Piercing the Luton fog

Just before Christmas, I was chatting to Mark Fischer, CPGB national organiser, and the question came up as to why the Socialist Workers Party was seeking the expulsion of Revolutionary Democratic Group supporters Danny Thompson and Jane Clarke from the Socialist Alliance. We both agreed that it was a crazy position for the SWP to get into. Win or lose, their own credibility is at stake. With the resignations from the SA of the Socialist Party and Liz Davies from chair, many of the Labour left are looking to pin the donkey's tail on the SWP. So if the SWP go round saying, 'heehaw, heehaw' by expelling people, the game is up. On the other hand if they do not succeed, people would think they are not really in control of the SA. It is an own goal in the making. So why has the SWP put itself in this no-win situation? The clue can be found in the article by Ged Peck, a leading member of Luton SWP, in the autumn 2002 Pre-conference bulletin of the SWP entitled, 'The united front, sectarianism and London smog'. What is Ged beefing about? Apart from the obvious issue of 'programme', he indicates that the party question and sectarianism are key issues. Both the SWP and the RDG recognise that the SA is a united front, not a party. We are not utopians who think that becoming a party is merely a matter of changing your name. It takes time and preparation and winning support of the working class. But the RDG believes that the SA must adopt the aim of becoming a workers' party and start campaigning in the working class movement right now. Now is already too late. For example, the firefighters' dispute has shown clearly the weakness that workers face if there is no broad-based workers' party which supports them. The difficult situation for the Fire Brigades Union, being attacked politically by the Labour government, shows that the FBU needs such a party, and militant firefighters are open to the case for a new party. Simply calling for democratising the political fund is not enough and does not meet the needs of the class struggle. Ged disagrees. He identifies the difference between the SWP and the RDG as whether to build a "united front of a special kind" or a "united front party". The latter means the SA becomes the prime organisation through which we intervene in all issues facing the working class. The Scottish Socialist Party operates in this way. Sectarianism One of the main issues that Ged identifies is sectarianism. He explains that the central problem in Bedfordshire SA is the RDG, which according to him is a sectarian organisation. He makes this point several times. He claims, for example, that the RDG is "an organisation that prides itself as being the true representatives of Trotskyism". We do not claim to be 'Trotskyist', never mind the "true representatives". So the purpose of this ignorant nonsense is to create an image of the RDG as the 'Spartacists' of the SA. Ged says that the SWP has been very restrained in dealing with the RDG, because they wanted to maintain good relations with the wider (non-SWP) membership of the SA. But that was last year's 'line' before the Socialist Party left. Now we have to assume that the SWP does not give a toss about the opinions of the independents or the other political groups. Well, not entirely, because SWP spin doctors want you to believe that although they have had to 'suffer' the RDG, it is only now that they are being 'forced' 'reluctantly' to seek expulsions for the sake of the children. SWP 'restraint' is not something we recognise. The Luton SWP has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making compromises, but, as Ged says, "it is a salutary lessons that in some circumstances this does not and cannot work". We deduce from this that the SWP is going to try to take a harder line against the RDG. Cue Luton SWP's attempted witch-hunt and expulsion. The RDG rejects completely the charge of sectarianism. In fact we say the source of sectarianism is the SWP. How can any neutral and honest observer weigh up these claims and counter-claims? The RDG is a programme or set of policies, not a sect. If you want to destroy the RDG your do not need to make out we are terrible people: you just need to criticise or expose the weakness of our politics or programme - that is the healthy, Marxist thing to do. We are not anti-SWP. We have even written to the SWP seeking discussions about joining them. We are prepared to work with the SWP in any united front arrangement. An SWP member worked closely with us when the BSA was founded and became the BSA chair. It was the RDG that proposed constitutional arrangements which would have ensured representation for minority platforms or affiliates on the officers' group. The SWP voted against this. When in 2001 some BSA independents wanted to expel some SWP members for disruptive behaviour, the RDG opposed the attempt. Openness However, the RDG believes that the united front means complete freedom to criticise your allies. We have openly and publicly criticised the political mistakes of the SWP. This is essential for democratic working