SWP instruction provokes crisis

Tony Abse examines the events that led up to the current situation in the Socialist Alliance

Despite the democratic decision of Lewisham Socialist Alliance to contest a forthcoming council by-election, the plans were sabotaged by the heavy-handed intervention of the Socialist Workers Party’s John Rees. SWP candidate Pat Carmody was pressed into withdrawing, which led to the resignation from the SWP of election agent Dave Watts, who has also stepped down as Lewisham SA secretary. Toby Abse, a member of Lewisham SA steering committee and a supporter of Resistance, describes the events which led up to the current situation

Lewisham Socialist Alliance has a long electoral history and we have always given careful consideration about which seats to contest. It was not as if we had decided, out of the blue, to stand a candidate in October 2003 for the first time.

Back in May 1998 we stood in three wards. Then in May 2000 at the time of the Greater London Authority elections, Ian Page of the Socialist Party was our candidate. We stood Bob Gardiner in Marlowe ward in a by-election in February 2001 and got 18%, coming second - one of the best results obtained by the SA in London. In May 2001 we stood in two constituencies in the general election. In May 2002 we stood in three wards.

However, in November 2002, we contested the Downham by-election, where the vote was not good. Prior to the election, national SA secretary Rob Hoveman came to our meeting and recommended that we should not contest, but the meeting decided in favour of going ahead in any case. The result was very poor and perhaps we were wrong. But Downham was atypical of where we have normally contested. It is in the south of the borough and is almost solidly white.

The latest by-election was in Lewisham Central - a ward where we have not previously contested. But it is next door to Ladywell and Hither Green, where we have stood and got reasonable votes. It is, as the name suggests, in the centre of the borough and is easy to get to for the purpose of campaigning. Like the other wards where we have stood, it is ethnically mixed and mostly working class. In addition we do actually have SA members living in the ward. All in all, it seemed a reasonable place to stand.

On September 17 we had an emergency meeting of the steering committee. Four of us were present - myself, Duncan Morrison of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, secretary Dave Watts (SWP) and Pat Carmody (also SWP). Jean Kysow (independent), the other member of the steering committee, was unable to attend. The SWP reps clearly did not know that their leadership might be opposed to an SA contest. About eight comrades had been helping with canvassing in Brent East the previous weekend and Rob Hoveman had been made aware of the probability of the SA standing in an impending by-election in Lewisham. At that stage he gave no indication of being against that.

In fact the SWP proposed comrade Morgan O’Brien, a longstanding SWP member who lives in the ward. On the face of it one might have thought he was the strongest candidate, but Duncan Morrison pointed out that Morgan had called the AWL racist and therefore objected to him as a candidate. The two SWPers accepted the need to find someone else - they did not want to cause divisions, even if they felt that Morgan was the best candidate.

Attempts were made to find someone else - possibly an independent. In view of the failure to find a non-aligned comrade willing to stand, the SWP suggested that comrade Carmody himself should be the candidate. Initially the AWL gave the impression that this was acceptable and made no objection.

On September 23 - a few days after the Brent East election - we had an emergency members’ meeting with 15 people present (11 SWP comrades, myself, Jean Kysow, Duncan Morrison and one new recruit, who was at his first meeting). There was a lively debate, with nine in favour of standing, four against and one abstention. There was an open division in the ranks of the SWP: the full-timer, Hannah Dee, led the majority in favour of standing, while those against included three SWP comrades (the other was Jean, our treasurer, who argued that we could not afford to contest). A fourth SWPer, Morgan O’Brien, abstained. None of the SWP comrades who opposed suggested they had the backing of their national leadership.

Nor did the SWP leadership, who must have been aware of the meeting, send anybody to put their position, as comrade Hoveman had done prior to the Downham election. If the local SWP comrades had been told not to stand and won the vote on that basis at the meeting, that would have been perfectly democratic, at least in a formal sense. Likewise, if the SWP leadership had sent John Rees, Rob Hoveman or anyone else to argue the case against standing, and had again won the vote, I would have also accepted that.

The minority at the meeting argued that the priority should be to engage with the anti-war movement, which was lively and vibrant and was attracting masses of people, particularly youth - rather in contrast to the Socialist Alliance, which got only a relatively small number of mostly middle-aged people to its meetings, they said. They also stressed the necessity of building for the European Social Forum, suggesting that large numbers would go to Paris from Lewisham (some of us expressed a little scepticism about this).

