Opposition should have demanded democratic representation

SWP opposition: Facing a rout

There are signs of increasing demoralisation amongst oppositionists, writes Peter Manson

It is now abundantly clear that the December 13-15 conference of the Socialist Workers Party will see a repeat of the rigging process that occurred in the two earlier conferences held this year. The central committee is intent on winning the vote by whatever means - including through the exclusion of opposition delegates wherever possible.

All over the country district aggregates of SWP members are taking place - they will all have been held by the end of November. Using its small army of full-time staff, the central committee has been mobilising all its known or potential supporters among “registered members” - many of whom do not pay dues or take part in normal branch meetings or SWP activity, but will hopefully turn up to vote with the loyalist camp. New recruits, provided they joined before September 16, may “attend, speak, vote and stand to be delegates”, according to the CC’s ‘Rules for aggregates’, circulated by national secretary Charlie Kimber to all SWP members on November 4.

Comrade Kimber advises aggregate organisers how to deal with those who turn up: “If people are not paying subs, they should be asked to do so ... It is not, however, a condition of attending the aggregate that comrades are paying subs.” Or a condition of being elected as a delegate, he could have added. In other words, things are stacked in favour of the CC, which holds the details of all “registered members” (anyone who has filled in an application form over the last few years). Even if they have never attended an SWP event before, they are invited to come and have their say at the pre-conference aggregate - they might even get the chance to come to London as a delegate with expenses paid.

Comrade Kimber then goes on to explain the speaking rights to be enjoyed by, on the one hand, the CC speaker, who will open the aggregate with an introductory speech “for a maximum of 25 minutes”; and, on the other, the main speaker from the opposition Rebuilding the Party faction, who “will then speak for a maximum of 12 minutes”.

If there is a second CC speaker, “they will speak from the floor for a maximum of six minutes”, following which “the faction may nominate a speaker to speak from the floor for four minutes”. All other speeches from the floor “should be a maximum of three minutes to allow the greatest possible participation”. Finally, “the faction will sum up for five minutes and the CC will then sum up for seven minutes”.

So CC speakers have a total of 38 minutes, compared to a mere 21 for the opposition. And the rest of the meeting will be taken up by as many three-minute contributions from the floor as can be crammed in. Contrary to what the leadership pretends, this is not democracy. Democracy depends on informed decision-making, which in turn depends on the whole argument being put forward by those in the best position to present it authoritatively. But that is not the SWP method. At the November 9 North London aggregate, for example, SWP veteran and leading oppositionist Ian Birchall was not even called to speak.

Yet, according to comrade Kimber, “these rules … have been agreed between the CC and the faction”, which means: “It is not acceptable to attempt to change them by vote at the aggregate.” In the run-up to the March special conference, although the CC attempted to enforce such speaking times, it did not claim that they were the “agreed” “rules” and, as a result, at some meetings members voted to allow equal speaking rights for the opposition. But now the CC insists that these speaking times cannot be changed. If the RP faction really did agree to all this, then it is a bad case of shooting itself in the foot.

What kind of debate?

The North London aggregate demonstrates how the CC behaves where it has majority support, however narrow. It was not only members of the faction who were denied election to conference, but also comrades who are regarded as insufficiently uncritical of the leadership. Among the latter were SWP writer on the Middle East, Anne Alexander, and Mark Campbell, who was the left’s candidate for general secretary of the University and College Union last year, when he stood against incumbent Sally Hunt. Comrade Campbell is by no means an oppositionist, and in fact has generally sided with the leadership against the faction. But he has raised concerns about ‘SWP democracy’.

In fact, as a member of the national committee, the 50-strong body that meets every two months and whose decisions are supposed to be binding on the CC, comrade Campbell put forward the following motion to the November 10 NC meeting - ie, the day after the North London aggregate:

“National committee recognises that full debate at SWP annual conference on issues currently confronting the party is a necessary step towards bringing factional organisation to an end at the conclusion of conference.

We note the benefit of wide representation of members’ views at conference and encourage those voting at district aggregates to cast their votes for delegates with a view to electing a balanced delegation, which includes all major views and currents within the district, as well as ensuring broad representation of the party’s local experience in the trade unions and student unions, united front campaigns and our organisational work.”

