SWP: Insiders call leadership to account
Members have finally been presented with a detailed report of the Delta case, reports Peter Manson. But it does not make easy reading for the central committee
We need to understand why defending the party became synonymous with defending the leadership, and in turn with defending M [the Socialist Workers Party’s former national secretary, ‘comrade Delta’]. We need to grasp how it came to pass that internal considerations over the protection of a leading individual and the ‘cohesion’ of the CC ended up overriding our basic political principles.”
This is how former SWP central committee member Hannah Dee begins her contribution to Pre-conference Bulletin No2, which can be read via the CPGB website.1 Since comrade Dee was on the leadership when the rape allegations against ‘M’ broke in 2010 and continued as a CC member until she was removed from the slate by the majority of her comrades before the January 2013 conference, she is in a position to reveal the full, appalling story - and she does not shirk from that task. Her article, entitled ‘A question of leadership’ (pp46-51), is easily the most important to feature in the October Pre-conference Bulletin (known as Internal Bulletin or IB).
Comrade Dee reveals that there were “serious divisions over how we put our principles on oppression into practice. Yet they were never aired in front of the party.” That is because “The minority [on the CC] were effectively gagged in the name of ‘confidentiality’ and ‘collective responsibility’.”
The complaint against M had to be kept covered up at all costs. However, the CC majority was not prepared to sit idly by in response to rumours of the accusation against M: “… a narrative was informally circulated - one that cast aspersions on the motives of the women bringing complaints against M, that impugned the motives of comrades who were critical over the dispute (including the CC minority), and one that talked about the dangerous pull of movementism, feminism, autonomism and so on. This was the basis of an ‘undeclared faction’ that developed over this issue.”
Comrade Dee does not name the members of this CC faction, but later in the bulletin “Jonathan (Oxford)”, who says he was a member of the ‘democracy commission’ set up in 2010 to look into the SWP’s internal shortcomings after the Respect fiasco, identifies them as “Amy [Leather], Jo [Cardwell], Judith [Orr], Mark [Thomas] and Weyman [Bennett]” (only the first names of SWP members are published in the IB). Jonathan claims that these five were “prepared to paralyse our party in order to prevent a complaint of sexual harassment getting a fair hearing”.
According to comrade Dee, they “organised around a petition that called for M to be reinstated to the CC slate. This faction continues to exist and continues to operate. One section of it has hardened into a sectarian and conservative rump intent on driving anyone who raises criticisms of the dispute out of the organisation (‘Statement for our Revolutionary Party’, Bulletin No1, p20).”
Comrade Dee reminds SWP members that the democracy commission had recommended that “serious political differences” arising on the CC should be put before the membership. However, “These recommendations were never implemented. A key reason for this is that the democracy commission was not combined with honest political accounting of what had gone wrong during the Respect period. Now we are repeating exactly the same mistakes.”
This point is also made in the IB by the Rebuilding the Party (RP) faction, to which comrade Dee belongs: “It is impossible for the organisation to make an informed decision about the membership of the CC when serious divisions are withheld from the membership - these divisions must be laid out before the party.” And “Ian (Bury and Prestwich)” asks: “How can conference democratically decide on its new CC if comrades have to rely on rumours of where the divisions lie? This is a ‘hollowed out’ democracy without political accountability.”
Yet the new slate of candidates for the CC, to be voted on at the forthcoming conference (December 13-15), “includes current CC members who have resisted even the smallest steps taken to try and correct mistakes,” says comrade Dee. “It even adds an additional comrade, who has been instrumental in organising the undeclared faction in defence of M.”
She openly admits her own part in the cover-up - she chose not go public when she now says she ought to have done so: “I do not seek to vindicate my role in this crisis. During 2010, I was part of a deeply flawed process which sowed the seeds for what happened later.”
In 2010, an agreement was struck with M whereby he would apologise to “comrade W”, the first woman to complain of sexual harassment against him, for the “distress he had caused her”, and his role on the CC would be “reviewed”. But the national secretary pre-empted this review by requesting a move to the industrial office - “thus avoiding any formal political sanction at all and misrepresenting the move as a voluntary decision on his part”.
Comrade Dee then recalls the January 2011 conference session to discuss the CC slate, which was introduced by referring to “articles appearing on sectarian websites” that had attacked M: “This meant the whole focus of the discussion centred on defending M’s political record from these attacks, rather than on the serious issue at hand that needed discussion in its own right.” As readers will know, the session ended in a section of the delegates giving M a standing ovation and chanting their support for him.
