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Ten years on: a comment on the British SWP

The recent conflict within the Socialist Workers Party over allegations of serious personal misconduct by a leading member has brought back sharply my own rupture with the (then) SWP leadership, ten years ago, and how this was handled by the party (of which I’ve never been a member).

To explain. After twenty years hard graft in the Labour Party I resigned in 2000 and became active in the Socialist Alliance campaign for the London Assembly. A year later, I was joined in the SA by my partner, Liz Davies, who had been a Labour councillor and an elected member of Labour’s National Executive. Liz was elected chair of the SA national executive in late 2001. As such she was made one of the signatories for the Socialist Alliance’s (meagre) bank account.

In autumn of 2002, we discovered that Liz’s signature was being forged on Socialist Alliance cheques. The forging was being done by people in the SA office, members of the SWP whom we knew to be in daily contact with the SWP leadership. When Liz raised the discovery with the SWP leadership, she was met with hostility. None of this was to be discussed by anybody. That was not acceptable to her. She brought the matter to the SA Executive. In the course of the discussion there it became apparent to Liz that there was a comprehensive refusal to grasp the seriousness of the offence or to take any meaningful measures in response. That was articulated by one SWPer at the meeting who said it would have been wrong not to forge the signature since the money was needed to get placards on a demo. Liz resigned in disgust and I followed soon after.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say but for those with doubts: by forging the signatures, these people were making unauthorised use of the dues paid to the SA by its members. They did it not once but repeatedly, and were only found out by accident. This was a sustained, furtive, and calculated violation of democracy and basic standards of probity, a high handed abuse of power, displaying contempt for the SA and its members.

Sadly not only the SWP but also most of the other groups involved in the SA could not grasp this. It suited them all for various reasons to downplay the whole thing. For some it served as an excuse to marginalise strong unaffiliated voices within the SA.

People on both sides of the current SWP conflict have understandably taken offence at the way they have been labelled by opponents. But this has been the modus operandi of the SWP towards critics outside its ranks for ages. Time and again, crude categorisations, given a spurious Marxist veneer, have taken the place of real engagement with the issues in question.

In the wake of our departure from the SA, we were dismissed as “Labourists” or “reformists” preoccupied with “formalistic bourgeois morality”. SWP leaders put it about that we were going to go to the police about the matter – an allegation that said more about their own petty mentality than it did about us.

In fact, because of the political situation in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, we kept our counsel: it was obvious that this incident could be used to attack the Stop the War Coalition. Nonetheless we were treated by the SWP as persona non-grata at meetings of various kinds, our every intervention met with suspicion.

Some months after the invasion had turned into a long-term occupation, and the anti-war movement was taking stock, I wrote a piece critical of the SWP’s methods – it mentioned no names, made no personal references of any kind, and referred once only in passing to the cheque forgery incident, without giving details. In response, an article penned by the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition appeared in both the Morning Star and Socialist Review attacking me by name, lumping me in with Nick Cohen and David Aronovitch as an enemy of the Coalition, stating that I had played no role in the movement for the past year – which the authors of the piece knew to be untrue – and dismissing my concerns as the result of “personal bitterness”. There was no attempt at all to respond to what I’d actually said in the original article.

So I have to say that many features of the SWP’s current internal dispute seem bitterly familiar to me: treatment of whistle-blowers, smearing of critics, blaming victims, the unaccountability of leading cadre. When I see SWP members valiantly insisting that the recent dispute is nobody’s business but their own, I have to demur.

Some years later, when John Rees at al departed the SWP, SWP members approached me to say that we must be pleased with this development and suggesting that all could be forgotten now. But I saw and see no evidence of the SWP examining itself with the seriousness required. The question was and is: how was it that a socialist organisation that claims to be democratic could allow people with a coarse disregard for accountability in all spheres run their organisation unchecked for years? How was it that the SWP leadership’s obviously contrived and incomplete account of their rupture with us (described by them as a dispute over “administrative procedures”) went unquestioned by the vast majority of members, including the scores with whom we had worked amicably and constructively? Only three individuals (two of them now long gone from the party) were even willing to talk about the matter with us.

Shortly after I first learned about the forgeries, I made an effort to talk about it confidentially with three long standing SWP activists with whom I felt I had a personal relationship. Not one of them was prepared to accept that there could be any truth in what they referred to as “these allegations”. It spoke to me of a party culture of denial and solipsism.

Coming from a left Labour and trade union background, I was from the first taken aback by the SWP’s lax approach to what it regarded as the finer points of accountability and organisational integrity. For us in the Labour left, the whole battle had been about accountability, about members’ rights and power; we had no interest in joining an alternative that did not meaningfully enfranchise us – for which things like accurate and detailed minutes, reports from officers, etc. are a sine qua non. The cheque forgery was one example of the kind of misbehaviour that people with serious experience in the labour movement would never countenance. But the aura of “revolutionary” superiority in which the SWP wraps itself enables it to skate past all kinds of questions that are the daily diet of people in the broader movement. Perhaps that’s now coming back to haunt the SWP as they wrestle with the issues revolving around the current dispute.