Tuesday 21 May 2013

Losing the aura of competence

This is a guest post by S Wells

Since special conference, the sense has grown that the present leadership would be incapable of organising a demonstration, a union meeting, a t-shirt stall... if it did not have the notes left to it by others who had done the job  better over the past 60 years.  An obvious starting point is the publicity for this year’s Marxism festival, with the prominence it gives to such “highlights” as talks by Suzanne Jeffery, Joseph Choonara and Jane Hardy. The website takes what has been for years one of the best events on the left, and makes it feel old and unexciting.

The party now has a “theory” section on its website for which the primary criterion appears to have been the length of time the author has spent on the CC. There are 24 books and articles by Cliff, and 12 by Callinicos but a mere 2 by Paul Foot, 2 by Michael Kidron and 1 by Nigel Harris. There is no danger of any reader inadvertently being guided to the publications of the party’s more libertarian (and livelier) past. 

Then we have the troubles at  Socialist Worker;  beginning with an article in December calling for a vote for Labour against Respect’s Lee Jasper, and culminating in May’s attack on Owen Jones for supporting a referendum on the EU (a referendum which, as recently as this March, SW too had publicly supported). 

The paper has not always been especially lively; Chris Harman in particular was criminally ill-used as its editor, only blossoming again when he was allowed to edit the ISJ. But one thing Chris knew as a certainty was the importance of checking your articles, and only running a piece if you were sure.

Owen Jones has been an important ally of the SWP in recent years. When he speaks on platforms of UAF, UtR, anti-cuts groups, etc, he boosts the size of a meeting that would otherwise bring just 50 people, to three times that number or more. He is the shared megaphone of the left. In politics, it is perfectly legitimate to antagonise your former allies (Marx in particular spent decades doing it). But if you’re going to annoy them, do so for a reason, to get some benefit. What has the party gained? We have been made to look like a collective of cross toddlers, still irking at Jones’ snubbing of Marxism. Our pettiness has won us no friends at all. 

When you look at the rump party’s present leadership; the question that recurs is “why was he, or she, promoted?” I doubt there are many people outside our ranks who grasp quite how weak we now are. To put it as bluntly as I can; the second longest serving member of our central committee is Michael Bradley, our industrial organiser. Really, what seasoned union activist, finding themselves suddenly in a hard-spot, would phone Bradley for his advice?

At Tony Cliff’s 80th birthday celebration, Paul Foot imagined out loud the conversation that might have taken place between Cliff and the immigration officer who would have met him off the boat from Palestine. 
“You see officer, in fifty years’ time, I will have my own organisation, with about 100 people working for me, and something like 10,000 members.” (Imagine Foot’s parody of Cliff’s heavy, Jewish accent)
“An organisation, you say?” (Foot, in Blimp-mode)
“Yes, a left-wing political party.” 
“Ah, but we’ve got one of those already, the Labour Party.” 
“No officer, to the left of Labour.”
Here, Foot paused, acting out the officer racking his brain. “I think I’ve heard of them, the C-C-Comm-unists?” 
“No officer, because I say Russia is…”, the room was in guffaws long before Foot got to his “state capitalist” punchline.

We laughed, because the joke played to the party’s sense that we were the largest force on the far-left in Britain, and growing quickly. It was all of a piece with Chris Bambery, explaining to the party conference three years earlier, a phone call he had made to the Labour Party asking how well they were recruiting. “Not as fast as the bloody Trots”, he claimed to have been told. Or Charlie Kimber boasting in print of the “incredible statistic” that the Labour Party’s average age had ascended to the shocking figure of 48. The implied comparison was of course with ourselves; an organisation large often to threaten the Labour Party’s dominance, but with an average age (then) about 20 years lower. The future belonged to us, didn’t it?

