The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) held its annual conference last weekend. It came as the Tories are in crisis, racism is rising and important developments are taking place in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
In an early session Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber outlined the depth of the government’s problems following its disastrous general election performance. He said Theresa May is “very weak”.
But he argued that the Tories’ problems reflected “a much wider feeling against austerity, attacks on living standards and the political elite”.
Charlie added, “The mood of a revolt against the establishment that was shown in the Brexit referendum can’t be wholly divorced from the shattering defeat of 8 June.
“There is a bitter feeling in British society that comes out in many ways. Corbyn’s rise is welcome and has boosted campaigners. But it has also encouraged “a sense, particularly in the trade union leaderships, of an attitude of ‘We’re waiting for Jeremy’ rather than fighting now”.
Charlie spoke of the need to build resistance as a matter of urgency. “We can’t wait until a general election—which could be as late as 2022,” he said. “We need to drive the Tories out now.”
Charlie said socialists can play a role in clarifying issues and raising demands. “We have a vision of a workers’ Brexit,” he said. “We say no to the single market, the customs union and a second referendum, yes to the defence and extension of freedom of movement, more money for public services, and workers’ internationalism.
“We should fight for Labour and the unions to take up these demands.”
Charlie said the Tory crisis “raises expectations” that Labour will win the next election. But Labour has “not launched an active campaign of demonstrations and encouragement of strikes”.
He warned that, if Corbyn came to office, he would make demoralising compromises or experience immense hostility from the ruling class. Charlie argued for a movement on the streets and in workplaces to “defend Corbyn against the right, and push back against his hesitations and retreats”.
The SWP takes part with others in Stand Up To Racism (SUTR). This is a crucial initiative to win unity in the working class and resist all forms of racism. Racism frames every aspect of political life, and the fight against it is a central part of anti-austerity work.
All delegates who spoke about this at the conference said being part of SUTR is the party’s central priority.
That means local organisation, and in particular big anti-racist demonstrations on 17 March in London, Glasgow and Cardiff.
There was debate about how to do this and take up all the other aspects of fighting the Tories and the system.
Delegates agreed, “We need to work alongside Corbyn supporters but continue to argue for, and to build confidently and widely, an independent revolutionary organisation centred on struggle rather than parliament.”
In this discussion some 33 people spoke. Moyra said that people have “moved left” during the campaign over the Grenfell Tower fire.
A number of delegates spoke about attacks on benefits. They explained how Universal Credit attacks people reliant on benefits as well as low-paid workers.
A number of delegates discussed how to campaign when Labour councils implement cuts.
Jenny reported from housing campaigns in Haringey. She said, “Mobilisation enabled a purge of the zombie Blairites in the council.”
Rory argued that the Corbyn effect in Scotland was growing but limited. Sharon from Birmingham reported on a recent bin strike.
“The Labour council is in crisis over the strike,” she said. “But it needed the intervention of socialists to move forwards.” Jon from Portsmouth said the NHS crisis offered a chance to resist and that the SWP should “take a lead in building the protest in February”.
Candy from central London warned, “We can’t vacate the anti-austerity territory.”
A teacher said anti-racism is a key priority but that there is a danger of missing the boat on some things. An NHS worker said anti-racism is not separate from other campaigns. “The Tories are using racism to divide us over the NHS,” she said. Socialists “have to raise anti-racist arguments”.
Phil from Yorkshire said, “We can unite people who voted for and against Brexit.”
Paul from Islington said the Labour leadership prevaricating over issues such as academies is “very worrying” and needs to be discussed. He argued that building Stand Up To Racism can “help people resist and let us have the debate”.
Clarion call of resistance
Speakers in the Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) session underlined why the fight against racism is the SWP’s key priority.
Weyman Bennett argued that the rise of Nazi and far right parties across Europe showed the danger of leaving these forces unchecked.
He emphasised the importance of stopping racist organisations such as the Football Lads Alliance. And he said SUTR’s role in the descent of Ukip showed how anti-racists can shape the political landscape.
Amy from Sheffield said SUTR had been invited into school assemblies. Ajmal from the University of the West of England said SUTR had challenged a visit by a Nazi group called Gays Against Sharia.
Jan said, “In Islington the majority of the SUTR group are Muslim women. That’s why when McDonald’s tried to evict a Muslim woman they led our SUTR activity.”
Weyman said a quick response from SUTR activists after people died following contact with the police has put the cops on the back foot.
Fatima from Glasgow said SUTR had helped to organise a carnival to undermine anti-Roma and anti-migrant racism. “Lots of people didn’t want us to have a presence,” she said. “But our campaign was the broadest united front possible and that made it a success.”
Weyman said Donald Trump’s potential visit to Britain gave an opportunity for protest. He urged people to make the 17 March anti-racist demonstrations an international “clarion call of resistance.”
The impact of Corbynism in the workplaces
Delegates debated the “contradictory impact of Corbynism” in a session on workplace politics and the fight against austerity.
Mark L Thomas led off the discussion. “The election gave expression to the immense bitterness at the base of society,” he said. The big vote for Corbyn “made people feel that they’re not alone”.
Mark said this raised the horizons of large numbers of working class people—but also meant many were waiting for another election.
“Labour is widely viewed as a government in waiting and that’s having a direct impact on the struggle against austerity,” he said.
For instance, a number of unions put in above-inflation pay claims last autumn. Yet industrial action has not yet materialised.
The CWU postal workers’ union built an impressive campaign over attacks on their conditions, but national strikes haven’t happened.
