Sunday 11 July 2010

Doncaster SWP: Why We Resigned

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.


Dear Martin

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’.

Image source


neprimerimye said...


One point of information the SWP recruited over 75 new members during the Marxism 2010 festival. Plus a number of others recruited at Pride the same weekend.

Anonymous said...

We didn't even know there was a Doncaster SWP branch ;-)

Lawrence Shaw said...

This is really fascinating.

Just a general observation; it seems to me that basically all of the revolutionary parties suffer in some way from a contradictory stance on trade union leaders and full-timers.

On the one hand, some are held up and paraded as posterboys/girls as the righteous leaders of the struggle for socialism who will forge the new party of the working class.

Simultaneously the line that it is the "union bureaucrats" who are "selling the working class short" is bandied about constantly in revolutionary left circles.

In other words, union full-timers are to be blamed for the crisis in working class representation, unless they are members/supporting of the respective parties, in which case they are bravely fighting the bureaucratic machines and turning the tide of the struggle. If a party controls part of a union, either nationally or locally, then that part of the union is portrayed as some kind of model of perfection upon which all struggles must be based.

My opinion is that trade union politics are viewed and portrayed on the left far too simply. It is a essentially battle between "good and evil", without any acceptance of the subtleties and sophistications of the debates on strategy and political outlooks within trade unions. Terms such as "conservative" and "right wing" are slung around, essentially towards anyone who doesn't agree with a particular line.

I don't think this over-simplification particularly assists left parties attempting to operate within unions.

Anonymous said...

75 new comrades, that must be a disappointingly low number

modernity said...


Does that even keep up with the existing members who are falling by the wayside?

As Mark Steel pointed out, the SWP continually lies about membership figures and even if that were the case only about seven would still be SWP members in a year's time.

Anonymous said...

Except the actual number was 165, but that's by the by and not what's important in this article.

The problem outlined here is that Doncaster seems to have been largely ignored because it is a "provincial" town. I can understand their decision to leave, and respect it but I do question some of their disagreements as perhaps being mistaken (particularly the question of how the SWP operates within StWC). The stuff about how the SWP operates is an important discussion, which isn't seriously being had, and maybe if it had we wouldn't see the situation where Doncaster branch resigns. It's a shame to see you leave.

I do, however, question that you will be more effective in Counterfire. To me counterfire seems to be totally ineffectual and based around the false notion that the most important movement now is StW and that there's no need for a revolutionary paper. All the same, I wish you well.

Ms Chief said...

This is quite enlightening this letter I feel both sorry but also perplexed for and by these comrades.

The SWP are always telling the trade union leadership how to be leaders yet when one of their members gets to be a "leader" then they are hyper critical. I am not saying what they are saying is wrong just that its interesting and does it mean unless they are in the complete leadership and at a time of growth for socialists comrades should not take on positions in the trade unions?

neprimerimye said...

1/ From what I gather the leadership of the SWP has become aware to the argument that what matters is retention of members not simply recruitment. Hence the lack of a score of comrades outside even the smallest of meetings at Marxism exhorting one to 'join the party'.

2/ It strikes me as naive ultra-leftism to expect comrades who have been elected to full-time positions in the unions to resign to appease members of their local branch with whom they are not in 100% accord. Indeed the dismantling of the SWPs organisational structures under the gentle hand of John Rees only made such comrades less accountable to the group as a whole. If there is a problem of this type in Doncaster then the comrades are looking in the wrong direction for its cause.

Anonymous said...

Is it individuals or the whole of Doncaster SWP branch that has resigned?

Frank Partisan said...


I think the trade unionists in a socialist group, should be closer to the organization than other sections. Consultation should be held on all work, and all positions. Unionists deal with both the most backward and corrupt elements, than other party members.

Lawrence Shaw said...

Just coming back to this, I do think their general frustration over the utter lack of coherent left response to the banking crisis is widespread amongst many on the left.

The once in a generation opportunity to nail the word "failed" in big neon letters to the mast of capitalism was wasted by the egos of the left parties more concerned with protecting their own bureaucracies and positions than building any sort of united response at a time when even the FT was questioning the future of the free market.

But instead the better-organised fash mopped up the anger and did their job of blunting it whilst the left tossed off, and now we are further away from an organised socialist alternative than we have ever been.

It is disappointing to see more and more resignations and splits, but sadly inevitable given the tired old methods and practices.

Jim Jepps said...

While this sort of thing is clearly the product of a political failure in the way the relationship between the branch and the national organisation has broken down I have to say I've read the ex-branch's specific criticisms quite carefully and I'm not entirely sure how justified they are.

In fact some of their points seem, well, wrong. In particular the idea that the "heart of the problem" is the attitude towards full-timers based on one case.

However, I suspect the root of this actually lies with the difficulty of squaring an overly centralised model with areas that experience problems quite specific to their local area.

The CC doesn't have a well worked out strategy for dealing with English Democrat Mayors because there is only one - and there aren't likely to be any more, which, I suspect, leaves the local branch feeling the national party and paper isn't much use to them.

Anyway, I'm unconvinced that their criticisms are particularly insightful and this sort of thing happens to all parties from time to time and I'd be cautious about rading into this some sort of imminent collapse of the SWP.

Anonymous said...

What the letter fails to mention is that the SWP stood 3 candidates (for 4 positions) in the elections for UNISON full timers in Doncaster UNISON in March. I can only presume supported by the Doncaster SWP branch.The outcome was only 1 was elected.