Comrade Dee refers to this “horrifying spectacle” as a “complete betrayal”. In fact, “M had brazenly broken the agreement that had been made with W”. But the CC minority were told to sit still and shut up: “another CC member challenging that … would have been seen as a serious breach of CC discipline”.
In 2012, W, having previously resigned from the SWP, decided to rejoin and put in a formal complaint against M (later another woman, ‘comrade X’, was to follow suit). Once again, “from the very start the handling of this complaint was primarily driven by a concern to defend M, and to defend the CC - regardless of any consequences for the woman involved or for the integrity of the party’s politics on oppression.”
After the complaint was heard by the disputes committee (DC), made up of current and former CC members and others who all knew M personally, it was found to be “not proven”. Comrade Dee states that she and three other CC members - Joseph Choonara, Ray Marral and Mark Bergfeld - pointed to the “inadequacies” of the DC report: “At a minimum we felt it raised questions over M’s conduct (namely, that his conduct was not appropriate for a leading member of the SWP).” But the CC could not agree on a course of action and no vote was taken - “precisely because the CC was divided” - until two days before the January 2013 conference.
Meanwhile, the matter had come up at the November 2012 meeting of the national committee. The NC is “the body tasked by the democracy commission with advising the CC and holding it to account”. Accordingly the CC minority called for the full DC report, together with that of the DC minority (Pat Stack), to be presented to the NC. But the CC majority refused to provide the documents necessary for the NC to hold it to account. By contrast, when Ray Marral “expressed his concerns about the handling of the dispute to an NC member he was publicly censured.”
The four in the minority told their CC comrades that they would not let their names appear on the same CC slate as M for the January 2013 conference, but once more he pre-empted things by announcing that he would not be standing again. “M’s decision to stand down was formally accepted by the CC,” notes comrade Dee. “But again the reasons for this were never explained or publicly stated. Instead it was presented as a ‘personal decision’, much as his move from national secretary to industrial organiser had been glossed previously.”
In the run-up to the 2013 annual conference, “The official position was that the issue could not be discussed in the pre-conference aggregates due to confidentiality,” writes comrade Dee. However, “At the same time, a narrative was covertly encouraged that suggested those seeking to challenge the disputes committee report were in some way undermining the democratic processes of the SWP, and that this was all part of a wider attack on democratic centralism.”
At one stage it had seemed that the minority were being offered a guarantee that they could remain on the CC “if they agreed to shut up about the dispute”. But comrades Marral and Dee were removed from the slate, on the grounds that there had been a “breakdown of trust”.
In the meantime, the complainants and their witnesses had drawn up proposals for a new disputes procedure in light of the obvious failings they had experienced. But they were prevented from putting them to conference or even writing about them in a Pre-conference Bulletin. Nor were they allowed to declare themselves a “reluctant faction” so as to be able to address the membership.
For its part, “The CC minority requested a statement be sent to members explaining our position. This was denied. Instead a response to our proposed statement was circulated to the membership, almost all of whom would not even have seen the original statement.” This was how the majority ‘complied with’ the democracy commission recommendation - subsequently agreed by an SWP conference - about the need to disclose important differences raised on the CC.
Comrade Dee correctly asserts: “All of this should make abundantly clear that the factionalism that has dominated the party’s internal life over the last year started at the top of the party and flowed from attempts to avoid CC members being held to account, or avoid confronting real political disagreements that had emerged over an issue that was clearly going to be a major point of discussion, not only in the party but also in the wider movement. A facade of CC unity was presented to the party. Behind it, those CC members who supported the disputes committee report developed a narrative in defence of M. The minority, in contrast, were effectively gagged under the guise of ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘confidentiality’.”
In conclusion, she states: “A party of leaders in the struggle needs to know what is going on and have the opportunity to debate it. There has to be an end to a ‘not in front of the children’ approach and a culture of trust in the membership.”
Breaking with the usual custom of delaying any response to IB contributions until the next bulletin, Alex Callinicos penned a brief reply, which was inserted after comrade Dee’s contribution. Comrade Callinicos began by describing her article as “lengthy, tendentious and self-aggrandising” - the latter accusation, as can be seen from the quotations above, is clearly untrue.
However, according to Callinicos, “she makes two factual claims that require immediate challenge”. The first was that comrade Dee asserted that “in July 2010 I asked her if she ‘had it in for’ M”, whereas in fact he asked that question six months later. Outrageous! The second was in fact not a ‘factual claim’ at all: “Hannah also implies that she believed in 2010 that W had been raped. If that is so, she must explain why she did not communicate this very serious charge to [national secretary] Charlie [Kimber] and me at the time … and why indeed she remained silent about this belief for the following three years.” Try as I may, I cannot see any such implication in her piece.
