Thinking About Party Leadership and Functioning in the Socialist Alliance

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[Explanatory note: This contribution is based on a discussion paper prepared for the Socialist Alliance National Organisers School in January 2014. It is being circulated in Alliance Voices for members' consideration in the lead up to our forthcoming national conference, around the question of whether the Socialist Alliance should adopt a set of organizational principles at this time, and whether the points below could form the basis of such principles.]

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1. Socialist Alliance is a voluntary, political organisation first and foremost — that is not to say we don't socialise with each other, develop friendships, etc. — but politics comes first.

2. Our aim is to replace the capitalist system, through building a sustained mass campaign to create the conditions to bring about such a transformation away from capitalism to a socialist society.

3. We work together to achieve this aim.

4. All our work should be subordinated to and guided by this aim.

5. We seek to connect with people becoming active in struggle, and to win them to a socialist and revolutionary perspective through working alongside them, building the movements, fighting defensive battles and campaigning for immediate demands and reforms.

6. We understand the importance of organisation and leadership in the working class, and we understand that if the working class is going to carry out a successful revolution, it will need to involve the majority of people and not just the left as we know it today.

7. We also understand the importance of the Socialist Alliance's role in organizing around the objective of replacing the capitalist system by:

7.1. Helping to train, educate, organise and develop new socialist activists, as well as movement leaders;

7.2. Reaching out to people becoming radicalised and active for the first time, or those who are fed up and/or disillusioned with the system;

7.3. Appealing beyond just activists and radicals with our press, our publications, through our electoral campaigns, etc. to explain why the capitalist system is destroying humanity and the planet and needs to be changed, and why people should become part of the struggle for change.

Team leadership

8. Socialist Alliance is explicit about building an inclusive leadership. Section 5.9 of the Socialist Alliance Constitution says: "The Socialist Alliance encourages full participation of all members as activists and leaders at local, state and national levels of the organisation and as candidates and branch officers. The Alliance actively encourages working class women, Indigenous people, immigrants, queers, people with disabilities and young people to take on leadership roles within the Alliance."

9. This flows from an understanding that under capitalism, women, people who identify as LGBTI, migrants, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, young people and other marginalised groups suffer discrimination and oppression.

10. Building an inclusive leadership is most importantly about electing a team of members who bring different strengths and experiences into leading the party (whether at the local, state or national level). This also flows from an understanding that no single person has the full range of strengths needed to lead, and is a rejection of the mainstream/bourgeois idea that it takes one 'great person' to lead.

11. It is also about developing rounded leaders, learning from each other, each seeking to help others lead and develop as leaders — an attitude derived from our political commitment to collectivity and solidarity — not competition, egos, personality contests and individualism. 

12. We also want to encourage new leaders, to develop women leaders, young leaders and to renew leadership.

13. We want to encourage a range of opinions on our leadership, and to debate out political differences in a responsible and comradely way.

14. Leadership for us is not about working your way up, hierarchies or bureaucratic concepts of leadership. There are no permanent leaders. Having a division of labour/tasks amongst the leadership is important, as is dedication to assignments, accountability to the branch, and to the party nationally. Confidence in the leadership is a test of this.

15. Our local branches are the basic units of the party. Branches have a high degree of autonomy in carrying out their work. This flows from an understanding that local conditions differ, and that active members in the field/at the “coal-face” are best placed to make decisions about carrying out political work. We also see the value in a national approach to particular party-building projects, and to collaboration and collective discussion at a national level around key areas of our work.

Building a democratic, political and inclusive culture

16. In Socialist Alliance, we struggle together, work together and go through a lot of experiences together. We develop lifelong friendships with some members, we socialise with a range of comrades over our political lives, live in a number of cities, start relationships, end relationships, share houses, etc.

17. But because we are first and foremost a political organisation — personal relationships aside — we are seeking to build an inclusive, political and democratic culture within our party, (which includes activities of a political and social nature that involve all members, and that welcome new members, contacts and supporters.)

18. “Cliquism” can occur where our personal friendships, or wounded feelings, mutual likes and dislikes and other matters start to take precedence over political considerations. A clique is an exclusive group, held together by such feelings, likes and dislikes. This can affect political judgement and political practice and undermine democracy in the party. 

19. In Socialist Alliance, a member or affiliate organisation has the right to form a tendency or caucus for the purpose of influencing SA policy and activity. This is enshrined in our Constitution. (SA Constitution Paragraph 5.10 and Section 10) A clique is not the same as a tendency or caucus.

United action is key

20. Socialist Alliance began its life as an alliance of eight different political organisations from different political traditions, as well as a significant number of individual members who had come from different political experiences (or no experience at all).

21. This origin required the Alliance to establish a way of working together that enabled all affiliates and non-aligned members to participate fully in the decision-making of the Alliance, with mutual respect.

