SWP stunt backfires

Peter Manson finds only shamefaced and dishonest criticism

The attempt by the Socialist Workers Party to gain publicity for itself by invading the May 22 talks at Acas has caused it acute embarrassment. And the judgement of national secretary Martin Smith for his role in the stunt has subsequently been called into question by a good number of experienced SWP trade union activists. Most of them are saying in private that he has taken leave of his senses and ought to be given the same treatment as John Rees.

Interviewed the next day on Channel 4 news, comrade Smith freely admitted that the stunt was organised by the SWP and the participants were members of his organisation. He obviously relished the chance of gaining publicity for the SWP ... and a few extra naive recruits.

However, for anyone with an ounce of experience, the SWP came over like a bunch of irresponsible anarchists. Indeed The Guardian did actually report that “anarchists” had invaded the Acas offices. Comrade Smith pleaded on Channel 4 that the SWP had no wish to disrupt negotiations between British Airways and Unite: “Do you really believe that the SWP, with 100 people causing a 10-minute protest, could stop negotiations between one of the most powerful multinational companies in this country and a trade union?” The interviewer went on to accuse him of bullying. Comrade Smith, quite rightly replied that Willie Walsh was the real bully ... and how easy it was to get into the building and go up to the 22nd floor where Walsh was with his management team. Meantime, Channel 4 was screening pictures of excited young SWPers surrounding and chanting at Walsh and a furious Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, and the TUC’s Brendan Barber telling them to clear off and stop interrupting their talks.

On the same day, May 23, one of the rotating leads on the SWP’s home page featured a press statement by Smith claiming credit for and fully justifying the SWP action. However, soon after, this statement was replaced: “Hundreds of people protested at Acas headquarters today, where negotiations were taking place between British Airways boss Willie Walsh and Unite the union.” Presumably the inclusion of the word “today” was intended to disguise the fact that the SWP was busily backtracking. Note also that the SWP is no longer identified as having organised the intervention - something that Socialist Worker is also keen to go along with in its short report of “a protest involving Socialist Workers Party members”.[1]

Presumably the political committee met in emergency session and agreed on a damage-limitation exercise. Hence, the revised statement emphasises that, “The target of the protest was Willie Walsh, the union-busting and bullying head of BA” - not, of course, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, the official Unite negotiators, who were understandably outraged by the action. The reason the protest was necessary, according to the SWP, was because “BA workers are unable to speak out in person, fearing draconian disciplinary measures.”

Comrade Smith is now quoted as saying: “The SWP believes it was right to protest and make a stand against the bully-boy and union-basher, Willie Walsh. We don’t believe working class people should pay the price for their economic crisis”[2]

However, the SWP’s members’ bulletin, Party Notes, now clearly wants to distance the SWP from the publicity disaster. On May 22 “a journalist from Sky TV informed a member of the party” that Willie Walsh was at Acas “just around the corner” from the Right to Work conference and afterwards “a group of 200 or so people” marched to the building. “About 100 protestors” went inside when they found an open door. The target was Willie Walsh and there was “never any intention of stopping the talks”, which in any case were “already over”.

Party Notes reports the union statement that the “widely reported distractions” at Acas “had little effect on the outcome of these talks”. It goes on to claim: “Also we have received a very warm welcome on the BA picket lines this morning - 39 copies of SW have been sold.” This despite the fact that Party Notes also fails to mention that the action was organised by the SWP.

The anonymous author complains of “a lot of blogging and Facebook chatter” and remarks: “I personally think it is best not to engage in these gutter debates, but, if you are, please try and find out the basic facts before firing off comments.” Obviously, the SWP has been left at sixes and sevens by its comrades attempting to justify the Acas invasion on the grounds that the Unite leadership was about to sell out.

Not at all the line that the leadership wants to pursue, as Party Notes explains: “... I think it is important we learn some lessons from the protest on Saturday. We are trying to bring together a serious coalition that can resist the cuts ... That means when we hold stunts and protests we need to point all our fire at the Con-Dems and the bosses, and should try and avoid at all costs protests that embroil Labour and trade union leaders in them.”[3]

In other words, we shouldn’t have done it. Perhaps the SWP leadership has forgotten that Party Notes can now be accessed by the public via its website, since neither the home page statement nor the Socialist Worker report expresses any such regret.

What a pity that the implied criticism of comrade Smith is so shamefaced and dishonest. It was a leftist act of pure substitutionism. If workers had themselves organised a picket because they suspected a sellout and asked for support, then of course it would have been right to answer their call. But to organise an action which involved Woodley, Simpson and Barber denouncing it and which appeared to be aimed at stopping their negotiations with BA was childish clowning.


  1. Socialist Worker May 29.
  2. www.swp.org.uk/node/167
  3. Party Notes May 24: www.swp.org.uk/party-notes