The CC also could not resist responding to “Jonathan (Oxford)” - the comrade who had revealed the identities of the CC’s “undeclared faction”. His piece was followed by two curt sentences stating that the CC wished to “robustly contest these accusations”.
Just to rub salt in the wounds of comrades Callinicos and Kimber, another former CC member, Viv Smith, plus two other comrades who, like her, supported both W and X in their complaints, back up comrade Dee by describing exactly how they were treated in a separate contribution.
The CC majority, however, continues its strategy of impugning ulterior motives to its critics, who they say are using the two DC cases to cover a retreat from ‘Leninism’. However, “these cases, however difficult, cannot be the ultimate source of the party crisis”.
The CC takes up the first 20 pages of the IB and four articles to do down the opposition and explain away the collective resignation of over 100 comrades, who left to form the International Socialist Network. Just as with Respect and then Counterfire, “the underlying issue in the split was adaptation to movements”. But in the ISN this is “combined now with the attraction of left reformism”.
Both Colin Barker and “Ian (Bury and Prestwich)” reject this. According to Ian, “Reading IB No1, it didn’t appear that there is a significant body of opinion in the organisation arguing for abandoning the working class as the agent of change or liquidating the party into the movements.”
Comrade Barker, a supporter of the RP faction, had, by the way, been accused of heresy in IB No1 by a comrade who thought that his observation that nowadays there are very few huge factories of the type seen at the beginning of the 20th century “means that the prospects of working class revolution are somehow diminished. He thinks this observation is somehow proof of my … sliding away from Marxism. What a daft argument!”
But comrade Barker comes out with another ‘heresy’: soviets should not be exclusively based in the workplace. There are, on the one hand, large numbers of people who do not start full-time employment until their 20s; while, on the other, many workers live for decades after their retirement. Therefore, “it hardly seems likely [that students] won’t be involved in new forms of soviet. Pensioners are hardly likely to accept a form of popular democracy based solely on workplaces that excludes them!”
But back to the argument of the CC majority. For it, the complaints of the opposition are groundless: “Far from there being a ‘democratic deficit’ in the party, we have shifted from a situation in which there was quite a low level of debate and discussion, to a situation in which there is a great deal.” What is more, “By December, after three conferences in 2013, it would be difficult to claim that the SWP does not tolerate internal dissent or that we discourage argument. We intend to enter into the pre-conference period and the aggregates in that spirit.”
The CC wants to come over as the epitome of reason - and in this it is aided by the undeclared faction: “There is a substantial layer of comrades,” states the CC, “notably the 100 or so who signed the ‘Statement for our Revolutionary Party’ document in the first Internal Bulletin, who believe the central committee has been ‘soft’ in defending the party against the opposition.” However, “Generally speaking, we are not inclined to take disciplinary action where it can be avoided, and nor should we be.”
Nevertheless, after December the opposition’s factionalism that has carried on for a year must end for good: “Nobody will agree with every position taken by the conference [on the DC and SWP perspectives]; some may disagree with most. But every member must be bound by them, like them or not.” In other words, when conference decides once more to uphold the CC line, everyone must cease criticising any aspect of it.
Strangely, the CC quotes Duncan Hallas on the 1968-69 faction fight in the organisation. Comrade Hallas wrote: “Finally, conference decisions were made on the disputed questions. The factions more or less rapidly dissolved. No-one ordered them to dissolve. They dissolved because new issues were arising and new alignments of comrades on those issues. They dissolved precisely because they were genuine factions.”
This seems to me an argument for permitting the operation of factions, not banning them. People come together to try to change things and if they succeed they may well dissolve the faction. It does not sound to me like the paralysis and entrenched, artificial divisions that come with the right to form permanent factions, according to the CC narrative.
But no-one seriously challenges this CC ‘wisdom’. The nearest anyone gets is “John (Oxford)”, who proposes that members should be allowed to set up discussion websites, etc outside the three-month pre-conference period (when temporary factions are permitted):
He declares: “Political debate amongst party members is inevitable. It’s what we do, often every time we meet, even in informal situations outside the party’s formal structures, such as branch meetings. We do it because we can think critically and because we think it’s important.” In fact, “Far from condemning web-based discussions, the party should be encouraging it. There is no contradiction between vigorous debate and a united political strategy, Indeed, Lenin defined democratic centralism as ‘freedom of discussion, unity in action’.”
For his part, “Adam (Hackney East)” points out that continuous debate is not the polar opposite of united action: “… for more active, often younger comrades, clearly capable of writing comments to an SWP blog on the bus or the train travelling to a meeting, as well as being capable of contributing to it when they arrive, the ‘talking shop’ argument must appear very weak indeed”.