To put it kindly, it was a ‘movementist’ line. One SWP member commented that the Lewisham comrades who went to help with the Brent East campaign would have been better employed doing anti-war work locally. They did not argue that Brent had been a disastrous result and therefore we should not stand. Rather I assumed that this was representative of the old-fashioned, traditionalist view in the SWP that is more associated with comrades Harman and Bambery.

After the first vote in favour of standing we had a candidate selection process. Ian Crosson of the SWP was nominated by both Duncan Morrison and myself and he did not initially say he would not stand. But Ian withdrew during the course of the meeting - as far as I could work out, as a result of pressure from comrade Dee.

In the discussion Duncan asked Pat Carmody, the other candidate before the meeting, whether he had called two AWL comrades racist on a previous occasion. Pat confirmed that he had and, far from being apologetic or embarrassed, was totally unrepentant. At that point Duncan walked out. The AWL later stated that, although they were not withdrawing from Lewisham SA, they were not prepared to campaign for Pat.

Pat was adopted as candidate. In Duncan’s absence the vote was unanimous, apart from myself: I abstained as a gesture of protest at what I thought was a rather provocative attitude towards the AWL. I do not believe that you have to love a candidate or agree with everything he or she says to support them in an election - the general platform they are standing on is what matters - but surely it would have been better to adopt an SWP candidate who was acceptable to everybody? We went on to unanimously elect Dave Watts as our election agent.

On Thursday September 25, after we had begun to collect the signatures needed from voters in the ward for the nomination, John Rees decided that we should not stand. I understand that there were several telephone calls to various SWP comrades, putting pressure on them to withdraw. This operation does not appear to have been totally successful at first.

So Rees then took the issue to the SA executive task group, which had been dealing with electoral alliances. He seemed to believe that the task group could order Lewisham not to stand, but Will McMahon, to give him credit, pointed out that this was against the constitution, which allows the EC only to advise and make recommendations, leaving the ultimate decision to the local SA.

According to my source, Rees commented at the meeting of the task group that this constitutional provision was “anarchist”, while Nick Wrack remarked, slightly contemptuously, that it was “rather liberal”. The task group decided to recommend not standing, and this was conveyed to Dave Watts, Lewisham SA secretary, by comrade McMahon. Comrade Wrack later told me that a poor result at this juncture might make a bad impression on individuals within the trade union movement who might be considering moving towards us.

This intervention did not prove enough to have the Lewisham decision reversed without problems. Another round of phone calls was made by Rees and others to the local SWP branch. This resulted in Dave Watts, a leading SWP member of 15 years standing and a prominent local Unison activist, resigning from the SWP and stepping down as Lewisham SA secretary. Although comrade Watts has left the SWP, he says he still supports the general politics of the International Socialist Tendency and is not prepared to discuss the details of SWP business with non-members. The other result was that Pat Carmody (who of course remains an SWP member) stood down as candidate.

I only found out about all this late in the evening of Friday September 26, a few hours after the deadline for nominations had passed. Comrade Watts left a message informing me that no nomination had been submitted and that he was no longer the SA secretary. As far as I am aware, there had been no attempt - by Pat, for example - to consult the three non-SWPers on the steering committee about the withdrawal.

So we had gone to the trouble of holding an emergency steering committee meeting, followed by an emergency members’ meeting (which was better attended than most), and yet the decisions taken after full and genuine discussion were simply ignored. Ironically, at a members’ meeting prior to the Lewisham Central decision, on September 11, the AWL had moved a motion on internal democracy, minority rights and so forth. The SWP did not oppose it, although it was amended virtually out of existence. During the course of the debate the SWP argued that democracy means majority decisions must always prevail, regardless of the views of minorities. The comrades certainly did not deny the need for democracy in the SA.

This whole affair does seem to point to a contradiction. If we are going to stand in next year’s GLA elections - whether as the Socialist Alliance or as part of some wider group - it would seem sensible between now and June 2004 to contest any council by-election where there seems a chance of getting a reasonable vote, such as Lewisham Central. You cannot expect people to support you if by-elections occur in areas where you are known and have members, but choose not to stand. This does not give the impression of a serious organisation.

This kind of behaviour also has a negative impact on recruitment. For example, the new comrade who attended the emergency general meeting was quite enthusiastic about standing and would have felt he was taking part in a democratic decision-making process. Far from recruiting, this kind of thing means we are likely to lose members who do not belong to the SWP or the other organised groups. I would have thought it is also quite damaging to the local SWP branch itself, when a leading comrade, who has been a longstanding and loyal member, feels obliged to resign.