Socialist Alliance: Democracy, not bureaucratic control

Victimised firefighter and Socialist Alliance national executive member Steve Godward looks at the SWP's role and gives his view on the way ahead

In order to understand where we are at the moment, it is worthwhile looking briefly at the recent history of the left in Birmingham in relation to the Socialist Workers Party.

Shortly after September 11 2001 I was elected vice-chair of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition. But last year there was a bureaucratic coup, which ousted everybody, including myself, who was prepared to put forward politics different from that of the SWP. After the takeover there were no further democratic membership meetings.

Around that time comrade Arash, an Iranian comrade who is a member of Erdington SA, was raising concerns about the involvement in the STWC of muslim fundamentalists. Instead of having the debate, the comrade was attacked at a meeting. John Rees described the comrade - somebody who fought as a socialist in the Iranian revolution and saw his comrades slaughtered - as having “émigré politics”. Wasn’t Marx an émigré?

Then earlier this year I went to Palestine as part of a delegation from Birmingham Trades Council. We had agreed there would be a teach-in afterwards. As vice-president of the trades council I was asked to report back on my trip. Obviously I wanted to raise the consciousness of as many people as possible concerning the situation in Palestine.

Astonishingly, a leading SWP comrade told me that if I spoke on this platform I would be “politically finished” in this city. The SWP did not want the teach-in to go ahead because it was being organised by comrades in the Anti-War Network - set up by former members of the STWC who had been appalled at the SWP’s bureaucratic behaviour. If it cannot control it, the SWP tries to destroy it - and democracy is the loser.

Then I was down to speak on behalf of the Socialist Alliance on the day war broke out in Birmingham. But the SWP, along with Socialist Action and STWC chair Salma Yaqoob, decided to remove me from the speakers list.

As on other occasions, Birmingham SA was sidelined. For example, on the SWP’s ‘Peace and Justice’ initiative with Birmingham central mosque, there has never been an approach to any Birmingham SA committee member - not even the comrade who is an SWP member. All we wanted was to be informed. We only found out that comrade Rees had had a meeting with Salma Yaqoob and the mosque when he announced it at the SA annual conference.

We all want to work with the ‘muslim community’. I have comrades from the muslim tradition - whether practising or secular - just as I have worked alongside practising christians, in the Fire Brigades Union and elsewhere. But what concerns me is political islam - that is where the problem is. It is a disgrace that the SWP uses the term ‘islamophobe’ at the drop of a hat against people expressing such genuine concerns.

At Marxism I was the butt of such outrageous attacks, which I intend to refer to the SA appeals committee. There was also the appalling attack on CPGB comrades who were exercising their legitimate political right of criticism. At a time when the fascists are gaining in influence, the SWP organises physical assaults against fellow socialists.

The SWP has worked hard to build the anti-war movement. But it does not want to expose its comrades or those it hopes to recruit to the ideas of other socialists - the ideas of democracy, for example - and so it carves everybody else out. But it seems to have been seduced by the limelight. It believes that certain sections have the ability to mobilise the mass, including the mosque.

When it came to the first meeting of the new SA executive, I was punished for exercising my democratic right, enshrined in the constitution, to write for any publication - ie, the Weekly Worker - and removed as vice-chair. I have made my view clear that I do not believe an electoral bloc with the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the mosque is a good idea. Why not have a debate to see if I am right?

Unlike some, I am not a ‘professional revolutionary’. But I have been on the front line, fighting against capitalism in the workplace. As a result I have lost my job, been suspended by my union and now I am treated with contempt by comrades in the SA. To me it all feels like victimisation.

What makes me particularly angry is that in Birmingham a working SA committee has been destroyed. We survived the SWP coup in the STWC, but we have now been replaced by hacks with no experience of the job for which they have been elected. Press officer Rumy Husan, a former long-standing SWP member who had built up many contacts with journalists, with editors, was replaced by somebody who arrived in the city two weeks before.

I fear that the new committee will do what was done in Birmingham STWC - cut down on open meetings and membership democracy, simply mobilising SWP comrades when they need to win political battles. The SWP does not want to expose its members to political debate. I have been on good terms with many SWP comrades, but not one of them has picked up the phone to express a political difference with me over recent events.

The SWP does not appear to have anything approaching a democratic culture. Members are told to believe what has been spoon-fed to them. Does being a militant mean the same thing as being cannon fodder? Is this how the SWP expects to become leaders of the class? Not in my view. The working class needs a democratic leadership in order to build an alternative structure - not just an alternative to the Labour Party, but to capitalism.

We must start putting forward what we are for, not just what we are against. But how do groups that advocate revolution think they can achieve that without mass democracy? They appeal to the masses, but it seems they want to control them. Yet socialists must be for democracy just as much as we are against privilege. But those who raise their head above the ground by asking a simple question get shot down and are called ‘racist’.

All these issues could be discussed openly, if only we had a paper for the Socialist Alliance. Thank god we have papers like the Weekly Worker and the others, where we can have some debate. But we should be having them internally, within SA structures. Political ideas must be dynamic, needing constant development. Parroting the ‘line’ can never be sufficient.  In my view the SWP is tending towards political dictatorship - which can be left as well as right, from my reading of history.

I am on the side of those who will stay, build and fight within the Socialist Alliance. This is possibly more urgent for those like myself who have no other political home than the SA. If we do that and, despite everything, the SA proves to be dead duck - if it is found to be unnecessary by the SWP - at least there will be a group of comrades able to continue the fight.