More than 200 delegates from SWP branches across the country attended a special conference last Sunday to reassess and renew the party’s structures.
They discussed and voted on the report of the Democracy Commission (DC), which was set up in January at the party’s national conference.
Sheila from the DC said, “There was a common feeling [at the January conference] that the crisis round Respect revealed a culture of top-down leadership”.
The commission was elected to re-engage the democratic process. It held meetings across the country and received a great many submissions from party members.
Sunday’s conference reaffirmed that the SWP is a democratic centralist organisation.
Sheila said that any party committed to working class “self emancipation” cannot function without democracy, “but there is no point having discussion unless there is centralism. Once a decision is made it must be binding on everyone.”
Sean from north London said, “Democracy is not disconnected from struggle. If we don’t get the mood and spirit of the working class then we won’t get the struggle right.”
Ian from Manchester said, “Arguments are concrete. The right answer to a question in the class struggle depends on the circumstances.”
There was a general consensus on the need to strengthen the democratic culture of the organisation and much debate over how to do this.
The party’s constitution was changed to strengthen the National Committee (NC). This 50‑strong body is elected annually at conference, as is the Central Committee (CC) that leads the party from day to day.
Michael from Preston argued that the NC should have its own elected chair and set its own agenda in discussion with the CC, rather than responding to the CC.
He went on to say that the party fractions for unions, campaigns and united fronts should be strengthened and represented more systematically on the NC.
He added, “One of the problems has been that there wasn’t an arena for discussion. We need proper functioning committees and to ensure that they report back.”
This was accepted. However several delegates felt that the NC was not accountable enough to geographical districts.
The CC agreed to look into ways to strengthen the NC’s local accountability.
The conference also voted to make the processes of the party’s Disputes Committee more transparent. This is the body that investigates disciplinary matters in the party that are too serious to be resolved locally.
Several delegates said vibrant local branches are key to producing a healthy atmosphere of debate in the party and that the revitalisation of local branches in recent years has enormously strengthened this process.
There were proposals to extend the number of internal bulletins – currently three are produced in the three-month discussion period leading up to annual conference.
However, the majority of delegates felt that issues could be raised in branches or by debate in the party’s existing publications.
Motions were passed calling for a return to encouraging newer members to introduce political discussions at branch meetings, and arguing that any future election manifesto the SWP was involved in drafting must be discussed fully in the party.
The longest and most controversial discussion was over how the CC should be elected. Under the existing system the outgoing CC puts forward a recommended slate for the new CC during annual conference.
This system has hardly ever led to contested elections and all agreed that it needed changing.
However, members of the Democracy Commission had been unable to agree a new system and two competing proposals were debated.
The first was presented by Alex from the CC and the DC. He put forward a modification of the existing system that would still use slates.
Alex said, “To make contested elections easier, the CC should announce a provisional slate at the start of the pre-conference discussion. This would allow scrutiny of who was being proposed.
“The CC is a working group. To organise itself it has to operate as a unit. A slate system is necessary for that.”
Alex argued that the second proposal would make CC elections, “depend on atomised individual decisions. It is open to becoming a popularity contest.” He argued it would make it harder for people in unpopular jobs, such as treasurer, to get re-elected or for new and relatively unknown people to advance onto the CC.
John from Portsmouth, who was also on the DC, moved proposal two. He argued for a system which began with slates, but where the final selection was done by voting for individual candidates. He said this “makes it slightly easier to contest slates and more possible to have real elections”.
He said that under proposal one, anyone who put forward an alternative slate would appear to be taking on the whole CC. Proposal two would make it possible for individuals to step forward.
“The CC will still have a slate and three months to argue for it. This is not about strong or weak leadership. Members of the CC will be stronger if they have been elected.
“Nor is it about Leninism. The Bolsheviks used individual voting to elect their CC.”
In a lengthy debate there were an equal number of speeches for each proposal.
Several delegates argued that individual elections would produce factionalism and an incohesive leadership. Others said that arguments demanding a cohesive leadership were really opposing any kind of election.
Estelle from central London argued that she could, “realistically look at 12 people and weigh up the options of whether they would make a balanced leadership.”
Karen from Manchester said, “Individual elections don’t solve the problem of members not being able to have their say in the party. There is a risk that a minority can put someone on the CC that the majority do not want.”
At the end of the debate proposal one received 130 votes and proposal two 88 votes. Three delegates abstained. The modified slate system will be used to elect the SWP CC in the future.
After a day of frequently lively arguments most delegates were happy that the party’s ability to intervene rapidly in the outside world and to discuss successes and mistakes internally were both strengthened.
Party Council: Making a big difference
The SWP Party Council last Saturday met at a time of uncertainty both for our rulers and many who want to challenge them. Delegates elected by local branches gave examples of anger erupting and how small groups of socialists can make a real difference in focusing it.
Pat from east London talked about how people at his workplace were fired up by the MPs’ expenses scandal, and were prepared to leaflet against the British National Party (BNP).
Delegates discussed the importance of the Fight for the Right to Work conference this Saturday in organising this anger.
A motion calling for this to launch a wider Right to Work campaign was defeated. Most delegates felt that wider forces should be involved first.
All agreed that the SWP has to respond immediately to every shoot of resistance as it did with the Visteon occupation.
But intervention is not just a matter of responding to events as they happen. Party activists were central in building the planned strikes on London Underground and in Royal Mail. SWP students were at the heart of the occupations in support of Gaza.
And they have intervened without ducking awkward issues, such as the divisive “British jobs for British workers” slogan.
The meeting approved a plan for the party to issue an open letter calling for left unity after Labour’s election disaster.