In defence of Bedfordshire SA
Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance is the only SA with whom the SWP is refusing to cooperate. In this supplement the Revolutionary Democratic Group explains the background to the current situation
The Socialist Workers Party is a long established and well-known organisation on the left. But most people have never heard of the Revolutionary Democratic Group and even less know what we stand for. In order to put the following account into context we will begin will a brief sketch of the RDG and its past relationship with the SWP. Some background information will be useful in setting the scene.
In 1980-81 some SWP members set up the 'Republican Faction', the SWP's last officially recognised faction. These comrades campaigned for the party to take the national question in Scotland, Wales and Ireland seriously and connected this with the issue of the monarchy. The 'Republican Faction' called for the SWP to adopt the demand for a federal republic.
The RDG was set up in 1983-4 by supporters of the faction. They had become critical not simply of the party's line on the national question, but of the SWP's whole method of conducting politics. At first the RDG developed a critique of the SWP's attitude to the united front, the rank and file movement and the SWP interventions in the miners' strike. In the latter part of the 1980s, we exposed the SWP mistakes in the anti-poll tax movement, on Ireland and the Iran-Iraq war.
At the root of the SWP's politics was an incorrect theory, reflected in a wrong programme. But changing the programme raised wider issues about internal democracy and democratic centralism. Party members had virtually no opportunity to debate or change the party programme. Their role was to be super activists. The emphasis was on paper-selling and recruiting. Anybody questioning the policies of the SWP would be viewed with suspicion and marginalised or expelled.
In the early 1990s the RDG gained a few sympathisers in the SWP - most notably Chris Jones, former chair of the Merseyside Fire Brigade Union. Chris, although isolated by the SWP party 'machine', raised political questions that the SWP leadership could not answer effectively. Chris was expelled for advocating a federal republic. The central committee wanted to save themselves further embarrassment. There was no valid justification for this. It was an unprincipled political victimisation.
The RDG called for the SWP to change direction. We argued that the SWP should stop supporting Labour in elections. We urged the SWP to stand candidates against Kinnock and later Blair. We argued that the SWP should do this as part of building a united front with the Labour left. We called on the SWP to get its programme sorted out so it could conduct a serious election campaign.
In 1996 the RDG moved away from the SWP to join Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. In practice Scargill pledged to fight New Labour in the unions and at every election. Whilst the SWP was hostile to Blair in theory, Scargill was prepared to fight New Labour in practice in elections. The SWP backed Blair at the 1997 general election. The RDG lined up with Scargill's SLP opposing Blair's pro-capitalist New Labour.
Despite its challenge to New Labour, the SLP project was not the answer. Scargill was one leader who could at least partially unite the anti-New Labour forces. But there were serious ideological weaknesses in the SLP, which, combined with a lack of genuine democracy, ended the SLP's short life as a potential alternative.
Along with the success of the Scottish Socialist Party, the SLP experiment had one positive result. It helped convince the SWP that it could no longer ignore parliamentary elections. In 1999-2000 the SWP changed its 'line' and realigned itself with the Socialist Alliance project. This move was a significant shift in the SWP position. The party more or less adopted the line advocated by the RDG in the early and mid-1990s. The RDG and the SWP now moved back into the same political orbit. In recognition of the seismic shift in SWP politics, the RDG wrote to the SWP in July 2000. We asked for discussions with the SWP with a view to rejoining.
Chris Bambery, the SWP national organiser, addressed the CPGB's summer school in August 2000. An RDG speaker welcomed the SWP's new direction. Comrade Bambery accepted we had been right, saying, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day." This was less than fulsome praise! But it was as close as we get to an official recognition that we were on the right line. He was then given a copy of our open letter requesting talks about rejoining. We have still not had a reply.
The SA movement has produced a completely new political situation in the relationship between the RDG and SWP. We are linked by the theory of state capitalism and now by the perspective of uniting comrades from the socialist-Labour and communist traditions in one united Socialist Alliance. We have a perspective of forming a new party. We have a record of challenging the SWP by open criticism and democratic debate. The SWP has a tradition of completely ignoring us and occasionally banning us from meetings and expelling any comrade thought to be influenced by our ideas.
A clash of political ideas, so long delayed by the methods of the SWP, is now inevitable. What will become abundantly clear is that the conflict between the RDG and SWP is, at source, a struggle over the Marxist programme. If the SWP continues with their normal methods of dealing with the RDG, their obvious political weaknesses will be fully exposed in front of the rest of the left. In short there is a political clash waiting to happen. But when, where and how cannot be predicted in advance.
"The SWP gives its 'full cooperation and support' to the Socialist Alliance nationally and to every locally affiliated Socialist Alliance, with the sole exception of the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance." Why has the Bedfordshire SA been singled out as "the sole exception"? What have they done that has so upset the SWP?
This statement was made in an e-letter of February 1 2001 from comrade Rob Hoveman, national vice -chair of the Socialist Alliance, replying to Danny Thompson, secretary of Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance. Comrade Hoveman is a leading member of the SWP and Danny is a supporter of the RDG. The letter provides us with some clues as to why the SWP has singled out the Bedfordshire SA.
It claims the source of the problem was that the Bedfordshire SA had passed a resolution on January 7 which was perceived to be critical of the SWP. This was unacceptable to the party, which demanded that parts of it be withdrawn before it was circulated.
The resolution arose from the Vauxhall dispute. Bedfordshire SA wanted improved communications and cooperation with those in charge of the SWP intervention. Comrade Hoveman rejected this, saying that "no Socialist Alliance in the country has sought or has needed to seek 'regular contact' between what you like to call 'senior' SWP members and local SA officers".
Another bone of contention was the banning of the secretary and at least two other leading members of Bedfordshire SA from SWP public meetings. Comrade Hoveman admits that "some individuals are very occasionally excluded from our [i.e., SWP public] meetings". But he offers no further explanation or justification except generalities.
The secretary of Bedfordshire SA had complained of smears and personal attacks by leading SWP members. Comrade Hoveman says that the SWP "as an organisation have no interest in 'personal' attacks, smears and discrimination". This stands in contradiction with what has been said and done, not least the banning of comrades from public meetings.
