SPEW split on SWP

We reproduce some recent correspondence between the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party, together with a report of a meeting between the two groups, taken from SPEW’s Members Bulletin No37, June 1999.

The significance lies not in the exchange between SWP and SPEW. No, the fact of the matter is that SPEW’s executive committee is now split down the middle over its relations with the SWP. One the one side is Peter Taaffe and his loyal lieutenant Hannah Sell - they are prepared to work with the SWP, for example, on its lobby of the Labour Party on September 26. Bill Mullins, industrial organiser, is bitterly opposed and his report shows he wants to publically polemicise against the SWP. He has moreover produced a factional platform - circulated only to Unison members of SPEW, which we hope to comment upon next week


To the Socialist Workers Party executive committee

Electoral agreement

Dear comrades

As you are aware, your members in different parts of Britain have approached our members with proposals for electoral agreements between the Socialist Party and the SWP for future elections …

In the past the SWP have castigated the Socialist Party for ‘electoralism’ because we fought elections and used them in an attempt to raise the level of understanding of the working class, linking their day-to-day struggles with the ideas of socialism. You have changed your position on standing in elections without explaining, as far as we can see, what new factors in the situation have led to this.

Nevertheless, the Socialist Party has always been prepared to arrive at principled agreements with other socialists and other parties in order to maximise the potential for the left and of socialism.

This has been our position in the trade unions, in the student field and in elections. This unfortunately has not been the approach of the SWP. In some union elections you have promoted your own candidates against the commonly agreed candidate of the left.

This has been despite approaches made to you for a common candidate, as with the general secretary elections in Unison. You promoted your own candidate, Yunus Bakhsh, in opposition to Roger Bannister, the candidate of the Broad Left organisation, the CFDU. Bannister got 18% of the vote and your candidate got less than five percent. A common candidate of the left would have obviously maximised the left vote.

This was the general view of many left activists in Unison before, during and after the election. The SWP, we believe, acted in a sectarian fashion in this election and unfortunately this is not an isolated incident …

This, for instance, has been our approach to elections in the former Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA), now the PCS.

We have had a recent example of your approach in the student field. Our comrades have been excluded from the left ‘Unity List’ for the NUS conference by your student members who are in a bloc with the Campaign for Free Education (the majority of whom are members of the very small Workers’ Liberty group).

Socialist Party members are not the only ones, however, who have been arbitrarily excluded. So have other important groups of left students. The justification for this approach by your student members is that the Socialist Party has “not got a base” in the universities.

You are well aware that this is not true. In the very successful November 18 demonstration, called to protest against tuition fees and the withdrawal of the student grant, 5,000 students participated and at least one-third of this demonstration was mobilised by members of the Socialist Party or our supporters and sympathisers.

The Save Free Education campaign is the only one which has consistently and unequivocally called for a mass campaign of non-payment against tuition fees. You dismissed any idea of a mass campaign on this issue as “ludicrous”. You made a similar mistake on the poll tax when you discounted that mass non-payment would defeat the Tories.

We do not want to rake over the past. But we wish to make it clear to you that while we are in favour of fighting agreements with all serious left organisations we will not allow the SWP, or any other organisation, to ‘cherry-pick’ when ‘left unity’ is ‘appropriate’ and benefits you, and when it is ‘inappropriate’ …

If the SWP thinks they can act in a similar fashion then the steps that you have already made towards electoral agreements will be completely shipwrecked. Moreover, if you continue to act in a sectarian fashion in the trade unions and the student field then any steps towards ‘left unity’ in elections would be jettisoned because of the mutual suspicions which will be generated.

We have clear political differences with the SWP and neither you nor we have sought to hide these differences. But this does not preclude fighting, practical agreements in the electoral field which can enhance working class struggle and the general cause of socialism.

We would like a reply to the following points:

  1. The SWP’s views on electoral agreements involving the Socialist Party.
  2. The SWP’s approach towards left unity in the trade unions and in the student field.

