Alex Callinicos introduced a session looking at the party’s handling of the 2007 split in Respect and the issues that this threw up regarding the SWP’s internal life.
He started by restating that the “fundamental cause of the collapse of Respect was the shift to the right by George Galloway and his allies” and the way in which this brought them into conflict with the SWP.
Alex argued that it was right to stand as part of the Left List in the London elections last May, but the results had shown the weakness of both sides emerging from the Respect split.
He said many felt that John Rees – who was responsible for the SWP’s electoral work – had failed to come to terms with this electoral failure and had been trying to continue with a national electoral project.
Alex stressed this did not mean there would not be future opportunities to regroup the forces to the left of Labour into some sort of electoral challenge.
He pointed out that the crisis in Respect had highlighted wider issues within the SWP.
There had been little prior discussion to prepare members of the party for the antagonisms that were developing in the coalition – so when the crisis broke, it took most by surprise.
Alex traced out some of the roots of current problems. After the 1999 Seattle protests and again after 9/11, the SWP rightly threw itself into building the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements.
Often this meant central committee members playing leading roles in wider campaigns.
“That led to achievements of which we can be very proud,” he argued, but it deepened a gap between the leadership and the wider party.
Alex said that the central committee are committed to changes that “strengthen the culture of debate in the SWP”.
The conference gave John Rees an extended time to respond to the introduction. John reminded conference of the successes of Respect and said that there were important lessons to learn from the project.
John said the split had emanated from the inability of Respect to broaden sufficiently or quickly enough.
Consequently it was wrongfooted by the replacement of Tony Blair with Gordon Brown and by the prospect of an early general election.
He argued that whatever mistakes were made by the SWP, they did not alter the eventual outcome of the crisis.
John concluded by saying that he was 90 percent in agreement with Alex, and that his real disagreements focused on how to respond to the recession, the future role of the Stop the War Coalition and the question of party democracy.
Alex and John were followed by a robust debate in which 22 people spoke from the floor. Issues discussed included lessons from the Respect split, how to improve debate in the SWP and questions of accountability.
Ray from Shirebrook said that we should have held this debate about Respect sooner and that members of the party should be trusted to take part in decisions on very complex issues.
Maxine from Sheffield said that “too many of us bit our tongues” at last year’s SWP conference over the mistakes that had been made in Respect.
“It was clear that Galloway was attacking our organisation – but that doesn’t mean we didn’t make mistakes,” she said.
“The more united fronts that we are involved in, the more we need an organisation that listens to the voices of members. We are moving into new terrain – and we must have more debate.”
Several delegates asked how we had lost many of our allies in Respect in such a short period of time. Paul from Bristol disagreed that this was all one way. He reported that during the split, two Respect members in his workplace had joined the SWP.
Jimmy from Glasgow said that SWP members in Scotland had learned from their experience in the Scottish Socialist Party how important it was for revolutionaries to be independently organised when working in broader formations.
The session voted overwhelmingly to endorse a document by Alex on the crisis in Respect.