Email thought crimes and the Left Platform
The SWP central committee has made its intentions regarding the opposition Left Platform crystal-clear, writes Peter Manson. John Rees, Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and their supporters now look set to be charged with 'factionalism' and expelled
In the third and last of the Socialist Workers Party’s 2009 Pre-conference Bulletin (also known as the Internal Bulletin - IB No3), which has just been published, the final contribution to this 96-page document is that of the CC itself, entitled ‘With democracy comes responsibility and accountability’.
The article attempts to justify the recent expulsions of two Left Platform comrades and the disciplining of a third by reproducing emails that allegedly incriminate them. They purport to show that a group of members have been engaged in political cooperation outside official SWP structures and outside the three-month period before conference when temporary factions are permitted.
The CC statement reads: “... it became clear to a very large number of comrades that, far from putting last year’s arguments to one side and helping implement the perspectives that the vast majority of the party had agreed to, a small group of comrades were involved in secret, and in some cases not so secret, factional activities.”
The reproduced emails all predate the current pre-conference period when temporary factions like the Reesite Left Platform are allowed - the SWP annual conference is to be held over the weekend of January 8-10 - but, says the CC, “permanent factions are not permitted in our organisation”. This “ensures that the party is not paralysed”, the membership is informed.
There is a bitter dispute about how the CC got hold of the three emails it reproduces. While the leadership claims they were leaked by a “concerned member”, disciplined Left Platform supporter James Meadway insists that an SWP leader used the password of expelled comrade Claire Solomon to hack into them. However, the CC, while denying this, dismisses it as irrelevant - the emails exist and they prove factionalism. And, since one of them was sent to comrades Rees, German and Nineham, it is pretty clear that these three factional leaders (and former leaders of the SWP itself, of course) are also in the firing line.
The email sent to Rees, German and Nineham (amongst other Left Platform members) was written in August by comrade Meadway. Addresses beginning “jwrees@”, “germanlindsey@” and “chrisnineham@” (the rest has been blacked out in every case) are shown in the ‘CC’ box. The fact that a group of comrades has exchanged emails is, in itself, a disciplinary offence, it seems, since these emails provide the sole basis of the charge of factionalism against the members concerned (although no action has, of yet, been taken against comrades Rees, German and Nineham).
Comrade Meadway’s email discussed the number of visitors to the Stop the War Coalition website. As the three faction leaders are all key STWC workers, it is hardly surprising that he should copy them in. This email was also sent to Elaine Graham-Leigh, another STWC worker and Left Platform member. Meadway states that a good number of ‘visits by source’ to the STWC site come from Facebook and Twitter, and there are also a large number linked from ARSSE, the unofficial soldiers’ bulletin board. However, only 17 visits in a month came from the Socialist Worker website, which comrade Meadway said was “an indication of how much coverage SW is giving to Stop the War” (the Left Platform contends that the CC is deliberately downplaying the importance of the coalition).
Meadway also gave statistics for the Counterfire site, run by fellow Left Platform comrade Ady Cousins, who was later instructed by the CC to close it down, and commented: “Facebook, Youtube and Twitter are serving us well.” All this is supposed to show that Counterfire and presumably the STWC are regarded by the Reesites as factional.
Comrade Snowdon’s email was sent to Claire Solomon and copied to Left Platform supporters, including German, Meadway and Tony Dowling, who has been publicly reprimanded by the Tyneside district of the SWP for “bureaucratic conduct” in his role as secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network in the north-east. Snowdon advises Solomon how to behave at the meeting she has been summoned to attend with CC members Hannah Dee and (the late) Chris Harman. He points out that the ‘Mutiny’ event she had organised, about which the CC was expressing paranoiac suspicions, involved “various non-members” of the SWP and was not a “factional initiative”. He also advised her to “delay, delay, delay” - she would be safer once the official pre-conference period had begun. This email was considered sufficient grounds for comrade Snowdon to be expelled.
Solomon’s own ‘incriminating’ email - to the same group of comrades - merely expressed nervousness at having to face the CC - the clearest indication that her ‘crime’ lay exclusively in the sending of it. This email was the only evidence needed to secure her expulsion.
Meadway points out in a separate contribution in the same issue of the Pre-conference Bulletin that “Our existing rules on factions do not fit a world of instant group communication.” As he says, all you have to do is click on ‘cc’ and - hey presto - you have a faction. Indeed any two comrades who discuss SWP business and agree on a joint approach on any question can be accused of factionalising. It must be particularly difficult for activists like comrades Rees and German, who happen to be partners, to avoid mentioning ‘the party’ in their private conversations.
