February 1, 2013

How did we get here?

Since the SWP national conference, held in January 2013, the party has been seen serious division and a faction has now formed in opposition to the central committee (CC). We have taken the unusual step of calling a special conference to resolve this matter. Whatever the specific issues that have been raised in recent debates, the CC believes that we now face decisions about what sort of party we are and the way the party’s democracy operates.

As the motion proposed by the CC, and passed by 39 votes to eight at the National Committee (NC) on 3 February said, “The SWP stands out on the left by the fact that it has a history of genuine democratic debate without permanent factionalism. We have developed democratic and accountable structures from our branches, elected district committees, the national committee and disputes committee, central committee, party councils and conference. In the recent period these structures were re-examined and strengthened by the work of the SWP democracy commission. We have full confidence in these structures and the method of democratic centralism.”

This method works. For example, the party had a sustained debate over whether to support Len McCluskey or Jerry Hicks for general secretary of Unite. The party Unite fraction was split between the two candidates almost equally. At the conference we had a serious debate and then voted to back Hicks. As a result virtually all our Unite members, whatever their original views, hurled themselves into backing Hicks. This has contributed strongly to him winning over 100 branch nominations. There will now be a serious debate over several weeks in this important union. We could never have had this impact if each of our members had done what they individually believed was best, or had refused to accept the decision of conference.

Democratic centralism—full debate before a decision, united implementation afterwards—is what enables the party to punch above its weight. We are against permanent factions because they institute a regime of permanent oppositions and of continual divisions on a factional basis. Every issue becomes a matter of “our” faction’s victory or defeat. This would hamper our ability to engage in serious debate and discussion.

Yet within days of the NC’s overwhelming vote to reaffirm the decisions of the January conference and to offer a way forward to resolve the debates inside the party, a faction had been formed outside the pre-conference period. If it had been allowed to operate as it wished, it would have meant 11 months of a faction inside our party, with all that involves—factional meetings, speaking rights at district events and the distribution of documents to members. It is likely that other factions would have formed on the same basis, turning our party away from external intervention and towards internal matters.

The faction has embraced every shade of opposition to the central committee, including people such as Richard S, who have played a destructive role. It then held a five hour meeting that was closed to party members who were not members of the faction. It had a wide-ranging political agenda, including “The IS tradition”, “Student work”, “The disputes committee and proposals to change it”. Our tradition has always been that faction meetings should be open to all party members, so they can debate the major political issues the faction raises, although a section can properly be set aside for a “faction members’ only” caucus to discuss its tactics. That was the procedure followed at the annual conference in January and by the “Left Faction” that formed in 2009.

We have called the special conference because we need a swift decision about the way forward. This is simply too urgent a moment to be divided. The economic crisis grows worse and the attacks on working people intensify. The trade union and Labour Party leaders continue to hold back struggle, but there are signs of a shift in the pace and scale of resistance. There is not yet a generalised fightback, but 250,000 civil service workers are balloting for a national strike and local strikes can take on a new importance as they focus the widespread feeling that there ought to be more resistance.

There have also been significant mobilisations in several areas in against NHS cuts, closures and privatisation, from the extraordinary march of 30,000 people in Lewisham, south east London, to the 600-strong meeting against cuts at the Whittington hospital in north London and the rally of 1,000 people in protest at the planned closure of Blaenau Ffestiniog hospital in Gwynedd. Local cuts groups that have been dormant or simply going through the motions are infused with new determination and life as more and more people see the fearsome toll of the local attacks and are forced to fight or see their services torn away. The sustained student occupation at Sussex University is a very welcome sign of the potential for renewed struggle in the universities and colleges. New issues are emerging such as the fight against the bedroom tax—already leading to big meetings in Liverpool, London and Leeds. Hundreds of thousands of people are bitterly angry at the damage the Tories are doing to their lives. An issue such as the bedroom tax can suddenly focus that feeling.

Meanwhile the fascists seek to make new efforts to profit from the crisis and the disgusting racism peddled by the mainstream political leaders. Inspired by the growth of Nazi groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece, the depleted ranks of the British fascists are trying to regroup along with their European allies. That is why Marine Le Pen from France’s National Front came to Cambridge University last month.

There is much to do, much to debate, much to organise around.

