The annual conference of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) last weekend saw major debates on how it should organise and intervene into resistance to the crisis.
The conference brought together more than 580 delegates and 150 observers.
They discussed some of the struggles over the last year and reflected on the changing nature of resistance.
As well as a determination to fight back, there was a wide range of serious discussions on the type of organisation needed.
Esme introduced a session on “a world in turmoil”, covering the economic crisis, imperialism, resistance and revolution.
She pointed to the deep political crisis within the global ruling class that flows from the world economic crisis. “Britain is not an exception,” she stressed. “Every time we see a glimpse of struggle we see a willingness to fight.”
Esme said many people felt frustrated that the level of struggle wasn’t higher in Britain, but she argued, “There is no short cut to fighting for mass, working class self-activity.”
Delegates discussed how to build struggle. Candy from London said that frustration wasn’t surprising but was a problem. “It has two big dangers,” she said. “One is passivity and the other is not leading, meaning we go up and down with the struggle.”
Many argued that the working class has not been defeated and that the party needs to be ready for the struggles that will break out this year.
Later in the conference, delegates discussed how this climate means they can recruit to the SWP through activity in different campaigns.
SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber said, “In the current situation we have to be able to fight on a number of fronts. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has written to all affiliated trade unions to ask what they think about a general strike.
“We must campaign around this and in the Unite union’s general secretary election. We can look to new electoral formations like the Left Front in France, but reforms are at best a windbreak in a hurricane.”
He told conference that the SWP had recruited 1,000 people last year—now the fight is to integrate them into the party. He said, “Recruiting people on demonstrations who want to get active is the right tactic, but that means that joining is the beginning of the process.”
Victories in anti-fascist battles
The session on fighting racism and fascism was introduced by Weyman Bennett. He pointed to the spectacular successes of the last year, not least the two protests against the English Defence League (EDL) in Walthamstow, east London.
Both the EDL and their fellow Nazis in the British National Party have faced major setbacks, despite far right organisations growing in other parts of Europe.
Weyman said that Britain’s politicians are no less keen to blame migrants, but we have a different political tradition here—that of Unite Against Fascism (UAF). That tradition exposes and challenges fascists, but is prepared to work with others.
Weyman said, “In Walthamstow we worked with Labour MP Stella Creasy, and she’s not on the left of the party.”
In the discussion that followed several people spoke about the experience of building local groups.
Dean from Walthamstow noted that the broad resistance had been built up from an initial meeting in someone’s front room in 2008. It also built on the experience of earlier anti-fascist demonstrations.
Weyman concluded, “There is no room for complacency. Cheer today but organise local UAF groups. The EDL is like a disease that keeps coming back. It’s like a zombie in a horror film.”
Several contributors raised the importance of developing black and Asian cadre in the party. A successful dayschool has been held and more are planned.
Others discussed the need for black and Asian members to take the lead in struggles against racism. Many delegates emphasised that all members, both black and white, have consistently fought racism.
The role of the paper in building the party
Many delegates talked about the importance of all members selling Socialist Worker. Richard said that if people don’t do this, “then their membership of the SWP is incidental to what they’re doing”.
Tom from Sheffield added that branch meetings should discuss the contents of the paper each week, “to win the idea that the paper is a bridge to the class”.
Chris from York listed the places where he distributes the paper locally, and said he had “never been more proud of Socialist Worker”.
Patrick from Bristol South said he had been able to use the paper to build a party presence while in prison.
“Within a week I organised a Communist Manifesto reading group,” he said. “To this day there are six prisoners in that prison distributing Socialist Worker.”
And James from Chesterfield encouraged the party not to write off members who can’t always make it to branch meetings, as they are so often involved in different campaigns and struggles. “We need to go out and actively engage with our members,” he said.
Workers debate how to push for action
The session on workplace struggle and building the Unite the Resistance organisation heard from many worker militants angry at the failure of their union leaders.
They discussed the difficulties they faced over the year after union leaders called off the public sector pensions strikes, and ways they could move the struggle forward.
Nick, a teacher, described a “monthly battle” on the executive of the NUT union, which is planning further action, “to turn that commitment from the union at large into something that the executive is prepared to support.”
Many people spoke about the deep frustration felt by many workers, but also the anger that still persists. A nurse said that “despite the fact that we’ve been sold out, the anger is absolutely massive.
“And I think what’s happened with the pensions dispute had a greater impact on the reps and activists than on the workers who weren’t organising the strike. The workers enjoyed it, and want to know when it will happen again.”
SWP industrial organiser Michael Bradley emphasised that workers’ struggle against austerity was far from over.
“The promise of a hot autumn became a damp squib for most people,” he said. “But we should never think that the situation can’t change. Take the TUC demonstration on 20 October—a lot of people were surprised by how big it was.”
Michael also pointed to the strikes before Christmas—including at Tesco in Doncaster, on the London Underground and at a number of schools around Britain.
