Tuesday 12 February 2013

When Is a Conference Not a Conference?

Whatever else one does at it, at a conference, one confers. That's definitional. The clue is in the name. One compares views, one consults, discusses.

What kind of animal, then, is the meeting that the CC have called for 10 March? A sermon? A fingerwag? It pleases them to call it a 'one-day special conference', but whatever they intend it to be, a conference is not it.

One might expect a CC that have presided over and by their own actions, errors and intransigence precipitated the worst crisis ever to face the SWP, an unprecedented uprising of anger among previously loyal members, to display a modicum of humility or concern. A sense that there are lessons to be learned. A willingness to listen. But in a favoured formulation of the CC's most withering polemicist, not a bit of it.

We know this is not intended to be a 'conference' in any meaningful sense because they have told us. They've been perfectly explicit. The meeting's purpose is not to discuss or confer, but to 'draw a line', 'to reaffirm the decisions of January's conference and the NC'. As far as they are concerned, the outcome of this 'conference' is a given: the role, therefore, of attendees is to swallow what they are given to eat.  The alternative is that the CC, with pontifical infallibility, already know exactly how the discussion will end.  From that point of view, who needs a full preconference discussion?  They will be happy to know that a vacancy has just opened up in Rome for people with such gifts.  But not everyone is as smart as the CC – give the rest of us a chance.

Even from an entirely cynical point of view, one might expect the CC, given the catastrophic situation they have wrought, to express a willingness at least to listen, even if they had no intention of actually doing so. But no. Whatever else they can be accused of, no one can say, on this issue at least, that they dissemble. They are explicitly clear that they do not intend to engage with any arguments.

This overweening self-righteous arrogance still staggers. SWP members deserve leaders who listen to them, as ours have made clear they will not.

The CC assert that they have “not sought to stifle arguments. That accusation is laughable after the last four months.”  By implication, they claim credit for the fact that there has been and continues to be a growing chorus of disapproval of their actions and methods.  In a sense, they are correct.  By expelling four comrades before conference and suppressing a legitimate faction, they provoked the most raucous debate in the party’s history.  True also, by effectively issuing gagging orders in conference report-backs and in Party Notes, then leaving members hanging out to dry when the controversy went public, they incited the vocal dissidence of hundreds of members now organised in a faction.  If they want to claim credit for the last four months, they are welcome to it.

The CC may attempt to split the opposition. There are, of course, differences among us: some comrades may disagree with some of the Democracy Renewal Platform’s opinions and approach. We are eager to discuss such issues in comradely fashion. But in case the CC attempt to instrumentalise any such legitimate debates and try to turn some against others, we urge comrades to consider the light in which the CC holds *all* of us.

The In Defence Of Our Party Faction is several hundred members strong. It includes countless well-known and leading members of, in many cases, decades'-long standing. As well as hundreds of 'lay' members, it comprises members of the NC, ex-members of the CC, collaborators with Cliff, writers for party publications, activists who have been our public face for years. This is an unprecedented grouping of loyal and well-respected militants. 

How does the CC respond?  

In defending ‘those involved in the DC case’, they say: ‘We do not operate a regime of innuendo and slurs’. They go on to demonstrate this by claiming that several hundred party members are 'unpolitical', our faction irresponsible. They claim that we wish to 'plunge the party' into internal debate. That we manoeuvre 'bureaucratically'. That our document has - and by implication we have - 'nothing to say about the economic crisis and the fightback', and other important political issues.  The CC does not operate a regime of innuendo and slurs, but would like it to be known that their opponents are unprincipled opportunists.

We will deal with the canard that the opposition is 'unpolitical' elsewhere. The CC enjoys pretending that a lack of explicit reference to David Cameron or the BNP, say, in a document means that it is unconcerned with 'the real world'. This is trivially obviously untrue, just as it is true, of course, that the opposition to the formal processes here raises crucial political issues of women's liberation, democracy, cadreisation, and more.

Here, however, we focus on the attitude of the CC to members. Which is an insult.

It is perhaps not wholly surprising - though it is disgraceful - that disobedient student members might be so attacked. It is astonishing and disgusting that the CC think they can get away with traducing *anyone* in the party who disagrees with them, including so many important and respected figures, in this manner.

This goes beyond disrespect. It is contempt. For many years, a cliche of CC exhortations has been that 'every member is gold dust'. More dust, this document would suggest, than gold.

The leadership's position has demonstrably and repeatedly failed the test of reality, but they still expect a cowed membership to rubber-stamp it. Let us make no mistake about that position. The points the CC demands we sign off on include the following:

- That there is no failure of our sexual politics in a process that includes asking woman comrades alleging sexual misconduct by a leading male comrade about past relationships, and whether it's true that one 'likes a drink'.