Huw, a Unison union member from Bristol, agreed that union leaders are subtly pushing the idea of waiting for a Corbyn victory. But he added that this also “makes sense to a lot of people”.
Julie Sherry talked about the significance of the McDonald’s strikers, who demanded £10 an hour.
“It might have been a tiny group of workers but by taking on a key demand in Corbyn’s manifesto it caught the mood of the whole movement,” she said.
Fran, a young teacher from London, said the party should do more to help young workers without trade union experience. “I’m not sure the party puts enough time into training young members in workplaces,” she said.
Mark argued that political initiatives, chiefly around racism, could renew trade union strength. He stressed the Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) trade union conference on 10 February.
Teacher Sue argued, “Activity around pay isn’t creating a big number of activists, activity around racism is.” And health worker Sam said setting up a SUTR workplace group helped her organise.
A world in turmoil
Debating how to pull the deep anger at the crisis of capitalism to the left ran throughout the conference.
Joseph Choonara set the tone for the conference with a session on A World in Turmoil. “We’re facing a very profound political and economic crisis,” he said.
“Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist, said that we’re witnessing an end of Western-led globalisation.”
Joseph said capitalism’s recovery following the 2007 financial crisis “remains extraordinarily weak”. He said this is a “result of the low profitability across the system” but that mainstream commentators can’t explain this.
Delegates debated the political implications and lessons of the crisis. Hector from south London said repression in Catalonia had shown the “need for use of force by the state”.
Masoud from north London said recent protests in Iran were made up of people “from marginalised, poor parts of society”. He added that Trump’s tweet of support for them was “the biggest blow” and gave “the biggest excuse” for state repression.
Joseph said the erosion of mainstream political institutions can give the left opportunities.
“A poll found that 52 percent of people in Germany think the term capitalism has negative connotations,” he said. “This is an economy that’s doing well.”
He warned about the experience of Greece, where left wing government Syriza has implemented austerity.
And he said that anger won’t automatically boost the left but could help racists to grow. “The only thing that can stop this is mass mobilisation,” he said.
Opportunities for revolutionaries today
Amy Leather led off a discussion on how to build the Socialist Workers Party. She said Labour’s left wing leadership “doesn’t end the need for independent revolutionary organisation”.
But she said the most difficult question is whether a revolutionary party can grow when most left wing people are attracted to Jeremy Corbyn.
Amy said it was important to build the SWP now to prepare for the challenges raised by a possible Corbyn-led government.
She said the best way to do this was to make the SWP relevant to Corbynism by working alongside Labour supporters in campaigns.
Working together would raise ideological questions and opportunities to win people to revolutionary politics.
Twenty two people spoke in the discussion.
Many described how their local branches have attracted new people and campaigners they are working with.
Nahella from Manchester said people sometimes weren’t ready to join the party but that SWP members can build political relationships with them.
Lucretia from Chesterfield said book launches “have been our biggest meetings and the ones where we have recruited the most”.
Chris from York said socialist educational work can take on the right’s “ideological offensive”.
Lois said Labour members in her area came to SWP meetings “as they’re not getting the activity they need from Labour”.
Socialists in the universities
Lewis Nielsen opened up a session on student politics and activity. He said the “contradictions of Corbynism” have played out on campus.
Some two thirds of students who voted in last year’s general election backed Corbyn.
But Lewis said that the majority of Labour societies are either dominated by right wing members or are too focused on internal arguments.
Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS) can grow by offering radical politics and activity.
A key emphasis for students this year will be the student Stand Up To Racism conference on 3 March.
Lewis said, “There are huge numbers of students who are with us on these issues and are ready to fight for a different kind of society.”
In the discussion SWSS members talked about the debates and challenges students face.
Sophie from Sheffield Hallam denounced Tory university minister Jo Johnson’s attacks on universities under the guise of defending “free speech”.
“Our Islamic society is scared to be political because of Prevent,” she said.
Bethan from Manchester agreed but added, “We shouldn’t be completely uncritical of the way some people on the left have used no platforming tactics. “No platforming is something we should reserve for fascists.”
Fight for trans rights
In the session on fighting against oppression and for trans rights, Sue C argued that “all oppressions are rooted in class society”. She added, “Women’s oppression is not the fault of trans people.”
Sue said anger at Donald Trump and the #MeToo campaign gave activists “a mandate to resist”. Sexual harassment scandals have opened up debates about how best to fight oppression.
Speakers reaffirmed that trans women are women and trans men are men.
But some on the left don’t support the right of people to self-identify their gender.
Teacher Mike described a “battle” raging in the NUT section of the NEU union over the issue. NEU member Anna shared her experience of supporting transgender students.
She said a major task in schools and colleges is to put forward demands, such as for gender neutral toilets and uniforms.
Votes and elections
The conference elected the leadership bodies of the SWP. The central committee, which leads the organisation on a daily basis, was elected unopposed.
Its members are Weyman Bennett, Michael Bradley, Sue C, Alex Callinicos, Sally Campbell, Joseph Choonara, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather, Lewis Nielsen, Brian R, Julie Sherry and Mark L Thomas.
Conference elected a national committee of 50 members to guide the party’s work. The disputes committee is an elected body which looks at matters of discipline and conduct within the SWP.
As part of it’s annual report back the committee prepared a statement of expected behaviour of members.
This is in addition to the SWP’s existing policy and procedure against sexual harassment, and members will be provided with a copy.
Each session saw a number of comrades agreed to prepare a commission to reflect the discussion. These were open to amendments and then voted on.