SWP crisis: Green light for expulsions

The opposition is about to be given a new lease of life, writes Peter Manson

As expected, the February 3 meeting of the Socialist Workers Party’s national committee voted by a large majority to immediately start its clampdown on supporters of the democratic opposition.

Those who have been publicly campaigning against the central committee for its handling of the ‘comrade Delta’ rape allegation and bureaucratic suppression of dissent have been told that this “undermining of our democracy should stop forthwith”. Failure to comply will result in the CC acting immediately to “impose disciplinary measures for violation of our democratic constitution”.1

In reality preparations for this clampdown were already well underway. According to the January 30 statement put out by 10 comrades on the International Socialism blog, oppositionists around the country have been “summoned to meetings”, where they were “accused of all manner of attacks on ‘40 years of British Leninism’”. The IS comrades report that “recantations, confessions and apologies have been demanded, along with suggestions that they leave if they cannot toe ‘the line’”.2

Those most in the firing line are, of course, the very comrades who have formed a faction around the International Socialism blog - in particular Guardian contributor Richard Seymour and science fiction author China Miéville. But these comrades are unlikely to cave in - I understand that they are at present considering, alongside others, their best course, but it will not be one of submission to SWP bureaucratic centralism.

In other words, the opposition is not about to go away and so the SWP crisis is far from over. A number of other factors also point to this conclusion.

First, the central committee has just lost another of its members - former National Union of Students presidential candidate Mark Bergfeld, who has now resigned from the leadership. That was hardly a surprise, since he was named by national secretary Charlie Kimber and main theoretician Alex Callinicos just before the January 4-6 SWP conference as one of four wavering members of the outgoing CC. Two of the others - Hannah Dee, and Ray Marral - were removed from the CC’s recommended list for re-election, since they had “in different ways destroyed the basis of trust essential for a leadership to work as a coherent body”. However, comrade Bergfeld and Joseph Choonara were kept on the list and therefore re-elected, even though they were said by comrades Kimber and Callinicos to be “unwilling to serve on the CC that we are proposing”.3 So how long should we give comrade Choonara?

Secondly, the opposition vote at the national committee was larger than expected - the CC line was accepted by 39 votes to eight and an alternative course proposed by oppositionists (see right) was defeated by the same margin. Eight votes is not a great deal, but it is twice as many as some comrades had expected (and far more than has been seen on the 50-strong NC for many years). It has been a feature of the current crisis that some comrades previously considered diehard loyalists have recently begun to demonstrate a little independence.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a large minority of rank-and-file activists who remain totally alienated from the CC over ‘comrade Delta’ (former national secretary Martin Smith). This was epitomised by the submission to the NC of a document headed “not for distribution outside the SWP” and signed by no fewer than 163 SWP members. Complaining bitterly about the CC’s ‘the matter is closed’ instruction, the comrades pointedly state: “A formal position of ‘We have decided’ does not enable our comrades to make a political response to the arguments they will face.”

They demand “concrete evidence that the work and purpose of the disputes committee will be reviewed” and assert: “It is unacceptable that, while Martin Smith carries on as normal, comrade W is marginalised by the party. It is inappropriate for Martin Smith to play a leading role in the SWP or in united front work, to represent the SWP on external bodies, or remain in employ of the SWP.” The document also complains of “a growing culture of bullying and intolerance within the party (including at the national office)”.

Finally, the comrades warn that if the leadership refuses to “listen to the membership’s disquiet, as expressed in the unprecedented votes against the disputes committee report and CC slate and do not act on the issues raised above”, then “the comrades who have signed this document will campaign for a special conference in line with the SWP constitution”. I am told that this document was not circulated to the NC by comrade Kimber and as a result was not discussed at Sunday’s meeting.

In other words, despite the declaration by the NC that there had been insufficient branch motions demanding a special conference before its arbitrary deadline, the movement to recall conference has not abated. So far only 10 out of the 91 SWP branches have demanded a recall and so the 20% requirement has not been attained, but now the campaign looks set to be given a new lease of life.

