The sum of its parts

Tom Delargy of the SSP's Workers Unity platform looks at the performance of the various factions at last weekend's conference in Glasgow

Drawing up a balance sheet of the left's intervention at the Scottish Socialist Party's conference is not simple. Defining who is and who is not the left is no easy matter. There are, of course, several contenders for the crown. One that is definitely out of the race (although it is singularly unaware of this fact) is the Socialist Worker platform. Socialist Worker platform Only accidentally, fleetingly and on a very small number of issues could anyone mistake them for any kind of left group. When John Rees and Alex Callinicos beat their chests about the revolutionary credentials of the Socialist Workers Party in England, in contrast to the centrist SSP, they would do well to ponder how the rest of the party perceives their Scottish comrades. They are summarily dismissed as bureaucratic, sectarian, suffering from a very rightwing, populist approach and politically inconsistent to a truly surreal degree. Their behaviour at conference has not improved their standing one iota. On day one of conference, they infuriated the Committee for a Workers' International, the Republican Communist Network and others by voting for positions that everyone knows they reject. 'What a bunch of hypocrites' was a common refrain. They must have committed themselves to helping the International Socialist Movement leadership defeat every motion put forward by anyone to the ISM's left. That has left a bitterness that will not easily be forgotten. How to explain their bizarre behaviour? Probably they did not want to vote with the ISM's leftwing critics until after the elections to the executive, trade union committee, etc. Another factor explaining their unprincipled voting bloc on day one may have been a forlorn hope that this goodwill gesture would be reciprocated by a grateful ISM on day two - on the war, trade unions and Palestine. A third factor was no doubt sectarianism, anxiety about lending credibility, and thereby political momentum, to any one of several much smaller groups competing with them for the mantle of the party's left. Because of their unprincipled behaviour, the SW platform has a mountain to climb before they will be trusted by anyone outside their own circle. CWI With far greater justification, CWI comrades can present themselves as the party's left wing. Certainly, they have, thus far, performed an invaluable function as an anchor, pinning the party on the far left of Scottish/British politics. With their constantly having to look over their shoulder at Phil Stott and co, Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes know that the temptation of moving dramatically to the right will have big costs. Had the CWI left the SSP, I do not expect the party would have passed either of the excellent motions on the imminent war against Iraq. And the CWI not only exert a powerful leftwing pull on the ISM centre (and not only on the question of the war); they are not above coming to agreements with others on the SSP left - most notably the RCN. These two groups have a good working relationship with each other. But, in the RCN's world, it is they, and not the CWI, who is the party's only genuine (ie, communist and republican) left wing. RCN All the groups displayed a creditable coherence and unity of purpose at conference. All had literature to sell, leaflets to hand out, indicating votes to prioritise. All managed to force their way to the rostrum before the chair brought the debate to a close. No one could accuse the chair of keeping the RCN's Mary Ward, Allan Armstrong or Bob Goupillot away from the microphone. They all managed to sing in harmony, vote in unison. So credit where it is due: the RCN did establish for themselves a real profile. Past experience taught them they could do that without too much trouble. I have not the slightest doubt they hoped (and expected) the rest of the party's left (the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Unity) to be too divided amongst ourselves to be able to offer them any competition for yet another contender for the crown of the party's genuine left. That would explain the RCN secretary's flat refusal (on behalf of her organisation) to agree to coordinate conference interventions with the AWL/CPGB/WU. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the RCN used all the opportunities they had to speak from the floor. Had the less well disciplined, less self-confident, and less forceful AWL, CPGB or WU comrades managed to get to the microphone before the chair called an end to debates (which we almost never managed to do), we could not have made better speeches in defence of, say, the sale of platform literature, or of exposing the SWP's ludicrous position on uniting with anyone against the war (would the BNP fall into that category?). However, while they used all their opportunities to speak and though they, by and large, spoke with passion and skill, there is a big problem - politics. Nothing better illustrates their lack of direction than their truly eccentric, indeed infantile, position on the oath of allegiance to the crown. They called on Tommy Sheridan, and every other MSP we manage to get elected in May's Scottish parliamentary elections, to refuse to swear the oath. They would have the SSP conference call on our hard won parliamentary victors to lock themselves out in the political wilderness indefinitely, or at least until they crawled back tails between their legs. In her conference speech, Mary Ward tried to weasel out of this so-called principled stance by placing a time limit on their parliamentary boycott - a condition missing from the actual motion they wanted conference to vote for. But they had to acknowledge that, at the very least, Tommy et al would not be able to speak in, or vote in, the Scottish parliament for at least a month. And that during a stage in the class struggle when the people throughout the whole of the UK (ie, not in Scotland alone) could have focussed on a team of passionate, militant socialists, raising the