The Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) annual conference last weekend was shaped by debates over where next for the left after Boris Johnson’s victory.
SWP joint national secretary Charlie Kimber led off a discussion on politics in Britain after the general election.
He described the election last year as a “watershed in two aspects”.
The first was that the Tory victory would be a “disaster for ordinary people” and that their majority in parliament will “unleash the Tories and change the political atmosphere of the last few years”.
The second was that Labour’s defeat “brings to an end four years of expectation that problems in society will be solved by the election of a Jeremy Corbyn government”.
Charlie also said the election showed the SWP had been “right not to collapse into uncritical support for Labour or to join the Labour Party”. And he said the SWP was also right to campaign for a left wing Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s European Union (EU) membership.
He said that the central message of the Brexit vote was a “howl of rage against the establishment” and that promising a second referendum had “alienated Labour from very large numbers of people”.
Many delegates pointed out that voters in places that voted to leave the EU felt abandoned by Labour.
Jim from Doncaster said, “People are already looking at Labour leadership candidates and saying that they’re not listening.”
In response to a question on who the SWP endorses as the next leader of the Labour Party, Charlie said that is “not the focus of our activity”.
He said the focus for the SWP is to build resistance, working in united fronts around issues such as racism and climate change, and seeking to build strikes and resistance to the governemnt’s assaults and council cuts.
Fran from south London said, “It’s our immediate task to argue for a return to serious workplace organisation.
“I think we should be confident in our politics.”
Other delegates argued that there should be a push to set up more sales of Socialist Worker at workplaces.
Sarah, a PCS union member from Manchester, said trade unionists had to take up political issues to build workplace organisation.
She said, “We did a successful fundraising buffet for Stand Up To Racism and Care4Calais, which gave us the sense that we could do something.
“We have to raise different issues and continue to organise union meetings, even in places where bosses are hostile to us.”
Tom from east London argued that members have to push for action on climate change in every workplace.
Delegates discussed the implication of the general election in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the large majority of seats.
First minister Nicola Sturgeon backs a second independence referendum, but has also ruled out militant action outside parliament if the Tories refuse to grant one.
But Charlotte from Glasgow argued hope lies with a growing mass movement. Alongside building resistance in the streets and workplaces, there were discussions about the need for revolutionary organisation.
Amy Leather, SWP joint national secretary, reflected on the current period of “demoralisation and internalised debate in Labour.”
She said the “shattering” of Corbynism showed the “limits of parliament, limits of reformism and the need for independent revolutionary organisation.”
Amy said the battle was on to “fight for an interpretation of the election result” and called on people to “be alive to the struggles that can break out. We can pose a bold socialist alternative, every branch has to think about how they’re going to seize this movement to grow revolutionary organisation,” she said.
“The things we do now to build stronger revolutionary movement now will strengthen all battles in the future.”
Martin from Swansea said people saw SWP meetings in the city as “the place to go” to debate politics.
“The chair of the Labour Party in Swansea has put that out publicly, saying if you want a good discussion go to the Swansea meeting,” he said.
Martin said meetings had to take up arguments that were taking place inside movements. “Things changed for our branch about four years ago when we decided not just to make a commentary on events,” he said.
Ken from Waltham Forest said SWP members had to think about how to make meetings welcoming for people not used to going to
“We should be learning how different people structure meetings,” he said.
“People won’t stay unless they understand the arguments and we need people to develop theory and draw others in.”
A world in revolt
The wave of global revolt against austerity and corrupt elites ran through discussions at the SWP conference.
Joseph Choonara, the editor of the International Socialism journal, led off the discussion on the global revolts. He said the 2020s would be a “very frightening decade” with an “inferno engulfing Australia” and threat of more war in the Middle East.
But, said Joseph, there is a “new global age of revolt and it’s not just the far left saying it”.
Delegates heard analysis of the Chilean movement, an eyewitness account from Hong Kong and discussions about how to build resistance in Britain.
Judith from east London told the conference that Trump’s actions over Iran were “nothing short of an act of war”. “We cannot overestimate how threatening this is—we have to get out there and seize the moment,” she said.
Joseph argued it was “not enough to just celebrate the revolts” and that there was a battle of ideas in the movement between revolutionary and reformist forces.
He said some socialists wanted to give a “new theoretical gloss to reformism” and see workers’ action as subordinate to electoral work.
He pointed to the warning from Bolivia where socialist president Evo Morales was deposed in a right wing coup.
Morales came from a mass movement from below but “channelled the energy of the movement into the state” and demobilised it.
Joseph argued that revolutionary socialists “will have to fight with people who don’t agree with our politics but win arguments in the long term”.
Climate emergency creates new movements
The climate emergency was a major theme at the SWP conference.
Lewis Nielsen is a member of the Campaign against Climate Change steering group and the SWP central committee.
He described the period as one of “big initiatives and big politics” led by “overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly radical” activists.
Lewis said, “The world is on fire and we’ve seen the birth of a new revolutionary movement against it. There’s a newfound radicalism that is at the heart of the climate movement”.
Izzy, a school climate striker from Bristol, said, “Young people always wanted to do something about climate change and the school strikes have been a chance to get our voices across.”
She said Greta Thunberg had “inspired so many young people not just to strike but think about wider politics”.
