SWP: Numbers do not lie
Peter Manson reports on the October 19 Unite the Resistance event
Around 250-300 mainly Socialist Workers Party members came along to the Unite the Resistance ‘conference’, which was rather ambitiously titled ‘Organising to Win’.
This number represented about a third of the figure for last year’s event, but Socialist Worker did its level best to talk down the drop. In fact it excelled itself even by its own standards of numerical mendacity, in claiming that “more than 500 people” attended.1 For its part, the SWP’s internal Party Notes went even further, declaring that “Over 550 reps and activists took part” - a mere doubling of the actuality.2
So why should my figures be correct rather than those of the SWP? If you do not believe me, take a look at the website of the venue, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London. This explains that the main hall known as ‘the sanctuary’ contains “seating on two levels for up to 600 people (250 ground floor, 350 gallery)”.3 The ground floor was just about full, but there were no more than a couple of dozen latecomers in the gallery (I suspect they could all have been found a seat downstairs in fact).
Knowing that there would be a humiliating fall in attendance compared to last year, Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr had adopted a two-pronged approach in her attempt to disguise it. Not only had she talked up the likely numbers this year - there would be “hundreds”, she predicted - but she had also revised downwards the SWP’s figures for last November’s event. A year ago the paper had reported: “The Unite the Resistance conference saw around 1,000 people fill London’s huge Emmanuel Centre.”4 But now, it seems, comrade Orr has suddenly realised that this figure was an exaggeration - her October 8 2013 article referred to the “800-strong UTR conference last year”.5 This very nearly coincides with my own estimate at the time, which was for around 750.6
It is, of course, disappointing that the SWP cannot be relied upon to tell the truth and that it is necessary to continually correct its falsehoods. In the SWP universe it as though no-one on the left has access to the Weekly Worker - the SWP leadership virtually instructs its members not to read the “sectarian press”. But don’t worry, SWP comrades, everyone else is reading us too - including Charlie and Alex.
The chair for the first session, Ian Hodson of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (not an SWP member), might have naively remarked: “This is my third Unite the Resistance conference and it seems to get bigger every time.” But surely very few agreed with him as they looked around them. All those SWPers - loyalists and oppositionists alike - understand only too well the central committee’s method. It sometimes seems that no exaggeration is too great for the CC.
Take, for instance, its latest official membership figures, which were issued as I was preparing this report: “Our total membership now stands at 7,180. This is down 217 from the number last year, but up on 2011’s figure of 7,127, the 2010 figure of 6,587, the 2009 figure of 6,417 …”7 This is so ludicrous that I could not help laughing out loud when I read it - I am sure I was not alone in that reaction.
But back to the UTR. There is one obvious reason why the attendance fell so drastically this year: the devastating crisis that has rocked the SWP, causing hundreds to resign or simply drop out in disgust. Following the gross mishandling of the ‘comrade Delta’ case, there has also been a campaign to boycott the whole organisation as ‘rape apologists’. While that is certainly misplaced, you cannot deny its effect on the SWP periphery and on those who might normally have been expected to feature on the platform of an event like this.
So, while scores of SWP former members and supporters stayed away, so too did the usual ‘big name’ speakers. The SWP was left with only Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, after Jeremy Corbyn failed to show, plus a range of less well known union left bureaucrats.
It is true that the SWP did not go all out to mobilise its members, as it has in recent years, which has led some to speculate that the CC may have decided to wind down UTR and prioritise instead its work in the People’s Assemblies. I do not think that this is correct, however. Only last month the CC described the forthcoming UTR event as one of “two important stepping stones” to “turn the potential [for a fightback] into reality” - the other being the TUC demonstration at the Tory conference on September 29.
In its ‘Perspectives’ document in this year’s first Pre-conference Bulletin, the CC declared that UTR is “not an alternative to the kind of broad anti-austerity campaign that the People’s Assemblies is focused on. Rather, it is attempting to home in on the specific role that the unions can play in the resistance.” That includes discussing “how we can maximise solidarity and coordination of disputes”.
Admittedly, “We cannot yet build national rank-and-file organisation - something which, however desirable in the abstract, has no real basis in reality currently.” Therefore, “UTR works with those sections of the left officials who are heading up a fight as part of strengthening workplace organisation and rank-and-file confidence. But the desire for a generalised fightback, and a layer of activists who sense a gap between the union leaders’ words and deeds, means that UTR can play an important role in drawing together activists inside the working class. Such networks can organise real solidarity to any fightback that does take place.”8
None of this sounds to me like an attempt to wind down UTR. While the SWP is active in the PAs, a ‘united front’ it controls is an absolute must for the CC. No, I believe the reason why the SWP did not pull out all the stops to mobilise for the conference was that it knew any such attempt was doomed to failure and so the CC would have looked even more foolish than it does already.
Other symptoms of the SWP’s crisis were on display at Bloomsbury. For example, it seems only three union branch banners could be found to hang from the balcony instead of the usual score, and none other than national secretary Charlie Kimber was one of the two SWP photographers snapping the speakers. The pretence of democracy was dispensed with and no new steering committee was elected (not that it has ever met, as far as I know). And, instead of an all-day event, this year’s conference began at noon and lasted only five hours (minus three half-hour breaks).