Depending on your reply, we would like to meet you to discuss these issues further.

Yours fraternally

Hannah Sell

Socialist Party executive committee

February 19 1999


To the Socialist Party executive committee

Dear Hannah

Thank you for your letter of February 19.

As you know, the Socialist Workers Party has reached agreement with local Socialist Alliances, the Socialist Party and others on the left on standing a common list for the Welsh assembly and in the European elections in London and the West Midlands while discussions are ongoing in the North West. In Scotland we have reached agreement with the Scottish Socialist Party.

We are, however, somewhat puzzled that the proposal for a meeting should be accompanied by such a lengthy criticism of us. For our part we believe that unity should be based on what unites us in opposition to Tony Blair and New Labour rather than cataloguing the disagreements which might exist. For that reason we are happy to meet with you.

Yours fraternally

Chris Bambery

national organiser, SWP

February 24 1999


Report of meeting with the SWP on March 30 1999

This meeting took place as a result of correspondence between ourselves and the SWP. Attending for us was Judy Beishon, Lois Austin and Bill Mullins, and for the SWP, Julie Waterson and Chris Bambery.

We introduced the discussion by posing a number of questions:

Why have the SWP changed their position on elections? How widely do they intend to stand? Will they stand in local and parliamentary elections? Will they stand in by-elections?

They had arrived at agreement in Scotland with the SSP, and in Wales with the Socialist Alliance. Was their position to always seek agreement and avoid socialist candidates standing against each other? Why was there no discussion with other lefts about Paul Foot standing for the London mayor?

How serious is the SWP’s election strategy? For example, they seemed to be having second thoughts as regards the alliance slate for the London Euro-elections.

The SWP representatives resorted to a rambling discourse in response to most of our questions. However, there were a number of points raised by them which illuminates their very confused thinking and their inconsistency on the question of left unity. There were differences in the way that Waterson and Bambery responded. Waterson was arrogant and dismissive, whereas Bambery appeared uncomfortable at some of the issues we posed.

They attempted to justify the change in their position on elections by saying there has been a fundamental change in the character of the political situation between the 1980s and today. They argued - in an incoherent fashion - that, whereas in the 1980s the situation was polarised between the Tories and Labour, the election of a Labour government and its move towards the right has changed the situation. They said that the relationship of class forces and consciousness has changed. This now means that it is more viable for them and the left to stand in elections.

When challenged by us on their decision to stand for election in the 1970s in Stechford (where Paul Foot stood), Julie Waterson declared that this was a ‘disaster’ for them and demoralised their members, because the National Front beat the ‘socialists’.

On the issue of the Euro-election campaign in London, Waterson argued that their position was “to maximise the socialist vote in the Euro-election”. This was part of their justification for possible withdrawal (which they later did) from the left unity slate in favour of an SLP list headed by Scargill. But she also argued, revealing their real fear, that Scargill and several other potential SLP candidates were ‘high profile’, and therefore standing against them would mean a much reduced vote for the left alliance list. We said that left unity for them, in this case, means that when Scargill stands and refuses to discuss with anybody else on the left, then we should just roll over and accede to Scargill’s wishes. In effect, the SWP representatives replied, ‘yes’.

So, in their first excursion into the ‘new field’ of elections, the method of the SWP, which is ultra-left in general but always heavily tinged with opportunism, is starkly borne out. Contrast this to our approach in elections. Although the vote we get is not unimportant, we have always stood primarily to get our socialist ideas across, rather than to get a good vote. We always seek discussion and agreement with other potential candidates on the left, to avoid left candidates standing against each other, and in some cases to stand a common candidate. And we have never bowed down before ultimatums from an increasingly dictatorial Scargill.

We pointed out that the SWP were quite happy to cling to the coat tails of Dave Nellist in the West Midlands, and to some extent went along with us in Wales (which they characterised as a model example of left unity), but it was a different question in fields or areas where we are, in their opinion, weaker than them.