- That the outrage greeting an investigation of rape allegations by a committee of friends, acquaintances and colleagues of the accused is entirely inappropriate.

- That the CC was and remains correct in their assessment and insistence that the matter was 'closed' while it was not only a cause of immense anxiety among members, but was being openly discussed in both the left and mainstream press.

- That there is nothing untoward about the expelling of four comrades discussing the case online on the Kafkaesque grounds that their explicit disinclination to factionalise constituted secret factionalising.

- That the gross misrepresentation of the views of critical party members in the official Party Notes is unproblematic.

- That to question the views and actions of this CC at this time constitutes a breach with Leninism itself.

- That despite the mass rage of our student cadre and the loss of more and more members in demoralised despair, there is no crisis facing the SWP.

- That 'the party is not shunned or isolated', despite growing numbers of external comrades, left intellectuals and trade unionists explicitly refusing to work with us and/or expressing their grave concerns.

- That, despite all the above, the leadership have made not a single error during this debacle.

These bizarre and insulting contentions are what the CC peremptorily demands members agree to at the 'special conference'. Anyone minded to vote with them should be clear that that is what they are getting behind.

The only way the CC can possibly expect to carry the party to such absurdities is not by rational comradely argument - they have, recall, already stated that they have no intention to engage in any - but by relying on uncritical, default, knee-jerk loyalty of sufficient numbers.

We have a higher opinion of the party membership than the CC does. We do not believe they will nod any such rubbish through.

We demand a conference worthy of the name, with a proper pre-conference discussion period - indeed with discussion at all - at which both the immediate issues and the wider problems of democracy, accountability, party structures and regime which have given rise to this catastrophe are fully aired. We must break the hold of this increasingly delusional and sclerotic leadership, so the SWP might renew its culture and represent the best of the IS tradition.

Alex, Oxford
Andy, Hackney East
China, Brent and Harrow
Gareth, Camden
Jake, Euston
Jamie, Tottenham
Jules, Liverpool.
Marcos, Euston
Penny, Oxford
Richard, Hornsey and Wood Green
Rowan, Brixton
Sam, Islington
Steffan, Swansea
Steven, Liverpool
Will, Canterbury


  1. So "What is to be done", we should think practicalities, as a starter might I suggest 5 basic and very simple motions be put to conference. (I am an ex-member who left because of concerns about bureaucracy and behaviour, not politics).

    1 The CC, DC and NC to be elected at conference by majority vote, each branch to have 1 vote per member in good standing divided equally between delegates. The number of times each delegate votes shall be twice for every three members of the CC to be elected.

    2 Members may discuss within and without the party all policies and decisions of conference but may not act against those decisions or identify any member who may be put at risk by being identified.

    3 Delegates to be elected at branch meetings by majority vote, each branch member will have one vote less than the number of delegates to be elected. Branches are entitled to one delegate per 5 members in good standing, minimum of 2.

    4 No CC member shall be an employee of the party by virtue of being on the CC.

    5 All party committees to be re-elected at this conference under the new rules.

    This should protect minority rights without the need for permanent factions, any decent well organised minority opinion should get some representation on the various committees and minorities in Branches be able to get some delegates. No need to have permanent factions, and there will be a right to factions without the need for faction rights that can cause disputes to be ossified. (I am on this committee due to this dispute, better keep the dispute going to stay on this committee.)

  2. (a) I don't understand the second sentence of 1.

    (b) You need to have a proposal about district organisers; from what I've read they're a key link in the chain (or two chains - transmission of uniformity in the party, perpetuation of the CC over time).

  3. a) basically means you get less votes than spaces so that there is room for minority opinions to be elected, i.e 15 seats, 10 votes. If you had a vote per seat the majority would win all the seats.

    b) yes, and there are lots of other things to deal with but we should not do them all at once, if district organisers know democracy is going to include them in a year or two they have a chance to start to behave accordingly, if you elect them immediatly it is a bit of a recipe for chaos.

  4. Oh for pity’s sake! Do you have any idea what this pathetic whining sounds like to most members?

    First of all you want a recall conference, but can’t get enough branches to support your position. Then you twist a clause in the constitution designed to ensure supporters of the CC/NC can’t set up a faction. And now you have the conference, that’s not good enough – you want members to go through another three months of this agony!

    Surprise, surprise! The CC is going to argue for its position and ask the conference to endorse it. How Stalinist of them! (sarcasm, just in case…)

    Well we have the miracle of the internet so any member who’s remotely interested can find out all about the controversy with the click of a mouse. We also get the opportunity to state our position in an Internal Bulletin direct to every member. Do we really need three bulletins to make a point? On top of that there’ll be aggregates in every district with factions given the right to address members in person.

