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Some notes on the upcoming Socialist Alliance conference

by Dave Riley
There are some initial discursive and undeveloped thoughts on the upcoming Socialist Alliance National Conference scheduled for later this year.
Past disputes

The shared perspective on the far left is very much the same I think.(A view sharpened by instances where some socialist groups chose to ignore our existence at the last federal election.) So the question is -- given these publicly expressed views -- what are we supposed to do or say in regard to them? Should we generate a statement or something after the horses have bolted from the stable-- over two years ago? We don't want to drag the Alliance back into the factional miasma that ruled it for a time.

I wore it big time and I tell you now I'm not keen to relive it because we could not do much with our meetings other than deal with factional heat. Today we've survived all that not via a destructive split but with slow leakage and its political echo was felt inside the Democratic Socialist Perspective itself over the past two years.

The problem is -- in my estimation -- that there is no return of these affiliates while the Alliance is in steady state mode. If we grew very very quickly or picked up in the polls they 'may' return (although looking at recent UK history that's very unlikely ). But for the moment the far left preference in this country has settled on building singular competing outfits and in many cases preferring to pursue propaganda activities.

Building the Socialist Alliance

So our task is to build the Alliance and to prove our point now that we are over the worse consequences of the Howard re-election in 2004. Because that's been our major handicap -- the lack of movement buoyancy over the last few years.(Our advantage nonetheless was that we were engaged actively with the Your Rights at Work campaign when most of the far left was marginal to that. So we've read that experience very differently from other left sectors.).

So the question is how do we build the Alliance? I ask that because that has to be our key focus at any conference.

While I've been ill and haven't been up to the mark I've been thinking that we have a few key elements working for us.
  • We've survived the rigors of the last 7 years ( no mean feat that!) and en route learnt a few tricks about how this project functions. So we have to pull our experiences -- both good and bad --together.
  • Given our collective experience how do we then format the Alliance to work for the best political result over the time ahead?
So we need to carefully consider where we're at, we're we've been and what we need now -- what tools -- to proceed with.

I'm jumping the gun a bit as these notions are underdeveloped but my thoughts were in these areas -- areas I think may warrant attention :
  1. Membership and dues. I think we need to restructure the way we format membership to suit our needs and reach out potential. I know there are a few ideas on this matter so I wont bore you with mine just yet.
  2. Constitutional changes to reflect the sort of relaxed protocols we are now exploring at the local level. Finally we are free of a lot of schematism & formalism that ruled our outlook for some time and we have a better understanding of how the party beast functions day to day. So we have to have another careful and considered look at how we are going to remove the administrative burden from the branches at the same time as we keep the electoral commissions happy. That's a big ask I think. However, we also have to sustain and promote a political culture in the Alliance that ensures an engaged and informed membership that has democratic control over our activities.
  3. Spreading the burden. We still need to engineer ways where we can get more people to take responsibility for the Alliance day in day out. That's a persistent theme we've had to deal with but it still challenges us. My feeling is that it's no good asking comrades to generate resolutions for future SA activity unless we then have the option of also asking them to help the rest of the party membership put them into practice. We don't want to be like the Greens where everything is left up to those with elected office.
  4. For a campaigning Alliance. A conference outline has to build on the excellent collective work we've already done. However, I want to propose two key concepts: (a) a campaigning Alliance; and (b) a party known for specific political patents. While that may seem self evident I'm thinking that we have to select a few key campaigns -- and free public transport is a good example -- and drive them relentlessly as something we 'own'. We're not doing that so we need to engineer ways to proceed. I 'm saying that such campaign patenting doesn't conflict with our other campaign work as it arises -- but we need to mark off core elements we can run with a national dynamic so that they become our identifiers.
  5. Packaging the message. While we have to do our more leg work on policy (as we are doing collectively) and we have to kick start the much referred to 'book on socialism' -- I'm thinking that we also need a generic pitch -- something that will work for us as a summary package in and outside of election campaign periods. RAM in New Zealand have recently launched their Ten Commandments and I like this sort of stuff. The Dutch Socialist Party engineered something similar with their adoption of their "Enough!" package. I don't agree with the SP's "Vote against, vote SP" advocacy(1993) but to advance a strong agitational argument around the benchmark of"Enough!" (...of economic rationalism, of climate change, of user pays,etc) makes for a sharp way to galvanize a lot of what we do anyhow and inspire people both inside and outside the SA. But if we began to concretize that -- with full policy backup of course --around a campaign 'manifesto' (I guess, for want of a better word) we won't suffer from this dichotomy of doing one thing in election periods and another the rest of the time. Even though we are learning to better integrate polling with the rest of our campaigning -- I'm suggesting we have to merge our outlook a lot more by promoting a few key identifiers and bulldog-like, work away promoting those.
Results and Prospects

My experience in the Socialist Alliance since 2003 --when I got roped into the activity part -- has been like riding a roller coaster and at each turning we've had a range of different perspectives or templates we sort to follow. I personally think that after all that we are maturing as a party. We're more confident in our skin; much more flexible and more adaptive. We've engineered greater collectivity in our deliberations and led or partnered some kick arse campaigns.

We've moved beyond the crippling myopia shared by much of the far left and have begun -- only just begun -- to take root in new regions that have not known a socialist current for yonks (or maybe never). We've received more mainstream media coverage than a left current has garnered for decades and we've raised the socialist banner in a succession of state and federal elections (and now more so at the local level). We've also sponsored into the limelight some identifiable Alliance figures who have won attention because of their campaign leadership roles.

And we're learning every day as we do what we do.But we have to identify our failings and rectify those as much as we can in such a national gathering as a conference. So we are in need of some tweaking I think. We also experience an uneven development across the country and exploring that together -- the successes and the failures -- will help us hone our skills and enrich the understanding of how we should go about our work. We also know that our district, state and national structures are underdeveloped and we should be well aware how much of a handicap that is. But I think we've learnt that we cannot be formalistic about generating them just so.

But not all this can be done with one conference. So thats' the challenge I think: how to locate a conference program and process so that , if you like, it 'reboots' the Alliance in the current conditions so that we can carry it on into 2009 and beyond.

We have to 'turn on' a process before we get to Melbourne and then, when there, consolidate it. So we should ALSO be asking ourselves not what we schedule over two days but what happens in the Alliance in the lead up to that moment as well.

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