Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The crisis in the SWP: part I

This is the first in a series of posts where I explain the crisis in the party from my own perspective.  Necessarily, it's a highly personal and therefore partial take.  But I have to put it into words - a lot of words - and hope some of it will be useful.  And then, on to other things.

On Wednesday 5th December 2012, a comrade pulled me aside and said he had to tell me about a 'shitstorm' that was about to hit the party.  His account was oracular, sparing of detail, but I gathered that it pertained to a scandal that I thought I already knew about.

What I had understood was that the national secretary of the party had behaved inappropriately in a relationship.  It seemed to involve something like excessive texting amounting to harassment.  At the 2011 party conference, he had stepped down as national secretary and made a speech bemoaning the malicious rumours about himself.  He admitted that he wasn't perfect, but pleaded that he wasn't getting any younger and was apt to make mistakes.  There had been an attempt by his allies to rally supporters, resulting in some comrades giving him a standing, foot-stamping ovation.  Many of us thought that was totally inappropriate, and that any other member would have been disciplined.  We were appalled to lose good, experienced members over this.  But he was taking a demotion, and that, if not good enough, seemed to be something. 

What I was now given to understand was that it was a bit worse than texting, and that many members - especially students - were up in arms about this.  It could split the party.  "Hold on a minute," I said.  "To be clear.  Are we talking about an actual split?  Another one?"  Shrug.  "Fucking hell."  In the next few days, I contacted several members whom I was assured would give me a sensible perspective on the matter - all people I knew and trusted anyway.  Not so oracular this time.  The allegation was closer to rape.  Closer to, or...?  "Well...".  "Jesus fuck."  There had been a cover up.  Another woman had made allegations of sexual harassment where the pattern of behaviour was strikingly similar to that of the rape allegations.  She lost her party job; she had effectively been sacked for complaining of sexual harassment.  The investigation into the rape allegation was corrupt.  Sexist and hostile questions had been asked of the women.  (Like a drink, do you?).  One of the CC's appointees to the Disputes Committee investigating the issue was a loyal lieutenant of the accused.  The leadership was in complete denial, bunkered.  "But surely not...?"  "He's the worst."  Students were being screamed at by cynical hacks.  Others verified the story in all important details.

"Just thinking cynically," I began to rant.  "How can we, after a year in which there have been non-stop scandals about rape and the abuse of power, about cover-ups, about rape culture and apology, have a response that is anything other than completely principled, and expect to survive?  We denounced George Galloway for his comments about Assange!  We've filled Socialist Worker with articles about the corruption of the police, the BBC, the Tories, and so on, in the Saville rape scandal!  Can't the leadership see that, even if they somehow think all this is defensible, no one in the real world will buy it?"  "Uh huh."

There was a wider context.  Most people who knew the story seemed to agree that this acute crisis couldn't be separated from a wider, chronic crisis in the party.  It wasn't just the obvious corruption.  It was that, if a sudden devastating calamity like this could be visited on the party, with most members knowing nothing about it, and being able to do nothing about it, there was obviously a massive problem with party democracy and accountability.  We had already this before - repeated splits and crises, which descend on the membership overnight, out of nowhere.  The point of the Democracy Commission, and the votes at conference in favour of opening up party publications to debates in the movement, was to get away from that way of doing things.  There was also a sense, for some, that the leadership itself was totally enervated.  Its contributions to the preconference Internal Bulletins had been strikingly vapid.  Its strategy for fighting the cuts was going nowhere, and it had no real analysis as to why that was.  Possibly, being bogged down in a constant internal war that was hidden from most members had something to do with this.

Very soon, it turned out that four members, one of whom I knew, had been expelled from the party.  They were accused of secret factionalising after a Facebook thread, in which they participated, was leaked to the central committee.  There had been no attempt to investigate, no interviews, not even the courtesy of a phone call.  They had been expelled by email.  The expulsion had been voted for unanimously by the central committee, despite there being four CC members ostensibly in opposition.  A comrade got in touch to say this was a game changer.  The CC had sent a clear signal that they didn't want debate on this issue.  They were not allowing discussion at aggregates, and now they were cracking down on private discussion.  All of those who had concerns had to form a legitimate faction to give themselves rights and protect themselves.  It was also important to take the opportunity to inform comrades and campaign on the issue - without a faction, that couldn't happen.

I waffled.  The whole thing seemed ill-conceived to me.  It was the last few weeks before conference, most of which would be the holidays.  All three Internal Bulletins had been written and sent out, so there would be no opportunity to submit documents.  Further, the faction statement seemed a bit thin in terms of its analysis.  In general, I thought it was premature, and that this was going to be a year-long fight.  So I declined, at first, to join the Democratic Opposition.  

Later that week, I spoke to a member of the CC, one of those nurturing a secret dissent, over coffee.  He seemed sane, and gave the impression that he was ready to take a stand and lose his job.  But he defended the expulsion of the four members - even though, when I suggested that it looked like a bureaucratic manoeuvre to stymy debate, he gave me a look which suggested that this wasn't implausible.  He also tried to say that "the reach of attack blogs like Socialist Unity and the Association of Musical Marxists is not very big".  I said, "if there are people on the CC who are making this argument, they are out of their minds.  They couldn't conceal Gerry Healy's actions back in the 1980s, before the internet; this is going to be in the Daily Mail!  All the papers that hate our guts will love this."  "Yeah, I know," he said.  "The nightmare scenario is an attack piece by Laurie Penny."  

Some gentle harangues from friends and comrades, and my fiancee, persuaded me that I was probably being precious about the faction.  Concretely, it was either this or putting my faith in the CC dissidents, who had just voted unanimously to expel four comrades.  Seeing the list of signatories, mostly student members, decided it.  If they were willing to stick their necks out, it would be petty for me to skulk around in the background giving the odd nudge and wink to the right person, but avoiding trouble for myself.  I wrote to the faction leadership on 22nd December and told them I'd be happy to join.