

When implemented this means that we will know, at the very least, that the whole Alliance membership is getting a monthly report on the positions, plans and activities of the organisation, nationally and at the state and local level. That seems to me critical. If we can’t establish that, integrate with our contacting for all other activities, we have a serious problem on our hands.

Are these proposals possible? Well, as I say, it really is at the branch level, the branch executive level, that this will be tackled and solved. A report from somebody at a National Committee meeting is not going to solve it. However, one thing we can do at a national level, I would suggest, and I will propose this to the incoming DSP National executive, is that we develop a national calendar for the year, which provides, as much as is possible, realistic space for major DSP, Resistance and Socialist Alliance activities.

This was not the case in 2008. In 2008, Socialist Alliance events got sacrificed or postponed to other needs—always for good reasons—but the Socialist Alliance paid a big price for that.

Having three National Conveners in the Socialist Alliance is already helping us at the national level, and Bea Bleile’s becoming a National Co-convener is proving to be a tremendous step forward, because she’s very serious and very enthusiastic.

Also, with Duroyan taking over the web site from Peter Boyle (already far too overloaded) and coordinating with Dave Riley, we are in a better position to organise our web and blog presence, and work out, as a future Socialist Alliance National executive will have to address, the interrelation between the different communication tools, including the campaign e-groups.

“4. Relevant Green Left Weekly sales and subscription data and campaigns shall become a permanent item in Alliance Voices.”

This is a very important element. Now that the whole objection to a close link between the Socialist Alliance and Green Left Weekly, which was raised by the other groups, has been eliminated, we can actually work on this relation and make the synergies stronger. I’ve had for some time a belief that a lot of the work that the Socialist Alliance does at the local level doesn’t get reported well enough in Green Left Weekly. Really interesting things, that you learn about on the phone or by email, never appear. Yet they are all part of the political message, the political landscape on which we must have our collective sights.

What is being proposed here—and it also comes from the resolution adopted at the Socialist Alliance Sixth National Conference—is that one of the Socialist Alliance National Conveners participate in Green Left Weekly staff meetings .

Developing this relationship necessarily involves the question of the relationship between Alliance Voices and the DSP’s Party Campaigner.  In the original proposal that put up to the DSP National executive I suggested that we transform DSP National Newsletter into a monthly email bulletin put out on the DSP members’ list. Other DSP NE comrades felt that the proposal was premature, but I still think there is a value to discussing it here. We aren’t voting on this, it’s not part of the resolution, but my opinion is that it would be a positive step.

Firstly, we can, through the DSP members list, keep all DSP members up to date on the issues, concerns and news of the DSP that are not the property of the Socialist Alliance. There’s no problem there.

The second thing that the proposal would achieve, especially if we can move Alliance Voices to a fortnightly frequency, is force DSP comrades into a framework where they are addressing a Socialist Alliance membership, which includes the DSP membership, but is a bigger audience.

I had the weird experience in 2008 of regularly re-writing DSP National Newsletter stories for a Socialist Alliance membership. More often than not, it was a matter of changing one or two words, of simply leaving out material that was for internal DSP consumption and, most of all, of making sure that the “we” referred to in the piece was clearly the Socialist Alliance.

So the obvious question is: Do we need this duplication, or can we talk directly about political campaigns, Green Left Weekly sales and subscription campaigns, other organizational campaigns in Alliance Voices? Why can’t we talk to the broadest possible audience about all that, and isn’t that our preferred default setting?

I think that this approach would have an advantage because it would also help us overcome the still remaining problem we have of a certain DSP “clubbiness”, of preferring the DSP space as the hearth where we feel most comfortable, most at home. But it also means , necessarily, that we are not forcing ourselves to talk outwards to a broader audience, broader potential forces, using material that is not private, not secret.

I throw that out. It’s not part of the proposal for voting, but it helps crystallise the issue I raised at the beginning of this report: how do we best articulate the relationship between the DSP and the Socialist Alliance in the best possible way, especially in this period where we have the task of relaunching the Socialist Alliance in many areas?

 “5. The DSP will try to ensure that the Socialist Alliance carries out the following priority activities in 2009.

 FEBRUARY-MARCH

  • Relaunch of Alliance branches
  • Intervention of Alliance into Climate Change Summit
  • Local branch relaunch conferences, linked to a membership drive.
  • Branches in multi-branch states to elect representatives on state executives
  • First meeting of state executives, with attention to stabilisation of membership and contacting data bases, and openings for the Alliance in state politics
  • Meetings to develop links and activities with Arabic-speaking communities

APRIL

  • Large Socialist Alliance input and presence at “World at a Crossroads” conference

BETWEEN JUNE AND SEPTEMBER

  • Thoroughly prepared state conferences.”