These statements suggest that the problem does not stem from Bedfordshire SA trying to exclude, bar or ban the SWP. If anything it is the other way round. The picture is of Bedfordshire SA seeking more involvement or at least better communications with the SWP. So what lies behind this situation?
Here it comes ...
Comrade Hoveman's letter soon begins to tell us about the SWP's 'other' concerns. He says: "I wish to make some other points about my understanding of certain aspects of the Beds SA that trouble me, both as an SWP organiser in relation to Socialist Alliances and as a national officer of the Socialist Alliance."
The SWP leadership is 'concerned' with Bedfordshire's policy statement or programme. He says: "We don't seek to adopt a programme which is used as a test to exclude those who are looking for a socialist organisation outside the Labour Party."
From a liberal point of view this might sound eminently reasonable. But a moment's thought brings out its ambiguity. Does it mean we shouldn't adopt any programme? Or should we only adopt those programmes that do not 'exclude' anybody?
In Luton, for example, the SWP full-time organiser objected to the policy of abolishing the monarchy in case it excluded royalists. The same comrade objected to 'a woman's right to chose' as a barrier to 'pro-life' voters. Apparently the best way to build an organisation is not to have any policies.
This is a typical SWP view of the unimportance of the Marxist programme. It is based on ignorance and prejudice. It does not stand up to any serious argument. Of course comrade Hoveman realises his own argument is absurd, even before the ink is dry. He knows that anti-racist policies would exclude racists. Even the SWP needs a few policies, if only, as cynics would say, to avoid being called a racist, sexist or - heaven forbid - a monarchist!
He therefore concludes that a programme should be decided by applying "a common sense test about the policies we sign up to". But, as every Marxist knows, the dominant ideas, including what constitutes 'common sense', are the ideas of the ruling class. William Hague has even made the 'common sense revolution' one of his campaign slogans.
We need scientific theory to develop a good programme. We need Marxist theory to show what is working class common sense and what is bourgeois common sense. Since there is no Marxist god to tell us which is which, we need full and open debate to find out.
Comrade Hoveman would no doubt say that he meant SWP common sense, not bourgeois common sense. The SWP may not now be opposed to a programme, if it is based on SWP common sense. Talk about programmes 'excluding people' is simply a smokescreen. It will only fool comrades who don't give this more than 10 seconds' thought. We know where the main concentration of such comrades can be found - in the SWP!
If we want to find out about the SWP's 'common sense' policies, we can simply read their programme submission to the Socialist Alliance. Hence the real crime of the Bedfordshire SA, if there is one, is that it did not adopt the policies favoured by SWP common sense.
The SWP full-time organiser in Luton seems to think that the abolition of the monarchy is against common sense. But the SWP programme now includes this demand. Clearly there is more than one common sense, which is not 'common' - even among SWP organisers!
Involving the membership
Bedfordshire SA has involved members in submitting, debating and voting on its policies. Comrade Hoveman doesn't like this. It is certainly not the sort of thing that happens in the SWP. He says that he is concerned that "the question of the 'programme' has loomed so large at such an early stage in the development of the Beds SA". So members should not waste time thinking and debating policy. That is the job of SA intellectuals. The role of rank and file members is to do activities.
The SWP is also concerned that "membership of the Beds SA is conditional upon support for the programme of the Beds SA". This is simply not true. The Bedfordshire SA programme has to be 'accepted' by members. They do not have to agree with every dot and comma. A member would be expected to read it before joining. Far from putting new members off, it shows a serious political organisation.
Recently a new contact applied to join. She agreed with all the policies except a 'woman's right to choose'. She was prepared to accept that policy, even though she did not agree with it. The Bedfordshire SA was prepared to accept her into membership knowing where she stood. This led to one very positive educational on the subject. Programme makes everything explicit. Everybody knows where they stand.
All this doesn't tell us the full story about why Bedfordshire SA is the "sole exception" for the SWP. Let us now go back and see how this story unfolds.
How it all began
Bedfordshire SA was launched at a public meeting in Luton on October 22 2000. There were only two affiliated SA organisations active and in favour of setting up a Bedfordshire SA: the SWP and RDG. The SWP had more comrades active in the town, and many more inactive ones. The RDG had only a small number of supporters in the area, but they were experienced trade union militants.
Amongst the new officers, there were four SWP, two RDG and one non-aligned comrade. An SWP member was elected chair. An RDG supporter was elected secretary. Although we were a minority, our ideas were soon securing more influence. First we argued that it was very important for members to discuss policy. We encouraged a democratic process for the discussion and agreement of policies. We felt that clarity on policy or programme would arm members and help them to go out and win support.
Secondly, we argued that the Socialist Alliance should be what we termed a communist-Labour formation. It was very important to win membership from the Labour Party, ex-Labour Party and trade union activists. We set out to persuade the secretary of the trades council, a well known local trade unionist, Joe Hearne, to join. He became a founding member and later the parliamentary candidate. He symbolised a new organisation in which both revolutionaries and reformists could find common political ground and work effectively together.
Luton SWP was fully involved in launching Bedfordshire SA. There was no problem between the local SWP members and RDG comrades. Relations were fraternal on both sides. Luton SWP members joined enthusiastically in the policy discussion process. They voted unanimously for the programme document. (We were later to discover that this was frowned upon by the SWP leadership who considered this a sign that local members could not be trusted.) These good relations only changed with the announcement of the redundancies at General Motors' Vauxhall car plant in Luton.
On December 12 2000 the closure of Vauxhall was announced. The trade unions were slow to move into the public arena following the announcement. But there was unofficial action, including solidarity walkouts at Ellesmere Port and Toddington Road and two occupations of GM's headquarters on December13 and 14.
This was the first time that there has been any solidarity strike action, whether official or unofficial, against job losses in the car industry for at least 20 years. Redundancy packages and plant transfers were put out by management. The numbers allowed to transfer to Vauxhall's sister plants, following the unrest, was increased to 1,000 workers.
The trade unions urged nobody to transfer. Outside the plant, there was extensive media coverage of the proposed closure, all backing the trade unions and opposing the betrayal by General Motors. The trade unions had meetings with Tessa Jowell in the local job centre and with the two local Labour MPs and the Labour council. They met with secretary of state Stephen Byers in London on December 21.
