Not a great day for SWP

Steve Freeman of the SA Democracy Platform and Republican Socialist Tendency pledges to work for a new Socialist Alliance

On February 5 the Socialist Workers Party-led Socialist Alliance (or SA mark two) was closed down with 73 in favour of closure, 63 against and two abstentions. It was a relatively close run thing. Most of the speeches criticised the SWP's role, whilst the SWP sat on their hands and said nothing. I was told that John Rees, SWP central committee, was berating some of them in the bar afterwards. We don't know what for, but they were not happy bunnies. The Socialist Alliance has existed for 12 years as a project for left unity. Over the last five years it has been taken over and led by the SWP. But that leadership has failed. The SA virtually collapsed except for the SA Democracy Platform. Whatever the votes, the only certainty of the day was that the SA (mark two) would not continue. The SWP would close it down. If they lost the vote it is inconceivable that they would have stayed on board with a new executive made up of what they call "the sectarians". Under these circumstances a split with the SWP was inevitable. The real issue facing the conference was therefore the circumstances under which the split occurred. Would it be with an SWP victory or as a result of an SWP defeat? What was at stake here? It was not, as some might suppose, a silly squabble. It was about the future direction of the left. If the SWP emerged triumphantly routing their opponents this would solidify and strengthen their self-righteous sectarianism. That would be damaging not only for the SWP, but for the left and the working class movement. But if the split came after an SWP defeat this would have progressive benefits for the working class. The shock waves would open up the SWP to question its direction and its relations with the rest of the left. It is precisely the opening of dialogue and debate that the left so urgently needs. In this sense the SA conference was an important marker for the future development of the left in England. As an overall assessment the SWP won the day. But it was a pyrrhic victory. The SWP left with their tails between their legs. Perhaps this is why comrade Rees was berating them in the bar. This was all down to the strength and determination of the opposition. The SADP was the opposition. It brought together the Alliance of Workers' Liberty, the CPGB, the Revolutionary Democratic Group, the Red Party, the International Socialist League, some supporters of the new United Socialist Party, and many SA independents. Over the last few months some of these formed themselves into the Republican Socialist Tendency, which proposes the reform of the SA by turning it into a campaign for a republican socialist party. But, whatever our differences, we were united against the closure resolution. The opposition was strong. We challenged the SWP, represented on the platform by comrades Wrack and Hoveman, from the word go. The first challenge was against the recommendations of the 'conference arrangement committee' - otherwise known as Rob Hoveman. Tony Greenstein and Chris Jones quoted the SA constitution and made clear the closure motion was unconstitutional. The SA constitution states: "The Socialist Alliance may be dissolved by a resolution of a special meeting, called for this purpose by the national executive or the national council or by request of 25% of the membership" (paragraph C15). This was the annual general meeting. It was not called by the executive or the national council or 25% of members for the purpose of closing the SA. This challenge was lost. But the next one questioned the very limited number of speakers allowed to debate motions. Would the conference be unconstitutional and undemocratic or just the former? The SWP and its allies suffered their first defeat when conference voted to extend the number of speakers. But even with this there would only be 28 minutes of planned debate in total. At the end of the conference they were defeated again when conference voted to pay back over £3,000 of the debt owed to Walsall Democratic Labour Party. Sectarianism involves a lack or absence of class politics and the substitution of hostility and hatred. The SWP came forward with no politics, no ideas and no speakers. All the politics came from the opposition. Even the mover of the closure motion, Andy Newman, directed his criticism at the SWP. The SADP speakers explained why the SA (mark two) had failed and put forward alternatives. The SWP claim that we were the sectarians rebounded on them. The finger of conference pointed in their direction. The resolution calling for closure was proposed by Socialist Unity Network member Andy Newman, and also signed by Nick Bird (SWP) and Pete Green. It was the first motion called and the SWP swung in behind it. The SUN comrades placed themselves in the unenviable position of being the SWP's pooper scooper - following them around with a little brush and pan, cleaning up their mess. It seems to me that Andy Newman was motivated by a healthy desire for a clean environment. But most comrades were angry with him. They felt the SWP should be made to clean up their own mess and receive a heavy fine for their irresponsible behaviour. He added to his woes by focussing his closure speech rightly on condemning the role played by the SWP. No wonder he was not popular with anybody. This could be a case study which warns of the danger of putting the interests of the environment above the needs of the class struggle. The central question posed by the class struggle is the urgent need for a republican socialist party. If Andy Newman had recognised the centrality of the party question he would have taken a different position. The move towards party required an SWP defeat, not helping them to win, or assisting them to escape scot-free. Despite his good intentions Andy made himself the leader of the SWP's escape committee. Subjective good intentions count for little compared to the real political forces in motion. The closeness of the vote raises the question of whether the SWP could have been defeated. I always thought that if you looked at it politically, rather than simply as a numbers game, the SWP could be. We certainly came within shouting distance. But there were certain conditions that had to apply for us to win. First we needed the AWL and CPGB to mobilise their members. Then we needed a united front with the SUN. We failed on both counts. The AWL played a positive role in keeping the SADP going. Pete Radcliff, supported by Martin Thomas and others, backed the SADP. But they became more semi-detached. They had written off the SA earlier than the rest of us. Now they are putting most of their effort behind the Socialist Green Unity Coalition with the Socialist Party. I saw only a few AWL comrades at the conference. The CPGB's position was worse. They left the SADP and put all their eggs in the Respect basket. The rationale given for this was the need to follow the SWP in order to challenge them. I urged them to rejoin the SADP. Fortunately a section of CPGB members formed a faction and demanded the CPGB