In the public sector, he added, “Workers don’t feel defeated—they feel bitter. But in most places there is still a gap, there is bitterness but not a confidence to act independently of the union officials. The task of the SWP is to fill that gap.”
NUT member Paul issued “a call to arms” for reps and activists to build for a coming national meeting with demands for a strike. And jobcentre worker Steve looked forward to campaigning in the PCS union’s strike ballot of department for work and pensions workers.
Huw from Bristol added that “everywhere there are local struggles.” He said, “In Bristol, thousands of health workers took to the streets recently over the introduction of local pay.
“There were 16 regional union banners on that demo. The people carrying them are the basis of a future network of activists.”
A student nurse from south London described the massive protest against the proposed closure of Lewisham A&E.
“We had 400 people at a staff meeting when the cuts were announced,” she said. “The left locally then initiated a march, which was led by a contingent of hundreds of hospital workers.
“Since then we’ve been attempting to harness that anger by creating an ad-hoc network inside the hospital. And we’ve used it to put pressure on the union to act.”
Delegates agreed that regional Unite the Resistance conferences could bring together all those who want to see a fight. And that they could help force national union leaders to call action.
Rick from Manchester said that a recent launch of Unite the Resistance in the city had shown there is a thirst for ideas among many trade unionists.
“We started off by organising a series of meetings about the pensions dispute, but were taken back by how much people wanted to discuss the role of the trade union bureaucracy,” he said.
“Because we could answer them, there is now a serious core of activists within Unite the Resistance.”
Local Unite the Resistance networks can also initiate solidarity for local disputes. “This is not just about a one-off regional conference,” said Michael Bradley, who concluded the session.
“Unite the Resistance can help overcome the gap between confidence and anger inside the working class. It can help push for a new wave of struggles.”
There was also a session on socialists and elections, and a vote on whether to back Len McCluskey or Jerry Hicks for Unite union general secretary.
Conference voted to support and campaign for Jerry Hicks.
Women and oppression
Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr introduced a session on the fight for women’s liberation today.
Judith pointed to the death of Savita Halappanavar last year. Savita died in Ireland after being refused a life-saving abortion, and Judith argued, “That is what women’s oppression looks like today.”
Mary from London spoke movingly about her experience of the fate of women in Britain before abortion was legalised.
Judith added that that the SWP could be proud of taking a firm line against sexism over Julian Assange and Respect MP George Galloway.
Many delegates picked up her point that it is important to “argue revolutionary politics” with activists attracted by feminist ideas.
Sue from north London said that because oppression divided workers it is important that women and men are involved in the fight against it.
Julia from Sheffield pointed to the establishment cover-up of the Jimmy Savile case saying it showed that “the ruling class protect their own”. She contrasted it to the racism that has gone along with discussion of the grooming and abuse of young women.
Judith ended the session by stressing that attacks on women’s rights were sparking resistance—and that SWP members must be central to it.
Radical ideas on campus
Mark Bergfeld from the central committee introduced the session on student work. “Radical ideas are being debated like never before,” he said. “While the movement may have gone down, the ideological level on our campuses has not.”
He spoke about the success of meetings organised by the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) at universities and colleges.
Rebecca from La Swap sixth form in Camden, north London, said, “we’ve had good solidarity with teachers on strike. It shows what is possible when we work with other groups.”
Nathan, an Essex university student, talked about how the rhetoric “that students should have value for money under the new fees threatens the solidarity between students and lecturers,” making this work even more important.
Factions at conference
The conference was marked by a high level of participation. Hundreds of contributions on the conference floor were matched by debates in and around the venue.
In the discussion period that leads up to conference the SWP constitution allows the formation of temporary factions by members who want to change party policy.
This year two such factions were created. They held a number of meetings around the conference venue outside of the main sessions, as did supporters of the Central Committee.
The Democratic Opposition faction formed to oppose the expulsion of four members for organising secretly outside the structures of the organisation. Conference voted to endorse the expulsions.
The Democratic Centralism faction formed to argue for an ongoing examination of the party structures. After a wide-ranging discussion conference passed a commission endorsing the existing party structures.
In part it read, “The fundamental of the democratic centralist way of organising is for there to be a maximum level of debate about the impact the party is having in the working class and how revolutionaries can best shape the class struggle.
“This debate is made by a majority vote. Once that vote has been taken all members fight to implement the decisions in a united way.”
This was passed 239 to 91. An alternative commission from the Democratic Centralism faction was defeated. At the end of conference both factions disbanded.
There were two alternative slates put forward for central committee (CC), the leading body of the SWP that runs the party on a day-to-day basis.
The following people were elected to the central committee: Weyman Bennett, Mark Bergfeld, Michael Bradley, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather, Judith Orr, Julie Sherry and Mark L Thomas.
Two trade union activists, whose names have been withheld to protect them from their employers, were also elected to the CC. Delegates also elected a 50-strong national committee.