Part of the motion agreed on Sunday attempted to assure the membership that the CC had “set out a reasonable deadline for calls for a special conference”. It is just not “acceptable for such calls to be collected together over a period of several months”, it was claimed. So the February 3 NC retrospectively announced that “the deadline for the recent calls for a special conference was February 1”. There is a slight snag here, however: the SWP constitution does not stipulate any time limit, let alone one of less than a month.

Nevertheless, a fresh batch of branches are now expected to send in motions - no doubt the leadership will continue to think up new hoops for them to jump through - and there is nothing to stop those motions that the leadership claims have ‘expired’ from being resubmitted.

In fine health

Blithely ignoring all this, the adopted CC motion pronounced SWP democracy to be in the finest of health: in fact, “The SWP stands out on the left by the fact that it has a history of genuine democratic debate”, thanks to the absence of “permanent factionalism” (my emphasis). SWP structures are “democratic and accountable” and you will be pleased to know that the NC has “full confidence in these structures” - not to mention the SWP’s very special “method of democratic centralism”.

The motion correctly states that “At the core of democratic centralism lies the understanding that we have full and honest debate among comrades in order to reach decisions, followed by united action to implement and argue for those decisions.”

But it goes downhill from there: “We therefore condemn the actions of those members who have circumvented these principles by campaigning to overturn conference decisions outside the structures of the party, using blogs and the bourgeois media. Many of these contributions have been characterised by the use of slurs, abuse and uncomradely language that seem designed to stop serious debate and make joint work impossible, as well as damaging the party’s reputation.”

So the SWP “method of democratic centralism” obviously means that no decision can be revisited, let alone publicly criticised, irrespective of whether or not such criticism could possibly interfere with any agreed action. As for the second sentence, everyone who has been following the opposition’s criticisms knows that they have consistently been characterised by the “serious debate” that the CC claims they are “designed to stop”. It is the CC that has totally and utterly refused to engage in such a debate. And when it comes to “slurs”, the implication above that oppositionists are responsible for the attacks on the SWP that have appeared in the “bourgeois media” is an excellent example of one of those.

The motion makes clear that the leadership will now attempt to introduce further measures to prevent SWP members - and all class-conscious workers - from being informed about how, for example, it handles serious accusations. That is what lies behind the promise to consider how the “future confidentiality” of disputes committee proceedings can be “safeguarded” and how DC findings “should be reported to the party”.

Mysteriously, the latest Party Notes - which, as I write, has not yet been posted on the SWP website - does not say what happened to the three other motions that were on the NC agenda. Sue Caldwell had wanted to “censure those comrades, including Richard Seymour, who have repeatedly and publicly criticised decisions made at conference 2012”. Her motion concluded bluntly: “This national committee supports the central committee in taking whatever action it sees fit, including expulsion from the party, against any comrades who continue to act in this fundamentally undemocratic way following a clear warning.”

South Yorkshire District Committee put forward a similar motion, which also upheld “the right of the central committee or disputes committee to impose disciplinary measures for any violation of our democratic constitution”, while Penny Gower and Sally Kincaid affirmed “every confidence in the procedures, practices and personnel of the previous and current disputes committee”.

Presumably these motions were withdrawn at the CC’s request - although I am sure the leadership was gratified to have received motions that used more threatening and uncompromising language than its own. In this way it was no doubt able to demonstrate how ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ its own proposals are.

Press attacks

The Party Notes report of the national committee meeting states: “In the debate several comrades spoke about the disgusting article in the Daily Mail on Saturday which had targeted women members of the party’s disputes committee. Such articles are the result of the covert recording of the session at conference, its reckless distribution and then its malicious use.”

First of all, it is important to say that the Weekly Worker abhors the kind of attack on the SWP represented by the Mail article, which is merely the worst of those that have appeared across the media. It is clearly aimed at encouraging the notion that possible criminal behaviour within the organisation should now be investigated, even in the absence of any complaint to the police. The intention is to smear not just the SWP, but the entire left, as misogynous, untrustworthy and beyond the pale.