The trade unions held a lobby of TUC general council members who visited Luton on December 20. About 200 people turned up. John Monks (TUC), Bill Morris (TGWU) and Roger Lyons (MSF) made the usual speeches along the lines of 'We'll fight them on the beaches'. A closed meeting was held with shop stewards, MPs and councillors. Then there was a 'photo opportunity' walkabout.
The unions had a stewards meeting in the morning and produced a 'community' petition and window posters. Fifty shop stewards were out on the streets and outside the local football club, Luton Town, petitioning. This was probably the first bit of 'political' activity many of them had been involved in and they were finding that they were pushing at an open door. The literature was 'soft' with slogans like 'I'm backing Vauxhall to keep building cars'.
Quite deliberately, the politics needed were being kept out of the equation. On December 21 a candlelight vigil, with Christmas carols of course, was held outside GM's headquarters - when it was shut! This type of populism suits both the TUC, the trade union leadership, and the local MPs, who haven't got any real strategy or answer to even challenge, let alone beat the bosses.
Rank and file militants were looking to take the fight forward, whereas the government, Morris and co hoped the anger would fade away and they wouldn't get caught in any 'fall-out'. Once again they could blame the workers for not fighting.
Strategy for a fightback
The closure of Vauxhall presented the working class movement with a new situation. The Labour government is working hand in glove with General Motors to raise profits by destroying jobs. A correct strategy must be combine industrial struggle against closure with political struggle against the Labour government and the undemocratic political system that supports and sustains them.
It was therefore absolutely necessary to unite the Vauxhall shop stewards committees, the key rank and file organisations in the factory, with a political campaign against Labour. The forthcoming general election was an opportunity to step up the fight. In Luton, Bedfordshire SA was the only socialist organisation intending to stand a candidate against Labour. Consequently any serious working class fightback had to unite the shop stewards with Bedfordshire SA.
Bedfordshire SA is targeting Margaret Moran, Labour MP for Luton South. She represents a government that colluded in the sacking of thousands of workers. If the Vauxhall workers are not defeated before the general election, and if Bedfordshire SA can run an effective campaign, there is the possibility of achieving a higher vote.
The level of industrial militancy should be reflected in the vote. It would be seen as a verdict of the Luton working class on Labour policy. Such exceptional circumstances might enable Bedfordshire SA to seriously dent the Labour vote or even 'turn over' a Labour MP. This in turn would encourage workers to continue their resistance.
It should therefore be clear that the Vauxhall closure made Bedfordshire SA more important, not less. The newly formed Bedfordshire SA had a crucial role to play in the fight to save jobs. Uniting Bedfordshire SA and the Vauxhall shop stewards was the key to any serious combined industrial and political fightback.
An opportunity for the SWP
The SWP had to make an absolutely crucial political decision. They could support and work through the Bedfordshire SA. The party would carry its main work in a united front approach. The SWP would seek to play a leading role and establish its political credentials in the eyes of both the non-SWP members of the SA and Vauxhall shop stewards.
Bedfordshire SA was planning to stand against Labour. The focal point for any political fight against the government that backed General Motors was the SA election campaign. In addition the new alliance had contacts with the factory. The secretary was an ex-Vauxhall shop-steward and the alliance was soon to include Vauxhall stewards amongst its members.
The SWP was well placed to play a leading role through Bedfordshire SA. The party had played a constructive role in setting it up. One of its members was chair and other members were officers. However, SWP members were a minority in a growing alliance. They would have lead through persuasion. But they had the advantage of a well oiled party machine to support them.
Working co-operatively with and through Bedfordshire SA and with the shop stewards held out the prize of creating a broad pool of sympathy and growing credibility for the SWP. The party could become the vanguard in practice, a fact that would come to be recognised by all working class militants. Once the SWP's political periphery is forced to credit the party's constructive role, then there is real progress. This was not the liquidation of the SWP, but on the contrary its enhancement.
The alternative approach for the SWP was to pursue its own independent political leadership. In reality the SWP was not in a position to do this. The SWP was not going to stand a candidate. There was no focal point for a political campaign. They had no support among the Vauxhall shop stewards or any base in the factory.
Therefore the question for the SWP was whether to adopt the 'new politics' of working with and through the Socialist Alliance movement, or whether it would revert to its 'old politics' of operating without regard to either the Socialist Alliance or the shop stewards. In the latter case the obvious danger was a clumsy and insensitive intervention, which would annoy the shop stewards committee and alienate Bedfordshire SA.
As soon as the Vauxhall dispute began, the SWP sent full-time organisers, central committee members, and other members to the area. It soon became clear which 'line' the SWP was adopting. The party would intervene on its own.
Behind the SWP line?
What was behind the SWP's separatist line? Two theories have been advanced to explain their behaviour. The first, economism, goes to the heart of SWP politics. The party considers an industrial dispute purely or mainly in economic terms. The party therefore goes to the factory and tells the workers how unjust capitalism is and urges them to go on strike or be more militant.
Elections and political struggle are something totally different. They are for another time, another place. Consequently the SWP went to the Vauxhall factory to push trade union struggle. The political connection wasn't made. The SWP approach was 'syndicalist' in the broader sense of the term.
The SWP has no experience or tradition of combining economic and political struggle. It has no programme to guide such work. When the SWP intervenes, it does not really think about political struggle. The SWP supports the economic struggle. It is not trying to lead the political struggle. This is one reason why the SWP considered itself a better vehicle for intervention than working through the Bedfordshire SA. Had political struggle been primary, the opposite conclusion would have been made.
In the past SWP economism produced a certain attitude to the class struggle. This governed its relations with the Labour Party. The SWP sought to lead the industrial struggle. But it conceded political hegemony to the Labour Party. This produced the classic economistic division of labour. The SWP organises trade union militancy, and the Labour Party looks after the political struggle against the Tories. At election time, despite all criticism, the SWP always spread illusions in Labour by supporting it "without illusions".
The SWP 'naturally' views the SA in the same light. Bedfordshire SA is a substitute Labour Party. The SWP has the job of turning up outside factories. The SA carries out political activity, urging 'Vote SA'. A Vauxhall worker goes to work and sees the SWP on the gate. When he or she comes home in the evening, the SA comes knocking on the door. 'Revolution' in the morning and reformism for tea!
