SWP conference: Notes of a delegate
An oppositionist calls for the whole of the left to engage in debate and rethink its politics
Everyone on the left will know that the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference happened last weekend. Against the backdrop of the Martin Smith rape allegations and numerous resignations, this was a contentious event to put it mildly. And for those of us in the Rebuilding the Party faction, it was the ‘ultimate showdown’. For a year we have conducted a bitter and painful struggle for a political resolution to the SWP crisis. But last weekend was always going to be the end game. We fought as hard as we could for our principles. However, failure was always on the cards. We now have to accept the political death of the SWP. It is no longer any kind of vehicle for revolutionary politics.
The atmosphere at conference was determined by a number of late developments, including the ‘Appeal to comrades’ statement circulated by Paul McGarr and Megan Truddell, an alliance statement between the soft elements of the RtP faction and the soft elements of the loyalist majority. It tried to find a middle ground around supporting some RtP demands such as an apology to the two victims. Circulated just 48 hours before conference, it redefined the meaning of ‘too little, too late’. However, it soon become clear to us that the result was a foregone conclusion; our faction had just 81 elected delegates, whereas the Central Committee loyalists had around 400.
I will provide a chronology, along with some of the political conclusions that can be drawn. These are, it should be stressed, my initial thoughts.
Starting Friday evening, the first session was on Anti-fascism. This was going to be interesting simply because it was led off by Weyman Bennett, one of Martin Smith’s closest personal friends and part of Amy Leather’s ultra loyalist faction. Unsurprisingly, actual politics was very far down the agenda. Right from the first contribution it became a 3-hour ‘defend Weyman’ rally. Only two RtP faction members got to speak. They made mild criticisms of UAF’s rightward trajectory.
This was met by howls of moral indignation from CC loyalists. Instead of discussing anti-fascist strategy, speaker after speaker argued to the effect that criticising UAF is an attack on Weyman, which is turn an attack on the SWP, etc. One comrade, in a particularly desperate attempt to suck up to the CC told us how he had recently organised a ‘multicultural festival’ in Harlow and the stress of organising it showed him what a hard life poor old Weyman has.
In his summing up Weyman really came into his element. Shouting for pretty much the whole of it, he roundly denounced oppositionists for using UAF as “factional football”. Most of us came out wondering what our anti-fascist strategy actually is for next year, as little besides the RtP faction was discussed. The overarching political conclusion was that any criticism of a particular strategy or leader will be dismissed as factional, and on that basis they seek to rally comrades as foot soldiers.
Saturday was for all the ‘controversial’ sessions and votes. The CC and faction motions, the Disputes Committee report and review, the election of the CC slate. It can best be described in two significant parts: first the DC session, then the motions and CC elections.
The afternoon DC session was a genuinely sober discussion, but nevertheless, the most revealing and shocking. There had been a panel review of DC procedures that admitted flaws in the first investigation into the allegations against Martin Smith. It recommended changes such as barring CC members from a case against a fellow CC member - to stop the ‘trial by mates’ situation. Admitting flaws was a climb-down for the CC, and meant they had to say sorry. Their statement read: “Many people have suffered real distress as a result of taking part in or giving evidence to the disputes committee, or due to slurs on the internet and we are sorry to all of them for that.” This ‘apology’ can be extended to Martin Smith, and does not address what and why those involved suffered “real distress”. Also it lays blame purely on procedural flaws. The logic of the wording was neatly summed up by Maxine Bowler (on the DC panel and leading comrade in Sheffield) who told conference: “I am prepared to say sorry. I am not going to apologise”.
The session revealed splits within the DC over the handling of the second allegation. Three comrades, including Dave Sherry and Candy Udwin, rebelled within the DC when dealing with the second complaint. They were against the hearing being delayed - a cynical manoeuvre and against the wishes of the complainant. However, only one DC member, Pat Stack, had come out against the DC majority findings. This hugely significant moment showed that the DC had trampled over the wishes of the complainant - but no one from the loyalist camp so much as flinched.
The DC report showed that ‘comrade X’ - the second woman to bring allegations against Martin Smith - had made a separate complaint that her email account had been hacked during the summer to gather evidence against the ‘secret’ opposition and to delete an incriminating email from the accused to her. Just before Marxism 2013, there was an emergency National Committee meeting at which four comrades were suspended (not to be confused with the Facebook 4) for being signatories to an opposition bank account. The evidence used to ‘expose’ the four was a set of private emails between oppositionists that Charlie Kimber had somehow got hold of. The only thing all the emails had in common was that ‘comrade X’ was the only one to have received all of them. Furthermore, the emails were between a small number of leading oppositionists. So a leak is an unlikely explanation. More seriously, however, an email from Martin Smith to her (which she would later use as evidence against him in the main dispute) had been deleted from her inbox and was found in another folder.
Ian A, an IT worker and union rep, looked at the technical side of things and decided hacking almost certainly had happened. He gave evidence to the DC on her behalf, but said the inquiry was hampered by the lack of technical knowledge by DC members and an unwillingness to understand when he explained it to them. The DC concluded that no hacking had taken place and comrade X issued a statement condemning the findings and asking the unanswered questions. Clearly, hacking an email to delete evidence of sexual harassment is a very serious offence both legally and in terms of revolutionary morality. A DC member said: “hacking may have taken place but we’re sure Charlie K or CC weren’t responsible”. Kafkaesque, because comrade X had never accused Kimber or other CC members. The lack of reaction from loyalists was shocking. If allegations like these can’t make someone think, then what can?
