Heads we win, tails you lose
Manny Neira reports on the March 13 special conference
Whatever the ethics of cryogenics, most would raise an eyebrow if you attempted to deep-freeze granny for rehabilitation in a happier future age if she was not actually dead yet. Irritating though it might be that she continued to thwart your keenly anticipated inheritance, some might argue that to lay premature claim to that inheritance might rather detract from her right to continue living in her own home, and further that such bequests were unlikely to be legally awarded to the grandchild who had just bludgeoned her into insensibility.
Last weekend, though, granny’s will was read. The reading was unusual in that the allegedly deceased turned up in person and insisted on quibbling about the disposal of her property. As the saying goes, though, where there is a will there is a way, and there were enough beneficiaries present to sit on the lid and stop the old dear getting out. Some of those standing on her fingers spoke touchingly of their fond memories of the matriarch, but others were more frank and expressed some relief at being finally free of the old bat. The lady’s own words were somewhat muffled.
The granny in question is the Socialist Alliance, the grandchildren the Socialist Workers Party and, as you may have guessed, the will reading described is a somewhat macabre metaphor for the definitely macabre SA ‘special conference’ held on Saturday, March 13 in Camden. With apologies to Shakespeare, the SWP had come to bury the SA, not to praise it. Their new electoral vehicle is Respect, and they are not about to allow the SA to queer Respect’s pitch. Their electoral opponents they would have to defeat at the ballots, but the SA could simply be put into cold-store.
Perhaps 200 mourners assembled to hear Nick Wrack lead the service of remembrance. He seemed aware that not everyone was comfortable with the pre-fatal interment, and called for due dignity and solemnity.
“This will be a conference at which there will be difficulties, and different, divergent views. Please listen to everyone who speaks with respect and in silence, and in a spirit of solidarity and socialism.”
Section one of our agenda was headed ‘General attitude towards Respect’, and described the core differences between the SWP majority who wished to submerge alliance activity into Respect, and the minority who wished to defend the SA’s independence. The Democracy Platform, which brings together the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Revolutionary Democratic Group and a number of SA independents, had threatened to walk out if these resolutions went against them, and had therefore requested a recess after section one to give them an opportunity to discuss the results of the votes at this point.
The limits on the debate - only one speaker for and against each motion, with speeches limited to four minutes - were draconian and clearly undemocratic. A number of objections were raised from the floor. John Pearson of Stockport SA questioned the speakers’ time limits and suggested they could be extended by dispensing with the preliminary ‘general discussion’ and moving straight to the motions: “Rob Hoveman [for the conference arrangements committee] is proposing a discussion with no indication of what it should be about.”
Comrade Hoveman had also ruled a motion from the Revolutionary Democratic Group out of order: “It is abusive and not relevant to the discussion of our relations with Respect”. This was a surprising claim. The resolution in question said in part: “The failure of Respect to support and uphold democratic and republican principles at its founding conference is a serious setback to the coalition. It indicates that the coalition is contemptuous of democratic culture and has no respect for the democratic rights of people. The responsibility for this shameful episode must be laid squarely at the door of the SA executive for failing to support its own programme and the SWP, whose speaker opposed republicanism.”
If this was not relevant to Respect, what was it: an ode to spring?
Steve Freeman of the RDG tilted at the SWP windmill. “This motion is about the democratic rights of all of us in this room - it is not about ‘others’, it is about Respect. Respect us and let us discuss it.”
Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty pointed out that the SWP-dominated task group motion, which demanded that SA branches seek the approval of Respect before standing candidates, was unconstitutional: “The SA constitution states only two circumstances in which a local SA’s decision to stand a candidate can be overruled. One, if their basic statement of principles is not ours, and two, if there is a dispute which cannot be settled locally.”
Margaret Manning objected to the use of speaker slips giving the chair control over who to call. “They make censorship possible. We are used to having debates without them: let’s get back to that tradition.”
Rob Hoveman’s reply was summary. “John Pearson’s proposal would keep us here till midnight. To Steve Freeman I’d point out that there are already two motions from the RDG - the third is just abuse. Our ruling is that all the motions are constitutional. As for speaker slips: we have a conference arrangements committee which I hope you all trust.” There was a brief pause during which an expected murmur of approval failed to materialise, and Rob was forced to end an embarrassing silence: “We stand by speaker slips.”
