Gang of three scuttle
The SWP annual conference saw the total collapse of John Rees and his 'war' on the central committee. Peter Manson reports
The January 9-11 Socialist Workers Party conference - suspended for most of the Saturday to allow SWP comrades to participate in the big Gaza demonstration in London - resulted in complete victory for the central committee majority around Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith, while the minority of John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham beat a hasty retreat.
Two central committee slates were initially before conference, held at the South Camden Community School. The first, proposed by the 14-strong outgoing CC, consisted of ... the outgoing CC, minus John Rees: ie, 13 comrades. The alternative, proposed by the minority, sought to reinstate comrade Rees - in other words, the status quo ante.
However, before the Sunday morning debate on Respect, Lindsey German was given time to make an announcement. She declared that she and Chris Nineham had decided to withdraw their names from the CC slate. Simultaneously the alternative slate which included comrade Rees was also withdrawn.
Clearly the outgoing CC gang of three had recognised that Rees faced humiliation if he stood - a choice between two slates that were identical apart from the presence or absence of the former leader would simply be a referendum on his personal record. But he would have received at most a handful of votes.
This was demonstrated when the minority tested the water with a procedural motion on the Friday evening - moved by Guy Taylor, a Rees ally. This related to the way the conference should be conducted, taking into account the fact that most of Saturday would be lost - the minority believed it would be disadvantaged by the leadership’s proposed agenda changes. But only around 15 out the 500 delegates voted for comrade Taylor’s proposal.
It was now evident that comrade Rees would be so crushingly defeated that this would virtually destroy any possibility of a later comeback. So comrade German made her withdrawal speech and now there was no need for a vote. The following 11 comrades were elected unopposed: Chris Bambery, Weyman Bennett, Michael Bradley, Alex Callinicos, Hannah Dee, Chris Harman, Charlie Kimber, Judith Orr, Colin Smith, Martin Smith, Viv Smith.
However, this meant that there was now no debate directly connected to the bitter divisions that had wracked the CC for more than a year - although, of course, they most certainly featured in other debates, most notably over Respect, the economic crisis, the anti-war movement and building the SWP. Nevertheless, many delegates felt somewhat cheated by the removal of the opportunity to get to grips with the politics that lay behind the CC split.
Not that there is much politics behind it. For his part, Rees gives all the appearance of a man scrabbling around to find differences: eg, his complaint that the majority has a casual attitude to recruitment and does not take ‘united front work’ seriously enough - particularly the ever so inspiring People Before Profit Charter (it has to be said that the charter is widely regarded as a bit of a joke, even within the SWP).
Previously comrades Rees and German had alleged that even the Stop the War Coalition - the SWP’s flagship ‘united front’ - might be under threat without John Rees at the helm of the SWP. This was effectively answered by the majority, not only by the suspension of conference in order to attend the STWC-organised demonstration, but by inviting comrade German herself to introduce the session on imperialism and the anti-war movement.
Alex Callinicos too appeared to be manufacturing differences. According to Socialist Worker, comrade Callinicos “said many felt that John Rees - who was responsible for the SWP’s electoral work - had failed to come to terms with [the May 2008 London Left List] electoral failure and had been trying to continue with a national electoral project” (January 17). I cannot believe that anybody, including comrade Rees, really thinks that the Left List’s successor, Left Alternative, has any kind of future.
Socialist Worker reports the CC resignations in this way: “On the Sunday morning of conference another longstanding member, Lindsey German, stated to conference that she and Chris Nineham were resigning from the central committee and withdrawing an alternative list that included John Rees. She explained that the three comrades wanted a leadership body which could work together in a united way, and that they were continuing as members of the SWP and would work under the direction of the party’s leading bodies.
“On behalf on the central committee that was elected by the conference, Alex Callinicos expressed regret at this decision, arguing that the political differences did not justify the two comrades’ resignation.”
This report grossly underplays what Callinicos said - he rightly lambasted comrade German’s excuse for leaving the CC, which is, quite frankly, absurd. The actual political differences on the former CC were paper-thin - unfortunately the entire leadership had been united around the class-collaborationist popular frontism epitomised by Respect.
In reality, it is not only natural, but desirable, that different political viewpoints should be represented on the leadership of working class parties. In fact all significant party tendencies should in general have a voice on the main committees (not that comrade Callinicos has been converted to a democratic party structure, of course). Comrade German’s statement about wanting a CC that “could work together in a united way” makes no sense at all. What is the point of being united around the wrong policies which she says the majority is pursuing?
So what really lies behind the decision of comrades German and Nineham to resign from their full-time posts on the CC? After all, had they remained in situ, they would at least have retained a bridgehead from which to launch a counterattack (and it would most certainly be unlike Rees and German not to be contemplating a counterattack, despite their loyalty pledges).
Some comrades are speculating that the trio of ex-CC members have a different bridgehead in mind: the Stop the War Coalition. Comrade Nineham is a paid STWC employee and comrades Rees and particularly German have long been the main SWP leaders associated with the coalition, of course.
Furthermore, comrade Rees has succeeded in building a number of personal alliances with non-SWP figures in the STWC. And he has ensured that its offices are staffed with his own loyalists - notably Elaine Graham-Leigh and Tansy Hoskins (not an SWP member, but one of John’s keenest fans).
