SWP numbers game

The SWP has placed numbers above working class interests, argues James Cullen

The war is officially over. Victory has been declared. Yet, instead of basking in the warm glow of patriotic pride coming from the populace, Tony Blair is facing the worst political crisis of his premiership.

The Stop the War Coalition has played no small part in contributing to this state of affairs. The mass demonstrations in London confirmed the strength of public opposition to war with Iraq. The latest demonstration, held on September 27 under the slogan, ‘End the occupation of Iraq, freedom for Palestine’, pulled in substantial numbers and much of the diversity of previous events.

Addressing the Trafalgar Square rally, Andrew Murray of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and chair of the STWC, declared that over 100,000 people had marched from Hyde Park. Comrade Murray’s estimate was arguably slightly over-optimistic, but not far wrong. Perhaps it was 70,000, perhaps 80,000. While the turnout cannot be compared to the figure of one to two million witnessed on February 15, it is nonetheless impressive for a protest about a conflict that is said to be over. Not surprisingly, though, whereas previous demonstrations had attracted many people who had never taken part in such an event before, this time we seemed to be back to mostly the ‘usual suspects’ - the left; muslims (mobilised by a number of groups, but mainly the Muslim Association of Britain); and pacifists, particularly the reinvigorated CND. There were, however, an encouraging number of trade unionists and Labour Party supporters.

The STWC leadership - ie, the Socialist Workers Party in cahoots with the CPB and others - has gone to great lengths to preserve the fragile unity of the movement even at the cost of subsuming its own principles. Cracks are, however, beginning to show. The recent Brent East by-election has contributed to this. The Liberal Democrat victory was a humiliation for Labour, but it was also a humiliation for the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance, which garnered a pitiful 361 votes. The Lib Dems have been the main parliamentary beneficiaries of the anti-war movement, having cast themselves - thanks to the generosity of the SWP in offering Charles Kennedy a place on the February 15 platform - as the anti-war party (just a few weeks before he threw himself and his party behind the war drive by declaring his support for ‘our boys’).

Despite this predictable treachery, the image of Kennedy in Hyde Park, along with the perception of the Liberal Democrats as the anti-war party, has lingered on. The MAB shared that perception to such an extent that it publicly supported Sarah Teather, the Lib Dem candidate in last month’s by-election, as “the best choice for muslims.” Dr Azzam Tamimi, spokesperson for the MAB at the demonstration, said: “Democracy is what happened in Brent East, when the people came out and taught Tony Blair a lesson.” He warned Blair that muslims would do their best to ensure that New Labour could not be re-elected.

But who will benefit? Socialist Alliance supporter and film director Ken Loach perceptively asked the question: “How come a by-election was won by a party that didn’t know if they were for the war or against it?” He was implicitly critical of the SWP in his remarks - we needed to promote the working class ideas of socialism, not the likes of Kennedy.

It is not as if the SWP is unaware of the danger. As Paul McGarr writes in Socialist Worker, “It would be a historic tragedy if … politicians with the spinelessness of Charles Kennedy were allowed to reap the political benefit from the greatest wave of radicalisation most of us have ever seen” (September 27). But that does not stop his STWC comrades from continuing to invite Lib Dem speakers onto their platforms, while consistently denying the SA access - it was exactly the same story last Saturday. It is hardly surprising that the Liberal Democrats exploit the political advantage handed to them by the STWC.

This time Kennedy decided to stay away and it was a relative nonentity, Donovan McCarthy, who made anodyne mumblings about neo-conservatism and the “special relationship” between Britain and the US. His speech was not well received by the crowd where I was standing. In contrast George Galloway and Tony Benn took to the podium to a rapturous welcome. Both made fine, inspiring speeches, mixed with humour and determination.

Predictably the role of the United Nations, and the wider issue of international law, was raised. In the most part speakers rejected, as Galloway put it, swapping troops who fly the stars and stripes for those “wearing blue helmets”. George Monbiot astutely remarked that the UN has no more legitimacy than the US, and for the UN to step in to Iraq would lend an false aura of legitimacy to the occupation. Some, however, clung to UN-style legality: Betty Hunter of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign bemoaned the fact that Bush and Blair were not respecting international law, and similarly the speaker from Plaid Cymru demanded a ‘reformed’ United Nations.

The SWP has put considerable time, effort and resources into the anti-war movement. But the anti-war movement cannot be regarded as an end in itself. Asking the rhetorical question, “What is the point?” (of continuing to protest), Lindsey German, convenor of the STWC, answered that the point was “to say that we are still here and that we have created the greatest political crisis of Blair’s career”. If the only substantive aim of the STWC is to oust Blair, then the winners will be those waiting in the wings to take over from him - either within his own party or in the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. Principled socialists and communists should set their sights higher, but of course comrade German did not even mention her own affiliation.

In contrast, Carolyn Leckie, one of the Scottish Socialist Party’s six MSPs, explicitly stated her commitment to socialism. Equally Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT went beyond the asinine slogan of “Blair must go”. He stated his desire to see the whole of the Labour government held to account. Quite correctly he stated that his union was not going to be “running away from the Labour Party”, but conversely he warned that his members want a party that will “fight for socialism”.

The SWP, however, is so mesmerised by the numbers game that it has placed an apolitical broadness above the needs of the class. For me this was exemplified when I heard its comrades chanting on the demonstration: ‘The workers, united, will never be defeated’ had opportunistically been changed to “Together, united, we’ll never be defeated”. When I questioned three young SWPers about this, their explanation was that they were on the march not as representatives of the SWP, but of the anti-war movement as a whole. What is the point, indeed?

To deliberately conceal your own politics is to lead the movement into a dead end. As Ken Loach quite correctly said, “If now is not the time to build a socialist party, when is?”