Appearances are everything

Peter Manson reports on the SWP's obsession with numbers regarding its latest recruiting front

I have to say that the November 19 Unite the Resistance ‘convention’ was a big disappointment in terms of putting forward a coherent programme to defeat the coalition austerity attacks on our class. Yes, there were some inspiring speeches and some individual experiences were usefully exchanged, but there was no attempt by the organisers, the Socialist Workers Party, to direct the event towards a serious, winning strategy.

It must also have been a big disappointment to the SWP too. After all, the central committee had been prioritising the mobilisation of its membership to attend for a good couple of months and had been hyping up the centrality of UTR internally: “If we achieve our goal of getting 1,000-1,500 people to attend the convention, it will give us a firm base to move on and attempt to push for further action …” (Pre-conference Bulletin October). The idea, it informed its members, was to lay the foundation for a new rank-and-file movement able to challenge the trade union bureaucracy (although how this is supposed to happen through the SWP mobilising its own comrades, supporters and contacts is beyond me).

Unfortunately, however, nowhere near the 1,000-1,500 target figure turned up. There were 1,000 seats laid out in the vast Royal Horticultural Hall (25 rows of 40), but a good third of them were unoccupied throughout. I was sitting near the front, yet there was a bank of about 10 seats that were vacant next to me. Anybody who arrived late could find a seat in any part of the hall (plus a second one alongside, where they could park their coat and bag).

The photographs on the Socialist Worker website cleverly disguise the actual attendance, although for a day or so Right to Work published a couple that gave the game away. For the SWP the truth must be made to fit the prediction and the comrades settled on well over 1,000 as the claimed attendance. So the internal Party Notes reports: “Unite the Resistance is becoming an important vehicle in helping build the fightback … Close to 1,200 people attended the convention (1,187, to be precise).” That certainly meets the 1,000-1,500 target, doesn’t it? However, only “Nine people joined the SWP” - another disappointment, to be sure (Party Notes November 21).

When the chair of the morning session announced, “1,000 people have now walked through the door”, I was a little incredulous. But when in the afternoon we were told that more than 1,200 had taken part, this was clearly totally at odds with reality. Even if we add a generous 100 to take account of those who might have been wandering around the stalls or having a cup of tea, the attendance would be no more than 750. So at least 400 people were invented by the SWP.

You might ask, what does it really matter whether there were 700 or 1,200? On one level you would have a point. But I have discussed the attendance at length because it is important to understand what the SWP is about. The comrades are not actually concerned primarily with defeating the coalition assault and advancing the organisational strength of our class. No, they are concerned with enlarging and increasing the influence of the SWP, and to that end appearances count for everything.

That is why they go to enormous lengths to pretend that those attending were ‘ordinary trade union militants’, not - heaven forefend - overwhelmingly SWP members and supporters. Yet the CC had been campaigning internally for weeks to get as many of their “7,127 registered members” to show (Pre-conference Bulletin October). I would estimate that 400-500 obliged. But the only speaker I heard who mentioned the SWP was construction worker Steve Kelly in the final session - he commended the left groups (specifying the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Socialist Appeal) for giving the electricians’ dispute some coverage, unlike the mainstream press.

By way of illustrating the proportion of SWPers at the ‘convention’, let me report a conversation I had during the lunch break. “Excuse me,” a certain Sadie Robinson said, “Are you a member of the SWP?” When I replied in the negative, she went on: “Oh good, I’m a journalist at Socialist Worker and I’m trying to interview people who aren’t members of the SWP.” When I pointed out that I am, however, editor of the Weekly Worker, she replied good-naturedly: “Ah. It might not get past the subbing process” - and went off to seek out a more suitable non-SWPer.

Everything about the event was SWP. Martin Smith was scurrying about throughout trying to organise replacement speakers and so on; the ‘conference arrangements committee’, which selected speakers from the floor and, according to a handout, was “made up of three lay trade union members belonging to different trade unions”, consisted of SWP comrades. Six of the 11 stalls were run by the organisation and its fronts: the SWP itself, Right to Work, Unite Against Fascism, Defend the Right to Protest, Bookmarks and Education Activists Network (the others were the University and College Union, Anti-Academies Alliance, Save Bombardier, One Million Climate Jobs and Socialist Resistance).

We can win

Why, you may ask, did the SWP not put on this event using its Right to Work anti-cuts campaign? After all, the ‘convention’ was all about opposing the cuts, wasn’t it? There were sessions on ‘Building the November 30 strikes’, ‘The global struggle against austerity’, ‘Organising in our communities against austerity’ and ‘Where next for the movement?’

Who knows what the thinking was - surely the CC does not seriously believe that a non-trade union body can set up a mass rank-and-file, cross-union movement. Nobody will think UTR is just the SWP under another name, will they? But Alex Kenny, a left member of the National Union of Teachers executive, who opened the event, said it was “very useful to get rank-and-file activists together” for “this rally”.

But the first platform speaker was a leading SWP comrade who knew the line: “This convention is about sharing ideas about how we can win,” said Sean Vernell (my emphasis). But it almost goes without saying that there was virtually no genuine exchange or debate, certainly when it came to the rallies in the huge hall (there was one parallel meeting in the afternoon in a café downstairs - more about that later).