“I discovered socialism through it,” she said.
Victor from central London said, “I met the SWP through Extinction Rebellion. Revolutionary socialism can seem very distant.
“We must try to show that it’s not distant and somethings that is achievable.”
Lewis blasted the “technological solutions” to ecological catastrophe offered by bodies such as Cop26. He said frustration at the lack of action over the planetary chaos is a key factor driving the new climate uprising.
He called on everyone to see the “question of mobilisations and movement from below as a crucial one”.
Julie from York described how local SWP members had been part of Extinction Rebellion since the beginning. “In a week it’s not unusual to have two meetings, plus a training and an action,” she said.
Delegates discussed how they tried to build walkouts and workers’ action on the global climate strike on 20 September last year.
How to build the fight against racism
The Tories have made clear that they will ramp up racism after their election victory.
Weyman Bennett from the SWP central committee said, “We now have one of the most right wing cabinets ever.
“They will seek to ram through attacks, such as new immigration laws that will target workers from the European Union.
“They also want new laws that target black and Asian communities and open the door to greater police harassment.
“Stand Up To Racism (SUTR), together with Love Music, Hate Racism, combines the SWP with many other forces, including the Labour and trade union movements.
“We need to continue building SUTR and the demonstrations in Glasgow and London on Saturday 21 March are going to be crucial.
Other delegates discussed their activities within SUTR, underlining the necessity of the organisation, and how they were planning to build the march on 21 March.
Esme from north London argued that the SWP had to sharpen up on arguments around racism and the Leave vote.
She said, “Racism exists in our cities, not just in the north of England. We have to have a strategy by which we need to drive out and isolate the far right elements.
“We must also raise anti-racist arguments in all areas of our work.”
Students and young workers
Paddy Nielsen from the SWP central committee led a session on students and young workers.
He noted that young people had been “at the forefront” of mass protest movements across the world and “the big ideological battles of what the future is going to be like.”
Paddy said the party would develop its efforts to introduce the young people around the party to revolutionary politics.
This means building on the successes of Socialism 101 events hosted by the SWP, and hosting new events across the country. Naima from south London said, “At Socialism 101 we had a Sudanese comrade speaking about the revolution there.
“We have all of these people around the world and we need to utilise them to galvanise young members.”
An amendment to the perspective document emphasised the importance of recruiting and organising young workers.
Students talked about their activities as part of Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS).
Iwan from City University in north London said they had “managed to build the first SWSS on campus for many years”.
Conference confirms backing for Trans rights
One session saw a debate about the roots of trans oppression and how to fight against it.
Sally Campbell, editor of Socialist Review, argued there had been a “moral panic over trans lives” in the wake of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).
She said it came “not just the media but parts of the left and some feminists” and had forced the “government to shelve the results of the consultation”. The consultation was about bringing in self-identification.
It has caused debates, with some socialists and feminists arguing that self-identification would put women’s rights at risk.
Sally said, “The starting point is we stand in solidarity with trans people. Being inclusive doesn’t erase anyone and we are right to support self-identification in the GRA.”
She argued against feminists who see “biology as the roots of women’s oppression”.
The discussion featured differing perspectives on how to approach people we disagree with over trans rights and gender identification.
One delegate, Moyra, suggested that “socialists should adopt a broadly gender critical approach as the best way to support both trans’ rights and women’s rights.
“We should acknowledge that some people have a sense of gender identity which is deeply felt,” she said. “And also that other people feel just as strongly that they don’t have an innate sense of gender identity.”
Moyra said the SWP should oppose tactics such as no-platforming “gender-critical voices” and using the term “Terf”.
She said belligerence around the debate was unhelpful in “trying to understand the complexities of the arguments around biology and gender”.
She said, “There is an objective basis to build a unity of the oppressed between women and trans people because both groups are oppressed by the ideology of gender stereotypes.”
Another delegate, Kate, said groups such as Women’s Place UK (WPUK) were “giving a left face to transphobia.”
She said that the group had spread “misinformation about the Gender Recognition Act” and that it only offered “criticism of trans people,” not criticism of gender.
She also said it was right to join protests outside of WPUK meetings.
Sally argued against going to the protests. “Going along to WPUK is not where we should be putting our energy,” she said.
A commission laying out the SWP’s support for trans rights and backing the right to self-declare gender said “neither should we organise or encourage participation in protests outside Women’s Place UK meetings.”
Laura Miles said there’s a difference between people raising legitimate questions about trans rights and “where people retail what are clearly transphobic positions”.
Votes and elections
Each session saw a number of members prepare a commission to reflect the discussion. These were open to amendments and voted on.
For instance a proposed amendment to the perspective from comrades from Coventry wanted more emphasis on recruiting union activists, especially in the private sector. It fell.
The central committee responded that seeing the working class as central doesn’t mean that the workplace is the only area of activity for working class people.
Delegates elected a central committee (CC) which leads the organisation on a daily basis. The CC is Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Brian R, Camilla Royle, Charlie Kimber, Hector Puente Sierra, Joseph Choonara, Julie Sherry, Lewis Nielsen, Mark Thomas, Michael Bradley, Paddy Nielsen, Sally Campbell, Sue Caldwell and Weyman Bennett.
Conference elected a national committee of 50 members to guide the party’s work.