Nick Wrack tried to move Rob Hoveman’s report, but in the face of noisy protest agreed to put the objections to the vote separately. They were all “clearly defeated, comrades”. The report was then passed.
Nick Wrack then gave his chairman’s report, and his view of the SA’s failure: “Many of you were there in May, when we discussed how we wanted to reach out to the mass of disaffected people. Last February two million marched against the war: clearly representing millions more. For whatever reason - and I know there are differences about this - the SA was not able to draw those numbers in. We had successes, but in May we recognised that they were only modest, and we had to try and broaden the alliance.”
Here Nick was faithfully repeating the SWP’s chief argument, which we heard at the launch of the Respect coalition, and were to hear many more times that day:
- The SA failed to recruit or organise the anti-war movement.
- It failed because it was too narrow and too socialist.
- A broader movement reflecting the perceived mixture of beliefs of the STWC marchers was required.
- Respect was it.
The irony is that the first statement is true: the SA did fail. It failed, though, because the SWP treated it as merely an intermittently supported electoral alliance. While the SWP-dominated Stop the War Coalition gave platforms in Hyde Park to Greens and Liberal Democrats, it refused to allow a single speaker on behalf of the SA, and instructed their rank and file to concentrate exclusively on recruiting into their own organisation and shifting Socialist Worker.
The last SA conference was actually delayed until after the Hyde Park demonstrations in order to allow the SWP to concentrate on its own agenda: and, even when it took place, they opposed and defeated motions to move the alliance towards establishing a party with its own paper.
Having hobbled the SA’s intervention in the anti-war movement and the class, the SWP was now arguing that the resulting failure proved that the alliance was inherently unable to succeed. Worse still, its failure was a reflection not of its deliberately induced paralysis, but its socialist politics. The answer was to step back into the vague platitudes of Respect, and the SA had been called together to accept the blame for the SWP leadership’s betrayal, was being given a revolver, and was being asked to do ‘the decent thing’. Nick Wrack might well anticipate that, outside those obliged to follow the orthodoxy of the SWP leadership, there might be differences.
He listed the SA’s criteria for the political support of other organisations: they had to be democratic, inclusive, and “of course” socialist. Was he going to describe Respect in these terms? I could not help but marvel at comrade Wrack’s nerve: he was going to tackle the argument head on. Not since Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize could anyone have attached such inappropriate qualities to such an unpromising recipient.
“Inclusive? Look at the list of candidates. They represent a spectrum of working class life the SA never achieved.” In fact, Respect excluded most of the socialist forces the SA had brought together: the AWL, the RDG, Workers Power, the Socialist Party, and many SA ‘independents’. The CPGB, who joined, were denied a seat on the Respect executive.
“Democratic? Clearly! The declaration was voted on at the founding conference: and the declaration is fundamentally no different to the SA’s own material.” The ‘democracy’ of the Respect founding conference was adequately covered in my report Weekly Worker January 29), and so I comment only that this was the founding conference which rejected the SA principles of workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage, open borders and republicanism.
“Socialist? It’s in the title - ‘s’ is for socialism, ‘t’ for trade unionism”. Curiously, this did not chime with Paul Holborrow’s intervention at the Respect launch: “Respect is not a socialist coalition”. Respect is as socialist as the SWP leadership thinks it needs to be to keep the SWP rank and file on board: personally, I think they have seriously underestimated their own comrades, and the strains are already telling.
The allotted 30 minutes were then given over to the ‘general discussion’.
One of the early speakers, Margaret Manning, challenged the SWP orthodoxy on Respect’s ‘broadness’. “In the early days, the SA was broad: it has been made more centralist and less democratic. Let the flowers bloom! Respect claims to have the majority of STWC activists, but they were SA members already. Respect may get support from the RMT, but if we had worked for it, we could have won their support for the SA. We have a commitment where we stood in local elections: we can’t just jump from one thing to another if we’re serious.”
This point was echoed by John Nicholson of Manchester SA: “We need to decide on a vehicle and stick to it for a couple of years! There is nothing wrong with supporting Respect in London, but we must recognise that there are those of us in the SA who wish to organise elsewhere.”
