SWP dumps John Rees
The leader with the greatest responsibility for the Respect disaster has been ousted. Peter Manson reports on the palace coup in the SWP
John Rees has been deposed as leader of the Socialist Workers Party. The assassination team was fronted by national secretary Martin Smith.
Meeting on August 27, the 14-strong central committee voted by 10 to four to remove comrade Rees as CC member responsible for election work, and instructed him, against his wishes, to resign from the Left Alternative national council. Rees has quite rightly been blamed for the Respect/Left List/Left Alternative fiasco, which culminated in the SWP-led slate being wiped out in May’s elections to the London assembly. This humiliation then saw the defection to Labour and the Liberal Democrats of Left List councillors and assembly candidates.
Then, on September 14, the larger national committee overwhelmingly endorsed the CC decision. According to the internal Party Notes, the 50-member, part-elected, part-appointed NC decided by 42 votes to none, with three abstentions, to approve the motion put forward by the new CC majority, which ratified “the decision of the central committee to remove John Rees from responsibility for electoral work” (September 15).
Martin Smith had been increasingly worried, as the Respect project began to crumble last year. It was Smith who had been behind the warning shot fired across Rees’s bows at the January 2008 SWP conference, when a motion criticising him for accepting a large donation from a Dubai businessman on behalf of Organising for Fighting Unions was overwhelmingly carried.
Comrade Smith was supported by Alex Callinicos, secretary of the SWP’s ‘international’, the International Socialist Tendency, who, it seems, was moved to take a firmer position against Rees, following the intensity of IST opposition to the SWP line on broad parties. The Greek, French and German sections in particular were opposed to SWP attempts to locate the collapse of Respect as part of some general European trend.
Smith was also supported in the move against comrade Rees by another senior leader, Chris Harman, and backed up strongly by Charlie Kimber, who now looks set to move up the SWP pecking order. Also voting against Rees were Colin Smith, Hannah Dee, Judith Orr, Michael Bradley, Viv Smith and Weyman Bennett.
For his part, comrade Rees was backed only by his partner and main collaborator, Lindsey German, along with long-time allies Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham - although it has to be said it is by no means certain that the latter two will not jump ship in the near future, now it is clear that the balance of forces is totally against Rees.
The August 27 CC meeting was extremely heated, with comrade German at one point threatening to resign not just from the leadership, but from the SWP itself. Although she herself was not affected by the ‘cabinet reshuffle’ that accompanied Rees’s demotion, she announced that she too would resign from the Left Alternative NC in solidarity with him.
When it came to the September 6 meeting of the LA NC, attended by around 20, mostly SWP, comrades, Rees dutifully announced his resignation - without, of course, stating that he was under instructions to do so. As a result, it was not at all clear why he was stepping down, although it would have been perfectly consistent, had there been no anti-Rees coup, for a key SWP figure to have moved on to pastures new rather than waste his time on the dead-end LA.
Following comrade Rees’s announcement, several speakers heaped praise upon him for his “valuable role” within LA, and its predecessors, Respect and Left List. For a taste of the hypocrisy on display, you need look no further than the Left Alternative members’ bulletin, which reported the resignation of Rees and comrade German in these terms:
“John and Lindsey have been tireless members of the officers group and national council since the inception of Respect. As national secretary, John has provided consistent judgment and direction in the most difficult political circumstances, while Lindsey has been our inspirational mayoral candidate in the GLA elections in both 2004 and 2008. The national council, at its meeting on September 6, agreed a unanimous vote of thanks to John and Lindsey for everything they have done for our organisation. We are proud to have them as members of the Left Alternative and look forward to continuing to work with them in campaigns from Stop the War to the People before Profit Charter” (September 10).
Apparently this statement was not intended to be ironic. No wonder comrade Rees, having listened to such fulsome declarations at the NC, commented that some of the praise he had just heard was perhaps “Shakespearean”.
However, not all LA members present were prepared to go along with the charade. Tansy Hoskins, a close fellow-traveller of the SWP and former London assembly election candidate, loudly complained that comrade Rees had been scapegoated for the failings of the SWP as a whole, following the disastrous results in May.
For her part, comrade German was unable to disguise her anger and frustration. She had given everything she could during the London assembly campaign, she said, as had John, yet some people had unfairly targeted him.
In the dark
It goes without saying that the SWP rank and file has been kept completely in the dark as to the nature of the furious row that has engulfed the whole leadership. This has not only been about allocating the blame for the Respect debacle, but over the future direction of the SWP and its immediate strategy.
Some SWPers are speculating that comrade Rees wanted the organisation to give more priority to LA than did the CC majority. If this is true, then the differences on this particular question must be very slight indeed. After all, nobody in their right mind thinks that LA is an organisation with any kind of serious role to play - electorally or otherwise.
