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A Response to Anna Chen

Bob Pitt

DEAR ANNA, Of course, I agree with much of what you say in your article [‘A Bad Case of the Trots’], particularly about the SWP leaders’ organisational methods – their arrogance, control-freakery, light-minded attitude to democracy, contempt for anyone who isn’t a member of the "party" (in reality, a largish propaganda group), their readiness to suppress political opponents, their tendency to exaggerate their own very limited achievements, refusal to admit to making any political mistakes, and so on. You obviously had direct experience of all this during your time as press officer for the Socialist Alliance and Stop the War Coalition, so you can speak with some authority on it.

But I can’t really go along with your critique of the SWP’s wider politics. My own criticisms would be from the right rather than, as yours are, from the left. For example, unlike you, I don’t think the StWC leadership was wrong in refusing to put a Socialist Alliance speaker on the platform at the Hyde Park rally at the end of the 15 February anti-war demonstration. The speakers the StWC did invite were nearly all figures with a public profile and some sort of mass base of support, and were chosen to represent the broad forces opposing the war. That was why (quite rightly) the Lib Dems got a speaker. By your own analysis – i.e. the fact that it has managed to get just "one solitary councillor" elected – the SA didn’t come into that category.

Where I think you hit the nail on the head is when you point out that, having mobilised such a huge demonstration, the SWP and its allies in the leadership of the StWC "need to explain where those people have gone since then". But you don’t offer any answer to this question.

My own explanation would be that the SWP’s ultra-left politics offered no perspective for the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them new to political action, who turned out to protest on 15 February, and this played an important part in the StWC’s failure to mobilise them in any effective way after the demonstration was over. Lindsey German, John Rees & Co certainly did their best to get the maximum numbers out on the demo, but that was so they could turn to the SWP’s members and periphery and say: "Look, we have organised the biggest political demonstration in British history. See what a powerful and important party we are." They regarded the demonstrators quite cynically, I would say, using them basically as a stage army, and had no interest in them apart from that.

It’s worth noting that the SWP later claimed to have sold 9,000 copies of Socialist Worker on what, according to them, was a demonstration of two million. Even allowing for the SWP’s usual practice of fiddling the figures (which would suggest that there were one million on the demo and sales amounted to 4,500), this means that only one in every 220 demonstrators was attracted to the SWP’s politics even to the extent of forking out 80p to read its paper. Having fulfilled their allotted role of making up numbers on the demo, what use were these people to the SWP?

So, whereas the StWC’s perspective after 15 February should have been to concentrate on organising these broad forces so as to put pressure on MPs (particularly Labour MPs) with the aim of producing the biggest possible revolt against Blair’s war policy in the House of Commons, the SWP argued on the contrary that parliamentary politics was an irrelevance and that the only way forward was sit-down protests in city centres, college occupations and other such forms of direct action and civil disobedience – none of which appealed to any but a tiny minority of those who took to the streets on 15 February. In my opinion the SWP leaders acted, again, entirely cynically. They wanted to narrow the post-demo activities down to a militant core of anti-war campaigners, who they hoped would provide them with potential recruits in way that the mass forces on the 15 February demo could not.

This is not to deny that there was also probably an element of "honest" self-delusion at work here, in that the SWP invariably tends to wildly overestimate the level of political struggle and popular radicalisation. This was what underlay the StWC’s utterly impractical proposal that the trade unions should organise political strikes in response to the outbreak of war. It was also apparent at the launch of the People’s Assembly, which was the StWC’s main initiative after 15 February. The SWP spoke in all seriousness of the Assembly going into permanent session and forming a popularly supported alternative to the existing Westminster parliament. And this at a point when all eyes were on the House of Commons in the run-up to the final vote over whether or not to back war on Iraq. At the time, one SWP ally in the StWC leadership told me breathlessly that an earlier parliamentary vote endorsing the government’s Iraq policy had "discredited bourgeois democracy", and that the People’s Assembly was a step towards an alternative form of direct democracy – a sort of embryonic soviet! I got cross and told him this was just infantile nonsense, a response which I think erred on the side of diplomacy.

Of course, it was never likely that Blair would suffer a defeat in the House of Commons. The combination of Tory support and the "payroll vote" was almost inevitably going to provide him with a pro-war majority. Realistically, the task of socialists was to ensure the biggest possible rebellion in the Parliamentary Labour Party, so as to undermine Blair’s position as party leader and provide more favourable conditions for a struggle within the labour movement against the New Labour clique. But the SWP had no interest in this. After all, its perspective is not to pursue a fight within the labour movement’s existing political wing, the Labour Party, but to build a "socialist alternative" outside of and in opposition to Labour.

That there wasn’t a bigger revolt in the PLP was not of course solely down to the SWP’s political inadequacies. Other factors were involved, including Clare Short’s pathetic capitulation to Blair on the basis of his transparently spurious assurance that the UN would play a major role in post-war Iraq, and the tactical ineptitude shown by certain Campaign Group MPs in calling for Blair’s resignation at a meeting of the PLP, both of which helped to consolidate support for the party leadership among Labour MPs. But the SWP, through its dominant role in the StWC, certainly made a contribution to this, by squandering the political potential of the 15 February demonstration through a combination of cynicism, sectarianism and ultra-left silliness.