    You say the CC has a low opinion of SWP members, but do you really think we’re incapable of reaching decisions in under three months?

    Speaking of low opinions of SWP members how much lower can you get than suggesting we have a culture tolerant of rape and harassment?* Do you really think making such a disgusting slur in a public forum (or even a private one) will have members rushing to join your platform?

    As a member of the IDOOP faction I’m having to reconsider my position. I really don’t like the company I’m keeping.

    David Allen

    * “we must rectify the culture wherein female comrades could be so badly treated” paragraph 9, Statement of the Democratic Renewal Platform, this website.

    1. David, you are manifesting symptoms of a problem we've often encountered in this messy process: shooting the messenger. Observe:

      You accuse us of perpetrating a "disgusting slur" by referring to "the culture wherein female comrades could be so badly treated". And yet these comrades have been badly treated by the party. This is indisputable. Not only in the formal procedures, but also in the whispering campaigns, and the bullying that followed. That such behaviour is possible demands attention to its roots and causes if it is to be halted, and due amends made. The fact that you are so angry at us for pointing out this obvious fact suggests that you are still in a phase of denial. Take some time to reflect on what has actually happened, and you will see that your anger is misdirected.

      Another symptomatic aspect of your post is the reiteration of red herrings that have come directly from the CC. You say we wanted a recall conference, but couldn't get enough branches. This is actually untrue. We campaigned for a special conference, which is not the same thing as a recall conference. That's what the branches passed motions for. Then the CC imposed an arbitrary and unconstitutional deadline, to ensure that the sufficient number of motions would not be passed, and got the NC to ratify it. It is only because of the considerable support that the faction attracted that the decision changed.

      But before the special conference was declared, we wrote that we rejected this arbitrary and unconstitutional deadline, and we explicitly called for a special conference with the full preconference debating period. We did so for a reason. As the CC themselves tacitly acknowledge by their misdirections on the issue of democratic centralism, the mishandling of this case adverts to wider questions of party democracy and its perspectives. In order for this discussion to be had, all members need time not just to digest the substance of the 'controversy', but actually to reflect on and debate the wider ramifications. Certainly, we have seen that the CC are prepared to use party publications and party communications to attack the opposition on a wide range of issues that aren't directly to do with the matter of the disputes committee's failures or the culture of bullying and authoritarianism surrounding it. The period for a proper debate along these lines usually is three months, for good reason.

      You ask if we think members are "incapable of reaching decisions in under three months". Of course we don't think that. They can reach decisions in two minutes if they wish to. Whether they will have been given sufficient information and time to develop perspectives, discuss the issues with comrades, submit motions, elect delegates, etc etc., is another issue. But if you think three months is too long for a debate about the worst crisis in the party's history, why don't you say that about every preconference period when the stakes are considerably lower? Surely, reductio ad absurdum, every preconference discussion is too long, and by implication an insult to the intelligence of party members? At any rate, we think it is more than reasonable to err on the side of having a full debate when the party is in such a state, rather than on the side of trying to hammer the lid on the crisis in a rushed fashion.

      Finally, you ask if we think we will attract people to our platform by saying what we have. We have always said what we are saying now, and we constitute about a quarter of the faction. It is precisely by saying what we say that we have contributed to opening up this debate, and that we have attracted the support we do have. And if you are a member of the faction, you should think about what the faction itself has said about the preconference period. You really should consider whether what you're saying is going to help the faction achieve its goals, or whether it is simply a form of lashing out. It appears to be the latter at this point.

  5. I think its a huge mistake to imagine that beating up on DR will build the faction.

  6. Thank you for this important article.

    Today I had a letter published in 'Weekly Worker', mainly about the consequences of the CC calling a Special Conference in violation of the SWP Constitution, but also importantly discussing the abuse that comrades are being subjected to by supporters of the Permanent Callinicos Faction (Undeclared). www.cpgb.org.uk

    I have just made an extended comment on these 2 matters, but placed it not here but on the 'Stop the Bullying!' page coz of the urgency of that matter, & the need to build support in the labour & socialist movement to stop it happening.

    I also comment at socialistunity.com as Jara Handala coz that is my name. The day the members take back their Party I shall turn around, just as my Palestinian comrade will himself turn around one day.

    Lotta continua!

  7. Sorry to hear that one of the signatories to this post has already left the party, although Bog knows I can't fault his reasons.

    Awful result, of course - perhaps even worse than expected. I think all you can do now is to start acting as if a reformed party was already a reality. Hopefully many beyond the Platform itself will be with you.

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