The irony is one of the candidates and her partner are signatories to this letter. Presumably their recent change in political perspective had nothing to do with the crushing defeat she had in the elections when she limped in last.

Daniel Ashton said...

So basically, a few activists fell out with a local TU full-timer, and because the CC didn't back them over it, have had a hissy fit and left?

All the stuff about Stop the War and Left Platform was interesting, but obviously just cover for what seems a typically parochial falling-out.

Anonymous said...

Odd the Doncaster resigners ( its not all the branch) should refer to an elected UNISON branch sec who is on full time release and is not a Full Time Officer.
As I remember he was victimised by his employer not long back for being too effective not something likely to happen to the handful of counterfire members who are active in unions.
In my area the counterfire people are happily working with in an entirely opportunist and uncritical way some of the most right wing witchunting UNISON bureaucrats in the country ,no mention there of the dangers of full time release.
Its of course sad that people leave revolutionary politics,which is what they have done as it is as clear as day the Rees fan club aka Counterfire is heading rapidly to the right.
Likewise in my area the Counterfire people play no role in UAF or in anti fascist activites and have effectively liquidated themselves into a bizarre group Left Unity which is led by two aged Labour Party members

Stuart king said...

The problem of controlling lay or full-time officials is not just an issue of "party control" it is a general issue. Unless we organise rank and file caucuses that can elect officials on fighting platforms we will never be able to hold them to account to the members.

Because the SWP abandoned the building of such organisations it helplessly swims along in the broad lefts, lefts that only want to control the apparatus not build a fighting base. Unite was a classic example with Derek Simpson hoisted into office by the broad left Gazette, then turning on them and sacking them all.

After much delay the SWP has decided to support Jerry Hicks for GS in Unite. But again is doing nothing to build out of this campaign a genuine network that can hold Jerry to account if he wins, and organise to fight the bureaucrats if he doesn't. And it is the same for their own members in elected positions, remember Jane Loftus?

luna17 said...

In response to the anon SWP member in Tyneside (see comment above):

1. The phrase 'an elected UNISON branch sec who is on full time release and is not a Full Time Officer' misses the point. One of the Doncaster comrades' points is that being on full time release can exert enormous pressure on individuals, pulling them into the bureaucracy and damging them politically. This is indeed what happened in Tyneside, where a SWP member was a Unison branch sec on 100% facility time - this was undoubtedly a major factor, if only one factor, in the severe political problems that developed with him.

There's nothing inevitable about this, but it is an acknowledged danger that has a material basis - and the Doncaster example is far from an isolated case in the SWP in recent years.

2. Anon says 'In my area the counterfire people are happily working with in an entirely opportunist and uncritical way some of the most right wing witchunting UNISON bureaucrats in the country ,no mention there of the dangers of full time release.' This is a reference to the fact we are happy to promote events organised by Public Services Alliance, which Unison is central to. It's called putting the need to build anti-cuts coaltions ahead of sectarian point-scoring.

There is nothing 'opportunist' about it. 'Uncritical'? In fact we maintain our own independent line which, yes, involves critical distance from the Unison bureacracy. It's also worth noting that everyone on the left locally - except the SWP - is co-operating with Unison, and other trade unionists, in developing anti-cuts campaigns. And a good thing too.

3. Anon says 'Its of course sad that people leave revolutionary politics,which is what they have done as it is as clear as day the Rees fan club aka Counterfire is heading rapidly to the right.' No attempt at providing evidence here - for the simple reason that there isn't any. Also, the personalised nature of this criticism illustrates why Tyneside SWP's leadership has lost so much credibility and sympathy in recent months.

4. Anon says 'in my area the Counterfire people play no role in UAF or in anti fascist activites'. This is cheap personal moralism, obviously. It's also a little odd because the 2 local SWP full-timers have recently pushed through, undemocratically, the suspension of a Counterfire member from the committee of North East UAF (plus the suspension of another well-respected activist). This has led to several non-SWP activists leaving UAF in disgust, and reduced UAF locally to the staus of a SWP front.

We, meanwhile, are centrally involved in the local organisation of Stop the War, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and anti-cuts initiatives (despite being a small group). One of our members is on the committee of North East Shop Stewards Network. Tyneside SWP has sadly retreated from most areas of political activity - including total abandonment of Stop the War - and is focusing almost exclusively on party routines.

5. Anon says we 'have effectively liquidated themselves into a bizarre group Left Unity which is led by two aged Labour Party members'. Now, this kind of personal and apolitical abuse really won't do, will it? Anyone involved in Left Unity who reads that will find it offensive. It will reinforce their perception that the SWP locally is in terminal sectarian decline and won't co-operate with anyone. It isn't a 'bizarre group', but one that's had 20-30 people at its last few planning meetings, including Greens, Labour leftwingers and trade union reps.

It should also be obvious that we in Counterfire haven't 'liquidated' - we have our own public meetings and organising meetings, while also being involved in broader campaigns and organisations (in which we often argue with others about differing strategy and tactics). That's what's traditionally meant when revolutionaries talk about united front method.

johng said...

Ted said...

I agree with anon - StW is by far one of the least important campaigns at the moment. I live in Doncaster and feel it is just a parochial falling out heightened by personal infighting. Though I always argued that the SWP was to bureaucratic and centralised, sending out 'orders' that were irrelevant to our town and situation, Doncaster members were way too loyal. Now more in-fighting has broken out in Counterfire within this town which has become personal between very long-term comrades. Could CF be gone before its started?