22. This meant we spent a lot of time discussing out our different ideas, consulting with each other, and collaborating to build consensus where possible on our platform, policies and activities. It also required a very inclusive approach to the question of leadership at every level of the Alliance. Our leadership structures reflect our beginnings but have also developed to reflect the changing nature of the Alliance, and will change again to take account of the recent merger of Resistance into the Socialist Alliance and the formation of a youth wing. 

23. Throughout our 12-year history, our experience has taught us that when the Alliance acts in a united way, it can be very effective. There are many examples of this, such as during the first Socialist Alliance Federal election campaign in 2001, during the Your Rights at Work campaign in 2006-07, in the anti war movement, the refugee rights movement and other campaigns.

24. Even though our party today is a lot different to those early years, our strength still lies in our ability to act together in a united way and to ensuring an inclusive, collaborative and democratic practice of decision-making, which seeks to bring all opinions into the open and to conduct debate in a respectful way.

25. Our Constitution reflects this:

On the question of united action it states: "5.12 Once decisions have been taken by the elected bodies of the Alliance all members are expected to present that decision as the position of the Alliance, both in public and in dealings with other political organisations. At the same time, individual Alliance members and affiliate organisations are free to indicate their agreement or disagreement with any Alliance decision."

On the question of an inclusive, collaborative way of working, the Constitution states: "5.11 Membership assumes a commitment to a non-sectarian and co-operative way of working, looking to build unity, positively supporting and encouraging the notion of alliances and ensuring that any critical debates are conducted in a positive manner and without personal attacks."

26. This is a form of “democratic centralism”, which is particular to the kind of party we are seeking to build, and to the political conditions within which we operate.

Building effective branch leadership bodies

27. The day-to-day work of the Alliance is carried out at the branch level. As our Constitution states, the basic unit of the Socialist Alliance is the local branch. Branches are the lifeblood of our party.

28. Branches are responsible for joining up new members, for organising Branch meetings, properly convened and with a chair and minute taker, and for ensuring a political discussion at such meetings, and are responsible for local decision-making.

29. Branches carrying out campaigns to build the Alliance in their area in support of workers’ and social movement struggles, and run election campaigns, including the pre-selection of candidates.

30. Given the importance of branches to the aims and objectives of the party, it is essential that they elect an executive or organising committee to organise the branch. Even if the branch is small.

31. The local branch leadership should provide political and organisational leadership to the branch. As such it needs to include on it members who are able to contribute to it (taking into account their work and family commitments). This body is not just for members who are organisers or those who (because of their personal circumstances) have time to spend in the office.

32. Building and maintaining an inclusive, team leadership in a branch is very important.

33. Regular meetings of the leadership body and planning time are needed. Bodies need to create the time for this to happen. 

34. A division of labour essential, so that everyone has an area of responsibility (membership, GLW, finances, etc)

35. Branch leadership bodies also support the role of branch convenors, who are often full-time or part-time workers themselves. In branches where there are full-time organisers, the role of the leadership body should be to support and guide their work and to ensure accountability to the branch.

36. Branch leadership bodies are key in planning branch activity, assessing branch resources, seeking to get the most from all Alliance members and to providing opportunities for new members to get active in party work. They also need to keep up with the political pulse of the city and the region.

37. Democratic functioning of branch leaderships essential. From hearing all points of view, to debating and decision-making.

38. Their work includes planning agendas for branch meetings and ensuring branch meetings are engaging, political and decision-making.

39. We need a collective approach to these bodies. To value everyone's contribution. And a flexible — not routinist — approach.

40. We don't want to suck the life out of branch meetings by discussing everything on the Branch Coordinating Committee (BCC) or Branch Executive (BE).

41. All members of a branch leadership team should think through every decision to be made. This should not just be left to the organiser or convenor.

42. Informal discussion between meetings is useful (essential, actually), but meetings are the place for debate and decision-making.

43. All members should put aside personal enmities and friendships, a hard day at work or other stresses, and seek to put emotions in neutral during meetings.

44. There should be regular reports on the various areas of Alliance work to branch meetings, and to BCCs/BEs.

45. Leading members should see it as their role to work with and assist other comrades heading up areas of work in preparing reports to branch meetings.

Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance and youth work

46. With the recent decision by Resistance to merge into the Socialist Alliance, all members of the Alliance 26 years and younger will automatically become members of the new youth wing, Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance. The Alliance has formally welcomed this decision. 

46.1. There is no ‘principle’ around the question of an independent youth organization – organizational forms follow politics. 

46.2. It should, regardless, be a priority to recruit, integrate and educate young members in Socialist Alliance;

46.3. We want to encourage young Socialist Alliance members to lead the party and to become lifelong revolutionaries. The Alliance seeks to create the space for young comrades to develop their political confidence and leadership skills by organizing among youth in campuses, high schools, workplaces and in the community. 

46.4. The Socialist Alliance will amend its Constitution including creating space on its national leadership bodies to give full effect to this merger.

