SWP 'no platform' fiasco

Last weekend's grandly named People's Assembly saw the Socialist Workers Party adopt a highly contradictory position on the crucial question of defence of democratic rights, including the right to free speech. Peter Manson reports

The assembly also saw the SWP's Weyman Bennett embarrassed by his failure to 'no platform' the British National Party when he took part in a discussion programme on national BBC radio with BNP leader Nick Griffin.

Around 600 gathered in the Camden Centre, Kings Cross, for the Stop the War Coalition event on Saturday November 18. They unanimously agreed a declaration on 'Islamophobia and the war on terror', which called on the "people of Britain" to oppose attacks on muslims, demand the government "break completely with the foreign policy of the US administration" and "reject legislation directed against free cultural and religious expression".

But this last call was totally at odds with the content of many of the platform contributions. Most speakers were adamant that Nick Griffin ought not to have been acquitted for exercising his right to "free cultural and religious expression".

It was Respect councillor Oliur Rahman who put it most crudely: "We want Nick Griffin to be locked up for the remarks he has made." And Yvonne Ridley thought that "freedom of expression" was a "flimsy excuse" for not doing so. Anas Altikriti of the Muslim Association of Britain noted that "Our rights are being eroded day by day" - but that did not stop him regretting Griffin's acquittal.

I do not know who playwright David Edgar was referring to when he remarked upon the "hypocrisy of those people who support freedom of speech when it suits them but don't when it doesn't", but he was applauded almost as loudly for saying that as were Rahman and Ridley for saying the opposite. Edgar noted that there have been "hard-fought, but insecure, recent victories" in defence of freedom of speech. So, rather than "beefing up the Racial and Religious Hatred Act", we should be repealing the blasphemy laws, he said.

However, the SWP is silent on the blasphemy laws and actually supports the RRHA, both of which most certainly fall into the category of "legislation directed against free cultural and religious expression". But, while the rank and file knew enough not to applaud Edgar too enthusiastically, they were generous in their support for Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani, who said: "Don't fall into the trap of further legislation against free speech."

But the biggest cheer from the assembled SWPers went to leftwing professor, Stephen Rose, for proudly announcing his refusal to take part in Radio Four's The moral maze discussion which featured Griffin. Rose urged us to write to complain to the BBC for giving Griffin a platform.

One person who did not enthusiastically applaud Rose was comrade Bennett, who, clearly unbeknown to the majority of those present, had taken part in The moral maze programme. Speaking on behalf of Unite Against Fascism, Bennett argued that racists should have no right to express their vile views and that the government should introduce further clampdowns to make sure they cannot do so.

It is a pity that nobody explicitly and unambiguously argued against this whole position. The comrades just do not seem able to grasp that state attacks on the BNP today could well be replaced by an assault on our rights tomorrow. It is suicidal for our movement to give its approval to moves by our main enemy to equip itself with ever more draconian legislation which will be wielded against the working class sooner or later. It is as though the SWP trusts Blair and co only to use such weapons against the right!

What about comrade Bennett? Was he right to appear on the same programme as Griffin? This is a question of tactics pure and simple, but it seems to me that it would have been foolish to spurn the opportunity of addressing many thousands of listeners (a pity comrade Bennett was not up to the task - all bumble and stumble). It is, however, interesting that the SWP central committee, of which he is a member, gave him the go-ahead to appear on the programme, despite its claimed adherence to the so-called 'principle' of 'no platform for fascists'.

While this 'conference' may have exposed the SWP's inconsistency, it failed to debate, let alone decide upon, anything approaching a concrete course of action in opposition to either the war or islamophobia. In the final speech of the day the SWP's Chris Nineham announced what the SWP had already decided should be the next moves: a "mass day of protest at parliament early in the new year for troops out and against islamophobia", a "coordinated campaign for civil liberties" in the colleges - oh, and don't forget the demonstration at Brize Norton airbase on December 2.

Comrade Nineham also called for the "biggest possible coalition in British society" against islamophobia and for "proper local campaigns" - ie, rallies up and down the country similar to last Saturday's. This continuation of the SWP's grand old Duke of York 'strategy' was perhaps best summed up by Oli Rahman, who excels in parroting the SWP's rallying cries: "Let's start building for the next demonstration."