scarlet standard high in opposition to Blair's imperialist war. And, in order to get our parliamentary fraction to come back to their senses, and get themselves back into parliament, the party would have to go to the unnecessary expense of convening a special conference! This is not serious politics, comrades. If Tommy, etc were physically dragged out of parliament for their opposition to the mass murder of innocent Iraqi men, women and children, including conscript soldiers who bear no responsibility for the crimes of Saddam Hussein, mass civil disobedience, including political strikes, across the whole of Britain should not be that hard to mobilise. However, if they crawl off because they are too proud to swear a meaningless oath of allegiance, even while lambasting the whole rotten system, by means of a row of defiant clenched fists, they would illicit no sympathy, and no solidarity. Theirs would be an empty gesture worthy of Screaming Lord Sutch. This stance of the RCN was merely the starkest illustration of what is wrong with their politics: an attachment to futile, politically counterproductive gestures. Although they consider themselves too important to stoop to doing deals with the AWL/CPGB/WU, they are not sectarians the way the SWP is. At this conference, as previously, they seconded motions/amendments from the CWI, and even leading ISM comrades, on those occasions when that group has been divided amongst itself. Should any other group get its act together, become recognised as a real player at conference, I doubt sectarianism would keep the RCN from forming short-term agreements, on a case by case basis. They did not even let the SWP's consistently appalling behaviour stop them speaking in favour of amendments drawn up by that platform on Palestine, or on the looming war against Iraq. It is to their credit that the RCN's actions are not guided by childish sectarianism. Unfortunately, neither are they guided by penetrating insights into the doubletalk that litters some platform literature. They certainly were not that sophisticated when it came to reading between the lines of the SW platform-inspired amendment on the war. With mind-boggling naivety, they fell hook, line and sinker for the sloganising about not confusing the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressor. Taken in the abstract, this is a perfectly correct slogan. However (as national secretary Allan Green so aptly pointed out), in the context of a motion on the war between the Bush and Blair governments, on the one hand, and that of Saddam Hussein, on the other, what has this distinction got to do with anything? More to the point, their amendment contained a reference to Osama bin Laden's mass murder of thousands of innocent US workers on September 11. It was clear that the SW comrades were trying to get the SSP to alibi islamic fundamentalist mass murderers and the butcher of Baghdad as living embodiments of this "violence of the oppressed". That ought to have been as clear to the RCN as it was to everyone else at conference. Alas, all this passed them by. As they have so often in the past, Mary Ward, Allan Armstrong, Bob Goupillot et al focussed most of their conference interventions on questions of the SSP's constitution. But, with the single exception of the - entirely ineffective - guidelines discouraging the public sale of platform literature, I have positively supported (or at least been neutral towards) most of the constitutional changes that so upset the RCN, more so even than most of Alan McCombes's fellow ISM comrades. Even if the RCN were right on these constitutional questions (and I am pretty confident they are not), their skewed emphasis on the inner workings of the constitution does not impress the SSP rank and file. They would do well to liberate themselves from this constitutional navel-gazing, and unite with the rest of the left fragments around a select set of common political interests. Guidelines As an aside, I should state for the record that even on the question of the guidelines prohibiting the public sale of platform literature, the SW platform's behaviour at conference has confirmed me in my long held suspicion that the behaviour of this group does require not the tearing up of the existing guidelines but, rather, a significant redrafting. The memo sent out by the national secretary of the SWP, Chris Bambery, calling on all members to boycott SA activities on the anti-war march on February 15 proves, if proof were needed, that the SW platform's co-thinkers in England and Wales do not have their heart in the unity project. I now agree with Alan McCombes that if the existing guidelines were merely torn up, the SW platform would behave in a manner that would create a crisis in the party. In all likelihood, they would resort to behaviour deemed unacceptable to every member of the party outwith their platform, probably leading to a possible split. That does not mean I now accept the existing guidelines. On the contrary, I would appeal to the SSP's left, including the RCN and the CWI, to call on the new executive to renegotiate the existing guidelines. It is in fact in Alan McCombes' own best interests to go for such a redraft. Alan must be aware that the SW platform is very unlikely to put up with one more year of abiding by the existing guidelines while every other platform treats them with contempt. Sooner or later (although probably not until after May's elections), the SW platform can be expected to join everyone else in ignoring these guidelines. Even today, the party is brought into disrepute by having in place a set of guidelines that everyone is free to ignore. Smaller groups I now come to the rest of the left, or aspiring left. This will be depressing reading for those involved, and to our respective political affiliates throughout the rest of the UK, and internationally. But it is not my intention to demoralise, nor in any way do I absolve myself from criticism. What I write here I write as a participant, at least as responsible as anyone else for our collective lack of impact. I write as someone interested in making a sober assessment