Oh Good Lord What Has The SWP Gone And Done NOW?

It shouldn’t matter. It really shouldn’t matter, should it, what goes on in the Socialist Workers Party. Their membership is roughly the average home gate at Mansfield Town. By the time I left them, in 2007, the most common comment I heard about them was ‘Oh. Are they still going?’ the way you might refer to Bernard Cribbins.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Articles, forums and comment sections on their travails have reached beyond the political sections of online-land; at one point Mumsnet was among the sites discussing it. There are probably discussions on winemaking forums, in which someone has written “These allegations against a leading member of the SWP have made me reconsider when to crush this year’s crop of elderberries.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Part of my excuse is that I was a member for loads of years, and know many of the people at the centre of this pickle. But also, it does matter, for a whole pile of reasons.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>There had been rumours of ‘an incident’ at the previous year’s conference, but the members weren’t told the details, and after a brief mention of him being involved in ‘difficulties’, a standing ovation was orchestrated for the man concerned.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>At the party conference in January 2012 the members were asked to approve the Disputes Committee report. During the discussion, it was revealed by a witness to the investigation that in its course the woman had been asked about another relationship she’d been in, and about her drinking habits. It also turned out she had asked to speak at the conference, but was told she wouldn’t be allowed in, and was now in a state of distress, as it’s not hard to imagine.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The conference voted, narrowly, to accept the report. But someone who was there leaked a transcript of the discussion onto the internet.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The leading body, the Central Committee, declared the issue was closed, and no debate or discussion amongst members would be permitted. Presumably at this point, if an SWP member was asked how they could justify dealing with a rape allegation by arranging an investigation run by mates of the accused, they were supposed to change the subject, or to really earn points with the leadership, start playing a harmonica.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>It begins, and this is an article written to defend their medieval handling of a rape allegation, remember, with a series of sentences such as “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Maybe if a leading SWP member was accused of battering a pensioner to rob her purse, he’d reply “Marx was adamant that the 1848 revolutions in Europe represented a final break between the emergent working class and capitalism. Can I go now?”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Now trade unionists who had participated in SWP activities wrote a joint letter, to explain they wouldn’t align with them again. Many of the SWP’s international groups declared their fury, and dozens of speakers who had appeared at their events declared they would no longer do so. A website that had been run for years by a prominent SWP member complained that critics of the Central Committee were being subjected to “Bullying, intimidation, and threats of violence.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Almost the entire student section of the SWP left, or joined the faction against the leaders, to which those leaders declared this was a sign of how SWP students felt demoralised following the introduction of tuition fees. Other people who’ve been accused of sexual abuse must envy how the party gets away with these explanations. Jonathan King must think ‘I should have said people were only upset with me as they were demoralised following an increase in the rate of VAT’.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>There’s certainly a part of me that thinks the SWP has become so adept and successful at demoralising and antagonising everyone in their own party, if they really want to help the cause of socialism they should join the Conservatives.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Now many of those I knew from those times are publicly backing this peculiar behaviour. The SWP produced a list of 500 of its members who supported the party’s conduct. I scrolled down this list gingerly edging towards the parts where, alphabetically, names I knew might appear, and I willed the Hs or Ns past in the hope they wouldn’t be there. Some weren’t but several were, people whose settees I’d drunk beer on and whose kids had played with my kids popping up, next to a declaration that proved they’d say or do anything, defend any act no matter how appalling, to protect one of their ‘leaders’, in a manner approaching that of a cult.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The names on that list belonged to people who became socialists because they were enraged by war or poverty or racism, or maybe by the way women are treated in society, and they wished to combat those injustices. Many were instrumental in the Anti-Nazi-League, Stop the War and countless local campaigns.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Like Basil Fawlty, rather than admit to telling small lies, they decided to protect them, by telling bigger and more ridiculous lies. And once that happens, internal democracy is under threat. Contest the distortions and you have to be denounced as an enemy.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Whatever the reasons, debate with people outside the party was replaced with vitriol. A trade unionist who usually backed the SWP disagreed with them on an issue, so a story was invented that they’d rigged the vote to get their union position. Often when people left the SWP, it was announced that they’d never been members in the first place.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>SWP members who have taken a stand on the current issue seem bewildered as to why their leaders behave in this illogical way. But the reason may be that the debate isn’t really about the allegations, or attitudes towards feminism, it’s about accepting that you do as you’re told, that the party is under attack at all times so you defend the leaders no matter what, that if the party’s pronouncement doesn’t match reality, it must be reality that’s wrong. Dissent on an issue and your crime is not to be wrong about the issue, it’s that you dissented at all.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>And it matters to me, because I can’t claim to be entirely innocent. I was in this party for 28 years. I must have accepted claims that didn’t make sense, and ignored accounts of appalling behaviour, or sighed and hoped the tricky issue I heard about would go away of its own accord. Somehow the critical faculties that led me to join a socialist group deserted me with regard to the group itself.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>And because there’s now an enduring sense of uneasy rage against the injustices of the free market, which encompasses a brilliant array of diverse characters, and between us we have to work out how to turn that into an effective opposition, without making the same mistakes. Surely we can establish movements and forums in which we can debate our aims and differences, in a spirit that inspires and invigorates all who take part, rather than berating anyone who disagrees.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>We can’t ensure that no one in our ranks will behave appallingly, but we can ensure that everyone is accountable, so that no one is allowed special protection because they have a place on a committee.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>So we have to follow the same rules as anyone who wants to win the support of a wide layer of people, by creating an atmosphere that attracts rather than repels, in which everyone who contributes feels a sense of accomplishment, where differences are celebrated rather than sneered at, and in which the many inevitable mistakes are part of the glorious chaos of building a genuine movement.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>PS Since writing the start of this I’ve looked up the average home attendance of Mansfield Town, and this season it’s been 2,389, which is much higher than the SWP membership. After all this I’d guess they’ll be close to Braintree, on 624.