Far left reclaims May Day for workers: Socialist Workers Party sets out its stall as the left's unofficial opposition to Labour. Alex Renton reports

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The Independent Online
'PEOPLE think May Day is just Morris dancers and maypoles. Here we are selling May Day as it should be, as International Workers' Day,' said Chris Bambury, organiser of the 'Celebrate Socialism' rally at Alexandra Palace in north London.

You may think you would rather have gone Morris dancing than spend yesterday with the Socialist Workers Party, discussing the reasons for Britain's decline, 'Labour's first hundred years' and 'Is there any alternative to capitalism?'

But the rally-goers - more than 5,000 of them, according to the organisers - seemed to be enjoying themselves. 'Oh, it's great,' said Laura Heath, a 19-year-old politics student at Sheffield University. 'Last year I came for the first time, and I was just overwhelmed: so many people in the same room with the same ideas to talk and argue with. Really exciting.'

There were certainly a lot of ideas around. Stalls in the Great Hall were promoting every issue from Palestine Solidarity to Democracy in South Korea and along the way you could sign petitions in support of the Dundee Timex strikers, the release of Winston Silcott and for the sacked workers at Middlebrook Mushrooms.

The SWP, with about 7,000 members, is Britain's biggest far-left party. It is also impressively well organised, funded in part by a printing operation that has the contract for Private Eye. It holds to Marxist beliefs, but welcomed the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. Chris Bambury said: 'People used to associate socialism with Stalinism, but in fact it's about freedom. Now we can sell that idea.'

Robin Blackburn, editor of New Left Review and a member of Charter 88, thinks that the party is well- placed to become the opposition to Labour from the left. 'It's not one of the small fanatic groups - there's nothing too extreme you have to believe in to join this lot. They're prepared to have a real debate . . .'

The SWP's trouble, if it has one, is its perceived need for stronger working-class involvement. For all the talk about the working class, the SWP's enemies on the left accuse it, with some reason, of being the 'Student Workers Party' (that is the politer phrase).

The SWP's central committee says the membership is 25 per cent student, 30 per cent manual worker, and the rest 'low-paid white-collar'.

In the main hall John Rees, editor of the SWP magazine International Socialism, told about 1,000 people: 'We want to build a revolutionary politics, a working-class politics that will bring the destruction of capitalism.'

And how are they going to do that? Well, in July the SWP is staging Marxism 93, a conference that will last a whole week.

On the roads, cool and cloudy weather led to an unusually quiet May Day bank holiday in most parts of the country. A spokeswoman for AA Roadwatch said traffic had been lighter than expected but there were five-mile tailbacks on roads to Cleethorpes and Bridlington on the east coast.

A convoy of travellers broken up by police on Saturday was concentrated in two main camps of 40 vehicles each at Dowdeswell, near Cheltenham, and at Brockworth, near Gloucester. A further 50 vehicles were spread over a number of smaller camps in the north Cotswolds. About 40 arrests have been made.

(First Edition)