The central committee brushed differences under the carpet at the Socialist Workers Party annual conference. James Turley reports
If Ed Miliband were to be pressed into stepping down from the Labour leadership and the shadow cabinet announced that the top job should go to Alan Johnson, one would expect Labour Party members to be told why the leader of the opposition was quitting.
In fact, one would expect broader layers of society, especially those concentrated in the media and politics, to take a keen interest as well. After all, the direction and policies of the Labour Party are of national importance; they set the parameters of debate in parliament, they affect millions of people governed by Labour councils, and factor into the decisions of voters come election time.
One wonders what the enormous difference is between Labour members and the comrades who make up the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP, though small by the general standards of British politics, is a big fish in the tiny pond of the far left. When it changes leaders or political directions, the impact is felt throughout the left. Since, moreover, the SWP is nominally a democratic organisation, its membership is supposed to exercise some kind of control over the whole process.
Yet the decision to remove Martin Smith as national secretary was buried at the very end of the final Pre-conference bulletin (December 2010), with no explanation, just a couple of weeks before the organisation’s January 7-9 annual conference. In a tiny box headed “Central committee responsibilities”, there was a list of the jobs CC members are allocated. Comrades who took any notice and bothered looking down the list would see that the national secretary is now Charlie Kimber, while comrade Smith is down for ‘industry’ and ‘anti-fascism’. Members were not even informed that these “responsibilities” had just been changed following comrade Smith’s demotion and a subsequent reshuffle.
Socialist Worker, in its coverage of the SWP conference, casually refers to comrade Kimber as the “new national secretary”, and then makes a point of quoting comrade Smith’s speech in support of the CC’s main motion on recruitment, as if to show that the leadership is entirely united and has simply agreed so swap posts around to give comrades a change.
However, if the 600 delegates plus observers were concerned about all this, very few showed any sign of it. There again, for the most part the event had the atmosphere of an extended rally rather than a serious discussion of policy and perspectives. Led off by numero uno Alex Callinicos, CC members, including comrade Smith, urged comrades to “seize the time” following the recent student upsurge against increased fees and cuts and ensured that student speakers were given priority. Several of these had been amongst the 360 the leadership claims it has recruited since the demonstrations began in November. These members of, at best, a few weeks’ standing had managed to get elected as delegates. Fair enough, but the end result was not likely to enhance the quality of debate or make for a considered exchange of views.
Not only do most SWP members seem to accept their leaders’ monopoly on genuine debate and their right to keep quiet about their own differences. Some interpret every external attempt to make sense of SWP developments as some kind of vicious, sectarian attack. The first public reference to the move against Smith came on the Socialist Unity blog, run by Andy Newman – an ex-SWP member who has, in the time since his membership, plunged dramatically into the Stalinist milieu. His original posting was slight, to say the least, hinting at behind-the-scenes funny business.
Cue the inevitable flood of comments – including many from SWPers ranging from the snide to the hysterically hostile. One poster, ‘Ray’, asked: “What is the difference between you posting this gossip and the NotW gossip about [Tommy] Sheridan? How can you claim to have solidarity with Sheridan when you post gossip on a public blog about the internal affairs of the SWP?” (Quite apart from being an absurd overstatement of the case – as far as I am aware, comrade Newman does not intend to hound Smith until he is thrown into jail – this little diatribe backfired, alerting other visitors to the sexual nature of allegations against the erstwhile national secretary made in some quarters, irrespective of their accuracy.)
Michael Rosen, noted poet and long-time SWP fellow-traveller, also swung by – initially to leave a more mild-mannered and ironic comment about an affair between Smith and Bruce Forsyth, and ultimately to compare discussions among the left on the internal matters of the SWP to cold war Kremlinologists’ wild theories about ructions in the former USSR.
The problem with comrade Rosen’s comparison, of course, is that – like the Kremlinologists – anyone interested in the affairs of the SWP (and everyone on the left should be) necessarily bases their information on whatever leaks out in dribs and drabs. The proprietorial culture the comrades operate lead them to view their affairs as theirs in the bourgeois sense – something over which they have total ownership. In reality, this ownership is exercised by the leadership rather than the organisation as a whole.
There is something therefore astoundingly hypocritical about accusing others of speculation when your organisation does absolutely nothing to dispel speculation, but on the contrary encourages it by treating matters of broader interest as if they were official secrets.
Obviously the SWP ‘notification’ to members, if you can call it that, of the change begs several questions. In addition to comrade Smith, the CC includes members whose sole responsibility is industrial organisation (Michael Bradley) and anti-fascist work (Weyman Bennett). So it seems comrade Smith is second-in-command in both departments. True, the “post-conference special” of the internal Party Notes informs comrades: “Due to health reasons, Weyman will be working part-time”, so comrade Smith, who doubled as Love Music, Hate Racism national coordinator during his time as SWP national secretary, will now be more heavily involved with Unite Against Fascism. Is LMHR such a runaway success that it recommends him for more work on that front? And why would any serious left organisation want the genius behind last May’s Acas invasion debacle to be given more responsibility for industrial work?
The only plausible explanation for Smith losing the top post is that he has not done a very good job. The SWP, which has come to see its leadership of ‘the movements’ as both divine mission and divine right, is faced with the reality that its former leader, John Rees, has outflanked it. His new outfit, Counterfire, has managed to put together an SWP-style ‘united front’ against cuts – the Coalition of Resistance – which has made a far stronger start than the SWP’s troubled Right to Work campaign.