Indeed, back in July, comrade Rees himself said at the SWP’s Marxism school that, while there would be electoral opportunities in the future, for now the conditions are such that “we have to take a step back”. It was important to understand that we will have to “engage in battles that are not electoral”. In response to a question from the floor, he advised: “Don’t rush into an electoral test” at this time - “Results are not good at the moment.”
Of course, it could be that comrade Rees had already been overruled by the Smith-Callinicos-Harman bloc on the CC before Marxism. Either way, the SWP membership is not being told.
For example, Rees’s sacking was originally reported in Party Notes as though the comrade just fancied a change of scenery: “Just to let comrades know, we have made some changes to the areas of work overseen by members of the CC ….
“As part of the process of adjustment the Left Alternative is currently undergoing, John R will cease to be responsible for the party’s electoral work. He will continue working inside the STWC and the Cairo Conference and will be working alongside Charlie K and Michael B on the Charter. Lindsey G has also decided to resign from the Left Alternative NC.
“Charlie K will head up our work in Public Services Not Private Profit and Martin S will be responsible for any potential electoral projects in the north west. They, along with Chris B, will for the time being share a watching brief for the Left Alternative” (September 8).
However, this passage carried a clue that all was not sweetness and light on the CC: “Lindsey G has also decided to resign from the Left Alternative NC.” Why should she do that? Shouldn’t the CC as a whole decide who does what job?
The rank and file were clearly adding two and two together - those, at any rate, who had heard about the LA NC meeting and rumours of a hotly disputed vote on the EC. So the next day an “addition to Party Notes” was sent out by SWP apparatchik Colin Wilson:
“There has been some confusion about the Left Alternative since its national council meeting on Saturday,” his note began. “To help clarify matters we are circulating the attached document, which was approved by the central committee prior to the Left Alternative meeting” (circular, September 9).
Headed ‘The Left Alternative’, the document was signed by Martin Smith and marked as having been “approved by central committee, August 27 2008”. But, if it really was intended to clear up the “confusion”, it failed dismally. The document did not mention comrades Rees and German at all, but said of the leading SWP personnel working in Left Alternative: “Chris B to remain on the steering committee until the October conference. Charlie K and Martin S to go onto the LA steering committee at the conference. In the run-up to October conference [the LA conference is actually to be held on November 8] the CC should discuss who should oversee the LA work after the conference. In the meantime, Chris, Charlie and Martin can both oversee the work and be the CC point of contact.”
So comrades Smith and Kimber are to be the SWP leaders in Left Alternative after November, while Chris Bambery has been allowed to remain until then. But why had Rees and German gone? The document ‘clarified’ nothing. It was, however, pretty blunt about the prospects for LA: “It does not have wide support outside the party …. It should be reduced to a minimal, but still existing, role …. LA cannot operate on anything like the level it has done previously.”
You could say that the bit about LA not having “wide support outside the party” is an understatement - not that it has much support inside “the party” either. As Party Notes puts it, “it is not a central part of our work” (September 15). Never mind. LA is to be kept just about ticking over in case circumstances dictate that it should be brought back to life. In the meantime, “The LA staff will be reduced to one full-time post” and “We should look into the possibility of finding smaller/cheaper premises.”
The tasks of the one full-timer (it is actually two comrades sharing the work) will be to put out “occasional propaganda” and keep up the pretence that LA actually exists in the real world by “regularly” updating the website. “The office must also play a role in clearing the debts that the Left List/Left Alternative has accumulated.”
Party Notes reports that the debate “about our electoral work” at the September 14 meeting of the SWP NC “centred on a motion submitted by 10 members of the CC (Alex C, Charlie K, Chris H, Colin S, Hannah D, Judith O, Martin S, Michael B, Viv S and Weyman B)” (September 15).
Comrade Callinicos proposed the motion, which was opposed by comrade German. I do not know whether comrade Rees decided to stay away, but Party Notes does not mention him as having taken part in the debate. There were no votes against, so we can assume that comrade German was one of the three who abstained (alongside comrades Bambery and Nineham?).
As well as calling on the NC to endorse the removal of Rees and his replacement by comrades Smith and Kimber, the successful motion also contained an additional bullet point: “If the political fall-out from the split in Respect had been more fully and openly debated in the party, then the argument over this particular issue may have been avoided. The lessons from this need to be learnt in how we operate in the future.”
Party Notes explains that this was an amendment “submitted from the floor, which was accepted by the mover of the motion”. On the one hand, it expresses the very real and widespread frustration among the rank and file over the secrecy and patronising lack of transparency that is part and parcel of SWP culture. On the other hand, however, the desire for the “argument” to be “avoided” is completely misplaced.