Apart from comrade Vernell and Karen Reissmann, the final platform speaker of the day, (plus National Union of Students executive member Ruby Hirsch, a last-minute substitute) none of the others were SWP comrades, as far as I know. Speakers like John McDonnell (fresh from the Labour Representation Committee conference) and Mark Serwotka gave their usual competent, militant (and uncontroversial) performances, and a range of lesser names told us many times what we all knew: the government and the capitalist class is attacking us and we must fight back together.

On the forthcoming strikes, comrade Serwotka warned the government: “Back off or we will do it again and again until we win.” You cannot fault the sentiment, but how exactly are we going to win? At least he was more sophisticated than Leia Petty of Occupy Wall Street, who led the assembled SWPers in chanting: “I - I believe - I believe that we can win!” Excuse me while I cringe.

All out, stay out

SWP speakers throughout the day, from both the platform and floor, gave their own, simplistic, answer to the question, ‘How are we going to win?’ That ‘answer’ takes the form of the slogan, ‘All out, stay out’, of course. However, there was actually something approaching a debate on this question in the smaller meeting mentioned above.

The session in the café was entitled ‘Organising in our communities against austerity’ and featured speakers from Right to Work (Paul Brandon), the National Shop Stewards Network (Rob Williams) and the Coalition of Resistance (James Meadway). If these comrades had any ideas on “organising in our communities”, they were not letting on. They spoke, quite naturally, about the national and international situation. The other two platform speakers were Lee Jasper of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts and Richard Rieser of Disabled People Against Cuts - presumably they were representing the black and disabled “communities”.

Comrade Williams of NSSN is, of course, a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and unsurprisingly he held out the example of Liverpool in the 80s, stressed the importance of the recent Jarrow march and hyped up the role of the NSSN itself, which is “acting as a lever on the trade union movement”. But he did express his disagreement in passing with the ‘All out, stay out’ slogan.

It was this that provoked the nearest thing to a debate, with comrade Brandon and a range of SWPers from the floor doing their best to justify the slogan. According to the RTW national secretary, it is “absolutely perfect”. But his defence of it concentrated on the first part, the ‘all’, rather than the ‘stay’: it was attempting to unite workers, students and all sections, he said.

Julie Waterson’s argument was straightforward: “One-day strikes can’t win”, so it has to be “All out, stay out”. Other SWP speakers from the floor argued along the lines of “It’s the doing that makes it happen. It isn’t a case of waiting for the TUC”; “Are we at the stage of a 24-hour strike or a 48-hour strike? That’s not how it works”; “I don’t think you can be radical enough”; “People are asking what to do after November 30. You need to be a little bit angry yourself. How can we win?”; “Go in and show that optimism”; “The debate about after November 30 is not academic. When we come out, we stay out.”

I have done my best to summarise the points, but, as readers will see, they are pretty insubstantial and voluntaristic. Neil Cafferky of SPEW and NSSN asked: “Are we saying we start to run transport?” (cries of “Yes!”); while comrade Williams in his reply emphasised the need to “raise demands in a way that builds momentum”. He wanted to know whether the SWP was suggesting that workers should stay out on November 30 and not go back on December 1. There was no clear answer, of course.

If I had been called to speak I would have pointed out that the slogan is actually a call for an immediate, indefinite general strike and in such a situation it is not just a question of running transport, but every aspect of society. If everyone was on strike we would have to ensure that people were fed, patients were treated, the elderly cared for … In short we would have to take over. However, as, like SWPers, I am not an anarchist, I know that this is impossible without the leadership of a mass revolutionary party capable of leading millions.

I would have pointed out that, while it was positive that we were having a comradely exchange between members of the SWP, SPEW and Counterfire, this minimal cooperation must be taken to a far higher level. How about uniting our separate, competing fronts under one umbrella and, centrally, how about uniting politically in a single, democratic-centralist Marxist organisation determined to build that mass revolutionary party?

Inaction plan

None of this is part of the Unite the Resistance ‘action plan’ - drawn up no doubt by the SWP central committee (“We sold 4,000 copies of the Action Plan,” states the November 21 Party Notes - who is this “we”?). Subtitled ‘The alternative to unemployment, austerity, privatisation and cuts’, this 20p leaflet contains no proposals for ‘action’ - just a series of demands: tax the rich, end tax evasion, stop spending on war, create one million climate jobs … Many of these are eminently supportable - for example, a “maximum of a 30-hour week with no loss of pay” and “Scrap all stop and search laws” - but overall it amounts to a Keynesian programme to achieve “a more equal society based on cooperation”.

In the final session the chair stated that the possibility had been discussed of calling a conference in the new year, at which a UTR leadership would be elected and motions debated. In the meantime, we were asked to accept an interim committee of a couple of dozen comrades, whose names and unions were read out (but not, of course, their political affiliation).

Karen Reissmann was the most coherent speaker in this session, but she was all at sea when it came to the SWP’s new recruiting slogan. At first, since it was important “to show we’re serious”, she talked about escalating strike action - first one day, then two, then three … But, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction, she ended by urging, “All out, stay out on November 30.” After which, there should be “more strikes when we’re ‘All out, stay out’”!