Fast forward 20 years and it is a painful exercise to ask how much of Kimber’s polemic now applies to us: “Nor is the party just older. Its class base has shifted. A party which was once composed largely of workers is now dominated by wellintentioned members of the new middle class. They are committed to Labour ideas, but they are not in the main rooted in the workplaces and housing where most working class people, and most Labour voters, spend their time. Just one in four members are manual workers. Only 17 percent live in council houses compared with 25 percent of the whole population and 39 percent of Labour voters. There are as many Labour members in the lecturers’ union NATFHE (membership 70,000) as 
there are members in the public employees’ NUPE section of the UNISON union (membership 580,000)…” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1993/isj2-061/kimber.htm)

The SWP is not merely older than it was; it is also smaller. For those of us in the faction this was perhaps the most shocking of our recent experiences. When finally we managed to get hold of the membership lists (which once were issued, routinely, to all branch activists), we learned what a very long tail of non-members the party is carrying. In 1995, if a person had not paid subs within 2 years, they were removed from the membership lists. In 2013, a large majority of the party’s claimed membership had not paid anything for more than 2 years. We found entry after entry reading something like, “last subs: August 2001 £5.”  A party with a paper membership of around 7,000 turned out to have had just 2,300 subs paying members (and this was before the 350 resignations this March alone).

A party which cannot administer its own records is, by definition, a party on the verge of its demise. Because if you can’t say (even in private) what the real income is and what the real expenditure is, how on earth can you decide whether the party has too many journalists, organisers or (dare I ask) too many … managers?

S Wells


  1. never mind chaps, the party never achieved anything anyway, and nobody ever listens to loud mouthed malcontents either, especially not self proclaimed revolutionaries who for the most part wouldn't know what to do if a revolution (with all its concomitant destruction and horrors) really did ever come. No, best pack it in and go on and try and use the time to actually better other folks lives, rather than vainly shouting into the wind...

    1. Ignore him. He might go away

    2. ye fair enough, i'm gonna get bored of this pretty soon, but to be fair i am only making a helpful suggestions for the good of everybody, yourselves included, the SWP is a waste of time precisely because nobody but a few listen or care, i mean feel free to disagree but i cant think of any tangible achievements, and a protest does not count as an achievement if it doesn't stop what it is protesting about.
      i'm not trying to be a dick or anything, i wont bother to post anymore after this as i neither wish to nor have the time to get sucked into some intractable debate on a blog, just consider that you all could be spending your time doing something that matters and ACTUALLY really helps people because i am certain all of your morals (for the most part) are in the correct place, its just everything the SWP does is counterproductive of futile,and if that wasn't true, it'd be running the country by now...or at least well you get my point...

  2. I can think of tangible achievements- off the top of my head SWP members (I'm not one incidentally) are central to UAF , which has stopped the forward march of both the BNP and EDL pretty effectively. Much to the consternation of Iain Duncan Smith and the Daily Mail, a few SWP members were pretty effective in persuading firms to opt out of "workfare" recently. SWP members have been pretty central to Defend Council Housing, one of the most succesful - although very unreported- protest groups of our time. If you want to go back a bit in history, I can dig out the Police Reports of the Poll Tax protests which go on about the importance of the SWP, and they were succesful not just in terms of the Poll Tax, but also in fatally wounding Mrs T. - Solomon Hughes

    1. Much to my own annoyance it appears I am getting sucked into some intractable debate, and have made myself a hypocrite.
      Nevertheless I feel I must defend my previous point, Poll tax was a collective effort of a number of parties and people, which was a general opposition to a ridiculously unpopular policy and any one party taking credit would be grossly unfair, though if participation counts as an achievement then fair enough.
      As for UAF, whether it really has stopped the forward march of the BNP and EDL is questionable, counter-demonstrations being one thing I must accept are always present however, the reality of those two parties is that they are composed of, quite literally, idiots with some of the worst thought out and presented ideas imaginable, not only that but the members often find themselves unable to articulate these beliefs in anything beyond garbled anti-Islamic or anti-immigrant bigotry, which your argument there would presuppose that the British public is in essence composed of equally stupid or incredibly easily swayed people who without a diametric opposite presented to them as well would naturally gravitate towards whatever extreme pole existed at the time (and as for UKIP I note the SWP has been apparently unable to stop their rise). I rest the previous argument on the fact that not only Britain has never in history been much given to the far right or fascism it not being much within the political climate, but also those parties merely appeared strong and growing due to the inescapable scaremongering of the media, and few ever could muster more than several thousand.
      Finally, you hit upon a worthy point that perhaps as a protest group of some sort it has achieved some victories, often I must add as part of larger coalitions, though not to detract, however, its stated aim is not to be a protest group, but to incite socialist revolution, for which I still maintain it is a total waste of time. There are however, a plethora of other protest groups who do not share this particular ideological underpinning that have both lesser, equal or possibly greater claim to the successes stated above, as for workfare I know nothing of this so I must concede on that front.