Think about it. Rees has been ditched because of his disastrous misleadership. The Left List London assembly debacle was too much even for the CC to stomach. In this context it is not just a ‘debate’ about the SWP’s future direction that needs to had. A whole “argument” about the politics that led the organisation into Respect is essential.
Although, according to one insider, Rees is widely “despised and hated” within the SWP for his arrogance and control-freakery, you get the feeling that most cadre are not unhappy with public statements about his “consistent judgment and direction in the most difficult political circumstances”. Grumbling in pubs about Rees over the last eight years, and then meekly following the lead of comrades Smith, Callinicos and Harman, is one thing. But organising a rebellion against the betrayals of working class principle instigated by John Rees, and holding him (and the other leaders who went along with it) to account, is quite another.
Hundreds of SWPers opposed the Respect turn from the start, refusing to abide by the three-line whip to join the ‘unity coalition’. Most of them voted with their feet and drifted into inactivity - a form of passive rebellion. However, another minority were taken with Respect. They went ‘native’, seeing it as a principled and worthwhile formation in itself, a way out of the sectarian ghetto and into the big time - not just another ‘united front’, designed to win sympathisers and recruits for ‘the revolutionary party’.
That was certainly the message that came from the mouth of the SWP’s then top leader. As Respect’s national secretary, John Rees claimed that he spoke for the millions excluded from politics, that principles counted for nothing. He clearly envisaged a distinct Respect stage on the long road to socialism. A cross-class Respect government - including SWP ministers presumably - would enact an old Labour programme of social democratic reforms. A progressive form of capitalism. Though he was never so foolish, or honest, to actually theorise it, his line was implicit.
At Respect’s January 24 2004 launch conference, it was John Rees who summed up the SWP’s behaviour in opposing principled amendments, proposed by the CPGB and others, to the launch declaration: “We … voted against the things we believed in, because, while the people here are important, they are not as important as the millions out there. We are reaching to the people locked out of politics. We voted for what they want.”
This was the opportunist rationalisation for ditching key working class principles - since we intend to stand in elections, we have to put forward policies that our prospective electors would approve of, don’t we? That is what the establishment parties do, after all (although, of course, in their case they also help set the agenda which determines those policies in the first place).
The SWP leaders - most notably Rees himself - really did believe they could ride into the council chambers on the coat-tails of the network of (mainly Muslim) businessmen and ‘community leaders’ in places like Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. Their votes were supposed to ensure the election of SWP comrades to local councils and thus increase the organisation’s profile and influence. And they could even dream of an MP or two. That was the way for the SWP to emerge from the small time and start to ‘make a difference’.
This scheme almost brought some success, with Rees himself winning just short of a thousand votes and failing by a few percentage points to get elected to Tower Hamlets council in 2006. And with the election of 18 councillors, plus the previous victory of Galloway in the 2005 general election, the SWP hoped that events would go their way in subsequent elections.
However, as the class contradictions came to the fore within the Respect popular front, things went from bad to worse. The SWP was unable to make headway in east London or Birmingham, as - surprise, surprise - the businessmen’s networks preferred to select their own candidates. Relations with Galloway deteriorated and some time in July 2007 the SWP decided to provoke a split. It had written off most of the 12 Tower Hamlets councillors and persuaded four to break away in October. Two of them had joined the SWP previously.
By November there were two Respects. Rees claimed that the SWP should have exclusive use of the name. But it was never to be. The Galloway wing was always going to win this one. Hence the SWP’s forced retreat to the Left List. Then one of the four breakaway Tower Hamlets councillors, Ahmed Hussain, an SWP member, defected straight to the Tories (!) in February. The remaining three, including another SWP member, went over to Labour in June. The latest loss is one Nuruzzaman ‘Mukul’ Hira, a Left List assembly candidate in May, who has joined the Liberal Democrats.
That leaves the SWP with just Michael Lavalette in Preston and Ray Holmes in Bolsover as its only two Left Alternative councillors. Comrade Lavalette is an SWP member who was originally elected as Socialist Alliance, while comrade Holmes (whose official party description is still listed as ‘Respect - People Not Profit’) is likely to leave the sinking ship any time.
However, it is not just the SWP’s new contacts, made through Respect, that have now mostly gone. The organisation has lost a whole swathe of its own members as a result of the Respect disaster. Worse, the SWP has succeeded in alienating ally after ally - to the extent that no serious left figure or group will now contemplate joining forces with it in any new electoral alliance.
Let us be clear. What I have described is not a series of unfortunate accidents, but an entirely predictable outcome of John Rees’s popular frontism.
He has deservedly been deposed (and may soon be removed from the CC too). But will the SWP learn the lessons? In order to do so the membership needs to have the “argument”. If their organisation does not provide them with the means to do so, they need look no further than the Weekly Worker.
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