After comrade Hodson had concluded his opening remarks, it fell to SWP member Sean Vernell to explain the purpose of the event. He told us that the meeting was set to discuss not only the “impact of austerity”, but also “how to build” the fightback. The conference was “fantastically well timed” - following the 50,000-strong TUC demonstration in Manchester, there was last week’s “electrifying teachers’ demo”. All that means that the movement itself is “determined”, but “Do we have the leadership?” Instead of “all striking on different days”, he concluded, the unions should “name the day and all come out together”.
How does Billy Hayes match up to the required leadership? Despite his usual left noises, he was rather vague when it came to any specific commitment. On the privatisation of Royal Mail, he declared that the CWU was “not going to sit around and accept it won’t ever be renationalised” and, as for a united fightback, he “wouldn’t rule out coordination” (my emphasis).
For his part, Alex Kenny of the National Union of Teachers executive was pleased that first the teachers, then the Fire Brigades Union had come out on strike and marched along the same route in London on consecutive days the previous week. However, when it came to coordination, “we are a long way away from November 30 . It’s not going to happen for a long time.” While the NUT is “talking to other unions” and any coordination would be “good”, we should not get “too fixated on everyone doing something on the same day”. Last week we won publicity in the media and “brought traffic to a halt” on two days running, he said - three days would be even better!
This was too much for several comrades and a few heckled him (rather mildly, it has to be said). In reply to one Unison comrade, Kenny blurted out: “Get Dave Prentis to bring you out and we’ll join you. Don’t tell me what to do when you can’t bring out Unison!”
One comrade from the floor said that a coordinated, united strike would only be the start. Presumably unaware that the slogan has long since been abandoned by the SWP leadership, she said that the aim of coordinated strike days should be “All out, stay out”.
In the workshop I attended following the opening plenary, comrade Kimber took a break from his photography duties and spoke from the floor in order to express his disagreement with Alex Kenny. We are “not that far from another November 30”, he said. Referring to the recent victory of Hovis workers in Wigan, he noted that the fact “someone fought and won” was “an inspiration” and showed there could be other victories too.
Surprisingly, this workshop session - one of six between the opening and closing rallies - was informative and useful. Titled ‘Organising the unorganised and fighting zero hours’, it was addressed by John Fox, Hovis worker and chair of the Wigan branch of the BFAWU. Although workers at the plant had previously been forced to accept wage reductions of £80-£100 a week, he reported, the attempt to make many of them redundant and replace them with agency workers was a step too far. Comrade Fox acknowledged that, as the last strike at the plant had been way back in 1979, “we’d forgotten what to do”. So the workers “went to Unite the Resistance and the Labour Party” for advice.
They had experienced incredible solidarity from fellow workers, such as drivers who honoured their picket line, and local people, including small businesses, and the strike committee took things very seriously, meeting every day. A fantastic and much needed victory was recorded, whereby agency workers are now employed on the same terms and conditions as the old hands, and the “as and whens” have been made permanent.
Christina Paine, a University and College Union member described the increased casualisation at London Metropolitan University. Many lecturers are employed by the hour, which means they have no annual leave or sick pay and are not paid for preparation or marking - people with a PhD are effectively working full-time for just £22,000 a year. Many of the SWP comrades present seemed to be UCU members who told similar stories - as did, for instance, several local authority workers who are either on zero hours or employed by a subcontractor. Care workers are not paid for travel time, for example. Comrade Paine reported the attempt to launch a campaign, based at the London Met, but uniting all higher education workers, whatever their union: Zero Tolerance for Zero Hours.
Afterwards the UCU members present were called to a brief caucus - presumably it was the only union with sufficient members present to make such a meeting worthwhile. However, while an exchange of experiences is always valuable, it is highly pretentious to imagine that a small group such as UTR is able to help bring about much by way of increased coordination.
In fact that is the problem. The crying need is for political organisation in a party that is qualitatively and quantitatively far superior to the SWP. But that is what was missing from the day, as it always is in SWP ‘united fronts’, where not even the name of the sponsoring organisation is ever mentioned. So the final speaker at the closing plenary, Jane Aitchison, former president of the PCS department for work and pensions group executive, concluded by assuring us that “we in this room” have a role to play: we should all “join Unite the Resistance if you haven’t already done so”. Leaving aside the minor difficulty that UTR is not a membership organisation, even if it was it could hardly fulfil the role of the revolutionary Marxist party we lack.
Comrade Aitchison, by the way, who resigned from the Socialist Party in England and Wales two years ago (over SPEW criticism of her orientation inside the PCS - or of her decision to send her daughter to a private school, depending on which version of the story you have heard), seems to have picked up the SWP line - she was, after all, chosen to close the event. She was optimistic that there are “lots of coming strikes”, which is why “this Unite the Resistance conference has been so important”.
Well, I am sorry to say it was not very important at all. A much smaller and weaker UTR is, anyway, only one of four rival anti-cuts bodies, which, in any case are now dwarfed by the People’s Assemblies. And the lip service paid last year to uniting the rivals was not repeated this time.
1. Socialist Worker October 22.
2. Party Notes October 21: www.swp.org.uk/party-notes.
4. Socialist Worker November 20 2012.
5. Socialist Worker October 8.
6. See ‘Sectarian and philistine’ Weekly Worker November 22 2012.
7. Pre-conference Bulletin No2, now available at the CPGB website: www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/resources/SWP%20IB2%20-%20October%202013.pdf. We hope to carry a full review of this bulletin next week.
8. Pre-conference Bulletin No1, September.