At one stage in the discussion, they accused us of ‘electoralism’. Later, when participation in the Socialist Alliances came up, they said that they could not participate in the Socialist Alliances because the Alliances don’t reject the achievement of socialism by ‘parliamentary means’ in their programmes!

In response to the questions we posed at the start of the meeting, they said they may stand in future parliamentary by-elections; that whenever they want to stand they will enter into discussions with others on the left to try and reach agreement; and in the case of London, they would ‘consult’ others on the issue of standing Paul Foot.

We attempted to raise the issue of left unity in the trade unions and in the student field. We raised some details on the attitude of SWP members in Unison, and on the way SWP members have participated in a bloc against us in student union elections. We met a brick wall, particularly from Waterson. She declared that there was “no link” between community-based election work, and elections or work generally in the student field or in the trade unions.

We pointed out that Unison SWP members had not replied once to letters sent by our comrades and by the CFDU asking for left unity in Unison elections and in fighting the witch hunt against our comrades, the CFDU and the SWP. They retorted by attacking our Unison members, saying that Glen Kelly and Roger Bannister should have been “organising petitions in defence of SWP members who were being witch-hunted”. But it was clear that they were not interested in collaboration. And ‘left unity’ for them in the unions means merely tail-ending the SWP and defending them against witch-hunters.

They mentioned the support they gave in our election campaign in Park Ward, Sheffield, but then they went on to attack one of our Sheffield members. They claimed that Dave Milsom, our comrade involved in the housing benefit strike in Sheffield, had just called for a return to work. This was a blatant lie. The next day, Bill Mullins phoned Dave Milsom and asked whether he had proposed calling off the benefit strike on “two occasions”. He strongly denied this, and shouted out in a room used by the strikers, “Has anybody here ever heard me proposing calling off the strike?” The response was a loud “No”!

The SWP representatives were adamant about pursuing a completely independent road in the trade unions. When we pointed out that their candidate in the Unison elections, who stood against CFDU candidate Roger Bannister, got a lot fewer votes than the CFDU, their riposte was: “We did OK in that election because our candidate was a revolutionary.”

It is clear that in the trade unions they are not prepared, despite their protestations to the contrary, to maximise the left vote, thereby raising the confidence and ability of trade unionists to struggle, both against the rightwing leadership and against the employers.

On student work, a heated exchange took place between us and Julie Waterson. But Waterson and Bambery claimed not to know any detail of what goes on in the student work, and said they would discuss our points with their student comrades!

We said that Socialist Party members may have some difficulty in making electoral deals with the SWP for local authority elections, parliamentary elections, etc, while at the same time those same members have to face disunity caused by the SWP in their trade union work or student work. Waterson’s response to this was that they have a strict division of labour in the SWP, with some members being devoted to the trade unions almost exclusively, some to the students, etc, so a problem of this nature would not arise in their party!

We drew the general conclusion from this meeting that there is no possibility of broad agreement with the SWP on left unity in general. They expressed willingness to engage in limited electoral agreements, but, given their sectarian attitude in other fields of work, this willingness may not extend very far in practice. They are also concerned to inoculate their members against arguments, from ourselves in particular: that would open wider the cracks already existing in their ranks.

Notwithstanding their attitude in this discussion, we still have to be prepared to make electoral agreements with all on the left. At the same time, we have to recognise that difficulties with the SWP will continue to be a factor in most fields in which we work. They attract completely ultra-left elements, many of whom would have travelled into the ranks of the WRP in the past.

Undoubtedly, some good people join them who are looking for a Marxist and revolutionary alternative. All the evidence shows that this layer do not remain within their organisation for any length of time. While concentrating on the main task of building our party and getting our ideas out as widely as possible, we may sometimes have to publicly criticise positions of the SWP in order to show the differences between their party and ours, so enabling new people to clearly distinguish between us.

BM, LA and JB