IB No3 is totally dominated by the CC-LP faction fight, with both sides slugging it out in numerous contributions. Most of the others are coloured by it too. Although all LP submissions have clearly been published, the comrades complain that in other respects the CC is refusing to enter into democratic debate and has done its utmost to ensure that LP delegates elected to conference are kept to a minimum.
A group of Left Platform comrades, including Lindsey German, have written ‘Is this what democracy looks like? (part 2)’ - part 1 was in IB No2. Here it is alleged that “District committees (often only a handful of comrades) have been instructed to draw up a ‘recommended list’ which excludes all LP members, whatever their record. So people elected virtually every year have been excluded from the list, apparently for putting their names on a piece of paper.
“... in Norwich it was argued that only eight delegates instead of the entitled nine should go in order to exclude a longstanding and active member who supports LP ... Now, of course, people are entitled to vote against LP in a contested election. But it is completely outside our tradition to refuse to allow someone to go even where there is no competition for delegates.”
What is more, a good number of SWP full-timers and national committee members (the latter being entitled to attend as observers) have been elected as delegates. This, say the LP comrades, creates a conflict of interest and is part of the CC plan to marginalise them.
The leadership denies none of this. In ‘With democracy comes responsibility and accountability’ the CC explains: “... in the run-up to conference, when a faction has been declared, it is no surprise that many comrades vote according to their views on the different perspectives outlined. It is not serious to suggest ... that comrades should automatically go to conference because they have ‘decades of experience’.”
What is more, “It is up to comrades in each district to decide who they elect to conference. They can vote to send their full entitlement or just one person if they wish. If they do not wish to send someone to conference because they do not represent the views of the district, that is comrades’ right.”
So let me get this straight. Comrades should deliberately seek to exclude from the organisation’s sovereign body dedicated, experienced activists merely because they are proposing a different perspective (and it has to be said that the real differences are actually those of nuance - although both sides have attempted to blow them up out of all proportion to cover up a split based largely on personal clashes). And it is perfectly all right to send “just one person” instead of nine, even if those excluded have something pertinent to say?
If the SWP leadership was really concerned with democracy, it would strive to ensure that all minority views were represented at conference roughly in proportion to their influence. That way, the arguments can be thrashed out and the most appropriate decisions are more likely to be made.
But the leadership is not concerned with democracy. It believes that important decisions are best left to the CC itself. After all, SWP membership is open to anyone who fills in an application form and if such people, as opposed to wise, experienced comrades like Martin Smith and Alex Callinicos, were allowed collective control over the whole organisation, inevitably huge errors would be made. But comrades like Smith and Callinicos are also capable of huge errors. The best means of trying to prevent them is precisely through democracy and the accountability of the few to the many.
As for the allegation that conference is being stacked in the CC’s favour by electing full-timers, the CC has been looking through the records: “... in 1999 16 full-timers went to conference as delegates and in 2006 eight full-timers were delegates.” But no member of the CC at that time thought there was anything wrong with that.
This, of course, is the problem for comrades Rees, German and Nineham. The current CC is merely carrying on the good old SWP tradition of bureaucratic control-freakery, of which Rees himself was an expert. As if they themselves would not try to exclude minorities and rivals - we in the CPGB know from our experience in the Socialist Alliance and especially Respect that minorities were frozen out as conference delegates using exactly the same methods as are now being employed against the Left Platform.
It is the same with the LP contention that, “In aggregate after aggregate there has been a concerted operation to stop every supporter of the Left Platform from getting delegated. This is justified on the extraordinary grounds that our conference is ‘not a debating society’ and ‘not a place where we want to go over these arguments’.” That too has been the argument used by the likes of Rees in the past.
And it is parroted by a naive SWPer, “Richard (Coventry)”, who writes: “I don’t think it’s crucial whether or not any Left Platform supporters get to conference, precisely because the debate has been had at the aggregates.” But that is not the experience of John from South London, who is clearly not a supporter of any SWP grouping: “I had my hand up right at the start of our aggregate and at times throughout ... but was not called during the 90-odd minutes.”
However, the CC argument is that, “It is vital that we all come to conference united and every member has to do their best to implement the perspective that has been democratically agreed. That is the basis of democratic centralism. We cannot afford to have another year where a small number of comrades continue to fight last year’s battles.”
