Back in late July, when a posse of UAF (i.e. SWP) visited Stoke for a leafleting session in Bentilee (one of two wards in the city where the BNP have all three councillors), Weyman Bennett delivered Stoke Socialist Party a lecture on anti-fascism. We weren't comfortable with the liberal finger-wagging tone of the leaflets, and said we'd be handing out our own. Weyman replied the bottom line for him was the building of a broad-based coalition against the fascists.
Since then the SWP in its UAF and LMHR guises have been coming up to Stoke for the odd event. UAF have had a stall at Stoke gay pride, spoke at meetings of the local anti-fascist group, NorSCARF, played a part organising the September 20th rally and carnival against the BNP, and last weekend's 75-strong discussion of anti-fascist strategy. Unfortunately, far from aiding the cause of unity the SWP/UAF/LMHR have done everything to rub NorSCARF activists up the wrong way.
The first problem has been the question of personnel. The SWP's two local activists are friendly and well-liked comrades, who have tact, patience, sensitivity and local understanding; in short, the qualities needed for coalition building. Sadly, neither were in a position to work for the UAF and/or LMHR full time. I say sadly because the SWP sent up a party worker totally devoid of these attributes. Bunny Laroche, a full timer who previously excelled herself by making the SWP's name mud in Kent, has spent the odd week in Stoke as a 'LMHR organiser'. At the gay pride festival a local activist was selling UAF t-shirts she had personally purchased to raise funds for NorSCARF. As this was in direct competition with her own similarly decked out UAF stall, she accused the activist of stealing them from her. She then changed tack and said she was "not allowed" to sell the shirts and demanded they be removed. She was ignored.
Bunny came into her unpleasant element again when she ran up against Stoke SP comrades. She went from sweetness and light at the founding meeting of North Staffs NSSN to an aggressive bully at the anti-fascist rally held a few days later. When we turned up at the rally with our banner she *commanded*(!) we take it down because "it was agreed" no party banners or placards were allowed (we refused). Needless to say her concern for this spurious agreement (if indeed it ever existed) evaporated when her fellow SWP'ers disembarked their coaches and broke out their SWP-branded 'Smash the BNP' plaques. Then at last week's debate, she harassed our paper sellers and leafleters by telling them where and when they could/couldn't sell/leaflet, led the charge in shouting down - with some Labour people - one of our comrades who pointed out the rise of the BNP in Stoke might have something to do with the identikit policies of the mainstream parties, snapped at the coffee attendant to make sure one of our comrades paid for his drink, and curled her lip at the activist on the NorSCARF stall - for the crime of daring to carry Searchlight material. It beggars belief someone obviously unsuited to this kind of work, let alone a full time position in a socialist organisation, has been so appointed. What does this say about the SWP?
Weyman Bennett hasn't exactly covered himself, the UAF or the SWP in glory either. At the debate, he took a local Labour activist to one side and told her to "be careful" because "the SP will try and take NorSCARF over". Physician, heal thyself! Seeing as NorSCARF and the SP/Militant branch have a history of consistent activity in the Potteries going back 30+ years, you might think we would have done it by now if we were so minded! But far more serious than Weyman's silly sectarianism is the SWP's bypassing of local anti-fascists when it comes to the actions of the day. At the last NorSCARF meeting Weyman attended, he assured us UAF were going to take a back seat on the 20th September. They were going to be there to support its decisions. But in practice, it was very much the other way round. Two routes were agreed from the vigil/rally point to the carnival with the police, depending on the numbers turning up. One meant going through the city centre if there were under 50 people, and avoiding it if more came along. Approximately 200 went on the march, which meant the latter route came into play. However, it seems the SWP had other plans. As it set off its activists rushed to the front of the demo without any consideration for the NorSCARF banner (where has that happened before?) Then in defiance of the agreed plan the SWP tried to break through police lines to try and march through Hanley. As well as trampling on NorSCARF's wishes, there were children on the demo too, so trying to provoke the police into a ruck wasn't the wisest of moves.
The icing on the SWP/UAF/LMHR cake was announced at last Monday's NorSCARF meeting. During the debate a couple of days before, the PCS rep announced to much applause that the union would be donating £2,000 to NorSCARF in recognition of its vital work against the BNP. It seems the announcement was noted by Weyman and Bunny too, as an itemised bill bearing LMHR's name was received by NorSCARF on Monday morning demanding almost £1,800! Of course, it was the first anyone heard we were going to be charged for LMHR's assistance. After all, the far left isn't in the general habit of getting involved in solidarity actions and campaigns and billing them for our work, so why is this different? A trade union rep who regularly attends the Stoke LMHR group has confirmed its deliberations have never discussed charging NorSCARF. Only those who compiled and sent the bill know why they did, but whatever the reason they have successfully pissed away the goodwill of the majority of NorSCARF activists. Another job well done, comrades!
You can almost see it now. Undoubtedly some will feign offence and incredulity that I bring this story to public attention in times such as these. But tough. There is a real political crisis in Stoke. If the BNP's ambitions aren't thwarted here the city can be their springboard into the political big time, which, given the political volatility that is sure to follow the economic crisis, could be dangerous for us all. To be blunt the stakes are too high for the SWP's arrogant and alienating shenanigans, and until it learns to act differently its shoddy behaviour deserves exposure in front of the entire movement.