of our deficiencies, only in order to best prepare us for future challenges. These fragments of the left (currently divided into three micro-groups inside the SSP: the CPGB, AWL and Workers Unity) presented a pretty sorry picture. Not one of us managed to mobilise more than two delegates. And even the CPGB, which was one of the two groups that succeed in getting two members delegated, ended up facing both ways when it came to some votes. Precisely how often they split their votes I can't say. But even once is more than enough. So, no agreement even among themselves, let alone a more substantial, coordinated intervention with any of the other groups. On the e-group of RCN Britain (an organisation that really deserves to be put out of its misery), Angela Paton of the AWL and I both appealed for such an intervention in the weeks (and months) leading up to conference. Such an intervention was possible. We could have hammered out a united position by means of one or more joint aggregates, necessarily supplemented by discussion via the internet. Alas, apart from one useful ad hoc meeting between Angela and me at the end of the February 15 anti-war march (and a couple of last-minute statements from one CPGB member, and Mary Ward on behalf of the RCN, on how they intended to vote on a handful of debates), nothing happened. Not only did the groups fail to agree even the minimal coordination; not one of these three groups (not even the democratic centralist CPGB) managed to coordinate its own miniscule number of Scottish activists. No help came from the CPGB's national secretary, the Provisional Central Committee or an all-member aggregate, to help these comrades coordinate their conference intervention. That means we are not dealing with a failure of the two individual Scottish comrades, but a political failure of the political organisation of which they are members. Furthermore, unless my status as a CPGB supporter has been unilaterally withdrawn, at least two members of the PCC knew how one of their supporters intended to vote at conference, on almost every single motion/amendment (I posted details on the RCN Britain e-group). And these PCC members knew that my intervention would be interpreted (rightly or otherwise) as a contribution to the debate in the name of the CPGB. Is it out of order for me to suggest that these PCC members had a responsibility to provide feedback on my propositions for a left intervention? I don't think so. Would it not have made some sense for the PCC to see to it that CPGB members (and preferably supporters as well) got together in order to coordinate amongst ourselves, even if it was decided that no help from outside Scotland was possible? Would it not have made some sense to bring those of the party's members/supporters with any ideas on how the party ought to intervene onto an internal CPGB e-group, in order to present these ideas to other comrades? That way, comrades with the time and inclination could have provided the feedback that PCC members were, apparently, too busy to provide. I fully accept my share of responsibility for the ineffectiveness of the left's intervention at conference. I hope the PCC won't duck its own responsibility. United intervention With one last throw of the dice, I asked Jack Conrad a few minutes before the lunch break on the second (and last) day of conference if he would agree to a joint meeting with the three groups during the lunch break. We managed to persuade representatives from all three groups, including all of us with conference votes, to meet to draw up plans for a united intervention on the first debate after lunch: on making Scottish independence a central campaigning priority of the party. For the first time ever, the three groups reached an agreement on how to intervene on anything important. There was a heated debate about whether we wanted to go down in a blaze of glory with no one, apart from ourselves (and the CWI), voting against the motion - a 'principled' position attractive to some comrades: ideas came thick and fast on how we could see to it that we alienated absolutely everyone, if that is what we wanted. Thankfully, most of us had other, better, ideas. We chose instead to pitch our arguments in a manner designed to attract into our lobby not merely the CWI, but possibly some ISMers, and, hopefully, the entire SW platform, and a good sprinkling of the independents. After much discussion, we decided that there was at least an outside chance that the SW platform just might have rediscovered its backbone. It might have persuaded itself to go looking for its spine after the ISM inflicted a humiliating defeat on the SW platform in the debate on the war. There were real prospects of the SW platform already having lost its appetite for voting for a nationalism it singularly detests. They might have already decided that sticking to an unprincipled nationalist bloc with the ISM (after learning that the ISM had no interest in unprincipled horse-trading with them) was hardly in their interests. And if they had not already worked this out for themselves, a coherent, coordinated conference intervention from the CPGB/AWL/WU just might manage to win them, with our without the ISM. Unfortunately, although we got ourselves back into the conference hall at the time the motion was due to be discussed, the conference arrangements committee had brought the debate forward. That meant that, whereas we had lined up at least six comrades for our united intervention, the chair let only one of us into the tail end of this debate. As it turned out, both the ISM and the SW platform voted for this extreme nationalist motion. We will never know if there is anything we could have done, any conference contributions we might have made, that would have changed that situation. But there is no point complaining about the conference arrangement committee's timetabling 'anomaly'. For the present, as things stand today, to describe our individual efforts as amateurish would be less of an honest confession, and more of an arrogant boast. We will need to raise our game one or two notches before deserving that accolade.