The day took a nasty turn when the leadership election came up. RtP had proposed an alternative slate that removed both Amy Leather’s faction and Kimber and Callinicos - because of their role in the crisis. Softer elements of the CC such as Michael Bradley, Joseph Choonara were left on. Subsequent arguments ranged from vindictive to ridiculous. Callinicos employed both, opening with the hilarious statement that the CC’s slate represented “a continuation of our current leadership strategy in relation to the crisis”. After the worst crisis and biggest splits in SWP history, hey, more of the same please! He then turned to sneering, ‘denouncing’ Jonathan Neale saying “you’ve debased your politics” and ended shouting “You know nothing Jonathan Neale!”.
Philistine contribution of the year went to the comrade that said: “Neil Davidson and Joseph Choonara have different views about neoliberalism, how can they be in the same leadership?” I suppose Lenin and Bukharin had the same views about the Brest-Litovsk treaty and Trotsky had the same view as Zinoviev about October - after all, how can you possibly function if your leadership is not a monolithic bloc. The debate gave a real sense that loyalists were genuinely scared of having differences reflected within the leadership. Nevertheless, RtP comrades spoke well; the first contribution from Estelle (Brixton) talked about heterodoxy within organisations and she specifically drew on the real lessons of the Bolshevik experience.
The RtP faction had two main motions, firstly, the demand for an apology to the two female victims, and, secondly, over the implementation of the 2009 democracy commission. There were a few amendments too. Needless to say, we clearly lost all our motions ... the votes were not even counted. Except that is for the CC election: 449 for the CC and 69 for the RtP slate. Loyalists cheered and stamped their feet; we looked at each other and saw the end of the SWP.
A long faction meeting followed, mainly licking our wounds. That night most of us made our decision to leave the SWP.
We went in on Sunday morning pretty dejected. Some comrades did not bother turn up at all - and most of us arrived late. The first part of the day was something like ‘Building the fight back’. Hours of bragging about paper sales during various ‘interventions’ in the struggle followed - there was no strategy or theory on view. Then came the most peculiar part of conference, the student session. The SWP has lost around 90% of its previously quite large body of student activists over the past year, and this was the first conference to have experienced such a dramatic setback. You might have thought that it would be an issue for discussion. You’d be wrong. Amy Leather controlled the speaking slips and somehow managed to provide a completely one-sided debate - which is unusual even for the SWP.
A tiny handful of students have sided with the CC; somehow they were all delegated to go to conference. They were also, of course, all chosen to speak. So Fran M (Kingston) would get up and say “it’s never been a better time to build”, etc. If you did not know what was really going on, you’d think we’re on the verge of 1968, that students are on the streets and flooding into the organisations of the left. The fantasy world they’ve concocted for themselves is so far from reality that it is genuinely unnerving to listen to comrades parroting this crazy nonsense. Many RtP comrades left conference at this point. The spectacle was just too weird.
Charlie Kimber’s 15-minute valedictory speech signalled the formal end of conference. Our side was genuinely battered ... and I’m afraid to say deflated.
The overarching strategy of Kimber and Callinicos was clearly based on a cynical calculation: the alliance between the loyalist majority and the Leatherites is more important than reconciliation with RtP faction. Their side was certainly not united - the splits on the DC, the crazy Scotland amendments from IDoOM (In Defence of Our Martin) that the CC majority spoke against. But when push came to shove, the one thing did unite them was hatred for the opposition. This can be seen in the new CC: the four new members are divided equally between the majority and Leatherites. In terms of self-preservation this was certainly a smart move. Leather’s faction controls a significant section of the apparatus. Besides dominating the biggest districts such as Manchester, Sheffield and Scotland, there is the national committee. However, giving in to Amy’s ultra loyalist faction has taken the SWP into the abyss. Almost the entire opposition will go. The Callinicos-Kimber-Leather alliance is a tactical one. Certainly not a principled one.
Did we fight properly?
Now that conference is over, let us revisit our strategy - with the benefit of hindsight. The politics of the RtP faction were for a long time laid out by Hannah Dee, Jim Wolfreys and co. They argued for a softer approach aimed at isolating the Leatherites as a kind of transitional demand. It was they who proposed a slate which included Kimber and Callinicos. The comrades believed this “would force them to justify their alliance with Amy’s faction”.
Conference proved that strategy hopeless. We all know about the divisions on the CC, but they just deny it and stick together through thick and thin. Singling out the Leatherites actually disarmed us. Nevertheless, towards the end, a more radical approach was adopted. Initiated by Rob Owen and the young comrades around him, they argued for a fight based on radical politics. That’s why it was essential not to include Kimber and Callinicos on the slate argued comrade Owen. That approach eventually won the argument within our faction.
Our tactics were also predicated on winning the so-called middle ground. It is true that a layer of comrades were uneasy about the state of things in the SWP. But they couldn’t quite stomach joining the opposition, and winning them to our side was a worthwhile goal. However, we made two crucial mistakes. Firstly, we misjudged their size: the middle ground was barely represented at conference. They were certainly not the kingmakers we imagined them to be. Secondly, we were never going to win them by pandering to them. We should have taken the hard arguments to them. Then we might have at least won some ground.
The farce that conference was, the farce that is democracy in the SWP, has meant that most of the faction, including myself, have decided to leave. I have not given up hope in all SWP comrades. But the SWP’s sclerotic culture prevents the development of a critical cadre that can come to terms with the period we live in and engage with the rest of the left.
In fact, this crisis is not just the SWP’s. It effects the whole of a revolutionary left that continues to fragment at every turn. Taking on that question can only be done from outside the ranks of the SWP. Its sectarian nature means it refuses to deal with other comrades on the left. Clearly the next period must be one of serious political discussion. Being part of this is not optional.