An alternative or additional aspect of this was the SWP attitude to the RDG. The SWP leadership was concerned about the influence of RDG supporters. Questions were raised when an RDG comrade was invited to speak at a public meeting. But the SWP were unable to counter this - either by democratic argument or bureaucratic methods. Not only did the ideas of the SWP fail to influence the non-SWP activists, but, worse still, RDG ideas began to influence SWP members themselves.
The SWP leadership were not predisposed to cooperate with the RDG. On the contrary their attitude was hostile, if tempered by the 'united front' line. Instead of dealing with the political issues, this hostility soon turned to ignoring our comrades and smearing the RDG. We will now return to events, as they unfolded from the start of the Vauxhall dispute, and were reported by RDG comrades on the ground.
"Free to do whatever it likes"
On the night of December 13 Bedfordshire SA officers were having a meeting. Because of the Vauxhall announcement, all other business was cancelled. This was an opportunity to really launch Bedfordshire SA in the locality and make a real start to the election campaign.
The Bedfordshire SA secretary explained: "A major local issue had suddenly landed on our laps. We had a prospective parliamentary candidate. We had something to say and organise around. It was an incredible opportunity to build the number of SA activists and supporters. There were eight comrades at the meeting, including four SWP members. It was decided that we would leaflet the plant that night. We were aware that the SWP central committee had called a rally for the Saturday, December 16. This was advertised in Bedfordshire SA literature. At this stage it wasn't known whether this would be an SWP or SA rally and march" (letter, January 2).
Martin Smith (SWP central committee and industrial organiser) was coming up to Luton that night. SWP members from outside the area would also be giving out SWP leaflets and doing a paper sale, etc Joe Hearne (prospective parliamentary candidate) printed up 500 or so SA leaflets ready for distribution. The comrades set off for the plant, where they were all meant to meet.
With the exception of one SWP member, who was given a lift to the factory, all the other SWP members disappeared to sell SWP material. After the 10pm shift had gone in, the comrades met up and decided to go to the pub and wait for the next shift. Here all the SWP members sat listening to Martin Smith giving out orders.
Comrade Smith totally ignored the SA officers and the SA candidate. One of the SA officers asked comrade Smith, "What about the SA intervention? What role should we play?" Martin Smith replied that "Beds SA is free to do whatever it likes". This was barely two hours after the four SWP Bedfordshire SA officers had participated in the decision that the SA would be leafleting that night. Martin Smith was not challenged by any of the SWP members.
SWP 'separatism' continued once again at the factory gate, when Bedfordshire SA gave out leaflets for the second time. The SWP went back to the factory in the morning. They sold their paper, and gave out their leaflets and pushed their petition. The SWP continued their own activity in the town centre with sales and flyposting. There was no further contact until the evening before the SWP rally on December 16.
An SWP member phoned to ask about the SA stall. The fledgling Bedfordshire SA had no 'materials'. But, worse, the non-SWP officers no longer had any confidence that any SWP members would help out or could be relied upon. There was some frustration and demoralisation. One officer considered resignation because of the SWP's hostile attitude.
The Bedfordshire SA secretary got together enough members to give out SA materials. The non-SWP SA members turned up at 11am. There were 20-plus SWP members selling papers and running their stall. The attitude of most SWP members to the non-SWP members was simply to ignore them. Only two SWP members gave any assistance to the SA stall. One of these was SA chair.
Bedfordshire SA members gave out all the SA literature they had (perhaps 1,000 leaflets) and collected names and money for the election campaign. The SWP gave out some 10,000 leaflets advertising their rally. But there was nothing about the forthcoming SA public meeting on January 25. SWP member Mark Steel was on the platform, selected by the SWP centre.
On the surface the SWP's 'go it alone' tactics seemed to be working. There were 250 on the SWP march and rally. They sold some 500 papers, added 2,500 names on their petition and recruited 21 people. But behind these headline numbers the picture was less rosy. The SWP was unable to convert those who signed up into real members.
In the park the only mention of the SA came from the SA candidate, Joe Hearne, who the SWP continued to ignore, and Tony Richardson, a non-SWP member from Oxford SA. The Bedfordshire SA secretary noted that, "All SA members that stood anywhere near me were totally blanked. When any of the SWP full-timers walked past me they put their heads down. I'm sure it must have been just to check their shoe laces" (letter, January 2).
Behind the scenes, one of the two SWP members that had helped the SA "got a bollocking for spending so much time on the SA stall" (ibid.). Even though Joe Hearne declared himself the SA candidate, the full-timers ignored him and spent time patronising one of their new members. Afterwards all the SWP went off for their own meeting.
This should have been an SA rally, the real launch of the election campaign. The SWP would still have been in the driving seat, but with greater unity of purpose. They would have gained real credit with the non-SWP. This was a missed opportunity for the party. It was certainly a missed opportunity for the SA. But the cause of this mistake was the incorrect politics of the SWP - economism and sectarianism.
The next SA activity was at the trade union lobby on December 20. There had been no contact in the meantime. The SA comrades went to town where they met the SWP who were selling Socialist Worker and petitioning. They were offered SA material, and two SWP comrades were half-heartedly willing to take some. But the SWP branch secretary almost had a panic attack. He just couldn't decide whether to pick up any SA leaflets or not. Again SA leaflets were given out without any help from the local SWP.
It is important to say that the non-SWP members of Bedfordshire SA had no problem with the 'super-activism' of the SWP, including paper sales every day. But the question has to be asked, what did they do to assist and promote the SA and its election campaign? Apart from two SWP members, one of whom was the SA chair, the answer was next to nothing. In fact the SWP had made a greater contribution to the SA when they had less comrades on the ground, prior to the arrival of the SWP central committee members.
The Vauxhall dispute lead to a significant lowering of SWP support. This made the situation for the fledgling SA precarious. It was a new project. Everybody had an open mind or a healthy scepticism as to whether it could succeed. Members, officers and even the candidate could have concluded that there was insufficient support to make it a viable project. The actions and behaviour of the SWP simply added to that and could have led to the collapse of the project.