class politics, as well as the united front. Our criticisms are political and not sectarian. If we should accidentally transgress into sectarianism, there are hundreds of SWP members more than capable of exposing this. Openness and open politics is the best antidote to the secret, murky world of sectarianism. Ged articulates the traditional SWP view, which is the exact opposite position. Criticism of the SWP is "sectarian". Therefore in Ged's world the RDG is the most sectarian group, because it has a history of criticising the SWP. Whether the criticisms are valid or not does not come into it. It is criticism as such. This is a method that is fundamentally anti-Marxist and anti-working class. Ged Peck is of course hoist by his own petard. He cannot resist criticising the RDG, especially after the International Socialist Tendency's Zimbabwean MP, Munyaradzi Gwisai, said he actually agreed with our position on the 'united front party'. Ged had to reply, if only to explain how absolutely terrible the RDG is and how naive and ignorant the MP must have been for agreeing with us. Of course, since public criticism is 'sectarian', Ged had to criticise us in the members-only Pre-conference bulletin. This is a method consistent with putting out 'the word' about comrade X on the grapevine - a technique which SWP members have learnt in the variety of dubious expulsions carried out in Luton and elsewhere. The whole atmosphere in Bedfordshire reeks of this sectarian witch-hunting method of smearing individuals, instead of open politics. If Ged thinks what I am writing is smearing him, then at least he and the SWP will see it, and can answer for themselves. In April 2001 the SWP was in minority in the BSA. They were conducting a campaign to undermine the officers. They hit on the idea of making an official complaint about the BSA officers to the SA Liaison Committee. An inquiry team, made up of Dave Church, Marcus Ström and Greg Tucker, was sent to investigate. Ged drew up the SWP's list of complaints. It was entitled 'Confidential report to the Socialist Alliance national officers only'. The very first paragraph tells us all we want to know about sectarian fog: "This is the submission of the SWP members of the Beds SA to the three-person investigating body from the SA executive. We submit this on the basis that it will not be published either by the SA itself or by any of the 'supporting' organisations involved in the Socialist Alliance. We believe there has been far too much 'public' debate of a highly one-sided nature over the Beds SA, when we should be focusing our efforts on building the election campaign here." Beds SA replied to this document point by point. It began by saying: "There has been no public debate. The RDG published a criticism of the behaviour and political line of the SWP over the Vauxhall dispute ('In defence of the Beds SA'). The SWP have not publicly responded. But privately they have admitted (to the investigators) that (elements?) of their intervention were wrong. Therefore the refusal or failure of the SWP to debate the political issues raised and then to allege that open political criticism equals 'sectarianism', we believe, is a major part of the problem. "If one side refuses to debate, then by definition a debate must be 'highly one-sided'. The Beds SA welcomes an open debate. This would be much healthier than a refusal to discuss issues and policies, smears, witch-hunts and 'walkouts'. This SWP 'confidential report', which criticises the Beds SA and the RDG, could be the beginning of a two-sided debate. Neither the Beds SA nor the RDG are going to start crying in a corner that the SWP has 'attacked' us. "However, even now the SWP is trying to continue with its sectarian policy of avoiding open debate. We are supposed to take a vow of silence about what the SWP has written about the Beds SA and the RDG. It is unacceptable that the SWP does not even want the rank and file members of the Beds SA to see this, let alone other SA members. Following the latest SWP 'walkout' and its appeal for a fairly time-consuming (although welcome) executive investigation, we feel it is hypocritical for the SWP to call for us to concentrate on the election campaign. Perhaps these comrades should have concentrated on taking their own advice." Six demands The SWP made six demands to the national inquiry against the BSA officers, which included Danny and Jane. The SWP's first demand was "That the currently unrepresentative composition of the officers' group be changed, removing RDG members/supporters from a monopoly over the key officer positions and giving the SWP significant, albeit minority, representation on the new committee." The Beds SA replied that "members of the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance have shown full confidence in their elected members and it is only they that have a right of recall if this were not the case. No individual(s) should be attacked or harassed solely because of their membership to a political group. We are not opposed, in principle, to the SWP securing representation or an officer