rejoin the SADP. When John Bridge, a thoughtful and flexible politician, changed his mind and supported rejoining the SADP, the rebels carried the day. This may have changed CPGB minds, but not their hearts. The real politics of the CPGB was directing their efforts to Respect as the place to fight the SWP and sell Weekly Worker. The SA was already "dead" and there was little point doing anything about it. If they were part of the SA opposition, they were not the vanguard. The CPGB came to believe that the only place to fight the SWP was Respect. This was a blinkered and false theory. It was not a call to action. It thoroughly demobilised them. When it came to the final battle the CPGB's troops were told to stay in their barracks. Where was John Bridge, Lee Rock and other CPGB comrades? Why were they not brought to the battlefield? Let us consider the assumptions of the CPGB leaders about the best place, if not the only place, to challenge the SWP? Was it the Respect conference or the SA conference? If good leaders choose the ground for battle then the CPGB provided poor leadership. The Respect conference was the best place for the mass ranks of the SWP. The CPGB charged them uphill and got a thorough pasting and more or less booted out the door. The SA conference was the ground chosen by us. We had to fight them to make the conference happen. We dragged them onto flat marshland. Everybody was stuck in the mud. The SWP came reluctantly to the battlefield. Because of the mud none of their big guns were able to fire. Indeed none of their troops fired. We did all the shooting. When they began leaving the battlefield in disarray we took £3,000 for the Walsall Democratic Labour Party. The CPGB had a mistaken analysis and turned it into tactical dogma. The SA is dead and therefore we can only fight the SWP inside Respect - where they are strongest and we are weakest! The CPGB national organiser made no secret of the fact that they would bring only a token presence for the final battle. When the SA was on the rise the CPGB was in the front shouting the odds. Now that we are fighting a rearguard action we only see a few of the CPGB. But this is where the hard politics is tested. Ian Mahoney (Weekly Worker February 3) pours scorn on the call by Dave Craig (made in Weekly Worker January 27) that "the task of communists is to be in the vanguard of that defence" (of the SA). Ian's attitude was the SWP's secret weapon. The other condition for victory was a united front with the SUN. I believed that with the SUN we might be able to win and without them we would tend to lose. In August I made contact with the SUN on behalf of the SADP. I asked them to consider joining the SADP and sought to begin talks. However, this proved to be controversial. The AWL and John Pearson were hostile to this move, although I had the support of Pete McLaren. The difference in attitude to the SUN arose from Respect. The AWL were hostile to Respect. Pete McLaren was a member of Respect. Whilst I did not join Respect, I was in favour of intervention on the basis of politics, not anti-Gallowayism. The hard-line anti-Respect forces were not keen to bring in those who were sympathetic to the 'unity coalition'. It would have tipped the balance in the SADP towards Respect. In the end we failed to bring the SUN on board or form a united front with them. That was not entirely down to us. As a unity network they weren't busting a gut to link up with us. The conference showed the results. For some, the SUN were traitors. We were right to keep our distance and I was wrong to seek to develop some unity with them. I think the conference tells a different story. When we were united with the SUN on the issue of the number of speakers we won the day. When we were divided over the question of closure the SWP won the day. The SUN comrades sat on the fulcrum point of the conference. The differences with members of the SUN over closure were tactical. Their tactics were bad tactics and their voting pattern was incoherent. Had the SUN and the SADP been united in a single opposition front we may have been able agree a common position. I would like to finish with reference to points I made in my speech in support of the amendment to Andy Newman's closure resolution. Had it been passed, the SWP and International Socialist Group would have had to swallow a porcupine when voting to close the SA. The amendment referred to "the failure of the national executive to carry out the responsibilities for which it was elected and for its neglect of the organisation" and demanded that "the Socialist Alliance must be rebuilt as a campaigning alliance fighting for a republican socialist party". It noted "that the 2003 conference perspective and the executive elected at that conference has led to the virtual collapse of the SA and not the wider or more united democratic or inclusive organisation of the left". These points were submitted with four others as seven separate amendments. But before the conference began Rob Hoveman ruled it was one amendment. In consultation with comrades it was decided not to challenge this, but concentrate on speaking against the main motion. Whether the amendment was passed or not, I urged the conference to vote against the main motion to close the SA. I made the following points: "The question today is what we can learn from the virtual collapse of the SA. Lesson number one is that the SA was fundamentally about socialist unity. Without socialist unity we cannot succeed and cannot mount a real challenge to Blair and New Labour. Lesson number two is that electoralism, electoral fronts, electoral pacts and coalitions cannot succeed. They promise much, but deliver little. The working class needs a party. Without a party the working class cannot form itself into a political class and cannot challenge for political power. "Lesson number three relates to the war in Iraq. This has shown people in their millions that British parliamentary democracy is a sham. There is no real democracy. Power does not rest with the people. It is in the hands of Blair and a small coterie of spin-doctors and spy-masters. Lesson number four is that we need a party like the Scottish Socialist Party. Socialist? Obviously. But a party that makes a priority and commitment to fight for democracy and a democratic secular republic. Hence we need a republican socialist party. "Lesson number five is that if SWP comrades do not learn these lessons you are doomed to disappointment and doomed to repeat these mistakes. This will not be the last conference you will be asked to attend and recognise that a project you led came to a dead end. I don't care whether you vote for this amendment or not. The key thing is to vote against the main motion. "The Socialist Alliance has been the most successful socialist unity project over the last 10 years. Socialist unity is absolutely necessary if we are going to build an effective opposition to Blair. To defend the SA is to defend socialist unity. This is why we must oppose the closure of the SA. If the SA is closed down we must give a pledge or a commitment to start it up again. Close it today and we will open it tomorrow."