This list of activities is a minimum of what we have to do to make what we’re calling a relaunch of the Socialist Alliance a reality.

“Relaunch of Alliance branches”. You make it clear to everyone in a particular branch that we’re getting the show on the road for 2009, and you put effort into getting people along to the opening meeting of the year. The resolution says February or March, which gives comrades at least 10 weeks to get such a relaunch organised.

“Intervention in the Climate Change summit”. This is more or less under control, although there is a lot of work to be done.

“Local branch relaunch conferences, linked to a membership drive.” The goal here is to draw new people in, and we have an item on how we’re going to relaunch the Alliance in this city or region. Who is going to go and chase these people who have lapsed in such a way that the membership drive is not being done by the DSP, but driven by as many Socialist Alliance members as can be persuaded to commit to it?

“Branches in multi-branch states to elect representatives to state executives.”  Now this is a bit of a contentious issue, which we should discuss. I am very firmly of the opinion that the Socialist Alliance draws its life not just from national campaigns, campaigns that are also important for us as the DSP, but also from local and state-based issues (like free student travel), and that it has to have to bodies where it can discuss such issues wherever there are multi-branch states, mainly in New South Wales and Victoria. It was very noticeable last year in New South Wales, where we had to run the campaign against electricity privatisation through the New South Wales Trade Union Committee (a grand title for something not so grand). That’s how we had to do it—there was no functioning NSW state executive that could lead it politically.

I think Jess [Moore] rang up other NSW centres when Illawarra wanted to generalise the campaign against the cutting of free student travel and the increase in rail fares, to see if this couldn’t be made a NSW-wide campaign.

So that there’s a need to at least have a perspective of  having state executives, or  state working groups, i.e., a group of people who meet to discuss what the Socialist Alliance is doing on this issue in state politics. Maybe we can’t do anything, but at least we have to be conscious of it, conscious of having a space where it can be done.

This is not counterposed to the main message of this and previous reports, namely that our main job is base-building.  But as soon as branches are functioning to some degree or other and issues present themselves in state politics and the Socialist Alliance has an opportunity to build itself, then we have to have some sort of state structure through which to operate, even if the main job of such structures is to carry out and maintain the registration work of the Alliance at the state level.

In passing, New South Wales had a nightmare meeting the criteria of the Electoral Funding Authority, which is why we have to take the issue of state-based executives seriously, and have a perspective of trying to get them running. I know it’s easy to say and difficult to do, but, remember, Socialist Alliance members on state executives have also complained that they haven’t met.

“Meetings to develop links and activities with Arabic-speaking communities.” The Alliance already has these under way, around the Gaza campaign, but, beyond that, especially in New South Wales and maybe in Victoria, the Alliance must set up a series of meetings with Arabic-speaking and Middle Eastern left organisations. The connection with the Sudanese comrades opens the door to these opportunities, to be pursued vigorously.

“Large Socialist Alliance input and presence at “World at a Crossroads” conference.”  This is a DSP and Resistance conference, but it would be a big mistake not to have a major Socialist Alliance intervention into it. This will have to be discussed with the organisers.

“Between April and September thoroughly prepared state conferences.”  We know that when our state conferences are done properly, as in Victoria in the past, they can be an attractively political way of strengthening the Alliance and drawing people around. They are good, too for DSP comrades, who get revived by seeing other faces, hearing a serious discussion and getting reintroduced to the possibilities and opportunities for the Alliance. For example, a properly prepared conference in New South Wales which discussed plans for the next state election, how we are carrying forward the struggle against electricity privatisation, public transport, any number of things, is a necessary and important way to strengthen the Alliance in the state.

Summary

Comrades, despite all the stresses, strains and contradictions we face, I feel confident about the possibilities for the Socialist Alliance, simply on the basis of the successes we’ve had when we’ve put in the energy, and focussed seriously on the task at hand.

The job, I repeat, is as much as possible to help even up the results the Socialist Alliance is achieving, but without damaging what must be done with the DSP and Resistance. I take all Pat’s points on that priority, indeed I referred to them in the report.

It’s why what the National Committee is being asked to vote on is a minimal resolution. The National executive debate on the DSP-Socialist Alliance interrelationship has all come up here on an expanded scale, simply reflecting our different experiences and possibilities in building the Socialist Alliance. The National executive has put forward this minimum resolution to accommodate that reality.

But the resolution is a serious to-do list. Comrade Sue Bull said as much, and it is what all DSP branches must do their utmost to help implement. Obviously, we shall give as much support as we can from the Socialist Alliance National Office. The Socialist Alliance National Conveners shall, when we have this discussion on the Socialist Alliance National executive, chase how branches are going.  We shall put up a proposal that will include targets, and ask Socialist Alliance branches for their plan of work.