It goes without saying that the CC will want to change this situation, especially if the coalition’s current resurgence following the Israeli terror attacks on Gaza continues. Despite what Rees and German allege, the SWP leadership still sees the STWC as a key area of work and will want to ensure that its own comrades occupy the main posts within it. It could be that Rees, German and Nineham are considering a rebellion - refusing to be recalled by the SWP from coalition positions to which they have been elected/appointed. They could use those positions to ensure that an STWC annual conference - where they would be voted out by a mobilisation of the SWP rank and file - was delayed.
As I say, all this is speculation, but it is far from unfounded. Rees and German see themselves as brilliant leaders, who can claim personal credit for the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands at the height of the anti-war movement. Perhaps they imagine that ‘the movement’ will rally to their defence.
What is more, they have hopes of regaining support within the SWP. While comrade Rees is widely despised, German retains her popularity - she received an extended ovation following her resignation speech, in contrast to the polite applause for Rees’s conference intervention during the Respect debate. Comrades German and Nineham were urged to reconsider their resignations - and not just by comrade Callinicos.
However, the possibility of renewed infighting was far from the minds of most delegates, who took comrade German’s pledge to “work under the direction of the party’s leading bodies” at face value. For them, this was a real conference - the first ever for many of even the most experienced SWPers. This was the “SWP’s democracy conference”, according to one comrade.
At last they were witnessing the open expression of contentious views, as opposed to what had become the deadening culture that discouraged genuine debate, where a procession of comrades would come to the microphone to echo the leadership line. True, all the votes were either unanimous or overwhelmingly carried, but for the first time in decades there was criticism and even self-criticism on the part of the leadership.
Some of this has found its way into the pages of Socialist Worker, which notes the development of “a gap between the leadership and the wider party”. It reports the comment made by Maxine Bowler from Sheffield, that “‘too many of us bit our tongues’ at last year’s SWP conference over the mistakes that had been made in Respect”. The anonymous reporter notes that “Several delegates asked how we had lost many of our allies in Respect in such a short period of time.”
In short, while Socialist Worker gives only a taste of it, delegates witnessed a continuation of what Neil Davidson called a “significant democratic upsurge”, reflected in the Pre-Conference Bulletins published internally at the end of last year (see ‘All that was certain now melts’ Weekly Worker December 18 2008).
The central committee has had no alternative but to respond. Chris Harman claimed that “the SWP is already a democratic organisation - but recent difficulties had shown there is room for improvement” (Socialist Worker January 17). Yes, just a bit. Comrade Callinicos said that the central committee is “committed to changes” that “strengthen the culture of debate in the SWP”, and to revisit “questions of accountability”. He concluded that “members of the party should be trusted to take part in decisions on very complex issues”.
As expected, the CC’s proposal for the establishment of a democracy commission was agreed virtually unanimously - despite comrade Rees’s ludicrous claim that it would be a “semi-permanent” kind of “House of Lords” (www.socialistunity.com/?p=3169). Conference elected 10 members to this commission, including some of those who had been making the most critical noises.
Socialist Worker states: “After appropriate discussion and consultation with members around the country, the commission will produce a report. This will be discussed among the membership and its recommendations voted on at a special one-day SWP conference in the spring.” The commission “has a wide remit, covering everything from party structures to the conduct of internal debates and use of the internet”.
There is no doubt that the CC dreamt up this commission as a sop to placate the “democratic upsurge” - you do not systematically engage in the suppression of debate, the sidelining of critics and the expulsion of dissenters for decades and then suddenly realise this is perhaps not the best way to go about things.
In fact the absence of democracy in the SWP is directly linked to the organisation’s opportunist practice - one cannot be cured without dealing with the other. Unhindered by any programme, the SWP leadership needs to be free to flit from one position to another without any theorisation or the risk of being held to account.
For example, in the 1980s the SWP claimed that standing in elections automatically produces electoralism - ie, prioritising the winning of votes above everything else. In the 1990s it switched to election work (as it had for a short time in the 1970s), without any criticism of its previous position - and ditched principle after principle in order to prioritise the winning of votes. Following the Respect/Left List debacle, the leadership absurdly claims there is no electoral space for the left at this time - although even the bourgeois media are carrying features on Marx and Marxism in view of the economic crisis.
For the SWP leadership, principles are dispensable. What matters above all is relating to ‘the movement’ in order to win recruits - a method that reached its nadir with Respect. Decisions on SWP policy have been the exclusive property of the leadership, while the membership is expected to unthinkingly and yet enthusiastically mobilise for the latest ‘great opportunity’. This whole practice is entirely antithetical to democracy and accountability.
Right now there is a sense of relief - even elation - among sections of the rank and file. The overturning of the Rees leadership has brought with it a sense of liberation - things will now change for the better, the decline of recent years will be halted and the SWP can start to go forward.
But the realisation that undemocratic and opportunist practice go hand in hand is at present limited to a tiny proportion of the membership. Indeed, it is so used to what passes for ‘democratic centralism’ in the SWP that many accept such obscenities as the gagging of dissent, the ban on factions, the refusal to circulate pre-conference discussion electronically on grounds of ‘security’, as perfectly normal and acceptable.
As usual, delegates were instructed to hand in all conference documents before leaving the hall - we cannot have them falling into the hands of non-members, can we? After all, the debates, differences and internal life of a working class ‘party’ are no business of the working class. This and all the other restrictions have not yet been challenged in a rounded political way within the SWP.
The SWP left must use the current mood to their advantage. It must engage with the democracy commission and propose a thoroughgoing critique that directly links the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism with its unprincipled opportunism. It must not allow the CC to get away with its sop.
In short, what the SWP needs is a democratic revolution.