Mother of all splits looms
Lindsey German has declared 'war' on the SWP central committee majority, as John Rees prepares to fight back. Peter Manson reports on the burgeoning crisis
The Socialist Workers Party leadership has continued the process of disempowering its former number one, John Rees, by recommending that he be removed from the central committee at the SWP annual conference, due to take place in London over the weekend of January 9-11 2009.
Meeting on Wednesday November 26, the CC decided to exclude comrade Rees from its take-it-or-leave-it slate, with only his long-time allies, Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham, voting against ditching him. The latest Party Notes, sent out by SWP apparatchik Colin Wilson, reports the decision in this way:
“I want to inform comrades that the central committee voted by a majority of 10 votes to two (John and Lindsey did not attend the CC, but expressed their opposition to the decision by text messages) to propose the following slate for the incoming CC:
“Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber, Chris Bambery, Chris Harman, Chris Nineham, Colin Smith, Hannah Dee, Judith Orr, Lindsey German, Martin Smith, Michael Bradley, Viv Smith, Weyman Bennett.
“There will be a full debate at conference which will be followed by the election of the CC” (December 1).
And that is all that the SWP membership is told. Note that the real significance of the decision - the removal of comrade Rees - is not considered worthy of a specific mention. The members are only informed that “John and Lindsey” opposed the move.
The second thing to note about the announcement is that the CC is proposing to have itself re-elected in its entirety - minus one comrade, with the leading committee being reduced in size from 14 to 13. In this way, the entire blame for the whole Respect/Left List/Left Alternative debacle is being placed on the shoulders of one man - indeed his partner and closest collaborator, comrade German, appears to have been exonerated.
It is quite right that John Rees should bear the biggest responsibility for the debacle. But where has been the accounting for this episode, which saw SWP membership plummet and the organisation lose all credibility amongst current and potential allies? What about the role of the other CC members, who publicly supported the hopeless trajectory, right down until the humiliation of the Left Alternative results in the May London assembly election?
And what about Respect’s nature as a popular front with small and not so small businessmen? Sure, when the Rees leadership - realising that its whole strategy of getting SWP comrades elected with the aid of those businessmen’s patriarchal networks had backfired - decided to break with George Galloway, it suddenly ‘discovered’ Respect’s cross-class character. But which CC member has had the courage to state that the project had been an opportunistic betrayal of working class principle virtually from the start? Or to admit their own part in painting it otherwise?
In view of its full collaboration in the disaster, the CC majority can hardly damn comrade Rees for causing it. So what grounds is it giving for recommending his removal? While Party Notes is so far silent, SWP members can expect to see the charges when the third Pre-Conference Bulletin is sent out to branches by early next week (those members who bother to stump up their £1 for it, that is). I am informed that it will carry the full indictment against Rees, penned by comrades Smith (national secretary) and Callinicos (international secretary).
Those members who have attended one of the pre-conference aggregates held since the CC meeting (27 local aggregates have been arranged, taking place between November 19 and December 8) may well be better informed than most of their comrades. For example, those who went to the Hackney meeting, held in the Round Chapel meeting hall on Saturday November 29, witnessed a stand-up row of furious intensity between Martin Smith and Lindsey German.
It was comrade Smith who read out the charge sheet - it ran to several pages of A4 notes. Comrade Rees stands accused of failing to account for his actions to the CC, breach of discipline and that catch-all, factionalism. For good measure, his acceptance of a £5,000 donation from a Dubai businessman for the SWP’s (now defunct) front, Organising For Fighting Unions, was included - despite the fact that comrade Rees had effectively already been reprimanded (without being named) for this at the January 2008 SWP conference, through the passing of a Smith-inspired critical motion.
An example of his lack of accountability given by comrade Smith in Hackney was John Rees’s organising of the press conference held by four (then pro-SWP) Tower Hamlets councillors in October 2007. The four announced they had resigned the Respect whip and had formed the short-lived Respect (Independent) group, and it was this that precipitated the final split between the SWP and Galloway wings after three months of bickering. Three of the four rebel councillors, including an SWP member, defected to Labour soon after the London assembly elections, while the fourth (another SWP member) went over to the Tories (!) even earlier. But that is neither here nor there.
Now it turns out that comrade Rees had taken it upon himself to organise the Tower Hamlets breakaway without first securing the agreement of the CC (or so it is alleged). Not that much was made of this at the time. However, retrospectively, now that the split is seen to have led to the loss of the Respect name, offices and most of the non-SWP membership, and then seemingly inexorably to the Left List humiliation, the Tower Hamlets breakaway can be (dishonestly) pinpointed as initiating the whole chain of events.
