The Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) annual conference last weekend was shaped by the pandemic, and the need for an alternative to the toxic capitalist system.
Charlie Kimber, SWP joint national secretary and editor of Socialist Worker, led a discussion on Tory failures and the crisis in Labour.
He described events of the last year as “world changing.”
“It has revealed and underlined to hundreds of millions across the globe that there is something wrong with capitalist society,” Charlie said.
He explained how the pandemic has caused a “deep political crisis”, particularly for the Tories whose failures have caused 80,000 deaths.
These failures were described as “a tale of cronyism, corruption, chaos and capitalism”.
During discussion of the Labour Party Charlie highlighted the need to work with the Labour left in united fronts, but to argue for revolutionary ideas.
“Keir Starmer has agreed with the Tories more than he has disagreed. We need to put forward the argument for people disillusioned with Labour to join the SWP.
“The best response from the Labour left to attacks from Starmer would be leaving the Labour Party.”
Delegate Barney blasted the Labour Party for not taking the question of anti-racism seriously.
He said Starmer “no way wants to see any further achievements from the Black Lives Matter ‘moment’ as he calls it”.
Lois from east London expressed frustration at the rightward direction of Labour. “They’re not viable anymore,” she said.
“Who would we be supporting next time, considering everything that’s happened in the Labour Party—the sabotage of Jeremy Corbyn and the racism that Diane Abbott faced?”, she asked.
Activists discussed how they would be central to efforts of building a new organisation to fight for Scottish independence.
“We want independence as socialists, not nationalists”, Charlie explained. “This is why the slogan we’ve put forward for May’s election is ‘vote left, fight for independence.’”
Delegates also highlighted the People Before Profit (PBP) organisation’s emergency programme, along with the importance for action on the streets and in workplaces.
Bristol delegate Huw said the depth of crisis meant a “necessity of political clarity and an attempt to work with a wider level of people to raise the level of resistance and solidarity.”
“A layer of the Labour Party, not enough, but a layer has been attracted by the activity and the politics around People Before Profit,” he said.
Other delegates debated how effectively teachers responded to the Covid-19 danger in their workplaces, the scale of the Tory crisis and how LGBT+ rights have been affected by the pandemic.
Mark Thomas from the SWP’s central committee and Workplace and Trade Union Department then led a discussion on resistance in workplaces.
He argued the last period “has been characterised by a palpable sense across millions of people in Britain that there is a huge threat to lives and livelihoods”.
London Tube worker Phil said rank and file initiatives over issues such as working hours gave bosses “no choice” but to give in.
Speakers discussed how school workers’ action played a pivotal role to force the Tories to stop the unsafe reopening of schools this month.
The NEU union had told members they could refuse to return to work citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act.
York teaching assistant Julie said workers closed her school by refusing to return. She said anger can override a “lack of confidence”.
Ameen from Salford, Greater Manchester, said workers’ refusal to return to nurseries forced the council to close them to all but vulnerable and key worker children.
He said people had “got confidence” from the PBP group. Supporters had organised protests over job losses, solidarity for workers’ strikes and the student occupation and rent strike.
Jasmine from Liverpool also stressed the importance of PBP. “We should not be holding back in united fronts,” she argued. “Big things are possible.”
Students spoke about organising rent strikes, and several trade unionists said they had recruited more members during the pandemic.
Mark argued that the pandemic had “reinforced the caution and pessimism, which sometimes grips much of the trade union leaderships”.
People discussed how revolutionaries should relate to trade union leaders.
College lecturer Sean said the union bureaucracy has mostly been “bloody awful” but said this can open spaces for activists to take initiatives.
Dundee lecturer Carlo said these should sometimes “go beyond the official structures of unions”.
Judy, a teacher in east London, said union leaders are “an inevitably conservative layer” and revolutionaries must be independent from them.
South London teacher Jess said revolutionaries’ demands should be “flexible”.
A world in deep crisis
In a session on the global crisis central committee member Camilla Royle argued the situation was defined by climate catastrophe, economic disaster and an unprecedented pandemic.
The past year has also “seen the potential for inter‑imperialist rivalries to develop into military conflict”, Camilla argued.
The session took place in the aftermath of US fascist and far right forces breaking into the Capitol building in Washington.
Emma from east London said this “shows anger and disenfranchisement can go those or despair”.
Camilla pointed to the anti‑monarchy protests in Thailand, the End SARS movement against police violence in Nigeria and huge struggles in Lebanon.
Anne from north London said it was important to learn lessons from the “wave of revolution that swept through the Middle East” ten years ago.
Balwinder from west London spoke about the militant farmers’ protests against India’s hard right prime minister Narendra Modi.
Delegates also discussed the climate catastrophe.
Gordon from Glasgow urged conference to bring trade unions, XR groups and climate groups to protest outside the Cop 26 climate talks in Glasgow in November.