The Mail headlined its article: “A show of hands! That’s how the Socialist Workers Party cleared a comrade of rape.”4 That is totally wrong, of course, as the Mail well knows. The “show of hands” at conference was to accept the disputes committee report on its handling of the ‘comrade Delta’ rape accusation. Conference delegates were not voting on whether he was innocent or guilty.

Of course, the Weekly Worker has made clear that it was totally inappropriate for such a case to be heard by the DC, which has neither the resources nor the expertise to reach a conclusion on such a serious matter, in the absence of a clear agreement on the main facts by both parties involved. But the Mail totally inaccurately implies a cavalier attitude on the part of delegates, who cast their votes “before retiring to enjoy a buffet supper”.

The article cannot really be said to ‘target’ women members of the DC, however. In what passes for journalism, the reporter has managed to cobble together some basic information about them. Apparently Candy Udwin is the “daughter of an eminent psychiatrist who enjoyed all the privileges of a comfortable, middle class upbringing in the leafy Surrey suburbs”. And did you know that another DC member, Maxine Bowler, “once had a review of a play about Mary Shelly published in Socialist Worker online”? Such expertise with Google!

It is telling, however, that the Daily Mail, of all papers, can cuttingly state: “The SWP, just to remind you, is the party which often boasts of its proud record on women’s rights.” Unlike the gutter press, the SWP has fought hard for women’s rights, but its mishandling of the Delta case gave the likes of the Mail an open goal.

That is why it is utterly disingenuous to blame the “disgusting article in the Daily Mail” on the comrade who did us all a service by helping to reveal the leadership’s bureaucratic incompetence via the “covert recording” of the DC session. Far from being “reckless” or “malicious”, the resulting transcript made for vital reading for all partisans of genuine democratic centralism and partyism.

As the International Socialism comrades state, “We have nothing to hide from other members and from the class.” It urges: “Don’t be intimidated. It’s our party. You are not alone, much as the CC may wish to make you feel isolated.” And concludes: “Don’t apologise for standing up to them and for fighting for our party”.5 



1. Party Notes February 4.

2. http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/advice-for-comrades-feeling-heat-from_30.html.

3. ‘SWP crisis: central committee splits’: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/online-only/swp-crisis-central-committee-splits.

4. Daily Mail February 1: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2272231/A-hands-Thats-Socialist-Workers-Party-cleared-comrade-rape.html#ixzz2K2B95gXY.

5. http://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/advice-for-comrades-feeling-heat-from_30.html.


Defeated opposition motion

In the weeks since conference a crisis of unprecedented proportions has opened up in the SWP. This cannot be wished away. It is not going to be possible simply to proclaim an end to the debate raging throughout the party and beyond. What is required now is decisive leadership that is able to provide a political response, rather than procedural solutions, to the immediate issues raised by the disputes committee session at conference. National committee should therefore endorse the following measures: 

1. An acknowledgment by the central committee of the widely held concerns within our organisation and internationally in our tendency, and in the wider labour movement, about the handling of the dispute, and an assurance that we are taking steps to learn from this criticism and address problems.

2. A review of disputes committee (DC) procedures in relation to cases involving allegations of rape and sexual harassment. Sufficient time should be allocated at the next party council to discuss ways in which the DC and its procedures can be strengthened, with space also allowed for votes on proposals brought forward by branches and the leadership.

3. X to stand down from any paid or representative roles in our party or united front work for the foreseeable future. 

4. No disciplinary action against those comrades who have publicly expressed concerns over the DC’s conduct and findings.

5. Full support for the comrades who made the complaints. Zero tolerance of any attempt to undermine them and others who have raised criticisms of the DC report. Action to ensure they do not suffer any detriment in the party because of the position they have taken. An end to the punishment of party workers who have expressed concerns over the dispute.

Proposed: Jim Wolfreys