The only proposals that went beyond the next agitational event came from the rump Workers Power in the form of two amendments to the declaration (one in the name of London Revolution). At the previous STWC jamboree - the 'international peace conference' of December 2005 - no amendments to the SWP-drafted declaration had been permitted, and they were not invited this time. So it came as something of a surprise that the two WP speakers were permitted three minutes each to move their proposals.

The first called for the organisation of "boycotts and blockades of military supplies", as well as "the right for British troops to organise separately from their officers and to refuse to obey illegal and immoral orders". On behalf of the steering committee, chair Andrew Murray rejected this for three reasons. Firstly the amendment was "disproportionate", in that it was calling for a specific anti-war tactic when the declaration was dealing mainly with islamophobia. Secondly, it was calling for the anti-war movement to commit itself to something it could not deliver. Thirdly calls for blockades and "mutiny" would "divide and weaken the movement".

This third reason for rejection (advice obediently followed by the overwhelming majority of 'delegates') was the most telling. It was true that the first part at least of the WP call was no more than empty posturing; but if the movement were strong enough to organise an effective blockade or help win soldiers' rights, would the SWP (albeit through Andrew Murray - its Stalinite mouthpiece) still condemn such demands for alienating all those pacifists, greens, muslims and liberals who spoke to the assembly?

By contrast, comrade Murray - a member of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain - had no difficulty offering the steering committee's endorsement of the second amendment's sufficiently vague call to "support mass self-defence [of muslims] wherever necessary".

But that was all we got in terms of 'debate'. As expected, the 'People's Assembly' was in reality a day-long rally. Around five hours were taken up by 23 platform speakers (excluding several extended 'links' from comrade Murray and co-chair Andrew Burgin), while 19 hand-picked speakers from the floor were squeezed into the remaining hour - mostly naive and often inarticulate students and young muslims, bolstered by the occasional SWPer setting them on the straight and narrow.

To give this massively extended rally the appearance of a conference, the 'business' of the day was divided into three sections - 'The war on terror and its consequences', 'Resisting war and islamophobia' and 'Organising to stop the backlash'. Observant readers will notice the overlap, particularly between the last two, and, of course, there was no discernible difference between the type of speeches delivered in any session.

Apart from the contradictory views on free speech, there were a couple of other disagreements. For example, the unanimously passed declaration labelled the current establishment attacks on muslims as "essentially racist". Kate Hudson, chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, like comrade Murray, a member of the CPB, read out some overtly racist imperialist propaganda from the middle of the last century and said this was "just like today".

However, Abdul Rehman Malik, editor of the muslim magazine Q News, said: "Don't go down the road of hysterics" (not in direct response to comrade Hudson, I might add) - for him "islamophobia is not racism", although it "sits alongside" it.

Lindsey German's contribution to the discussion on racism was to say that if ghettos are a problem "it's because the whites moved out, not the blacks moved in". This was the kind of inane statement that brought a knee-jerk show of approval from the SWP rank and file - who also, by the way, applauded a 9/11 conspiracy theorist for saying it was not muslims who were responsible for bringing down the twin towers.

Meanwhile, Salma Yaqoob said that the Campaign for Racial Equality was in its "death throes" and was "now more of a problem than a solution". An alternative was needed to defend multiculturalism, she declared - as if the official multiculturalist agenda of celebrating and promoting difference could be anything other than divisive.

Nevertheless, multiculturalism was just about universally upheld by everybody who referred to it. In relation to the veil, the agreed declaration did not content itself with the right of muslim women to choose their dress. It positively acclaimed their decision to cover up: "We affirm that such diversity in fact makes an important contribution to the overall development of our society."

As with previous such events organised by the STWC, there was one particular gaping hole amongst all the rhetoric - not a single mention of workers, the working class or socialism. True, Salma Yaqoob did suggest that, as well as the war and islamophobia, the STWC should focus on the "issue of class". Poverty was being "manipulated" to whip up prejudice, which was why she thought the joint statement from the Trade Union Congress and Muslim Council of Britain to work together for "workplace justice" and against islamophobia was so timely.

That was about as good as it got. But the total absence of what should, after all, be central to the 'revolutionary Marxists' of the SWP and CPB did not stop Andrew Murray from ending proceedings by proclaiming the People's Assembly to have been a "triumphant meeting that will be the start of the turning of the tide".