“David (Euston)” locates the “democratic deficit” elsewhere. For example, he claims that one in 40 SWP members are paid full-timers: “A Marxist party which selects its leadership from a cohort of full-time employees is, in practice, going to be run by its staff, not its activists.” Furthermore, “A slate system, where the leadership gets to nominate its replacements, gives the leadership a control over the organisation, and takes decision-making power away from the membership. It rewards loyalty and silence when the leadership errs.”
For David, democracy is “also about what happens in the smallest unit of a party. If its branches have no purpose other than to distribute a series of tasks, which have been drawn up centrally … then the content of the discussion in that branch will wither.” Finally, “Democracy is also about a kind of process: a willingness to tolerate a range of dissenting views, the protection of the rights of minorities. It is about something as simple as being able to fairly represent the views of those you disagree with, rather than relying on selective quotation and insults.”
As part of its counteroffensive, the CC wants to persuade comrades that the recent crisis has been but a minor hiccup. So, in ‘Building the party’, it states: “… the party has far from gone under or stagnated. Indeed we continue to play a central role in the trade unions, in workplace struggles, alongside others in the anti-fascist movement, in many of the bedroom tax groups …”
Admittedly the membership has gone down by 217 compared to last year, but it still stands at an impressive 7,180. What a joke! But it is quite clear that no-one - not even the most dyed-in-the-wool loyalist - believes such huge exaggerations any more. The CC admits that only 2,147 of those “registered members” - fractionally under 30% - pay regular subs. But even amongst those there are hundreds who are really more like supporters - yes, they make a small, regular donation, but that is all.
The CC argument is that when a recruits fill in a membership form, the SWP must then “seek to win them”: “When they sign a form they are presenting an opportunity, a chance for us to persuade them.” In reality, it is agreeing that such ‘recruits’ are not actually members in any genuine sense. Yet it still wants to continue the pretence.
In IB No 1, “Mike (Leeds City Centre)” had informed comrades about the Leeds “re-registration effort earlier this year”. Comrades in Leeds decided to check out each name they had been given by the Vauxhall HQ. Mike reported: “Leeds District began 2013 with 201 registered members in the five branches. As a result of systematic contacting we currently have 73, plus 12-15 who are likely to re-register, making a maximum of about 88.”
Mike explained why: “The most important reason is that the database has not been kept up to date for as long as five years. There are members who joined as long ago as 2007 who have never paid subs and no longer have valid contact details; members who cancelled a direct debit or standing order as long ago as 2007; members who transferred out years ago, etc.”
But in IB No2 the CC strongly criticises the action taken by Leeds: “… the district’s efforts have managed to strip more than half the membership off the lists. We don’t believe this is a valid approach ... We should not write off such people. They might change their phone or address and (incredibly!) they fail to notify the SWP national office. We lose touch with them for a while. Should we wipe them from our records?”
Of course you shouldn’t. But pretending they are members is absurd - and the entire SWP knows it. And not just the likes of Ian Birchall, who gives his piece an ironic heading, taken from a Frank Sinatra song: ‘Mistakes? We’ve made a few, but then again too few to mention’. Comrade Birchall says: “When I joined we had 106 members, and I should not be unduly demoralised to learn that the real figure is 1,500 or less.” He adds: “In fact the CC’s attitude to the membership is profoundly insulting. I wonder what new members think when they discover how the CC is ‘protecting’ them from the truth. The CC seems not only unwilling to learn from the membership, but to positively distrust us.”
Several other comrades complain about the inaccuracy of the official lists. “Bobby (Southampton)” says: “I find it very difficult to get names deleted for members who have left the country, the local branch or the party”; while “Andy (Leicester)” notes that “From a claimed membership of 7,597 last year, only 1,300 members managed to attend the pre-conference district aggregates.”
He continues: “We have moved from a position where all members were expected to pay regular subs and to sell Socialist Worker each week to one where individuals who completed a membership form several years ago, but have had no further contact with the SWP, are still considered to be members. This is not just a question of political honesty, but it is having a detrimental effect on inner-party democracy.” As “Ian (Cardiff)” points out, “we allow people to pay nothing and then sit in aggregates and vote.”
Andy estimates that, while there are officially 123 “registered members” in Leicester, in reality there are probably only 25: “These are people who actually pay subs regularly, consider themselves to be members and are involved in some sort of activity (paper sale, branch meeting, etc), at least from time to time.” At least we have here some sort of grasp of what membership of a revolutionary party should entail.
