SWP's Respect flagship sinks

Respect humiliation following SWP arrogance in Manchester. Frank Gaskin reports

From its very inception the University of Manchester student union (Umsu) was the flagship of Student Respect, overwhelmingly dominated by the Socialist Workers Party. On March 6, however, that ship sank, as Respect lost every one of its officers. According to the Respect-SWP website, this loss was down to the “sectarianism” of a “CPGB-backed” candidate for campaigns officer, Vicky Thompson, a supporter of Hands Off the People of Iran, most of whose votes came from the “right wing”.

The elections at Umsu were marked by many shameful events. For example, comrade Thompson, when asked about her position on Palestine during the hustings, replied that she was known as a pro-Palestinian activist, but that being pro-Palestine does not entail being against the ordinary people of Israel. Dave Sewell (SWP) took this to mean that comrade Thompson was a Zionist, and later propagated lies to that effect on the internet. Dan Lee, the Young Green candidate for campaigns officer, was also dubbed a Zionist when the SWP discovered he was Jewish. Similar logic equates every muslim with terrorism, or every communist with Stalin. SWP members have so far refused to apologise, not only for this but also for calling Thompson “islamophobic” and her campaign “incredibly rightwing”.

This probably relates to an incident during the hustings for women’s officer. Amy Pettit (SWP) was asked by Vicky whether she would apologise to the women in the room for having publicly draped herself in the Iranian flag, when that regime routinely practises gender segregation and persecutes women. An apology was not forthcoming.

Petty squabbles broke out outside the union in the mornings as everyone tried to get the best spot for their publicity. Respect banners went missing; the SWP duly blamed comrade Thompson and her supporters. A swastika was drawn on the campaign material of a gay activist. Etc, etc.

Although Andrew Cunningham (SWP) claimed that Hopi has “no activist base on campus”, despite the success of Hopi meetings in Manchester, comrade Thompson came within 18 votes of the Respect candidate, Sundara Jerome, who had the backing and five full-timers working on the campaign, including Assed Baig, NUS black students officer.

The SWP had been over-confident to the point of arrogance, even claiming that its candidates would sweep the board, while comrade Thompson, it was predicted, would be humiliated. But, when the results were announced, it was Respect that was humiliated, unable even to hold onto the supposedly safe post of campaigns officer. As the night wore on and the reality of defeat began to sink in, SWP comrades began shouting abuse at CPGB member Chris Strafford. Academic affairs candidate Ketan Alder even went to hit comrade Strafford for the alleged crime of supporting Thompson against the Respect candidate. Committed to seeing a left candidate win academic affairs, Strafford declined to make an official complaint which could have seen Alder disqualified. So much for the sectarianism of the CPGB.

Some comrades believe that different leftwing factions should never stand against each other. Elections are a battlefield for ideas, an opportunity for competing factions to put forward their politics and work to persuade voters. At times the left may cohere into one bloc; at other times that is impossible and the different groups may fight it out.

For a long time the Umsu campaigns office had been an SWP stronghold, enabling it to dominate socialist politics on campus. Not any more. It has suffered a double blow - not only its own decline, due to its opportunism, popular frontism and arrogance, but also the growth of Hopi, which has consistently upheld a principled anti-war position. As a result of its own sectarianism the SWP has been left isolated by independent leftists, greens, LGBT activists and student radicals.

The Respect project is dead. The left needs a principled alternative - one that rejects opportunism, sectarianism and bureaucracy. At Umsu leftwing students - including the SWP - should embark on a series of open discussions on the way forward.