Stan Keable of the CPGB emphasised the need to build a revolutionary party of the working class: the correct scientific name for which was a communist party. He referred not to the CPGB itself, but to the party the CPGB wishes to build. “We should view Respect in terms of the struggle to build that party. The next election is just a step. The SA was a great step forward, bringing together the left. But it failed to offer itself as the political alternative to those who opposed the war. Respect is a product of the failure of the SA to lead that struggle.”
Pete McLaren of the Democracy Platform protested the undemocratic procedures: “We have a lot of thinking to do, and only half an hour for general discussion. This meeting has been packed. This is the most undemocratic way to run I conference I have seen since I was thrown out of the Labour Party.” He did not necessarily oppose Respect: “I have organised a Respect branch, but allow the SA to organise in local elections.”
Tony Abse spoke of the reasons for the SA’s failure: “I’ve been in the SA since 1998 and hoped that this was a way to build a Scottish Socialist Party in England. We could have done so if we’d worked for a real fighting organisation and not an on-off electoral alliance. The Socialist Party in Lewisham, for all their weaknesses, have two councillors and show what can be done, if you fight on all the issues. February 15 was a failure for the alliance, as the SA wasn’t there as the SA. Fight for the SA and the right to stand SA candidates.”
The ‘general discussion’ complete, conference moved on to debating the motions and amendments concerning the SA’s attitude towards Respect.
The first motion to be discussed was that of the task group. While nominally committed to ‘maintaining the SA’, it called on SA members to join and support Respect, and prevented SA branches standing electoral candidates without Respect’s approval.
Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group moved it: “Respect is the best opportunity for the left. If we miss it, it will be some time before the next arises. I have yet to hear a good argument why we should stand nationally as Respect, and locally as the Socialist Alliance.”
Sue Blackwell accused him of a lack of honesty: “There’s a difference between supporting Respect and submerging ourselves into it. I’d prefer it if this motion simply proposed we rolled the Socialist Alliance into Respect: it would be more honest. Alan asks why we should stand SA candidates. We should because we have candidates who’ve worked hard building links with their local communities, and it should be up to them to decide if they wish to maintain these.”
John Nicholson moved the first of three amendments to the task group motion. It softened the obligation on SA branches to seek Respect’s approval before standing candidates to a mere recommendation that they should do so: “This is not the SA versus Respect. I am happy to see Respect in the GLA - but see no reason why those outside London should not stand if they have the resources to do so.”
John Rees of the SWP opposed the first amendment: “I spend a lot of time travelling and talking to people. They cannot see why we should have Respect candidates in GLA and Euro elections, and SA in local elections. Why not stand as Respect? Why not take advantage of the national campaign?”
Lee Rock moved a second amendment, sponsored by the CPGB. This called for an avoidance of clashes between SA and Respect candidates, but left the final decision in the hands of local SA branches. “In Waltham Forest, we have 60 in the SA, and 20 in Respect. We don’t know if Respect is going to be a success, and throwing out the insistence that workers’ representatives take a worker’s wage, and commitments to republicanism and open borders, is not a socialist programme. We should allow local autonomy. We should not look for short cuts: ‘Oh, the SA has failed, so now we try Respect.’ If the SA failed, we should ask why. I’ll leave it to Chris Bambery, speaking next, to explain why he sent an email out before the London anti-war demonstration calling on his comrades to ignore the SA and concentrate on building the SWP.”
Chris Bambery wordlessly declined this delicious invitation, but still succeeded in making perhaps the most startling contribution of the day. He began with an attempted dig at the CPGB: “I’ve heard them talking of ‘engaging’ with Respect, whatever that means.” I am delighted to explain, Chris. It means joining Respect and fighting for socialist politics. It means exposing to the mass of its membership, the rank and file of the SWP, the gap between the opportunism of the leadership of Respect and the political passion which led them to join and support a socialist party. It means principled political opposition to the opportunism that rejects republicanism and open borders which we believe most Respect members support. It means democratic criticism and debate: or did you really think that just setting up a new organisation would relieve you of the responsibility of facing that?
But the best was yet to come. The inevitable success of Respect has been, until now, an act of faith for the leadership of the SWP, but the first chill of reality seems to have reached comrade Bambery. What if Respect failed? What if the SWP sold its political soul and, as is usual in such bargains, got nothing in return? What would its own membership say about such appalling leadership then?
In a message which I suspect we shall be hearing again, Chris rehearsed his excuse: “These amendments are for those who have already said they won’t support Respect. If we fail to win we will say - who stood other candidates? Who didn’t pitch in? Anyone who is giving us conditional support: if we lose, you are the people to blame.”