But “Amy (Cambridge)” broadens out the argument: “If we can’t tell the truth within the party about how many members we have, how many students came to Marxism or how many people attended the Tower Hamlets demo then it is impossible to have a rational discussion about these things.
“Honest accounting of the successes and failures of our activity is vital if we are to learn from it and do things better in the future. We’d all like there to have been 1,000 students at Marxism this year, for there to have been 5,000 people on the demonstration [in Tower Hamlets] against the EDL and be in a revolutionary organisation of 7,000 members, but this isn’t the case. If we are serious about making these figures a reality in the future we need to stop pretending they are true now.”
But the leadership can count on an array of loyalists - not to mention the hard-line supporters of Amy Leather’s undeclared ‘Statement for our Revolutionary Party’ faction - to claim that things are really going quite well and the oppositionists are all defeatists, trouble-makers or worse.
Several comrades, including “Terry (Hornsey and Wood Green)”, call for a post-conference purge: “Let us use our conference to debate and discuss how we should move forward, but once we have done so we must act together as a combat party with a united leadership and membership to give the most effective lead we can in the class struggle. There can no longer be a place in the SWP for those who refuse to accept this. They should leave or they must be expelled. Enough is enough.”
“Steve (Medway)” writes that all SWP decisions must “be defended by members in all public forums” and that “attacks on the party or individual comrades by party members on social media are unacceptable and must cease immediately”; while “Phil (Bristol South)” claims that oppositionists, including those who have now left, were never really proper SWPers in the first place:
“… the arguments they were putting were not in our tradition, but came from a pic’n’mix selection from the different strands of the feminist movement or were heavily influenced by autonomists and anarchists. In truth many of them were not revolutionary socialists. They have not been missed in our branch - in fact since they have departed we have been able to get on with the job of trying to build the party and involve new people in activity.”
Continuing this theme, eight Leicester comrades allege that oppositionists “became inactive in fighting for party perspectives and actual branch building”. Instead “attending Left Unity meetings, without discussion with the branch, became their primary activity”.
“Bridget (Kings Heath)” adds: “For every tale of a faction member being persecuted, I can give you a story of faction members vilifying non-faction members. For every member of the faction who has a story of ‘passive card-holders’ being use to swell the numbers of a delegation, I can show you another district where members who do not attend meetings, do not do paper sales and do not take part in any party activity sign up to the faction and become active only around the time of conference.”
For “Gary (Swansea)”, “lack of discipline and accountability online has damaged the party”. He rails against “websites/blogs set up by disgruntled members hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, whose sole purpose has been to damage the party and attack the democratic decisions taken at conference …, the elected CC and individual party members”.
Gary writes: “The internet … is not a forum for personal attacks, vendettas and pernicious slander of comrades who take positions democratically decided at conference …” There should be no official discussion forum either, since “Not every comrade has access to a computer”, so “wouldn’t this exempt those from the discussion?” Besides, would a “moderator overseeing discussion” be “the best real use of party resources”? This could only but lead to “the separation from real activity”. A very high standard of debate, isn’t it?
But other loyalists reject such crude arguments in favour of telling us how well everything is going. Comrade Leather’s Manchester district dreamt up the idea of presenting readers of the bulletin with the naive pro-SWP enthusiasm of 12 new recruits. Meanwhile five of their Manchester comrades report (“ironically, given the pessimistic tone of much of the content of IB No1”) that their branch can boast “a fantastic year, with a victory against council cuts; a growing and dynamic branch; new members who are politically confident and active in their workplaces; branch initiatives taking the paper into new areas. Our roots are strong and our branch is blooming.”
That is the theme of several other contributions too, so what is all the fuss about? Meanwhile, two students inform us how wonderful things are at Sussex University, where 130 people signed up to the Socialist Worker Student Society at the freshers’ fair: “we have managed to build big meetings, etc with only two active members”.
Finally let me end with the complaint made by “Phil (Hornsey and Wood Green)”, who claims that Weyman Bennett, who heads the SWP’s Unite Against Fascism ‘united front’, acted against SWP policy by joining a five-strong delegation from Tower Hamlets which handed in a petition to the home office calling for the English Defence League to be banned from marching in the borough. He was “seen doing so on BBC London news”, even though the SWP is against calling for such bans.
This time it is comrade Bennett who replies. He says: “I was not part of any delegation that went into the home office calling for a ban.” But he does not deny that he was shown on BBC news or explain how he came to be filmed with the delegation. His response leaves SWP members with more questions than answers.
But, there again, such incomplete explications are what we have come to expect from the leadership.