Of course, we shall be sensitive about it. However, all DSP National Committee members have to have a commitment to doing our best to revive the financial membership of the Socialist Alliance. As I said right at the beginningand it came through strongly in the discussionthis will also help us solve the other debates.

Who comes out of the woodwork? Who wants to be active? Ah, we’ve got someone who can help us solve our Green Left Weekly sales committee problem. Suddenly, we don’t have to have just a DSP-only sales committee, new energy—a solution—has been unearthed. But we shan’t have any solutions, we shan’t be able to solve any of the problems that have been raised in discussion, unless we make this effort.

Again, the Socialist Alliance National Conveners will do all we can from the National Office to help out in practical ways, helping acquainting all branches with the “best practice” achieved. Would Illawarra’s way of operating with Google Docs and the Google calendar be applicable to other branches? We’ll help them find out.

All this sort of stuff, very practical. And a lot of the help can only be that—practical and concrete.

Now to come to some of the issues raised in discussion.

Voting for the resolution doesn’t mean we are voting for a printed Alliance Voices. A monthly Alliance Voices will start in the most practical way possible—as a continuation of the monthly web-based production that we have shown we can do (in the pre-conference period). It will be regularised and structured so that state and local news can be included. I endorse Paul’s vision of how the thing would work. It would put out the good news, show the good things that the Alliance is doing, and invite all members, implicitly and explicitly, to do a bit more, get a bit more engaged, put political activity a notch higher on their priority schedule.

One of the most frustrating things about last year’s Socialist Alliance activity is that the good news stories didn’t get out. And since the Socialist Alliance’s life is much more dependent on the interest of immediate politics and campaigns—and in that sense more “adrenalin-dependent”, if you like—you want to get the adrenalin boost out into everyone as quickly as possible.

That’s the newsletter that is being proposed here. Once made regular we shall see what’s practical in terms of a printed publication. We already have a PDF version of Alliance Voices, and how to continue it is a discussion we shall have on the Socialist Alliance National executive. Comrade Dave Riley has done a lot of valuable work here.

It’s on the basis of that experience with Alliance Voices that we can come back to the discussion about the frequency and form of the DSP National Newsletter.

I deliberately inserted that discussion into the report, because it forces us into an ongoing discussion of the pace with which the Socialist Alliance-DSP “interface” needs to evolve.

Here I am disagreeing a bit with Peter. I don’t think that there are three clear schematic options for a DSP-Socialist Alliance “interface” here, with me proposing taking the DSP into the Socialist Alliance, and making the Socialist Alliance the primary, overarching structure for our politics.

It’s a much more practical, small-scale, discussion. What things that are presently being done through the DSP can we transfer—and does it help to transfer—into the Socialist Alliance? That’s a very specific discussion issue by issue.

Like the great Sydney Central debate, on which I’ll indicate my position: I think that it’s always best to have forums for a bigger audience. And I don’t see why comrades in the DSP who are not doing much have to be catered to with DSP-only meetings about, say, the economic crisis, when they could come to a Socialist Alliance meeting on the same topic.

I do think, and Graham put his finger on this, that we can’t have forms and initiatives determined for us by the layer of DSP members who are passive. Forms have got to be determined by the people who are around us and active in campaigns and work. Of course, we keep an eye on where the more passive DSP comrades are at. We try to reinspire them, we try to get them involved, but we can’t have meetings determined by comrades who might want to have a bit of a chat about this or that political issue in the “privacy” of the DSP.

What we are trying to do is inspire people with real activity that potentially makes a political difference—reviving branches around the issues that agitate broader layers of the population, and base-building in the unions, base-building in the migrant communities, in the climate change movement etc.

On other issues that came up in discussion. Is the Socialist Alliance a vehicle for regroupment? Yes, there’s no argument with Sue Bolton’s point on that issue. The Socialist Alliance opens us up to all these new milieux, which include organised left forces, as well as milieux that are unorganised. I don’t think that there is a problem there—every opportunity to take forward a regroupment opportunity, as with the Sudanese comrades, we seize.

Finally, on structures. We’ve got to rebuild Green Left committees, to train newer comrades in using the paper to the fullest possible extent. If in a certain area there isn’t even a DSP Green Left sales committee, then let’s have a DSP-only Green Left sales committee.

But when we get it going let’s also think whether we only have to have it as a DSP-only Green Left sales committee.  The more people involved the better, with a perspective of involving as many Socialist Alliance people as possible in the Green Left task.

To end, I urge comrades not just to put their hands up for this resolution, but to apply themselves as seriously as possible to its implementation. In that way, when we next meet, we’ll have accumulated a body of experience with which to usefully continue the discussion on how we best evolve the Socialist Alliance-DSP relationship.


[1] Sydney West branch of the Socialist Alliance held a pre-conference discussion meeting.

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