However, it is clear that a section of the party has never accepted that the decisions of our national conference were legitimate. We do not believe that once a vote is announced at conference that an issue is automatically won throughout the party. It often takes months to explain and convince party members. And we have to subject decisions to the test of practice. But we have to begin from accepting the decisions. That is why more is at stake than the decisions or procedures of the disputes committee. Yet we cannot ignore the questions this has raised—partly because we take such matters seriously but also because the case has been hedged around with so many lies and so much misinformation.

The Disputes Committee

The faction is far from homogenous in its motivations or what it seeks to achieve. But the immediate issue that led to its formation was the handling of a disciplinary case in which a comrade, known as W, brought a serious accusation against someone who was at the time a member of the central committee.

The case was referred to the disputes committee in line with W’s wishes. This is an elected body, independent of the central committee, which considers disciplinary matters. The disputes committee made a careful consideration of the statements from the parties involved. It also listened to all those who had been called by those involved. On the basis of its deliberations, members of the disputes committee reached a finding that they did not think that the accused comrade had raped W. They also found that all other areas of sexual misconduct they investigated were not proved and that no disciplinary action should be taken.

Conference heard the report of the disputes committee and, after what was generally agreed to be a calm, serious and fair discussion of the content, voted by a small majority to accept it. By the close of conference the vast majority of delegates, including most of those who voted against the disputes committee report, felt that the matter was now resolved. How did this unravel?

One claim made by a hard minority of the opposition is that we were unable to defend our position once SWP members, and the wider left, heard about the disputes committee session. But some of those making this claim never sought to defend the party. Within days of conference, one member had spoken to a journalist, who wrote a critical article in the New Statesman. Another had gone public on his blog to criticise the decision of conference and campaign against it. A number of leading intellectuals associated with the Historical Materialism project, who have previously spoken at our events, wrote a letter claiming they would no longer speak on our platforms; they did so after consulting comrades, who were, at the very least, unwilling to argue for the position taken by conference.

A second claim, again, made by a hard minority of the opposition, is that the leaking of this matter to the bourgeois press, with articles appearing in the Independent, Times and Daily Mail, was inevitable given modern technologies such as Facebook and Twitter. We disagree. Comrades have run websites and email lists since the early 1990s. Never before has a transcript of a session of conference been leaked on the Internet by a delegate within 24 hours of the conference ending, as happened in this case.

It is disgraceful that someone at the January conference took this step, abusing the trust of all involved. Not only did they distribute a transcript of the debate, they supplied full names, which are still available on some websites. This provided the raw material for the Daily Mail’s witch hunting article against women members of the disputes committee. This is not a game. It can affect people’s livelihoods and jobs.

The transcript was not inevitable, nor was it inevitable that a journalist on Socialist Worker (who had never raised a word of criticism of the party’s position beforehand) would resign immediately after the conference and write a lengthy article for a sectarian publication attacking the party. But it is these two “leaks”, along with a small minority of comrades who have breached party discipline to campaign against the decision of conference publicly, that supplied the ammunition used to attack the party.

Some of those within the faction formed to oppose the CC would probably agree with our condemnation of the leaks and public attacks on the party. But, they say, they feel disarmed in defending the position taken by conference. Yet lots of members of the party have been able to explain the processes we followed, our position on women’s oppression, and the serious way in which this case was handled—and in doing so have managed to maintain good relations with those working alongside us in the unions, on campuses and in campaigns.

This has included our members in unions in which there are sharp debates taking place and in which this matter could be expected to be used to attack the party.

That is not to say that the issue hasn’t been and won’t be taken up by some people hostile to the party; it has and will. But what matters is how comrades respond. When someone says, “The SWP has acted disgracefully. The leadership are sexists and the process was a sham” you can explain how we took the case seriously, defend our record of fighting for women’s liberation and rebut the lies. Or you can agree with the person making the criticism. If you do go along with their attacks, don’t be surprised if there’s further denigration and the SWP’s name is in tatters around you.

The action of a minority of the opposition who have publicly attacked the party has made it far easier for our critics and far harder for comrades who genuinely want to defend the outcome of conference.

Setting the Record Straight

Before considering the steps we wish to take and the wider political issues at stake, it is necessary to respond to some of the mass of misinformation now circulating as “fact” in order to arm comrades involved in discussions in the outside world.