Bedfordshire SA was getting information from the local SWP branch secretary. This confirmed that the public attitude of the SWP leadership in the area was not simply 'bad manners', but a definite political position. Apparently if any SWP members asked about the SA, they were seen as sympathisers of the RDG and their party loyalty questioned.
Political confusion reigned in the minds of SWP members, now unclear about what they hoped to achieve with the alliance. The statement that Bedfordshire SA can "do what it likes" summed up the new SWP attitude. If the party cooperates at all, it will do so minimally and reluctantly.
However, it was not all doom and gloom. The situation began to improve. The alliance was beginning to get a positive response from some of the Vauxhall shop stewards. When the SWP was cold-shouldering the SA and the Vauxhall shop stewards were warming to the project, then something was going right for the SA and wrong for the SWP. Bedfordshire SA members persuaded some of the shop stewards of the idea of calling for a national demo. Two alliance officers were asked to write a leaflet for them. This is why the project did not collapse, despite the actions of the SWP. On the contrary it was soon to get stronger.
Danny Thompson, the SA secretary, summed up the political situation in a letter written on January 2 2001: "Many Vauxhall workers still have illusions in the trade union bureaucracy. Many have still not broken from Labourism. But as far as the long-term project goes, the SA provides the best opportunities to win these workers to our ideas and in the short term to give a much needed boost to the Beds SA project of standing in the next general election."
Danny added: "It had become increasingly difficult to work with people that formally don't, but in reality do, have their own separate agenda. But to succeed the SWP has to stop behaving in the same way as some accuse the Socialist Party of behaving - like spoilt little children or petty dictators. If they are in the SAs, which I hope they are, this means dialogue and activity with others, who may have political differences. Or they need to be made aware of where they are 'leading' their members - down a sectarian cul-de-sac."
What did the RDG do?
On the basis of reports from Luton and concerns raised by our supporters, it was agreed to contact comrade Hoveman, SA vice-chair, and SWP full-timer responsible for their work in the Socialist Alliance. He was phoned by comrade Steve Freeman (RDG) who explained there was some friction. Comrade Hoveman was asked if he would speak to SWP comrades, especially comrades Smith and Vernell, who seemed to be in charge of SWP operations in Luton. It was explained that it was important to contact and talk with the Bedfordshire SA officers. This was followed up by an e-mail dated December 21 (see appendix ).
There was no reply nor any contact until January 4, when comrade Hoveman wrote back saying there was no problem (see appendix ). Comrade Freeman replied on January 5 and explained the issue again. The situation remained unresolved with no prospect of any change. A rumour now began to circulate that the Bedfordshire SA secretary, Danny Thompson, was banned from SWP public meetings. Some Luton SWP members objected to this, including the SA chair, SWP member Eric Karas.
The behaviour of the SWP central committee members was not an accident. It was an expression of definite politics. They were not blundering around, but carrying out the party line. The quite outrageous and unjustifiable banning of our comrade made the situation crystal clear. It was no coincidence that there had been no ban until the SWP central committee members arrived on the scene.
The Bedfordshire SA motion
On January 7 the SWP full-time organiser turned up uninvited to the Bedfordshire SA Steering Committee meeting. She dismissed the Bedfordshire SA policy discussions as a waste of time and tried to take over the meeting. The following motion was discussed and passed with all the non-SWP members voting for it.
"This meeting notes that the fight to save employment at Vauxhall is a struggle against General Motors and the Labour government who are working together to carry through these redundancies with the minimum of cost and political damage to the company and the government. Building an opposition to the closure must involve industrial action against General Motors combined with political action against the Labour government.
"Whilst the support of the national trade union officials for industrial action is important, we believe they cannot be relied upon to lead action because of their support for the Labour government which is backing the company plans.
"The Vauxhall shop stewards committees are the only rank and file organisations capable of organising industrial action. The Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance (BSA) is the only political organisation mounting an electoral political challenge to Labour's support for GM, before and during the forthcoming general election. Therefore it is essential that there is the closest possible cooperation and liaison between the shop stewards committees and the Bedfordshire SA. We urge representatives of the shop stewards committees to attend Bedfordshire SA meetings and for this invite to be reciprocated.
"We note that independent socialist organisations affiliated to the Network of Socialist Alliances, in particular the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL), have been intervening to oppose the closure. Such support is to be welcomed provided it does not undermine the campaign by the shop stewards and the BSA.
"It is therefore essential that all political activity is coordinated with the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance. Without such coordinated activity, opposition to closure will be weakened and divided to the benefit of the employers and the government.
"The SWP and AWL leaderships have sent full-time organiser(s) to this area. They are invited to work closely with the BSA for a united campaign. The AWL have assured us of their cooperation. Unfortunately representatives of the SWP central committee have not contacted the secretary of the BSA despite a request that they do so. If this reflects a sectarian approach to the struggle, it is to be condemned by all those who are serious about fighting this closure."
This motion is fundamentally about the politics of the struggle of the Vauxhall workers and how socialists should intervene. Its main point is a call for unity and cooperation between the SA and the Vauxhall shop stewards. It welcomes the intervention of the SWP and the AWL, quite reasonably with a note of caution. It asks that all political intervention be coordinated with Bedfordshire SA. It is not asking for these organisations to stop intervening or give up their autonomy. It merely asks for the cooperation of affiliated organisations who support the SA movement.
Only the last paragraph says anything that could be critical of the SWP. It notes a possible breakdown of communications with Smith and Vernell, although it does not name them and refers to SWP central committee. The last line says: "If this reflects a sectarian approach to the struggle it is to be condemned", etc. Even this is a question and not a statement.
The SWP could have responded to this by saying there was a misunderstanding. They could have confirmed their cooperation and asserted there was no sectarian approach. But the SWP reacted very defensively with the sort of outrage of someone caught red-handed in the commission of a crime.
The RDG is critical of this motion. If anything it was too mild. The SWP did not consider what was in the political interests of the working class - a united fightback, unifying the industrial struggle with the political fight against Labour. This could only be led by the Vauxhall shop stewards and the Bedfordshire SA election campaign.
