Since the departure of Counterfire from the ranks of the SWP earlier this year, you could be forgiven for thinking the party had settled down and things were tickety-boo. The SWP came through the Unite/BA debacle without a hit to its organisation (of course, the same cannot be said for its reputation among the wider labour movement - something it evidently doesn't care about). And after recruiting a couple of dozen at this year's Marxism, the SWP could look forward to a summer of routine activism and getting stuck into (and taking over?) the anti-cuts campaigns that are mushrooming at the moment.
Unfortunately for the national leadership, its immediate perspective of putting all its eggs in the Right to Work basket has contributed to a position some members feel is out of touch with the localities. For Doncaster branch, whose resignation letter is reproduced below, the "lead" coming from the centre sits uneasily with the political situation in the town: one characterised by the election of an English Democrat as mayor, a collapse in local government, the death of seven 'at risk' children - and this is before the Tory/LibDem cuts really start to bite. For this and a number of other reasons contained in the letter, virtually the entire branch membership has left.
Politically, I think a couple of the positions the Doncaster comrades take up in their letter are mistaken. I think they overestimate the extent decisive leadership at the height of the banking crisis could have effected Greek-style protests and mass radicalisation: after years of defeat and demoralisation, few felt a burning need to hit the streets against what was happening (in my opinion, the SWP did a good job organising the few protests against the City that took place). I also think the comrades do not appreciate the difficulty a full time union official would have in encouraging rank and file organisation - but they are right to take the leadership to task for not theorising the contradiction between the SWP's fetish for action independent of a union's apparatus and its silent acceptance of members who work in full time positions.
The resignations will be something of a blow to the SWP. I'm given to understand that the branch was extremely active, and contained several long-term cadre - including the few remaining ex-miners still in the SWP. The question is whether the SWP can learn from the criticisms the Doncaster comrades raise, or whether it will be "noted" and passed over in silence. You don't need Paul the Psychic Octopus to tell you what the most likely outcome will be.
The letter has been lightly edited to remove comrades' names and some of the discussion of a leadership-loyal trade unionist.
After many years of operating as loyal party members, it is with sadness that we have decided to resign from the SWP; this is because our experiences have led us to conclude that the party is no longer ‘fit for purpose’.
We faced a dilemma whether or not to leave because we know the worst recession in living memory is about to hit the working class, which is being made a scapegoat for a crisis the bankers created. We feel it is, however, necessary to resign in order to operate more effectively as socialists.
Over the last year, many of us have had misgivings about the party and the perspective and this was reflected in the number of comrades from Doncaster who broadly sympathised with Left Platform at Party Conference. We think you were mistaken when you argued that we could not have a united front against the recession, although we believe you belatedly attempted to remedy this by launching Right to Work. Nevertheless, as a result, we lost valuable ground when we could have been initiating protests against the banks when the crisis first broke. If we had related to the anger and the first effects of the crisis more imaginatively, instead of introspection, we would now be better placed to resist the coming avalanche and look to a Greek-style response rather than an Irish type defeat.
Another area of concern for us is your attitude to Stop the War. At times the Party has downplayed its importance, not mobilised properly for demonstrations and appeared sectarian because it has appeared our only involvement in it is to recruit around flashpoints and not sustain a durable movement. Yet, as the death toll increases, our continued involvement in Stop the War is vital as workers can now more easily see the link between the imperialist quagmire that is Afghanistan and public sector cuts. It is the job of socialists to make the links between the job losses, pay cuts and pension hikes at home and the waste and carnage abroad. To do this consistently, we have to consistently intervene.
Perhaps the catalyst for our estrangement from the Party has been the Party’s attitude to work in the unions. This is a particularly significant issue for us in Doncaster because over the last two years there have been heated disagreements about how we have operated. Bearing in mind the circumstances, the question of our intervention has become acute. We are dubbed the ‘worst council in Britain’, have had a government appointed administration foisted on us which has usurped local democracy and determined where £4.5 million of cuts will hit. We have a bigoted English Democrat mayor who has called for all our schools to become academies and shamefully the council has overseen a scandal of national importance with the deaths of seven children as a result of under funding in Children’s Services. Moreover, because of the forthcoming Con-Dem public sector cuts, Doncaster will be particularly hard hit.
The public sector is by far and away the largest employer and public sector job losses will devastate our town. Indeed, the Financial Times has estimated that as a consequence of the cuts our local economy will shrink between 10% to 20%. As an area that is still coming to terms with the loss of mining and manufacturing jobs, the cuts will spell disaster both for workers and service provision. It is absolutely imperative, therefore, that our trade union work is systematic and effective. Unfortunately, over the last two years this has not been the case – particularly in Doncaster UNISON.
At the heart of the problem, we believe, is the Party’s position on comrades taking full-time positions. Of course, sometimes it is necessary to take positions to increase the self-activity of the rank and file or to take a position to stop union organisation disintegrating. But we believe that in this present period, where there is an absence of rank and file organisation, full facility time should only be contemplated in exceptional circumstances and only on the proviso that the party closely monitors the comrade’s work, which must involve the CC, the local SWP branch and the respective union fraction.
