SWP in practice

Recent issues of Socialist Worker have been full of how workers are fighting back. Apparently the ‘crisis of expectations’ in the Labour government has provoked huge unrest. Workers are rising up. It is a time for boldness. A time to hit back. Throw caution to the wind. That is the SWP message.

But the practical application of this line in Islington Unison has produced disastrous results. The election of Rob Murthlewaite, a leading SWP member, as branch secretary some months ago inspired its cadre, membership and layer of supporters. It was seen as proof of the imminent fightback promised by countless SWP platform speakers. With other comrades in key positions the SWP was in a position of great influence. Predictions could now be made to happen.

The comrades did not have long to wait. A dispute broke out in May between housing workers and management. The council was determined to axe 50% of posts. Workers were to be forced to undergo humiliating tests to prove they could carry out tasks they had been doing for years. The ‘results’ meant that nine black women workers were to lose their jobs. This provoked anger throughout the branch. But confidence was low - as ballots around similar disputes in the previous six months had produced very low turnouts and ‘yes’ votes so marginal that no action could be safely taken - and there was a distinct lack of backing from regional and national officials.

The ballot in housing was the first one in months to produce a decisive majority in favour of action. Here was a traditionally militant section, with a significant number of SWP members. There was a chance of a battle being won. But instead of building on the ballot victory and patiently winning the whole workforce by preparing for official action, the SWP acted precipitously, banking everything on its own rosy analysis. SWP members in housing were told to lead an unofficial walk-out. They did. Comrade Murthlewaite made the call for others to join them. They did not.

The advanced element had gone over the top and found itself dangerously exposed … and alone. After two years of management attacks the mass of council workers were not willing to risk unofficial action, not least in a situation where official action had just been voted on and agreed. Anger against management turned to dismay at SWP adventurism. Other militants argued that the group was being foolhardy. They warned that management would seize its chance. Sure enough, the Labour council threatened dismissal unless there was a return to work.

A number of housing workers wanted to retreat. They felt that calling off the action was the best tactic. Once back with the mass they could then come out again unitedly - officially. That would serve as a real warning to management. But a hard core of 12 (mostly SWP members) refused to return to work and wait for official action. It was a matter of ‘principle’ - or maybe the SWP losing face.

After three days management took its opportunity. It was too good a chance to pass up. All 12 were sacked. Murthlewaite immediately organised a campaign. But meetings were badly attended and morale low. He pressed on and urged a ‘yes’ vote in a ballot of all council workers. Members were asked to come out in support of the sacked workers.

But the results - which came through earlier this week - were devastating for the union, the SWP and the 12 sacked members. Out of 2,500 ballot papers issued only 650 were returned. Of those 62% voted ‘no’. The figures said it all. At a branch officers’ meeting on the same day, comrade Murthelwaite resigned. He said it was obvious that he did not have the confidence of the branch. He had to go. Some sacked workers at the meeting argued that it had been wrong in the first place to take unofficial action. They knew that the support was not there. Now some of the most militant and determined members have been lost to the branch, their jobs sacrificed.

But comrade Murthelwaite dogmatically refused to accept that it was the SWP itself that was in the wrong. He could not understand why the offensive had not worked. After all according to Socialist Worker’s ‘analysis’ the time is ripe for unofficial action. What went wrong?

Demoralisation is rife. Some of the sacked workers have now left the SWP. They feel betrayed by a leadership which refuses to face up to the reality of Blair’s Britain and the period of reaction. The branch itself has suffered a massive setback. The left is now being targeted by management and is isolated from the rest of the membership.

SWP members need to learn from this disaster. Far from quitting their organisation, they should stay in and fight. They should promote genuine debate and the unity of all communists and revolutionaries in one Party. Instead of being used as cannon fodder by an out-of-touch sectarian leadership, rebel against bureaucratic centralism and Cliffite dogma.

The pages of the Weekly Worker are open to all who want to debate the way forward.

Anne Murphy