One criticism aimed at us mainly by those outside of the party is that we were not competent to handle an allegation of this kind. The implication is that the case should have been handed to the police and courts to resolve. Our position is that in these kinds of cases (and we know of only one other that the party has dealt with in recent memory—we do not know where the figure of “nine rape cases” that has circulated on the Internet comes from) is that it is up to the woman to decide whether she wishes to take the matter to the police.

There would rightly be an outcry if we responded to such a complaint by refusing to refer it to the disputes committee or pressured the complainant to go to the state.

It is alleged that the line of questioning faced by W was inappropriate. There was one question asked of W that has been contentious, and the disputes committee made clear at conference that it concerned clarifying a piece of written evidence brought to the dispute. Contrary to some claims that have circulated W was never asked about the clothes she wore or her drinking habits.

Another accusation is that the members of the disputes committee must have been biased in favour of the leading member of the party, and a different disputes committee should have been chosen, perhaps involving those outside the party.

We do not feel that involving non-party members would help. The strength of our method is that it involves choosing a group of experienced members who share a common political approach, are keenly aware of our understanding of women’s oppression, and who are accountable to conference. They are elected at the start of the year without any knowledge of the cases they will oversee. Perhaps, it is argued, other party members should have been involved in this case. It is unlikely in a party of our size that experienced members could have been found who did not know a leading member of the party.

But whatever one thinks of the pros and cons of co-opting more members, we reject the notion that

“unconscious bias” in these matters cannot be overcome. We hold that, on the basis of their political commitments, comrades can operate in an unbiased manner. Indeed they took special care at their hearings to consider this factor and to overcome it.

Of course, this does not mean that the disputes committee is infallible. Principled comrades, acting in good faith and with a shared understanding of the issues at stake, can reach different conclusions from one another. That is why the decisions of the disputes committee are put to conference, rather than being automatically binding on the party. But that does not mean that conference hears all of the evidence and effectively re-runs the case. Confidentiality of the parties involved, and the need for a great deal of time to examine the case, does not allow that. Only the disputes committee hears the full evidence and statements. It is for conference to decide whether they are confident of the basis on which the decisions were made. In this case, conference decided it was. Comrades must accept that they will never hear all the evidence in this or any other disputes committee case.

It has been alleged that those who brought, or acted as witnesses in, the case have been accused of being motivated by political considerations. This is not true. They too are comrades in good standing. At no point have they been accused of lying. We oppose any smears against either party to this case. We also condemn the extent to which information in this case has leaked out in the run-up to conference.

It has also been claimed that the CC is planning a mass purge of members or a split in the organisation, and this claim has motivated some of the experienced members who joined the recently announced faction. However, a simple question should be asked: where is the evidence for this? The breaches of party discipline by a hard minority of those in the opposition are among the most grave in the history of the party—without question we could take the firmest possible action against some of them if we wished. Plenty of members are clamouring for us to do so. We have not. We want to defeat the hard minority who oppose us on a clear political basis, and we want to win those with genuine concerns to a position where they can confidently defend the outcome of the January 2013 conference.

One final accusation that has been taken up and used against the party is the notion that “feminism” is used as a term of abuse by leading members. This is not the case. We remain committed to working with feminists against women’s oppression. Our theoretical position on women’s oppression is a Marxist one, distinct from the positions taken by the various strands of feminism today and historically.

We want to fight for leadership within the various movements to challenge the oppression of women. But given that Marxism is a minority position within these movements, we would be foolish in the extreme if our starting point was one of denunciation of either convinced feminists or those who call themselves feminists without holding a firm theoretical position.

This approach has informed our intervention in, say, the recent “slutwalk” movement, the Abortion Rights campaign, our meetings and our recent theoretical writings on the subject.

The steps to be taken<

The degree of contention surrounding the various issues arising since conference has become such that sections of the party are finding it hard to function in a constructive and unified manner. Some branches and districts have become extremely inward-looking in the weeks following conference.

We have sought to engage with comrades’ concerns and end the partial paralysis, through conference report backs, discussions at branch and district level, by meeting individuals who have raised issues, and through a national committee that upheld the positions of conference and the central committee. But it has become clear that without a settling of accounts by the party as a whole, we will not be able to move forward. That is why we have called a special conference.