post on the Beds SA officers' committee. We did not oppose this in the past. It was only when the SWP expelled EK that they lost a central officer post. However, any new post-holder shall be elected by the Beds SA members (as is current practice) and Beds SA members may want some assurances from the SWP before any vote." The SWP's second demand was "That there should be an end to continually putting things 'to the vote' (as currently happens) in order to encourage a consensual approach. Voting should only be used as a last resort." The Beds SA replied: "No democratic organisation can discourage the use of voting as a means of indicating the views of the majority (or minorities). Perhaps if the SWP attended a few more steering committee meetings they would know that the current practice of the Beds SA is that some issues are decided by consensus and some by voting. Any member has a right to call a vote on any issue. There can and should be no restrictions on the members' right to vote. This SWP demand is either a mischievous attempt to deny the existing practice of the Beds SA or a disingenuous attempt to restrict members' democratic rights." The SWP's third demand was "That 'motions' and restriction on membership must end to allow the Beds SA to become a more open and welcoming organisation." This has a somewhat poetic irony about it. One of the first motions 'put to the vote' when the SWP had taken over the BSA was the SWP-sponsored motion to expel Danny and Jane or 'restrict' their membership. The BSA officers replied: "We reject this demand. Submitting and moving motions are a normal democratic practice that is open to all members. There can be no restrictions on members' rights in respect of motions. There are no 'restrictions' on Beds SA membership - as has been stated earlier - Beds SA is not only the largest (numerically) but is the most open, democratic and 'welcoming' socialist organisation in Bedfordshire. All members have equal rights. But such rights are not extended to non-members." The fourth demand was "That there must be no public attacks on any members and/or participating organisations." The BSA replied: "This is unacceptable. There can be no such restriction on freedom of speech, thought or criticism either in spoken or written word. The SWP is as free as any other member or organisation to openly or publicly criticise what they want. We do not accept that criticism should be carried on in secret. We welcome the 'publication' of the SWP 'attacks' on the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance, its officers, policies and structures and on an SA-'affiliated' political organisation - the RDG. We oppose the attempted SWP 'not for public consumption' gagging order attached to this document." The fifth demand was "That Eryk Karas should not continue to be the election agent because of his association with sectarian factionalism within the Beds SA and because he has used his position to constantly raise attacks on the SWP with SA members." The BSA replied: "This is not acceptable. EK has been democratically elected to the position of election agent ... This is slander to say that EK is associated with 'sectarian factionalism'. Indeed we would go further and suggest that the SWP is witch-hunting EK because of its own pursuit of 'sectarian factionalism'. This is why the SWP constantly seeks to remove EK (and others) from any officer position." The final SWP demand was "That the national executive should designate certain executive members to continue to monitor the situation to ensure the end of sectarianism within the Beds SA." The BSA replied: "The Beds SA does not need this. We are prepared to cooperate with any inquiries from the executive or any other Socialist Alliance body. But if the SWP continues its sectarian activities by seeking to remove organisations, individuals or the democratic rights (and decisions) of Beds SA members, then we might seek the support of the national executive in sorting it out." I suppose this is exactly where we have arrived at a year and a half later. It is interesting to note that Ged was not very optimistic that the SWP's demands would be supported by the inquiry team. The email which he sent to Rob Hoveman on April 17 2001 says: "Thanks for your assistance. Let's hope we get the bastards bang to rights. However, I bet you that they [the national inquiry team] won't accept the recommendations. They'll say, 'We can't override local democracy', etc, etc. It's like dealing with zombies. Will the national officers therefore 'bottle it'? - Ged." In fact the "zombies" did not support any of the SWP demands or help the SWP "get the bastards". Nevertheless sectarianism is still a problem in the BSA. Openness is the best antidote. If comrades want to judge the source of the sectarianism, just consider who is prepared to come out openly and make their case publicly in front of the SA membership and, through papers like the Weekly Worker, to the wider working class movement. This is a powerful light not only for piercing the London smog, but that terrible Luton fog. Dave Craig (RDG)