Hitting the jackpot?
Stand Up To Racism looks set to be a big success in SWP terms, writes Peter Manson. But will it advance the cause of the working class?
It has to be said that the Socialist Workers Party’s latest front, Stand Up To Racism, looks set to be a big success as these things go. At what was effectively a launch event, the October 8 London rally/conference attracted large numbers, and the expansive main hall in Friends Meeting House was filled to capacity, with every seat taken.
Of course, it would not be the SWP if these things were not exaggerated a little, and its internal Party Notes claimed that “over 1,500” attended. Which is strange, since the hall in question - known as ‘The Light’, where both plenary sessions were held - “has a capacity of up to 1,000”.1 Nevertheless, the event’s success - in the SWP’s own terms - should not be downplayed, with large numbers of non-SWPers, including Labour Party members, participating enthusiastically.
According to Party Notes, “Saturday was a great day for the anti-racist movement.” That is because “It shows the potential to roll back the vicious, nasty assault from the Tories, as they seek to scapegoat refugees, migrants and foreign workers ... There was a real sense that people want to get organised against the racist offensive.” And, of course, the SWP leadership urges its comrades: “It is now absolutely crucial to build on the momentum of the Stand Up To Racism conference.”2
It goes without saying that the SWP was delighted that Jeremy Corbyn turned up to speak, as advertised, even though there had been some confusion about this, with the Labour leader apparently also due in Scotland on the same day. At least, according to The Guardian, that is what groups including Black Lives Matter, Southall Black Sisters and Sisters Uncut were told when they protested to Labour HQ that Corbyn should boycott SUTR because of its association with the SWP.3 People from the same milieu were outside holding up a banner, which urged, “No platform for the SWP”.
Their leaflet read: “We’re asking people not to lend support to the Socialist Workers Party - either directly or indirectly through its front organisations, including Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up To Racism” - because of the “rape culture” that the SWP has failed to tackle. Apparently the SWP is among those groups that “actively facilitate rape, sexual assault and subsequent cover-ups”. Actively facilitate?
While it is true that the ‘comrade Delta’ affair in 2012-13 was not exactly one of the SWP’s high points, I cannot help feeling that this protest, and the publicity it generated, was at least in part driven by the desire on the part of the media and the Labour right to discredit Corbyn.
When he, together with Diane Abbott, made their appearance late in the afternoon, they received a rapturous standing ovation. The final plenary was interrupted for a few minutes, while those who had already spoken left the stage. Abbott - who had originally been scheduled to speak in the morning, was introduced by the chair as “the best qualified person in Britain to be home secretary”! She spoke first and stressed that she wanted to give a “clear message” - “We are going to stand up to racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”. Yes, as home secretary, “I will work to keep Britain safe,” she said. “But I’ll also work to uphold our rights, and against racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant policy”.
At this stage we heard from Labour councillor Michelline Ngongo, who in an earlier session had moved the audience in recounting how she had been forced to flee the Congo and eventually managed to settle in Britain despite attempts to remove her. Now she revealed that Corbyn had been the only one who fought for her rights at the time - that was how she came to join Labour: “Jeremy stood behind me,” she said, and “I’m proud to be a councillor in Jeremy’s constituency”. We should now all work to “make sure he’s the next prime minister”.
That speech also received huge applause, but it could not match the ovation greeting the man himself, when he came to the rostrum. With everyone still on their feet, SWPers in the audience began chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear: refugees are welcome her!” And, of course, Jeremy joined in - just what the SWP was hoping!
He said modestly that “people like Michelline are the real heroes” in the struggle for equality. He referred to the 1936 battle of Cable Street as a “turning point” - “that demo sealed the fate of Mosley”. He also mentioned “those of us who tried to stop the National Front marching” in the 1970s, to illustrate the fact that we need to keep on mobilising, as the SWP never tires of pointing out, ‘on the streets’. But we must also “confront this by legal means, by all our communities coming together”.
He stated there were two things we needed to do more than anything to combat the current anti-migrant chauvinism: first, “seek a political solution in Syria”; and, secondly, slightly bizarrely, “don’t be fooled by Nigel Farage”. Corbyn also looked forward to a “proper distribution of wealth in this country” and ended by reminding us that “Diversity is not a problem - it’s a strength!”
And with that Corbyn and Abbott marched out again, their job well done!
It was clear from the way the whole thing was presented that the SWP views SUTR as a big opportunity - for the SWP. So, for example, in the opening “workshop” I attended, the chair, Jan Nielsen of the SWP (presented as National Union of Teachers), said that the event was “the biggest anti-racist conference in British history”. She stressed that the aim of SUTR was to “emulate the Anti-Nazi League” and “build a mass movement”. In the same session the first speaker was another SWPer, Brian Richardson, who addressed us in his capacity as assistant secretary of Unite Against Fascism. He insisted that the event “is, and should be, a working conference”, in that the “workshops” would allow the expression of views from the floor. The important thing was to decide how to build an organisation capable of defeating racism.
Later, in the afternoon plenary, chair Sabby Dhalu - who, like Weyman Bennett, has switched from the leadership of UAF to join him as co-convenor of SUTR - said: “Today is the birth of a new movement against racism in Britain”. Then there was Nahella Ashraf of the SWP (speaking as SUTR Manchester): “Today is just the start.” For her, when the British National Party’s Nick Griffin lost his seat in the European parliament in 2014 (thanks to UAF, of course!) it was “the best moment ever”.