We hope that the conference will establish six things.

First, we are asking for the special conference to uphold the decision of our annual conference in January 2013 and of the NC in February. Comrades in the faction say they have no problem with the decisions of conference, in which case this part should be uncontroversial. It is extraordinary that the NC’s vote should have been so brusquely swept aside. For a long period there has been discussion about strengthening the role of the NC, something the CC has supported. Yet here we have a freshly-elected NC, a record attendance of its members, an 83 percent vote for a motion—and the faction says it is irrelevant.

Everyone formally accepts that the specific disputes committee case is closed. It cannot be closed if people seek to reverse the outcome or overturn in its entirety the process that resulted in the decision. This means, among other things, upholding the position that all parties to the case are comrades in good standing in the party with a right to partake in political activity under the direction of the leading bodies of the party.

Second, we need to agree that we are for democratic centralism, against permanent factions and for an interventionist party. We are for a leadership that leads, rather than reflecting the unevenness of the class and sections of the membership.

Third, we accept that some comrades have genuine concerns about the workings of the disputes committee and its perception in the wider world. We have proposed to establish a body that will consider how the future confidentiality of disputes committee proceedings can be safeguarded and how future findings of the disputes committee should be reported to conference. Examining these issues would also provide an opportunity to clarify our disciplinary procedures more generally and propose changes to these procedures where necessary. We hope this will help to re-establish unity within the party.

Fourth, we propose some changes to the party’s constitution to clarify a number of questions that have proved contentious in recent months, especially to reiterate that factions are allowed only during pre-conference periods.

Fifth, we will seek to turn the party outwards towards the urgent political questions that are emerging.

Sixth, we expect everyone to abide by the votes of the special conference. This means that at the end of the conference all factions must be permanently disbanded. It means that the mailing lists and the blog sites created by those opposing the decisions of our annual conference be closed down immediately. It means that every member is bound to uphold and defend the decision of conference in any public forum in which it is discussed, including online. If these norms of party behaviour are breached, we expect comrades to support and defend disciplinary action up to and including expulsion to enforce the will of the party as a whole.

The wider political questions
Many comrades are merely concerned with the specifics of the debates over the last few weeks. The special conference should allow those issues to be discussed in full and resolved. But as the situation has developed, it has become increasingly clear that there are, for some, deeper political questions at stake. The wider debates will not end with the special conference, and nor should they. We are committed to taking these up in our meetings and publications in the months ahead.

In our view, some of the issues are the result of frustration felt across the party due to the failure of struggle to break through after 2011. Indeed, the wider problem of the downturn in industrial struggle that took place several decades ago, and which has not subsequently been wholly reversed, despite many hopeful signs, is implicated in the internal crises the party has faced since 2007. Three splits—first, by a very small group of comrades who sided with George Galloway during the Respect crisis; second, by the group that broke away to form Counterfire; third by the group concentrated in Glasgow who broke to form the ISG—reflected, in different ways, attempts to find shortcuts to overcome the low level of workers’ struggle.

Forms of voluntarism, whether expressed through electoral shortcuts, movementism, attempts to substitute students, unemployed youth and a supposed “precariat” for workers, and so on, are a price we have paid for a long period of a generally low level of class struggle. The revival of ideological radicalism, in a context where organisations orientated on workers and socialism are especially weak, and the halting pattern of one-day strikes, can reinforce these tendencies.

But this frustrating context does not mean that there are no real issues worthy of consideration. Our tradition is not static. That does not mean that we simply accommodate to the existing ideas on the radical left. Our tradition is well worth defending and taking as a starting point in developing our theory. If we had simply accommodated to the mood among newly radicalised students in the wake of 1968, with powerful tendencies towards Guevarism, Third Worldism, voluntarism, and so on, it would have been impossible to create even a very small revolutionary party with roots in the working class.

But we are not dogmatists. We have, for example, begun a debate about the relevance of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, and Tony Cliff’s deflected permanent revolution, in the pages of International Socialism and at a number of meetings. We have held a number of day schools to debate issues such as the nature of the economic crisis and the question of class in the contemporary world. This has been educative and useful for all involved.