So comrade Campbell was in effect calling for oppositionists to be elected to conference in proportion to their local support. It goes without saying that his motion was defeated - it won 12 votes at the NC, but there were 25 against, with three abstentions. However, it seems that the very fact he was proposing it meant he himself was beyond the pale for CC loyalists, and so this leading SWP trade unionist has been blocked from coming to conference as a delegate (although as an NC member he is entitled to attend, but with no right to vote).

According to the internal Party Notes, at the national committee meeting “The CC argued that we need to make the aggregates as political and comradely as possible. The CC believes there must be polemical debate on the issues before us, and voting based on the politics of the candidates. But the CC believes there must also be a space for people to be elected who do not define themselves as members of the faction or supporters of the CC position” (November 11).

So, using the need for ‘comradely debate’, the ‘democratic process’ and concern for the individual member as a cover, the leadership attempts to justify its campaign to restrict the opposition to the smallest number of delegates it can get away with. If you are with us, vote against the opposition, no matter how experienced and respected, and only for loyalist delegates (including those ‘non-aligned’ newcomers - which in practice is likely to be the same thing). Leading oppositionists are estimating that, although they probably enjoy the support of over 40% of the active membership, they will be lucky to have half that proportion at conference, and many of their most authoritative figures (like comrade Birchall, for example) will not be among them.

What then is wrong with the majority at aggregates deciding who their delegates should be? Nothing at all, of course. But comrade Campbell has it right: what matters is not winning the vote, but winning the argument. That is why it is essential that all major tendencies are represented at conference. A democratic, partyist culture would mean that this was widely accepted: it would be second nature for individual members to consider the need for “a balanced delegation” and “broad representation” when casting their votes.

Disputes committee

Saturday’s NC meeting also discussed the proposals coming from the “disputes committee review body” for reforming the SWP’s disciplinary process. Following the crisis provoked by the disputes committee (DC) to exonerate former national secretary ‘comrade Delta’ of serious sexual misconduct, there was uproar in the organisation not only over the revelation that the DC that cleared Delta was in reality a ‘jury of his mates’, but also over the obvious shortcomings in the way the DC treated the complainants, resulting from the desire of an entrenched leadership to protect its own bureaucratic interests. It was this that provoked the devastating crisis that has left the SWP in a state of chaos for the last year.

The NC heard a debate around the following motion, moved by former women’s organiser and author on women’s rights, Sheila McGregor:

“When a complaint about rape, sexual misconduct or domestic violence is made, the DC should investigate the matter in order to decide only on the fitness of the comrade complained against to be a member of the SWP or play a leading role in the organisation, and not to make any pronouncement on the facts of the complaint.

The DC will, of course, offer support to any comrade making such a complaint in finding suitable counselling and will politically fully support the right of any comrade who wishes to take such a complaint to the police.”

After a debate comrade McGregor was prevailed upon to withdraw her motion, because it would ‘not look good’ if the NC voted against it. But why should the NC vote against it? While it may have its weaknesses, it seems to me to provide a reasonable basis for dealing with such complaints. The notion that an internal committee should decide on whether or not member A has raped member B, when it is often (as with Delta) a case of one comrade’s word against another, is absurd. The Weekly Worker has been arguing along the lines of comrade McGregor’s motion all along.

The committee also heard a motion, moved by faction supporter Amy Gilligan, the sole SWP member in the Socialist Worker Student Society in Cambridge. This attempted to challenge the CC’s desire to protect itself through secrecy by hiding behind the need for ‘confidentiality’. While “Confidentiality is an important part of bringing forward any complaint”, read the motion, it is “crucial that the issue of confidentiality does not take on greater importance than the case itself” and it certainly “must not be used as a gagging clause”.

Once again, this is spot on. But only the eight faction members present voted in favour, while 33 members of the two loyalist factions opposed the motion. So ‘confidentiality’ is the main issue then?

Clearly the opposition is looking at the possibility of a defeat in December that will be more overwhelming than the one it suffered at the March special conference. No wonder the prevalent mood in its ranks is one of demoralisation, with many comrades talking openly about life after the SWP. Bereft of any serious political alternative to the ‘International Socialist tradition’, the opposition can only fragment or fade away in the long term.

But the departure of another batch of oppositionists after the December conference will not resolve the SWP crisis. There can be no return to the old certainties and the SWP is facing an increasingly unclear future.