Whether or not comrade Rees acted without authorisation, the decision to split had already been agreed, and it could be argued that Rees had used his initiative to make it happen just before the 2007 Respect annual conference, knowing that Galloway and the businessmen’s wing would walk out and leave Respect in SWP hands. It seems that Rees believed that a Respect conference held under complete SWP control that saw the election of a new nominations officer would give the SWP wing the right to use the Respect name. However, even if that had happened, I suspect that the SWP would still have faced electoral humiliation.
This example of comrade Rees’s alleged unaccountability is said to be typical of his behaviour for several years. Once again, that begs the question of why the CC did nothing about it.
What of his ‘breach of discipline’? Apparently this relates primarily to his behaviour at the September 6 meeting of the Left Alternative national council, when he announced, as instructed by the CC, that he was stepping down from the NC. The allegation is that he showed displeasure at the CC decision and allowed it to be known that he was acting under duress.
In fact reports of the meeting I have heard have him behaving in a perfectly disciplined way. It was comrade German who let her displeasure be known and a non-SWP comrade who alleged that Rees had been scapegoated by the CC. Rees may have made a cryptic comment about the “Shakespearean praise” he had received from SWP members present who hypocritically commended him for his valuable work on behalf of Respect/LA, but he can hardly be blamed for failing to fully disguise his feelings at having been dumped by the CC. His acting was not convincing enough, it seems.
In any case, it is a travesty of what the SWP likes to call ‘democratic centralism’ that members, of whatever rank, are expected to gag themselves in public and not show the slightest disagreement with the latest line. If a comrade is demoted because of poor judgement or refusal to accept party discipline, these questions should in general be discussed openly and not hidden away. The CC was never going to get away with pretending that comrade Rees just fancied a change of scenery. It was soon forced to explain the leader’s removal internally and, of course, that inevitably became common knowledge. Surely it would have been better to have had the discussion about comrade Rees’s worth as a leader out in the open from the start.
Then there is factionalism. I do not know the details of this charge, but I imagine it relates to his attempts to win support for his position within the SWP. In this organisation, factions are banned except for a period of a few weeks before annual conference - when members are temporarily permitted to discuss a common viewpoint other than the official line and agree a common method of promoting it (a joint statement in Pre-Conference Bulletin, for example, or support for a motion to conference).
Apart from that, presumably comrade Rees was not permitted to discuss SWP business over supper with Lindsey if such talk strayed into what they might say at the next CC meeting - not if their joint approach was, or turned out to be, a minority one, at any rate. Any two SWP comrades who work closely together, let alone partners, can be accused of factionalism if they are oppositionists.
I am not for a moment implying that comrade Rees was blameless. As I have pointed out, he bears prime responsibility for the SWP’s catastrophic failures over the last few years. His leadership was often arrogant and I am sure he did behave in an unaccountable way. On the other hand, he had drive and initiative - qualities that often allowed the leadership to ride out its difficulties.
The point is, when a particular strategy seemed to be yielding rewards - the initial period of Respect, for instance, with the election of Galloway to parliament and a new raft of local councillors - comrade Rees’s high-handed lack of accountability was ignored, or even encouraged.
But the CC decision is not the end of the matter. Following comrade Smith’s speech at the Hackney aggregate, Lindsey German openly denounced him for lying and declared “war” on the CC majority. Rees may recently have stayed away from meetings of the central committee and SWP national council, but he can be expected to counterattack - and using means a little more forceful than text messages of protest.
He might, for example, produce an alternative slate, as John Molyneux did three years ago (see Weekly Worker January 5 2006). Whether this will be a war slate or a peace slate is impossible to say. A war slate would see Rees demand to removal of Martin Smith, Alex Callinicos and others. A peace slate would mean the status quo ante. Rees would simply add a single name to the CC’s 13 - his own. Clearly, comrade German is itching for a “war” slate. So the SWP could well see an explosion of the likes it has never seen before and perhaps the mother of all splits.
Pre-Conference Bulletin No3 will, I am told, also carry a blistering attack on the leadership line over Respect from Neil Davidson, the eminent author on Scottish political history. From my knowledge of comrade Davidson he will damn Respect as a popular front and a disaster from beginning to end. Or words to that effect. That means a criticism of all the old CC. Not just Rees, but Martin Smith and Alex Callinicos too.
Under conditions where the SWP is split at the top, the membership will be forced to do what the whole of the SWP’s culture is designed to prevent. They will have to start speaking, seeing, listening and, above all, thinking. They no longer have a united leadership to tell them what to do and what to say. In that sense comrade Davidson’s Pre-Conference Bulletin article is a sign of the times to come in the SWP. And, while splits can result in demoralisation and disintegration, they can also result in correction and clarification.
Correction and clarification is what the Weekly Worker will keep fighting to achieve.