Formation of Rees faction means SWP is on the verge of a split

Peter Manson witnesses an SWP leadership still smarting from the Respect disaster

Taking advantage of the Socialist Workers Party’s pre-conference discussion period, deposed leader John Rees has launched an officially recognised oppositional faction, the so-called Left Platform.

The three months before the SWP’s annual conference - due over the weekend of January 8-10 2010 - is the only time when members may form a temporary faction. Apart from then, individual members may not come together to campaign within the organisation or issue joint statements. ‘Factionalism’ is an expellable offence, and this leaves the self-perpetuating central committee as the only group of members capable of driving forward policy.

At the January 2009 conference, of course, the CC recommended that the members re-elect it en bloc - with one exception. Delegates did as requested and left off comrade Rees, although Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, his closest allies on the leadership, stood down from the recommended slate.

So now comrade Rees is attempting a comeback of sorts. He got 64 signatories for the Left Platform - more than double the minimum required. Unusually, the SWP’s weekly Party Notes internal bulletin has not only confirmed the formation of the faction, but publicised its launch meeting. The October 19 issue contains this brief announcement:

“Notification of Left Platform faction

“Thirty SWP members have written to the CC informing us that they are forming a faction - ‘Left Platform’ - to participate in the pre-conference discussion (section 10 of the party’s constitution).

“They will be holding a series of faction meetings open to Left Platform supporters and other SWP members who want to know more about the Left Platform. The first of these will be held in the University of London Union (ULU), Malet Street, London on Sunday October 25 at 1pm.”

It has to be said that comrade Rees is most unlikely to win the day in January. He was well and truly thrashed at the 2009 conference and he has yet to propose anything that in practice differs substantially from the CC line.

Take the October 10 meeting of the party council, the SWP’s delegate body that meets between conferences. Rees and 63 other comrades, including Lindsey German, Chris Nineham, Guy Taylor and Elaine Graham-Leigh, put forward a motion reiterating the traditional line on ‘no platform for fascists’ and criticising the leadership for backtracking: “… at the last two national committee meetings of the SWP a majority of the CC who spoke argued that the SWP should be prepared in the future to debate with members of the BNP in the media …”

The leadership countered with a motion agreed by the NC, which also reiterated the current position, but made no reference to the previous NC debate: “SWP members in UAF will refuse to appear on a panel with Nick Griffin”; and: “We will redouble our efforts to win the case for no platform for the BNP in the media …”

In other words, there was no difference in substance between the two motions, but the NC motion was overwhelmingly passed, while Rees and co received just 11 votes (there were around 200 delegates). The significance of the vote lies in the continuing marginalisation of Rees.

Blogland is full of rumours about the October 9 suspension from SWP membership of two leading student comrades at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who are allegedly in the Rees camp. One of them, Clare Solomon, runs the Solomon’s Mindfield blog, which seems to indicate a different kind of politics: - “anarchists are our closest cousins”, she says, publicising the October 24 London Anarchist Bookfair.

Another casualty of the SWP faction fight has been the Counterfire website, run by SWP member and Rees supporter Adie Cousins. This has been closed down, following an instruction from the leadership, although it can hardly be said to have been an organ of open debate. There are also reports of resignations by full timers and suspensions of dissidents in other parts of the country. The North East and Birmingham have been mentioned. And then there is Chris Bambery (who defended Rees in last year’s fight over his leadership, although he did not step down from the CC slate) ‘resigning’ as editor of Socialist Worker amidst a revolt staged by the paper’s journalists.

All is not well in the SWP, to put it mildly. There is clearly a systematic but thoroughly underhand campaign being conducted from the top to destroy Rees politically by first silencing, diminishing or removing his real and imagined allies and supporters. Socialist Worker journalists would only revolt if they had been told to revolt.

But, of course, none of this is any business of the movement as a whole - not even SWP members in fact – at least according to the leadership. So do not expect anything by way of official confirmation or denial in Socialist Worker - unless, that is, pressure of public opinion forces their hand as, it did over Respect.

Are there real underlying differences between Rees and the leadership faction around national secretary Martin Smith, Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman? In a sense, yes. Simplistically it revolves around the question of ‘movement or party’, with Rees and co putting more stress on so-called ‘united front work’, and forever accusing the CC of underplaying the importance of the Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism, etc. Meanwhile Smith et al believe that now is the time for stopping the rot in morale and rebuilding the battered and denuded SWP branches.

In reality, of course, these are differences of nuance. They are not actually in contradiction to each other. The truth is that the SWP leadership is still smarting from the Respect disaster, the blame for which could conveniently be laid entirely on Rees. He did indeed bear prime responsibility, since he was the driving force behind the unpopular popular front with George Galloway, the Muslim Association of Britain and a clutch of Bengali businessmen. However the rest of the leadership were hardly faultless, with every one of them publicly backing the Respect turn.

Comrade Rees is not exactly a red-hot favourite when it comes to bets on the new leadership. His toppling was very popular among the overwhelming majority of SWP members, as demonstrated by the vote at party council - although, of course, he retains a small core of support, not least in the Stop the War Coalition. What we are almost certainly seeing are initial moves towards a parting of the ways - the expulsion of Rees and co or a Rees-led split. It amounts to the same thing.

‘Left unity’?

Meanwhile, the Smith leadership is still going through the motions of calling for a united left coalition to contest the 2010 general election. While ignoring the request of “the sects” - the CPGB, Workers Power, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - for discussions, the SWP has invited the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ and Respect (not to mention the Barrow People’s Party!) to a meeting on October 31. It has proposed two options:

1. That a new ‘political party’ for the purposes of the election be formed with a name such as Left Unity, and that each component stands candidates using a combination of the agreed ‘party’ title and its own name: for example, ‘Left Unity-SWP’ or ‘Left Unity-Respect’.

2. That the organisations merely agree a ‘non-aggression pact’ - that is, that they agree not to stand against each other.

The CPB has been in a state of confusion following the defeat, then reinstatement, on its executive committee of the Robert Griffiths-John Haylett line for greater electoral cooperation across the non-Labour soft left. Just two weeks after its executive decided to abandon No2EU by a single vote, a special EC meeting was called which saw a victory for comrades Griffiths and Haylett, with only one vote against their motion.

While campaigning for “the defeat of the Tories and the return of a Labour government”, the CPB will “stand a limited number of Communist Party and Unity for Peace and Socialism candidates”, work with “the broadest range of mass organisations to ensure people’s candidates stand against the leading figures of the New Labour clique”, and “seek to stand candidates as part of a broader class-struggle coalition with trade union, left and progressive forces” (www.communist-party.org.uk).

The long motion does not mention No2EU, in line with the previous EC decision, although the RMT is specified as the union most likely to be interested in standing candidates. Neither does it mention the SWP, and it is still not clear whether the CPB will show up at the October 31 meeting. It will certainly not agree to an umbrella ‘party’.

For its part, Respect has replied to the SWP proposing a more general, vaguer cooperation. It has been engaged in discussions with the Green Party and would like the Greens included in a general agreement for mutual support, which might include joint campaigning. Respect has already decided to contest three constituencies under its own name and SPEW is likely to contest its usual limited number of seats under its electoral name, Socialist Alternative.

So, despite the ‘party name’ proposed by the SWP, genuine ‘left unity’ is far from the minds of any of the participants. No-one is proposing any kind of actual party (apart from SPEW with its no-hope call for a Labour Party mark two) and certainly not a party based on Marxism.