The SWP policy was sectarian. It started from the interests of the SWP, not the working class. Their intervention was designed to build the SWP. When the central committee members turned up, they followed that logic and began playing sectarian games. There was absolutely no room in this scenario for Bedfordshire SA. It was irrelevant, as Martin Smith noted. Therefore the resolution should have condemned the SWP policy, rather than question it.
SWP demands talks
The passing of this motion had an immediate result. Comrade Hoveman requested a meeting with Bedfordshire SA. The RDG asked to attend on the grounds that we had relevant information. The SWP were at first against RDG participation. But when the Bedfordshire SA secretary refused to hold the meeting without us, the SWP agreed.
The meeting took place on Tuesday January 9 in Luton. It is recorded in the e-mail from Steve Freeman to Rob Hoveman on January 12. The SWP raised their fears about the circulation of the motion. They demanded the deletion of the last three paragraphs. They raised concerns about the programme and draft constitution of Bedfordshire SA. The SA raised their concerns about the failure of SWP to coordinate and cooperate with them.
It was made absolutely clear that the SA was not trying to control how the SWP allocated its comrades. The SA merely wanted information and consultation to improve the coordination of work. No organisation serious about maximising the struggle of the working class could object to such cooperation. But the SWP would not give any assurances.
They continued to misunderstand what was asked of them. They kept saying that Bedfordshire SA could not tell them what to do. The SA kept saying this is not what they were asking for. The SWP refused to give any assurances. They would not agree to cooperate. But they demanded that the SA should not criticise them or even question their behaviour.
Significantly the SWP demanded the deletion not merely of the last paragraph, but the last three paragraphs. The SWP could not accept the paragraph that said "It is therefore essential that all political activity is coordinated with the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance. Without such coordinated activity, opposition to closure will be weakened and divided to the benefit of the employers and the government."
The RDG raised the question of the apparent banning of Danny Thompson, SA secretary, from SWP public meetings. The SWP full-time organiser reluctantly confirmed the existence of this ban. Comrade Hoveman distanced himself from it. It was agreed that the RDG would write to John Rees of the SWP to get clarification of whether there was a ban or not.
Business as usual
What happened after this meeting? Bedfordshire SA agreed not to circulate the motion temporarily until they had the SWP response. The RDG argued that we should wait until we saw what the SWP would do. We sought to halt the publication of the motion. We did not open up a public debate. We did not raise the matter at the Liaison Committee on January 13. We wrote to comrades Hoveman, John Rees and the SWP central committee. In short the RDG urged a truce to facilitate a negotiated settlement of this dispute.
We did not have any illusions in what to expect from the SWP. But it was important to try to reach a settlement and not put anything in the way. We felt this was in the interests of the Bedfordshire SA and more importantly the campaign to defend jobs and the local community. But it was soon clear that the SWP was not seeking a solution. They simply wanted their own demands met and intended to carry on as before.
The first SWP move was to ban two additional SA members from their next public meeting. Then the reply promised by John Rees to the RDG e-letter of January 15 did not materialise. On the same day Martin Smith visited the chair of the Bedfordshire SA, SWP member Eric Karas. Comrade Karas was expelled on the spot. This action showed that the SWP 'hawks' were in charge and taking a hard line. There was no possibility of a negotiated compromise.
The SWP then withdrew their speaker, Mark Steel, from the platform of the planned SA public meeting. This action undermined the alliance by messing up the plans. Nevertheless over 40 people attended the meeting to hear the convenor of the Vauxhall shop stewards. A number of new members joined. The SWP only succeeded in shooting themselves in the foot.
The SWP were soon claiming that Bedfordshire "was not a genuine alliance". This is the kind of allegation that, if taken seriously, could lead to dissolving or expelling the SA from the national network. This was followed up by the SWP calling for other Liaison Committee officers to intervene in Luton. John Nicholson and Dave Church were pencilled in for the job.
A case for the defence
The SWP is the most powerful organisation in the national network of Socialist Alliances. It may be that the SWP is a majority of the current membership. The party certainly had the biggest voting bloc at the recent Birmingham policy conference. So when the SWP singles out Bedfordshire SA as the "sole exception" it is certainly a cause for concern.
We have produced this supplement in order to defend Bedfordshire SA. We know there have been rumours and false allegations. The best defence is democracy and openness. This will enable everybody to get closer to the truth and learn most about the politics. This puts politics to the fore. It exposes the contradictions to the full light of day. Making the politics transparent produces more argument, more debate and ultimately a higher level of politics.
Why is Bedfordshire SA the sole exception? Is it the only affiliate to fall out with the SWP? No, we have already seen disputes between the SWP and the Socialist Party and the Leeds Left Alliance. Is Bedfordshire the only affiliate to have a programme? No, we have seen 17 programmes submitted by affiliates, both political organisations and local SAs. Programmes or policy statements have been submitted by, for example, Manchester, West Midlands and Leeds. You can read them all on the SA website. Is there something unique about the Bedfordshire SA programme? No, it is virtually identical to the Merseyside SA programme.
Perhaps there is something in the Bedfordshire programme that the SWP takes great exception to, but doesn't want to admit. The answer to this is yes. The SWP minimum programme is in favour of abolishing the monarchy, but not parliament. They are quite right. To say otherwise would be ridiculous ultra-leftism. This means that the SWP is in favour of a democratic republic, although they haven't quite plucked up the courage to say so.
The RDG has argued since 1983 that such a democratic republic should be federal. It should not stop at the borders of Scotland and Wales, but unite these nations with England in a voluntary union. The RDG submitted the following amendment to the Birmingham policy conference. It called for the addition of the words, "For a voluntary federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, with parliaments for each nation, plus a federal parliament for the common affairs of the republic".
This was the clearest statement of the federal republic position. The federal republic was debated at Birmingham. But the demand appeared in the midst of other words and formulations. It did not appear as a stand-alone, because of a compositing process. It was unfortunate that the process did not include supporters of the federal republic. The conference arrangements committee, did not include three comrades who wanted to attend its deliberations - Martin Thomas (AWL), Mark Fisher (CPGB) and Steve Freeman (RDG). These comrades have one thing in common - they support the federal republic.