As for the Socialist Alliance, in the light of what I’ve said, you can see I don’t share your view that the SA represented "the best chance of revival the Left has had in years". I don’t think it’s possible to build a socialist alternative to the Labour Party by fusing a number of far left groups, adding a sprinkling of individual activists, denouncing the treachery of the Labour leadership, standing against Labour in elections, and calling on working people to rally to the spotless banner of the new socialist organisation. This was how the Communist Party of Great Britain was launched (rejecting Lenin’s advice about the need to work in the Labour Party), and it’s the basic reason why the CPGB remained marginal to mass politics in Britain throughout its seven decades of existence.

The mass CPs that were formed – in France, Germany and elsewhere – arose out of crises, conflicts and splits in already existing working class parties. When such parties do exist, as a general rule that is the only way a left alternative (or at least one with significant popular support) can be established. In Britain, divisions within the Labour Party have never reached the point where they have led to a mass breakaway at national level, so the possibility of building a new left-wing party in opposition to Labour has never arisen. Even during the past decade or so, as the Labour leadership’s rightist politics and suppression of internal democracy have produced considerable tensions within the party, this has resulted only in partial and localised splits.

True, these limited splits have allowed some successful electoral challenges to Labour to be made from the left. But a study of the processes through which they arose only underlines my point about how a political alternative to an existing mass workers’ party can emerge. The Scottish Socialist Party, for example, has its origins in a de facto split that took place in the Glasgow Labour Party, after Tommy Sheridan and others were expelled for their opposition to the Poll Tax. Sheridan’s then comrade Dave Nellist was likewise thrown out of the party in the course of the Labour leadership’s purge of Militant. Dennis Canavan, Ken Livingstone and John Marek were all stitched up in internal party selections and then expelled after deciding to stand as independents against Labour.

It is no accident that their candidacies resulted in electoral success. Through their earlier work in the Labour Party, all of these individuals – Sheridan, Nellist, Canavan, Livingstone and Marek – had established political records that the general public was familiar with and broadly supported. And even a loyal Labour voter could understand that these candidates had been forced, by the Labour right wing’s undemocratic practices, to stand against the party. People were also angered by the fact that party apparatchiks were trying to dictate to the electorate who they could and couldn’t vote for. It was this combination of political respect, personal sympathy and anti-bureaucratic sentiment that won these candidates their votes.

The Socialist Alliance, as I’ve said, was formed by entirely different methods. As a result, most people haven’t even heard of the SA. Its individual candidates have no political record of which voters are aware, have conducted no struggles in the Labour Party, have never suffered expulsion for their political principles, and consequently are almost entirely unknown to the electorate. Why, then, should any significant section of the electorate consider voting for them? As recent experience has shown, if traditional Labour supporters are disillusioned with New Labour, they may vote for the Lib Dems or even the BNP, but they won’t vote (at least in any significant numbers) for the SA. From the outset, election results for the Alliance have, predictably, been almost uniformly disastrous.

This has presented serious problems for the SWP leaders. As Mike Marqusee points out in his Signs of the Times article [see also What Next? No.26], Lindsey German and John Rees can get away with doubling the numbers when it comes to reporting attendances at demonstrations or meetings, but in the case of elections the figures are there in black and white for everyone to see. In the London Assembly elections in 2000 the SA averaged 2.9% in the constituencies it contested and got 1.6% in the top-up section, in the 2001 general election its candidates received an average of 1.6%, and numerous interventions in local elections and by-elections have produced derisory vote after derisory vote. Even in the Hackney mayoral election Paul Foot, who at least enjoyed some sort of name-recognition, could muster only 13% as against 42% for the right-wing Labour candidate. All in all, the whole enterprise has become a bit of a political embarrassment for the SWP leadership. The only victory the SA has registered was in Preston, where Paul Lavalette was elected as a councillor with the support of the local mosque.

This was obviously why the SWP made its turn to the idea of "Peace and Justice" candidates (a turn which would now seem to have reached a dead end, judging by reports in the Weekly Worker). If success could be achieved on that basis in a single ward in Preston, the SWP leaders reasoned, why not try and repeat it on a larger scale in a big city? Birmingham, where Labour had lost control of the council in the May elections at least in part because of Muslim opposition to the war, and where Constituency Labour Parties had been bureaucratically suspended in order to block so-called "Asian entryism", seemed to offer fertile ground.

As you say, this then created a crisis in the SA, as other socialists opposed the SWP’s readiness to junk parts of the SA programme in order to build their new alliance, and the SWP responded with organisational measures to remove its critics. But it wasn’t the SWP’s "Peace and Justice" turn that caused the failure of the SA. Rather, it was the failure of the SA that caused the "Peace and Justice" turn.

So, while I’m the last person to rally to the defence of the SWP, I think you’re wrong to accuse them of having "strangled the SA". No doubt the SWP’s methods within the Alliance have indeed been characterised by "a welter of intrigue, malfeasance, and allegations of assault". But, however democratically the SWP leadership had behaved, the SA was always a non-starter as an electoral alternative to Labour, for the reasons I’ve outlined. If there is to be a "post-mortem" of the SA’s political failure, as you suggest, that is the only realistic conclusion that can be drawn.