This was astonishing. If the SWP leadership led their comrades down a blind alley, it would be our fault. Heads they win, tails we lose.
Finally, Lesley Mahmood moved a third amendment to the task group motion, sponsored by the Democracy Platform. This still precluded standing in GLA and Euro elections (and clashing with Respect) but reaffirmed a commitment to the SA manifesto People before profit and again gave local branches the final say on whether to stand candidates in local elections. It removed any references to support for Respect, calling merely for continued “review”.
Speaking of the demand that the SA seek approval from Respect before standing candidates, comrade Mahmood said: “It is causing anger in some areas, including amongst some SWP members, who have left as a result.” This is perfectly true: SWP activist Andy Newman has already resigned, and more are dissatisfied and ready to follow. She challenged the idea that only Respect had succeeded in securing trade union support: “The chair of the Merseyside FBU stood as an SA candidate, and we have had money from the trade unions, though I cannot say who, as they might get into trouble.”
Finally, Martin Thomas moved a second, alternative motion to that of the task group, sponsored by the AWL and Stockport SA. This called for the continuation of an entirely independent SA, opposing Respect as being neither socialist nor working class.
“We should oppose Respect: it is not inclusive, not democratic, and not socialist. The word ‘socialism’ appears in its name, but there is no commitment to common ownership or workers’ control.” He argued that Respect’s only real gain was the support of expelled Labour MP George Galloway, who “is not part of the left. He wouldn’t even join the Campaign Group of leftwing MPs. He is considered to be on the left because of Iraq: but he was the mouthpiece of Iraq’s dictatorship. He had Christmas dinner with Saddam Hussein’s deputy.”
This threatened to descend into merely another long attack on George Galloway, and my heart sank, but to his credit comrade Thomas pulled out of this dive and addressed the central issue. “We must not give up on the chance to build a workers’ party - like the SSP. How did they do it? Not by giving up after one election.”
Votes were then taken on the three amendments. The CPGB supported all three, and the AWL the second and third (viewing the first as too pro-Respect). The first was lost 142 to 46, and the second also lost, attracting 48 votes to an uncounted “clear majority”. The third probably attracted the support of all the ‘opposition’ voters present, and won 63 votes against another “clear majority”. These figures suggest that perhaps a third of the conference opposed the abandoning of the SA, but that left the SWP - with the support of just a handful of ISGers and a few others - with a clear majority.
The task group motion was then put to the vote: it too passed with the same one-third minority opposing it. Notable amongst those abstaining, though, were ISG national organiser Paul Wilcox and his comrades, Louise van der Hoeven and Pete Burnett. It seems that despite Alan Thornett’s long and almost Pavlovian support for the SWP, some in the organisation are having their doubts about its latest adventure.
Conference then broke for lunch, and a stream of delegates left the building to attend a meeting of the Democracy Platform down the road. The somewhat depleted afternoon session began with a discussion on ‘What the SA does within Respect’.
SA in Respect
Three motions had been proposed. The first was from the RDG, but as the RDG had joined the walkout Lee Rock of the CPGB moved it: “It would be wrong to pretend that we are the workers’ party, but it must be the aim of the Socialist Alliance to build one, to truly represent working people.”
The SWP’s Unjum Mirza, a London officer in the RMT rail union, was surprisingly direct: “I’m against the idea of the workers’ party, quite frankly. You cannot impose it on the RMT: they are supporting Respect. Lots of people are geared up to support us. To narrow ourselves down to demanding a workers’ party is ridiculous. We have to remember the other people who support us” (he mentioned “muslim groups”).
Hardened as I am becoming to the opportunist twists and turns of the SWP leadership, this blunt statement was still something of a shock. The mere aim of building a workers’ party was being opposed in case it alienated muslim organisations that supported Respect. This was not merely a betrayal of the fundamental socialist demand for the political representation of working people: it was an insult to muslim workers, assuming as it did that they were all religious fundamentalists incapable of joining a class-conscious organisation.
The motion was lost.
Sue Blackwell then moved a resolution which demanded all SA members standing for election stated on their election materials that they were members of the SA and stood on the principles of People before profit, even if not standing as SA candidates. The motion was lost.