In part, Rees is simply more catholic in his liquidationism. He is prepared to rope in all kinds of forces into his rainbow coalition, whereas RTW is orientated primarily towards union and Labour figures. Nonetheless, the history of RTW is a catalogue of errors, starting with the misleading name (Right to Work implies an anti-unemployment campaign, whereas it is a catch-all anti-cuts and economic struggle front), continuing through the aforementioned invasion of talks between British Airways and the Unite union, and now capped off with an inability to challenge Labour councillors implementing cuts.
To admit all this, however, would be to admit that RTW – the cornerstone of its work in the coming period – has hardly hit the ground running, in comparison to COR. But the Party Notes post-conference special tries to explain why Right to Work is a totally different kettle of fish. COR is “being built as the ‘overarching united front against the recession’. This means it can pull off big events like its London conference, but at its heart there is an enormous contradiction. The leader of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, spoke at the COR conference – great, but what happens if Len pulls back from action at BA or over pensions? It is necessary to be able to work with such forces and against them, not simply to accommodate to them.”
By contrast, “Right to Work … has a unique approach. It is a broad campaign involving national trade unions (PCS, UCU, CWU), Labour MPs and campaigning organisations. It has delivered thousands onto the streets on an anti-austerity protest on budget day and its 7,000-strong protest at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham. It is a militant campaign that doesn’t simply move at the pace of the trade union leaders.”
It has to be said that if the SWP is now prepared to work with “and against” union left bureaucrats, that will be a huge departure from the way it has previously handled itself in its ‘united fronts’. In fact the SWP’s approach is virtually identical to that of Counterfire – Rees and co simply took the practice of popular frontism to its logical conclusion and renounced their formal commitment to the organisation of revolutionaries in a party.
In other words, the huge exaggeration of RTW’s influence, together with claims of its “unique” commitment to working class principle, acts as a substitute for examining its failure. The CC cannot admit that it has made serious mistakes, even on its own sectarian terms. After all, if serious mistakes had been made, that would have required a serious and searching debate at SWP conference. Far preferable to skip the whole process by simply pretending nothing much has happened.
The motion to which comrade Smith was speaking claims the SWP has made 1,184 recruits in 2010, amongst whom are the 360 students who “have joined or expressed an interest in joining” since November. This is “the highest level of recruitment we have seen since 2003”. The unanimously agreed motion then went on to admit that “Some comrades are nervous about the possibilities of mass recruitment. They believe this has led to a ‘revolving door’ syndrome – one where comrades join on protests and leave after a short period because they have not been integrated into the organisation.”
The motion added: “We don’t believe the problems associated with past recruitment drives should be an impediment to launching a recruitment drive in 2011. However, we do believe we have to address some of the mistakes made in the past and put in place measures that will give the SWP the maximum opportunities to grow in this exciting period.”
Part of this will allegedly involve being a little more cautious before new recruits are considered “registered members”. According to the motion, “Every SWP membership form we receive at the moment from the student demos is treated as if the person is asking for more information. Each person is then sent a letter urging them to join, information about their local branch and a copy of Socialist Worker and the Socialist Review. These contacts are then followed up by an email and calls from organisers and the local membership secretary urging them to get involved. Anyone who pays a [direct debit] or gets involved in their local group/branch or responds confirming they wish to be a member will be registered as a party member.”
So all those dozens of people who were urged – and agreed – to fill in a membership application form are now being contacted and asked, ‘Do you really mean it?’ When you consider that conference agreed to set a target of 2,000 recruits in 2011, this will involve a huge amount of bureaucratic effort. But the leadership is trying to square the circle of what it calls the “open door recruitment strategy”, whereby anyone who fills in a form is declared a member, irrespective of their level of political understanding or commitment.
One Socialist Worker headline reads: “The democratic involvement of members at heart of conference.” But the members were totally unable to hold the CC to account – the whole CC was re-elected unopposed without the majority having to explain where it thinks it went wrong under Martin Smith.
Ordinary SWP members must realise that they have no interest in their leaders pulling this kind of trick. It is they who have to take the organisation’s political lines – correct and erroneous – into their communities, into real living political work with others on the left and broader sections of society. They risk ostracism and isolation if the line is sectarian, or even state repression if it is irresponsible or voluntaristic.
Yet they do not own the politics of the SWP, as they surely should. Rubber-stamping a CC slate and motions at annual conference does not amount to anything. Factions worthy of the name are not permitted; criticisms are deflected as they arise by concentrating on getting the grunt work done. Dissident members are isolated by an apparatus of full-timers effectively designed for that purpose – and they slowly drift out of the organisation altogether.
The SWP, despite the recruitment claims, is in reality stagnating. The 2000s were a bruising decade for it – high excitement surrounding the Stop the War Coalition’s heyday gave way to the Respect disaster, and finally acrimonious disputes between Rees and the CC majority. Behind the starry-eyed rhetoric about the growing movement against cuts, the SWP does not seem to have anything like a purpose.
It will continue to stagnate until its culture radically changes. It is not enough to pay lip service to the creativity and fighting spirit of the masses – only a truly and militantly democratic organisation is able to harness that energy and give it direction. It is time for SWP members to take their organisation in hand, and begin a real examination of political priorities in the coming period.
- Socialist Worker January 15.