47. Attracting, organising, educating and encouraging young people to lead our party requires particular attention and effort. Young leaders of Socialist Alliance should be involved in this task, however it is the responsibility of the Socialist Alliance as a whole to create the conditions that allow for young people to join, become active and to lead our party.

48. Socialist Alliance has decided to emphasise our work on campuses (TAFEs, universities and high schools) and the recruitment of youth to our party, but campus is not the only place we will come across young people interested in joining. More and more, young students are working (up to 40 hours per week for some), and many young people opt for jobs over further education, so we will find young people in our workplaces, in our unions, in our communities and in the social and community campaigns we are involved in (refugees, environment, etc).

Working groups and fractions

49. In the Alliance, working groups and fractions may be created on a local, district-wide, state or national level, as appropriate.

50. They are established on an as-needs basis to discuss our work in the social movements (refugees, etc), for short-term projects, (editing a new document, or organizing a conference) or for longer-term, party-building or social movement campaign areas.

51. Working groups should be inclusive and seek to involve all members active in an area of movement work or heading up a party-building area (depending on the type of working group), ensuring that newer and younger members are involved, where they are carrying out relevant work. Working groups provide a democratic forum to discuss out our work, organize and train members. If operating effectively, they strengthen our party-building projects, our campaign work and can be an effective way to share information.

52. Working groups and fractions are an important way to involve members in the work of the Alliance, and to politically train and develop newer members.

53. Convenors of working groups are responsible for organizing meetings and to involve and include members (as well as manage e-lists in some circumstances), and these working groups should report to the relevant party body on a regular basis. Socialist Alliance policy requires that all working groups operate in a democratic, inclusive, transparent and accountable way. 

54. The use of social media as an organizing platform for working groups can be problematic in this regard. While the vast majority of Alliance members now have email accounts, for example, members should not be forced to set up accounts on Facebook in order to participate in a working group (or any other party body, for that matter). Phone conferencing and Skype should be used to assist in involving members in working group meetings, as this enables members across the country, and those with caring responsibilities and other personal circumstances to participate.

55. Working groups may be established to share information, for collaboration, or may vote on a course of action or recommendations (for example, campaign working groups), but they are subordinate to the decision-making bodies of the Alliance that established them.

Sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism in the party

56. Are not acceptable!

57. We want to create the conditions for all Socialist Alliance members to get politically active and to lead.

58. At same time, we are a political not a welfare organisation – and there are limits to what we can do to right the wrongs of an unequal, racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and ableist society.

59. But we take it very seriously if a member’s actions bring the Alliance into disrepute or if a member engages in behaviour that is considered to be detrimental to the best interests of the Alliance. In such circumstances, a financial member can be asked to 'show cause' as to why their membership should not be suspended or cancelled. (Source: SA Constitution, Paragraph 5.5)

60. We seek first and foremost to educate members about the origins and impacts of sexism, racism and homophobia, to engage in and support the struggles against oppression and for liberation and to ensure an inclusive, political culture in the party. 

61. Regular educational talks, classes and discussions are needed about why socialists should actively build the campaigns to fight racism, sexism and homophobia, and developing an understanding of how the ruling class benefits from such divisions within the working class. We also want members to understand the origins of women's oppression and how the development of class society, private property, the family and the state created the conditions for women's and LGBTI oppression.

62. Because sexism, like racism, is fundamental to the maintenance of all class systems, we consider that the capitalist system can only be defeated with the conscious participation and leadership of an independent movement of women fighting, without compromise, for their own liberation. 

63. Our key strategy for fighting sexism in Socialist Alliance is active engagement in the struggle for women’s liberation, alongside feminists with a range of political perspectives. We study and learn from those who have fought, and are fighting, women’s oppression. All our members are encouraged to engage with, and understand, feminist history, theory and practice.

64. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence between members cannot be tolerated in our party, under any circumstances. 

65. Whilst our main strategy for ensuring that our organisation is free from sexual harassment and violence is to place feminism at the centre of our politics, we recognise that we must also have safeguards in place to combat harassment and violence perpetrated by a member.

66. As referred to above, under the Socialist Alliance Constitution a branch executive or the national executive can suspend or cancel the membership of a member who commits an act of sexual violence or harassment. A member subject to such action also has a right of appeal.

67. This is not a judicial or quasi-judicial process. It does not replace professional sexual assault counselling, advice or support. It is a democratic process under which an elected body can suspend or expel a person who, in their collective view, should not be a member. 

68. The crisis in the British SWP has raised the question of how allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other serious crime are dealt with by a revolutionary organisation. In the Alliance, we assert our right to determine who is and who isn’t a member of our organization. But we do not pretend to (nor do we think it is appropriate to) have the resources, skills and know-how to resolve allegations of serious crime ourselves. We also do not subscribe to the position (as some on the left do) of not calling on the criminal justice system to deal with allegations of rape and sexual assault (or of violent assault in general).