The SWP, like most of the left, is very confused on the UK national question. The party either ignores the issue or then flips into national separatism. The national question split the RDG from the SWP 18 years ago. It split the Socialist Party - Scotland versus England and Wales. We can see that the SWP is on the same trajectory. The SWP lacks a policy for working class unity on the national question, and it is fearful of the only serious unity policy on offer.
When the SWP saw the Bedfordshire SA policy statement, the words 'federal republic' jumped out of the page and grabbed them by the throat. But they couldn't admit it. So they said they didn't like the idea of a programme. Then they didn't like the abolition of the monarchy. The SWP organiser in Luton opposed the abolition of the monarchy. But the SWP decided to add this to its own programme submission. Their organiser was thus 'caught out' arguing for a line which suddenly changed.
The arguments on programme and monarchy failed almost as soon as they were made. At the Birmingham policy conference, when the federal republic was debated Chris Bambery of the SWP came up with another argument. They couldn't support a federal republic in case it screwed up their deal with Tommy Sheridan and the SSP. Such weak arguments were only protected by the massed ranks of SWP voters.
Bedfordshire SA is not the "sole exception" on the federal republic. It is also the policy of Merseyside SA, Tony Benn MP, Republic, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the CPGB. It is not the policy of a sect, but a policy that can command support across the left. It is a policy for the only democratic class in society, the working class. The current position of the SWP on the national question is a failure. It is just a matter of how long before they realise it.
The SWP has suggested that Bedfordshire is "not a genuine SA". This suggestion is completely without foundation. But the argument can be posed the other way round. Is the national network of Socialist Alliances a "genuine alliance"? Is there any place in it for local alliances and affiliates that do not agree with the policies of the SWP? That is the real issue. That is what is at stake in the 'battle of Luton'. Bedfordshire SA is not out on a limb. It is part of a minority, which includes four other affiliates. If it is unique at all, it is because the majority of its members are not members of the SWP.
What about the charge that Bedfordshire is the sole exception because it made "an entirely unjustified attack" on the SWP? We have shown that the SWP was not the innocent victim of a sectarian Socialist Alliance. On the contrary it was the behaviour of the SWP from December 13 that was the root of the situation. It was Martin Smith and the SWP central committee that adopted an entirely unjustified policy in relation to the Vauxhall dispute and Bedfordshire SA.
With a major crisis facing the people of Luton, the working class needed the maximum cooperation and coordination of all socialist forces. Bedfordshire SA was the obvious vehicle for this. It was the only organisation open to all socialists, including the SWP and the RDG. It was the only socialist organisation which intended to raise the struggle over closure into a political struggle against Labour at the general election.
Had the BNP been marching through Luton, the SWP would surely have sought the maximum cooperation and coordination of all opposition. Yet the SWP could justify separatism. Was it different because it was 'only' the jackboots of General Motors stomping on the town? After December 13 the level of cooperation actually went down instead of up.
A major opportunity to build the SA was missed. The opposition to the closure was weakened. When Bedfordshire SA questioned the SWP intervention in the resolution, there were clear choices. We could have resolved the disputed questions there and then. The Bedfordshire SA officers were ready to seek a solution. The RDG urged caution and compromise. Our bottom line was that we will not acquiesce over the unjustifiable banning of our comrades, or indeed other socialists and workers, from public meetings.
The political choice for the SWP was to reverse its policy of non-cooperation and banning or raise it to a new level. The SWP chose the latter course. The January resolution simply gave the SWP an excuse to continue with its previous policy more openly. The SWP 'declared war', by invoking sanctions - boycotts, bans and expulsions. But 'war', to paraphrase general Clausewitz's famous words, was only a continuation of the SWP's previous policy by other means.
If we want to know who was bullying, the facts speak for themselves. It was the SWP that banned the Bedfordshire SA secretary, then barred two more SA comrades from their meetings. It was the SWP that withdrew their speaker from the SA platform. It was the SWP that expelled one of their own comrades. It was the SWP that singled out Bedfordshire SA as "the sole exception" to SWP policy of "full cooperation and support".
It is too simple to put all this down to 'sectarianism'. This would be an easy answer. If two socialists disagree, they must be 'sectarians'. But of course it is politics that is the cause of such disputes. It is politics, not 'sectarianism', that must be explained.
We have argued that the roots of this disagreement can be found in the SWP's syndicalist approach to politics. If intervention in an industrial dispute is mainly seen as supporting the workers' demands, criticising the trade union leaders and calling for more militancy, then why would you need a programme? The SWP's past indifference to programme is simply a reflection of indifference to elections, political struggle and political objectives.
Syndicalist or economistic politics can explain the SWP's separate intervention. Equally it can be explained by the SWP having primary interest in finding new recruits. It could also reflect the SWP's determination to undermine RDG influence. We are left to guess whether it is one or another or a combination of all three.
This dispute raises the important question of autonomy. We defend the idea that Socialist Alliance affiliates have rights to autonomy. We recognise that the SWP is an independent organisation, free to make its own political decisions about what it is going to do. It is free to criticise other parts of the socialist and working class movement, including Bedfordshire SA.
Bedfordshire SA is also an independent organisation. It is not controlled by any faction or party, be it the SWP or the RDG. The vast majority of its members are neither. Bedfordshire SA members are free to do what they want. This includes criticising other parts of the socialist and working class movement, including the SWP, if those comrades feel the situation warrants it.
The policy of Bedfordshire SA fully accepted the autonomy of the SWP. It was for the maximum coordination and cooperation between the SWP and the SA. This meant seeking a voluntary agreement. At no point did the Beds SA tell the SWP what to do. All that was sought was the opportunity for a genuine dialogue, and an opportunity to secure the maximum cooperation and coordination.
At no time did Bedfordshire SA take sanctions against the SWP. The SWP were not banned or excluded from any activity or meeting of Bedfordshire SA. No SWP members were expelled. The SA simply exercised its democratic right as an autonomous organisation to pass a resolution.
The SWP also exercised its right to criticise Bedfordshire SA. That is to be welcomed. The party was critical of the fact that the SA had discussions and made decisions on policy. The SWP was critical of the policy statement, including the abolition the monarchy and a woman's right to choose.