Some specific areas we now need to discuss and debate include, but are not limited to:

  • The nature of the working class today.
  • The relevance of Leninism in the 21st century.
  • The latest phases of the struggle over women’s oppression and the new feminism, along with the relationship between exploitation and oppression more generally.
  • The radical left, the united front and the party.
  • The role of students and intellectuals in the struggle.
  • The value of the new electronic media in the ideological and organisational work of the party.

We feel these debates, if handled correctly, can help to educate members new and old, and sharpen our understanding of our politics.

Our student work

Since conference, one area that has proved especially controversial is our student work. There are general reasons why a gap can open up between student and non-student members in a revolutionary organisation. Students occupy a distinct position in society. They are not subject to the discipline of full-time work or the need to win the majority around them in a trade union if they want to organise struggles.

Their main focus is over ideological and political questions, which they are able to discuss at greater liberty than most workers, and when they act they can do so as a radical minority without the discipline of having to win a ballot or vote in a workplace meeting. This gives us certain advantages among students in periods of radicalisation, which is why we have recruited quite large numbers since 2008. They have brought into the party a wealth of new experience, ideas and energy. This growth obviously also necessitates a higher level of debate and discussion about our theory and ideas, as any influx of new members would. This is, of course, a good problem to have; but it reinforces the need for a serious programme of education, and a culture of open debate and polemic within the party.

However, these general arguments don’t fully explain the issues we have faced. In reality we are paying the price for a mistake made by the leadership of the party in early 2011. The preceding months had seen the largest student movement in Britain in decades; suddenly we were pulling around us the highest number of students we have seen in a very long time. But the government’s attacks that provoked the movement passed through parliament, and in early 2011 the movement rapidly collapsed. This should have marked the point at which we made a sharper turn towards theoretical argument and ideological meetings based firmly on our political tradition in order to try to win and bind a section of this collapsing movement to our party. We did not make this turn firmly and clearly enough and we certainly did not win this position among our students.

The “Milbank moment” has remained a central point of reference for many of our students, but it no longer fits in conditions where the struggle is likely to be more fragmentary and localised, against particular attacks and over particular political issues. It no longer fits, for instance, in the National Union of Students, where our strategy was premised on being able to unite with others to mount a serious left challenge to the leadership. Today, of the two main components of the student left beyond our ranks, one is in relative decline and many leading members of the other have an orientation on breaking with the NUS altogether. In this context we cannot carry on in the old way.

Through 2011 there was enough going on—the Arab Revolutions and a series of major one-day strikes-to conceal these problems. By 2012 this was no longer the case. We are now trying to correct the problems that have developed, but we are doing so in far less favourable circumstances.

In response to these arguments some SWSS groups have effectively declared themselves autonomous of the party. A number have unilaterally published statements distancing themselves from the party and, more recently, members of our student committee have sought to veto changes to personnel in the student office and our candidates in NUS elections, and objected to the timetable for our national student events. Our student members are, of course, entitled to disagree with our analysis and our tactics.

But a newly elected central committee has every right to try to implement its approach. If, having tried to implement that approach, it proves unsuccessful, student members, or anyone else, would have every right in the run-up to next year’s party conference, to challenge that approach and put forwards a different one, or propose changes to the leadership.

We must reassert the simple fact that our student work is subordinated and accountable to the party as a whole. The reasons for this go to the very heart of our politics. We do not accept that our student organisations are autonomous, any more than our union members or our caucuses or fractions are autonomous. The day to day work of the students is subject to the authority of the leading bodies of the party—conference, and between conferences the CC, NC and party council—which are charged with securing the interests of the party and the working class as a whole, rather than the sectional interests of particular groups.


Whatever criticisms comrades may raise about the January 2013 conference, a lack of democratic debate certainly cannot be one of them. There was an extremely high level of debate—both in the conference hall and at the various meetings organised by the temporary factions that were created.

We welcome debate. We face a number of serious political challenges in the months ahead that will necessitate further discussion, and if the level of struggle rises, as we hope it will, we will need a lot more. But over the specific issues arising from the recent disputes committee, we feel that the special conference must mark the end of a period in which that debate has consumed most of the party’s attention. We have sought to set out a basis on which we think the party can continue in a unified manner. We urge those who agree with us to fight to uphold these positions through patient but clear debate, so that we can emerge from this crisis and focus on the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Category: Press releases