Finally, Marcus Ström of the CPGB moved a motion calling on SA members standing for election to accept a worker’s wage, and to support open borders and republicanism: “At the formation of Respect, motions were moved defending the principles of republicanism, open borders, and workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage. They were lost: fair enough. I’ll accept that democratic decision and campaign for Respect. But some leading members of Respect have a chance to mark themselves out not only from Labour, but also the Greens. If elected as an MEP, will John Rees donate the majority of his official income back to the movement?”
Comrade Rees called out, “Yes, a worker’s wage will be an increase for me!” This was an intriguing observation. George Galloway, in an irritable letter to the last Weekly Worker, predicted that accepting a worker’s wage would prevent him travelling the country and doing his political work; and yet John Rees seems to manage quite a lot of such work (indeed, much of it in the company of George Galloway) on a fraction of his income, and further believes he will still be able to represent his electors on a worker’s wage if successful in his Respect candidacy. They cannot both be right, surely? Perhaps they could get together and go over the numbers, and let us know which has got it wrong?
All this notwithstanding, the motion was lost (after the SWP’s Sean Docherty accused the CPGB of wanting to ‘impose’ these principles on Respect as a whole - despite the wording of the motion and comrade Ström’s direct challenge to comrade Rees).
Voting by numbers
A series of resolutions then fell because their movers had not returned to the conference after the Democracy Platform’s walkout. The last remaining order of business was then to decide on the system for electing the SA executive. Four motions had been proposed, but the first, a call for the single transferable vote system, fell for want of a mover from the AWL.
Alan Thornett, supported by the national council, proposed the retention of the slate system. He did not seem daunted by the memory of the undemocratic farce of the election at the SA conference in 2003: “We didn’t do it very well in May, hence the discussion. But in my opinion, there is no acceptable alternative. Any other system would be vulnerable to whichever group was largest overall.”
This comment drew a few disbelieving laughs: was he seriously suggesting that the SWP had been in danger of losing its favoured slate in 2003?
Sue Blackwell bravely attempted to explain, in her allotted three minutes, a somewhat labyrinthine system which involved casting votes for individual candidates submitted on a series of lists, each list proposed by a single organisation. Restrictions would demand that each series of votes was gender-balanced and contained a minimum spread of votes across different organisations. More laughter as an unkind heckler suggested we use such a system to vote on her motion: the truth is, no-one encountering it for the first time could possibly have understood it. I worried both about its complexity and the nature of the voting restrictions: but I hesitate to criticise further, given my imperfect understanding.
Finally, Marcus Ström moved a motion calling for individually nominated candidates, and the simple inclusion of those attracting the highest personal votes. He argued that such a system would introduce that vital ingredient, “a bit of democracy”.
He also took the opportunity to announce his resignation as the SA nominating officer. He felt that the resolution passed during the morning session left him in an impossible position. SA candidates would require his signature to formalise their candidacy. On the one hand, as an officer of the SA he would feel bound by the resolution, which would prevent him signing without the approval of Respect. On the other hand, he supported the right of SA branches to stand candidates without such approval. He was therefore unable to remain in the office.
Two rounds of voting eliminated first comrade Blackwell’s list system, and then the CPGB system of individual nominations. The next SA executive - if there is one - will be chosen, as was the last, by the slate system.
It was now three o’clock, and given a whole series of motions which fell for want of movers - all absent because of the Democracy Platform’s protest - the conference finished 90 minutes early. Nick Wrack wished us a “safe journey home”, and on this curiously muted note we trailed out of the building.
We met comrades leaving the Democracy Platform meeting at around the same time and retired to the nearby pub, and drank a toast in memory of granny. We had seen the first signs that the SWP is hesitant about Respect’s prospects: but amongst the ‘opposition’ in the saloon bar, there was little clarity about the next step either.
The ultimate aim, of course, must remain the building of a revolutionary workers’ party: or in correct terminology, a Communist Party. Respect, built on a deliberate retreat from the socialist principle and partyist logic of the SA, is not and cannot be it. Neither can the SA, as it currently stands - now formally tied to Respect and with its last vestiges of political independence abolished - be meaningfully developed. Granny might not be dead, but her burial has not helped her health any. Our job is to fight - within Respect and without - to bring together socialists: not on the basis of some impossible sectarian dream of absolute ideological unity, nor into an opportunist scramble for votes at any cost, but into a non-sectarian campaign for a workers’ party.