Martin Smith, SWP central committee member, told Bedfordshire SA officers that they were free to do what they like. This was not a bold assertion of the democratic rights of an autonomous SA. It was a polite way of saying, 'We don't give a damn what you do,' He was telling the SA officers that it didn't matter if they fell off the end of the planet.
This was in stark contrast to the SA. Bedfordshire SA did care what the SWP did, because they never lost sight of the central issue. How should socialists maximise the level of class struggle against Labour and General Motors? The infamous 'free to do what it likes' exhibits an unacceptable level of cynicism and sectarianism. If the SWP was a serious working class party it would take disciplinary action against Smith. Instead he was soon handing out the punishments.
Let us now turn finally to the relations between the RDG and the SWP. We began by explaining our past history. The peculiarity of the period from December 13 was a sudden and unexpected 'meeting' of the politics of the SWP and the RDG. It is quite possible that such a 'meeting' would not have happened, but for the crisis at Vauxhalls.
Both sides brought their historical attitudes to the 'party'. The RDG brought politics and criticism. The SWP brought hostility to the RDG as a 'sect' whose politics was banned. It is not difficult to see in this latest clash history repeating itself.
However, even within the old relations are the seeds of something different. We are both working for a united front with the left. We are agreed that the SA movement should be open to communists and socialist Labour. We are both in favour of standing in elections against New Labour. We have both submitted programmes to the SA. We both agree on a minimum programme, which includes openly or secretly the demand for a democratic republic. The political ground has moved. We have never been more 'united'.
In Bedfordshire we need to unite for an effective election campaign. We need to repeat the words from the January resolution that were so unpalatable to the SWP: "It is therefore essential that all political activity is coordinated with the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance. Without such coordinated activity, opposition to [Vauxhall] closure [add 'and to Margaret Moran, MP for Luton South'] will be weakened and divided to the benefit of the employers and the government."
Appendix on correspondence
RDG to Rob Hoveman, December 21 2000
This is to follow up our phone conversation on Monday. I explained my concerns about the unity, coordination and cooperation between the SWP and the Bedfordshire SA. The RDG welcomes the intervention and involvement of the SWP central committee (comrades Vernal, Smith and Waterson) to assist building a working class fightback against the closure of Vauxhall.
We are however concerned that this intervention might undermine or weaken the fledgling Socialist Alliance. It is vital that the closures are fought both industrially and politically. The fact that there is a Socialist Alliance candidate supported by all local activists, including Luton SWP, is very important. There is no better opportunity to build for the election.
What we do not want is the development of some sort of rivalry, whether real or perceived, between the SA and the SWP. This could only be damaging for everybody and especially the working class. I know from the discussions we have had that you are equally concerned to avoid this. We already know the problems when the SP has ended up in conflict with local SAs. It is in everybody's interests that we avoid a parallel development in Luton.
The only possible answer to this situation is for discussions to take place between your leading comrades on the ground and the secretary of the SA, Danny Thompson. Danny is a supporter of the RDG and is committed as a working class militant to working and cooperating with all local activists and recognises the importance of the SWP for this project.
I asked the SWP through yourself or any of your CC comrades mentioned above to phone Danny and arrange a meeting. I am aware that this has not yet happened. I know that comrades are busy, but this matter is very important.
My feeling is that if the SWP fails or refuses to contact and hold necessary discussions with the local SA secretary, this would come to represent the crystallisation of the SWP policy in that area. This could be damaging to the SWP. It is because we wish to avoid this that I am appealing to you. I am prepared to help in any way I can to overcome any difficulties. Please feel free to contact me by e-mail or on the mobile.
With comradely regards
Rob Hoveman to RDG, January 4
Sorry not to have replied sooner due to a holiday break. I understand from comrades in Luton that a rally for the Socialist Alliance has been set for January 23 with a number of local trade unionists, including a speaker from Vauxhall, local campaigns, Joe Hearne and Mark Steel. Comrades in the SWP and other members of the SA are building hard for this meeting. I also understand from my comrades in Luton that regular discussions take place between them and other SA members including Joe as to how best to take the Bedfordshire SA and the Luton South election campaign forward in a thoroughly comradely and cooperative spirit.
I don't really see why there should be any issue here for delegates to the LSA steering committee to take up, whilst appreciating your offer of help. Nor do I see why there needs to be any discussion between the secretary of this particular Socialist Alliance and members of the SWP central committee.
As you know, we are committed to building Socialist Alliances across the country, whilst retaining our separate organisation and politics. In the vast majority of Socialist Alliances we have been building our approach to the Socialist Alliance has been welcomed without any sense of rivalry that might 'undermine' the SA. As things stand at the moment, I see no reason why this should not be the case in Luton.
With best wishes
RDG to Rob Hoveman, January 5
Dear comrade Hoveman
Thanks for your e-mail of the January 4. Unfortunately it doesn't quite answer my concerns.
My understanding of the situation in Luton is as follows. The officers of the local SWP have been supportive and played a positive role in getting the SA started. However, with the Vauxhall redundancies, a new and different political situation arose. As a result the SWP (quite rightly) sent senior officials to lead their intervention. I understand this has included Sean Vernel, Martin Smith and Julie Waterson. In addition the SWP brought in other members to reinforce that intervention.
Vauxhall is also special situation for the fledgling Bedfordshire SA. It could make it or break it. In normal circumstances nobody would request talks between the SWP senior officials and officers of the local alliance. But this is not a 'normal' situation for the working class, the local SWP and the local SA.
For example, if the SWP CC or its direct representatives are planning and organising activities, and directing its members this could clearly help or undermine the work of the Bedfordshire SA. The 'old' forms of cooperation between local SWP and the local SA will not be meaningful. If local SWP comrades say they will do X they may then be directed by senior SWP officials to do Y.
Therefore in this special situation it is surely obvious that there should be discussion and close (emphasise close) cooperation between those actually responsible for SWP work around that dispute and the local SA leadership.
So when you say, "I don't see why there needs to be any discussion between the secretary of this particular Socialist Alliance and members of the central committee", this gets to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to be facetious, the reason why discussion and cooperation is more vital than ever is that there is a major industrial dispute going on with major implications for the working class, the SA both locally and nationally and the SWP. Special situations require special care. This type of situation is not the case in most, if not all, other SA constituencies.