And in the morning plenary that followed we had Weyman Bennett himself - having effortlessly made the switch from UAF. “This is a conference not just to talk, but to organise,” he said, echoing what comrade Richardson had told us earlier. But, of course, that was not true at all - there were no motions, no decisions taken - just exhortations for everyone to join the new SWP front: “We have to have SUTR in every town,” said comrade Bennett. And, in case we had forgotten, he reminded us: “We buried the BNP. We buried the EDL” (when we were UAF, the SWP’s previous ‘united front’, he forgot to add).
But, judging by the attendance, the SWP does seem to have hit the jackpot with Stand Up To Racism. After all, everyone from the far left to the Tories and even Ukip is opposed to racism, aren’t they? Which is why the Trades Union Congress seems to have come on board - it was announced towards the end of the day that the TUC is to sponsor a SUTR conference in March next year. Gloria Mills, a black member of the TUC executive and general council, thought we should be grateful to SUTR for “doing what the Commission for Racial Equality used to do”. She demanded “prosecution for racism and racist crime”.
And the majority of speakers were far to the right of the SWP - in the ‘Refugees welcome here’ “workshop”, for instance, there was no speaker at all from the socialist left. It is true that in the final plenary Labour’s Lord Alf Dubs - who last week moved an amendment in the upper house calling on the government to accept unaccompanied children from the Calais ‘jungle’ - addressed us as “Comrades!” (the only time the word was used, to my knowledge). But he advised us on how we should campaign for refugees as though we were all non-political do-gooders: “Everyone is going to do something - I am and so are you!”
For her part, Clare Moseley from Care for Calais complained that the UK was unwilling to take its “fair share” of the refugees and demanded that there should be “no demolition” of the ‘jungle’ without a “proper plan” and a “long-term solution”, while Maurice Wren of the Refugee Council talked about the “victories” we had already won because of “cross-country, cross-community and cross-class movements”. He also thought we should “back Yvette Cooper’s call” for the government to “help hundreds of children” in Calais.
Then there was Labour MEP Claude Moraes - not exactly a leftwinger. He said: “I was there when Stand Up To Racism began and I’m still on the committee.” But then he seemed to have second thoughts about that and added, “Am I?” But he was relieved to be informed by the session chair, Steve Hart, that he was indeed a committee member. But Moraes was among those who made what were, in my view, rather exaggerated claims about the spread and extent of racism. He proclaimed: “We have seen nothing less than the mainstreaming of racism in our country and globally.”
For her part, the TUC’s Gloria Mills said you know what racism is if “you’re black and spat at every day”, while councillor Ngongo stated that she had been “attacked three times” since the Brexit vote. Those, of course, are allegations of serious racist abuse, but it has to be said that for the SWP the definition of racism is rather broad.
Its publicity for the event was headed: “Confronting the rise in racism”, with the strap, “Stamp out Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”. This was linked to the by-line from the chant I mentioned earlier: “Refugees are welcome here”, which was also the title of one of the “workshops”. And for the SWP the opposition to migrants, including refugees, is synonymous with racism - clearly nonsense. Such opposition is part of the mainstream nationalist narrative that holds that we, the British, must put ‘our own people first’ - and ‘our own people’ includes white and black, Christian, Muslim and Jew, provided they are prepared to sing ‘God save the queen’!
Similarly, for the SWP Islamophobia is simply and straightforwardly a form of racism, just as the ‘Prevent strategy’ is a racist attack on Muslims. It is true that Muslims usually, although not necessarily, have dark skins and are the descendants of immigrants. But Prevent - while its effect is to increase Islamophobia, since it clearly targets Muslims - is in reality a bureaucratic, undemocratic and pathetically flawed attempt to combat Islamist ‘radicalisation’ - Dr Siema Iqbal, a GP, confessed in one session: “I make sure my child doesn’t read the newspapers” - he might read about ‘radicalisation’, after all.
What about anti-Semitism? Edie Friedman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality mentioned the “row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” - without really saying what she thought about it. She said we should “stop the infighting” and “look at the Chakrabarti report”, although she added: “Stop the competition for victimhood.” Did she mean by this that Jews today are not really victims and that accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party are largely spurious?
Overall, there were many interesting contributions. For example, former Guantanamo detainee Moazzem Begg recounted how he had become friendly with one of the guards - in fact “Albert” had subsequently come to stay with him in London. Begg - dubbed one of “the most dangerous men in the world” by the US - used this to illustrate that, after all, we are all human beings.
For her part, Salma Yaqoob spoke wittily: “I’m to blame for the state of the NHS and low wages - sorry about that.” And: “This scarf is so confusing to people - I really must stop wearing it.” She summed up the gist of the anti-migrant propaganda by continuing, in the same ironic vein, “It’s all the fault of the foreigner” - even though she thought that “actually they need more immigrants, not less, for the economy”.
In other words, there was also lots of confusion, particularly over the political approach needed to defeat anti-migrant chauvinism, Islamophobia and, yes, racism. How could it be otherwise? After all, the SWP never attempts to win its ‘united fronts’ to adopt a radical working class outlook. No, it deliberately attempts to keep them ‘broad’, preferring to recruit from among them in ones and twos.
No doubt SUTR will be successful from that point of view, but, as for taking forward the fight for Marxism and working class political organisation - I’m afraid not.
2. SWP Party Notes October 10. It should be pointed out, by the way, that this weekly internal bulletin is no longer available on the SWP website, as it had been for the last couple of years until about a month ago.