Note that the CC demands a united conference from the beginning. Not after the debates have been had. Mind you, discussion at SWP conferences does not take the form of motions being proposed, supported and opposed and then put to the vote. There are instead CC-controlled ‘commissions’, which channel what little debate there is along the required lines.
But even this can be jeopardised by the presence of too many awkward oppositionists - controversy and the clear articulation of rival perspectives is the last thing the leadership wants. That would only confuse the naive rookies, whose role it is to be inspired by clear, uncomplicated calls to action. And that too was how comrade Rees saw it when he was the SWP number one.
But now Left Platform comrades complain bitterly when the tables are turned. “Neil (St Albans)” - who is identified by the CC in a separate contribution as LP member Neil Faulkner - claims that “At least three articles submitted to the ISJ [the International Socialism quarterly SWP journal] by members of Left Platform have been rejected” - including a paper submitted by himself.
He goes on: “Despite this the arguments it contains have been caricatured and attacked, both in meetings and in documents ... This is a thoroughly undemocratic procedure, since ordinary comrades are in no position to judge for themselves ... The same method was employed by the Stalinists against Trotsky in the mid-20s. They refused to publish his work and then denounced him by caricaturing his arguments. It is the method of an apparatus, not that of a revolutionary party.”
It is also the method of John Rees, who, now that he finds himself in a minority, has suddenly discovered that minority rights are a good idea after all. So his Left Platform writes: “If there is a disagreement with the leadership’s perspective, it is not just the right, but the responsibility, of comrades to put their argument. This view was supported at the democracy commission conference ... Factions allow comrades to develop alternative positions so that the party as a whole can decide the way forward.
“The central committee have responded to the faction not by facilitating debate, but by personalised attacks, centralising the election process of candidates to conference and campaigning to exclude Left Platform supporters from conference.”
Is this really the same John Rees who previously presided over the SWP’s bureaucratic regime? The John Rees who ludicrously condemned the CC’s democracy commission sop as a “House of Lords”? The John Rees who opposed factions, but now seems to imply that they are a normal healthy component of party life? The (correct) argument above surely applies to permanent, all-year-round factions, not just the three-monthly pre-conference entities that are allowed to exist by kind permission of the leadership.
But pro-leadership comrades have reacted with varying degrees of intolerance. So Raymond, who identifies himself as the Unite fraction convenor, writes: “Comrades in the Left Platform ... harbour a fetish for a caricature of democratic centralism, nostalgia for a bygone age of ... decisive leadership, where comrades know their place and simply obey the latest commands from the centre.”
John (Home Counties) argues that “this is not a faction at all” because it is a coalition of conservatism and ultra-leftism, while Ged, Adam and Paris from Leeds refer to “John Rees and the renegades and charlatans of the Left Platform”.
Eight pro-leadership comrades from Newcastle allege: “The way that the north-east supporters of John Rees have behaved over the entirety of the past year (not just in the pre-conference period)” has been to avoid debate and operate “independently of the decisions taken in the district”. They have been engaged in “persistent factional activity”. “The Left Platform meeting in Sunderland had the stench of those who had already burnt their bridges with the party.” This is a call for their expulsion if ever there was one.
And surely that is the veiled threat contained in the CC assertion that “We cannot afford to have another year where a small number of comrades continue to fight last year’s battles.” But who is it who determines which battles are those of last year? It is ludicrous to pretend that once conference has taken a decision (especially a conference so lacking in genuine democratic debate as that of the SWP) it cannot be revisited. What if the original decision was wrong? What if circumstances have changed?
Then there is the implication that debate and action cannot coexist. For most of the year the job of the members, no matter how politically experienced, is to unquestioningly follow the leadership’s instructions. In fact all decisions should be constantly revisited and open to challenge, with the sole proviso that this does not actually interfere with the successful prosecution of an action.
What the SWP needs is a totally different regime - a regime based on genuine democratic centralism.
- For the right of all comrades to come together in loose networks or disciplined factions at any time of the year.
- For the right to speak and publish openly in order to facilitate thorough debate and considered decisions.
- For the representation of contesting viewpoints in all forums, including conference, to be encouraged.
- Reinstate Claire Solomon and Alex Snowdon. Lift the disciplinary restrictions on James Meadway.
- Defend John Rees and the Left Platform against central committee gerrymandering.
IB No 3 can be downloaded from the CPGB’s website here.