In relation to comrades occupying full time positions, we believe these Party organs fail to function effectively. The lack of a clear lead bedevilled our intervention in UNISON and exacerbated the friction between the Unison full time Branch Secretary, and the rest of the SWP branch. We feel that the last SWP meeting we attended, in which a CC member tried to mediate between two Unison comrades and the rest of the branch, clearly illustrates the extent to which the Party has erred not just around the tactical issue of when SWP members should hold trade union positions but also on the question of how to make comrades in union positions accountable.
Let us be clear: this is not a personal attack on the comrade. However, we believe he has become a victim of an industrial perspective that is flawed because it allows comrades to operate in full time posts without sufficient support.
It is not an aim of this letter to catalogue his errors in detail. In a general sense, he has not developed the combativity and self-activity of the working class. Furthermore, he does not relate to the most advanced workers. He neither distributes party leaflets nor sells Socialist Worker. This is not to castigate, but to recognise that he been floundering for some time. We find it reprehensible that when we contacted the centre to warn about his behaviour, our concerns were not taken seriously. Not recognising his increasing bureaucratisation automatically brought the party into disrepute. We can recall the criticisms of those workers in different disputes that wanted to fight but felt resentment at the lack of urgency and resolve to prosecute campaigns. Of much greater importance, of course, is the effect on the working class.
We feel that as a full timer, he received continuous and strong support from the Doncaster SWP branch. However, he consistently ignored this support and sought advice from other comrades in Unison (outside the branch). Whilst we recognise that comrades should be encouraged to talk to other fraction comrades, relevant discussions should be brought back to the branch for analysis. This was not done: instead, he often acted unilaterally against branch decisions. To activists outside the party, this made us appear divided and indecisive with no clear strategy. We feel this results from the lack of political support that the CC gave Doncaster SWP branch and Unison comrades.
As a branch, we are neither a grouping of intellectuals nor do we profess to be the best comrades in the party. But, as a collective of activists that has its roots in the mining and manufacturing and who regularly benefited from Cliff’s input, we think we are equipped to know when a comrade is selling the working class short. And we remain adamant he should have resigned for the sake of his political integrity, the Party and the class. We are bemused as to why you consistently declined to ask the necessary questions that would expose the roots of our political differences. And here, it is necessary to state our differences are political, not organisational. Suffice to say, if the CC had intervened correctly, we would be much better placed to challenge the cost-cutting policies of the ‘worst council in Britain’ and the English Democrat mayor who runs it.
We believe the fulltimer's conduct is a symptom of a wider malaise. In short, the party has lost direction. It is now possible to see how you could allow a situation to develop whereby party member, Jane Loftus a CWU NEC member, could break party discipline and sell out CWU members. We were also stunned by your decision to substitute the party for Unite members and interrupt the talks between BA and Unite. This act of unwitting sectarianism led to a close contact and steward at Superdrug to be derided at work thus alienating him from the Party.
Objectively, in the past, we feel that you failed to come to terms with the disjuncture between the heightened political atmosphere that existed around Stop the War and the low level of industrial struggle. As a result we fear the party has comrades who are stranded in bureaucratic positions and, without the disciplining influence of a militant rank and file, they are increasingly pulled towards conservatism. We believe this conservatism is now affecting how the party operates.
The Party used to be dynamic, imaginative and related brilliantly to the best fighters. Now we fear you have become tired and formulaic. One example is instructive; after the election of the English Democrat mayor, we had a branch meeting of well over fifty people who recognised the threat that the mayor posed. The CC failed to recognise this threat, which further emphasises that they are out of step with the rank and file. While our local newspaper, The Doncaster Free Press, was receiving letters from all around the country commenting on the ED mayor's election the leadership of Socialist Worker, despite our concerns, did little to give us direction.
We also feel disquiet with your approach to the EDL. The tactics adopted during the protest against the EDL in Bolton were partly responsible for dividing the very large demo into three smaller groups. This left us looking smaller than we actually were and allowed the police a free rein to make mass arrests. At times you seemed to lead us into unnecessary aggravation, which gave the media the opportunity to portray the UAF as the aggressors. All revolutionary parties make mistakes, what worries us is your reluctance to rectify these errors.
After our recent discussions, it is evident you will not change tack. In light of this, to remain as party members would compromise our integrity and leave leading socialists in Doncaster in a state of paralysis. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to make a reluctant but essential break, which will allow us to operate as revolutionaries without being hindered by sections of the party that have been allowed to make unnecessary compromises with the trade union bureaucracy, and therefore blunt our effectiveness. Although we now belong to a considerably smaller organisation, Counterfire, we think we are better placed to resist the cuts and fight war and imperialism and, therefore, bring new layers of workers towards revolutionary politics.
Of course, we recognise that there are many committed comrades in the party and we wish them luck in the coming struggles. Let us maintain our integrity, respect our differences and, in a non-sectarian way, develop the struggle for a better world. In the words of Trotsky: let us ‘march separately but strike together’.