Now here’s a thing. You know the way I said the other day that the SWP leadership was profoundly weak and brittle? Well, we’ve now had positive confirmation of it.
Sunday of course saw the emergency meeting of the National Committee, better known within the party as the House of Lords, at which a couple of things took place. There was some discussion about a certain ongoing Disputes Committee investigation. But the bulk of the meeting dealt with the awkward fact that many party members don’t have much confidence in the leadership, and some have even been saying so on the interwebs. This, of course, cannot be tolerated. And so four comrades were suspended, and the Central Committee issued an incredibly pompous statement telling us that unfortunately such draconian disciplinary measures were necessary because, Egypt! Also, Ed Miliband!
This then drew a sharp and immediate response from the opposition. And so it came to pass that last night the four suspended comrades were unsuspended. While this sudden display of clemency from the CC is most welcome, it’s worth unpicking slightly to see what it means. Why did the CC back down?
Firstly, their timing was all wrong. The Marxism festival, the SWP’s prime showcase, is coming up this weekend. Already it promises to be smaller than last year’s by around half, and it’s likely that there will be interventions from the floor making embarrassing reference to the Delta case. The disciplinary crackdown threatened to make things much worse. By my reckoning, some 22 of the advertised speakers at Marxism are part of the opposition; 17 of these had signed the statement threatening to pull out, which would have left some gaping holes in the timetable. Moreover, I understand that Jerry Hicks, one of the party’s few remaining trade union allies, was planning to make some pointed remarks about the party’s situation in his speech. That’s serious leverage.
Secondly, the opposition was united. During the January to March period, the CC gained a big advantage by driving a wedge between the hard and the soft opposition. They haven’t been able to do so this time, not least because events have caused the former soft opposition to significantly harden its stance. If the opposition had been this firm a few months ago, things could be very different today.
Thirdly, the scale of the rebellion. The SWP, having lost somewhere between 350 and 400 members, simply doesn’t have much of a margin of error left. A rebellion of over 250 comrades – that’s real members, not paper members, many of whom have been part of the organisation’s hard core for decades – at this point, even some CC members will baulk at provoking a walk-out.
Finally, the CC itself is on shaky ground organisationally. Which is a point worth teasing out a little.
We’ve grown used to a regime in the SWP where the Central Committee presented a united face to the membership; it was backed up by a small army of appointed fulltimers who could be relied upon to argue the line; and where annual conference would pass every CC motion with a 90% plus majority. This regime was remarkably stable for a remarkably long time, managing one contested election for the CC in 38 years. There’s an interesting study to be done, and Pat Stack has made a valuable contribution, of how a party made up of society’s rebels ended up with such a somnolent internal life. But that’s in the past now.
The CC simply can’t rely on having such an easy life any more. This isn’t just a question of having a large internal opposition who make no bones about their view that the CC is full of shit. More to the point, they can’t rely on the support they once took for granted. Once the spell is broken – once it’s no longer tenable to view the CC as the source of all wisdom – then the ground beneath their feet becomes precarious.
This has not been a matter of some disgruntled rank and filers facing the full weight of the apparatus. The split has also been within the apparatus; those appointed party workers, often (not always) chosen for loyalty rather than ability, have not been unanimous in their support for the CC line, and the victimisations and sackings of party staff have put backs up even further. The latest batch of resignations – seven or thereabouts – underlines this.
Nor can the party necessarily rely on cadre who in the past have been totally identified with the conception of a monolithic party. Some of the most extraordinary people are starting to make rebellious noises. A little late in the day, perhaps, and some of them may be suspected of being slightly hypocritical, but the fact remains: there are ultra-loyal comrades who have devoted their whole adult lives to building the SWP, and who are belatedly coming to the conclusion that the party is dying on its arse.
Most importantly, I think, the split has extended within the CC itself, and doubtless also within the Disputes Committee. This is entirely down to the pressure of events. Last year’s CC, if you remember, a committee that was basically politically homogeneous, split specifically over the handling of the Delta case. This led to Hannah D and Ray M being dumped from the leadership at the January conference, and Mark B resigning soon afterwards. Yet the remaining CC, which entirely endorsed the outcome of the January conference and which contains several members tied to Delta by bonds of personal loyalty, remains paralysed. Sometimes it’s making conciliatory noises, sometimes resorting to crude threats of purges, sometimes the same CC member will do both within the same speech. Alex Callinicos may mutter about lynch mobs or roasting fags at Rugby, then be Mr Smooth the next time you see him.
One may speculate on the reasons behind this. It’s probably not unconnected to the fact that throughout the crisis it’s been some CC members – notably Callinicos, Kimber and Bradley – who’ve been going out into the branches, meeting people, arguing their case, debating the opposition, sometimes getting a rough reception. Other leading members have remained holed up in the Vauxhall bunker. The question is not so much one of hawks versus doves, it’s more a question of which members of the leadership maintain some tenuous grip on reality. There are those who very much don’t.
There’s a further issue here. I’ve mentioned that some members of the leadership are wary of provoking a large-scale split. There’s a constituency, mostly in the apparatus, which is positively gung-ho for a purge, the sooner and more drastic the better. These are the true-believing cultists, the people who put you in mind of Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes. At least one senior CC member has openly referred to them as ‘the nutters’. Maybe you think that’s uncharitable. But these people, concentrated in the party’s middle management, are absolutely spitting blood at every concession to the opposition, and regard much of the current CC as having gone soft. It’s from this quarter that you find plans of Baldrickesque cunning to ‘save the party’, usually involving (a) mass expulsions and (b) a new broom in the leadership, which would coincidentally see them being promoted to the CC.
And if you doubt the world-historic stupidity of this element, let me just mention that, once they depose the sell-out Kimber, the candidate envisaged to be the new National Secretary is Amy Leather.
I mean, come on. In what alternate sci-fi dimension does that even make sense? It’s hard to think of anyone more compromised by recent events. You may as well reinstate Delta in the National Secretary position; he at least was a competent administrator.
And what of Delta? It’s worth recalling that he could still, at any moment, defuse a lot of the tension by simply walking away for the good of the party. Nobody has a God-given right to be in the SWP leadership; it wouldn’t be a travesty of justice for him to fade into obscurity. What’s preventing that?
His own ego, I suppose. And there’s the view of some CC members that he’s so valuable, mainly for his contacts with trade union leaders, that after keeping his head down for a longer or shorter period he’ll have to be rehabilitated. This in itself is questionable; it’s by no means clear what role the party’s ‘Unite the Resistance’ front has now that the union leaders have a shiny new People’s Assembly to play with.
And, of course, there’s the gormless element in the party who, since he’s been criticised by oppositional running dogs, think it’s a badge of honour to defend him – Delta, the Dreyfuss of our times. Take the appeal that’s being circulated asking selected comrades to stump up a tenner a month to pay for the great man to do a masters’ degree. I assume that this is a piece of private enterprise on the part of Donny and Anna Gluckstein and not sanctioned by the CC, but in the circumstances, it’s a bad joke at best and one hopes this has been communicated to the junior Cliffs in no uncertain terms.
I can’t say that removing Delta would solve the party’s crisis; the party has many, many difficulties that may turn out to be insoluble. But this bastard is the albatross around the party’s collective neck, and no progress can be made without removing him. I know there’s at least one very clever man on the CC. Surely this must sink in eventually.