“We need to put working class and anti-capitalist politics at the centre,” he said.
Sky from Liverpool slammed the Tories and media for “creating a moral panic around trans and non-binary people to distract from the disastrous handling of the pandemic”.
Building the Socialist Workers Party in an era of lockdowns
Amy Leather, SWP joint national secretary, began a discussion on building the SWP and its student groups, and seizing the opportunity. She said the Covid-19 crisis has “laid bare the brutality of capitalism”.
She pointed out that the demand for fundamental change is a key reason why there is such a big audience for socialist ideas.
Amy highlighted the BLM movement and the crisis of Corbynism as key reasons why many people decided to join the SWP. Disillusionment with the Labour Party is a major factor in party recruitment.
She insisted it was crucial that the SWP is seen as both activists and “the people with the best political arguments”.
The importance of the party’s weekly branch meetings as places to present its politics was emphasised.
Amy discussed the need for a thorough social media strategy to attract new people to meetings. But she added that any opportunity to act “in the real world” should be grasped.
These themes were taken up by the discussion that followed.
Mitchell from Sheffield talked about how important it is to organise creatively.
“In Sheffield we’ve organised a number of meetings outside of branch meetings, including an event entitled ‘taking pride in resistance’.
“This has given people a different route into the party’s politics,” they said.
Toni from Glasgow detailed how the Marxism in Scotland event was a great success.
She said, “We had people signing up from 20 different countries for the event. It is clear that there is a real hunger for meetings like it.”
Delegates also talked about some of the challenges of organising during a pandemic.
James from Chesterfield said that despite branch meetings on Zoom being much larger than in-person meetings it has been difficult to recruit.
But Elizabeth from south London said recruitment is possible if you pay attention to detail, and call and engage every possible new member.
Several student delegates spoke about their experiences.
Titas from Bristol said, “Constantly putting up posters and stickers has helped us have a presence on campus.”
And Daisy from Bournemouth reiterated the need for student activists to get involved in movements and continue pushing out on social media.
Patrick from Sheffield added that organising in secondary schools is possible after he and other comrades set up a group in their school.
“We’ve set up an Instagram for our socialist group, and now we have other people from different schools messaging us asking how they could set up one of their own.”
Investing in new media to help revolutionaries grow
The conference debated new plans to make major improvements to the SWP’s publications online.
These included bringing the SWP website and most of the party’s publications, including Socialist Worker, together on one website and professionalising its social media.
Lewis Nielsen from the central committee (CC) said, “There is a big opportunity for the party to take steps forwards in terms of our online work and our online strategy.”
The plans also included stopping the print publication of the SWP’s monthly magazine Socialist Review.
There is now a plan to focus on publishing longer form articles on the new website.
Lewis said this is to “divert the resources currently spent towards Socialist Review towards our online work so we can take the leaps forward I talk about.”
In the discussion Adam from south London said it was important to see “our strategy as the starting point” in shaping the SWP’s online work.
Tomáš Tengely Evans from the CC said that building a stronger online presence “is not just about creating an alternative media, it’s about building the party.”
But Alan from Hackney argued that Socialist Review must stay as a print publication. “Given the situation we are facing we need all three of our publications to operate,” he said.
Celia from Manchester responded saying the print magazine doesn’t play a crucial role in building the organisation.
An amendment proposing to keep Socialist Review as a print publication as well as establishing a commission of comrades to oversee the new online strategy fell by 233 votes to 76.
Lewis said the new plans were “not just trying to build up an online following. We are strategically trying to place our media to grow the party and grow the struggle.”
Fighting back against racism and fascism
Brian from the central committee (CC) introduced the session on racism and the far right, BLM, and Stand Up to Racism.
He said coronavirus “highlighted the deeply rooted structural racism in society.”
“It quickly became apparent that the virus was having a hugely disproportionate impact upon black, Asian and minority ethnic people”, Brian added.
“More black people died not because of a disregard for the lockdown rules, but because we are more likely to be in jobs where we’re exposed to the virus.
“Black Lives Matter was the highlight of the year. We marched in solidarity with George Floyd but also for victims of injustice in this country.”
Nadia from the SWP national office spoke of how BLM had raised several ideological arguments.
“The resilience of reformism means ideas around black advancement as the way of overcoming racism is strong.
“We celebrate more black representation, but individual advancement isn’t the answer to how we overcome systematic racism.
“It is the collective resistance of black and white working class people that can do that.”
Julie Sherry from the CC outlined the upcoming activity of SUTR. She argued, “The strategic importance for revolutionaries is to stop the rise of the far right and to fight racism.”
She stressed the importance of the 20 March anti-racist demonstrations in Britain and internationally.
Discussion focussed on how SUTR groups had been building around BLM.
Nahella from Manchester said, “It’s been a difficult balance between rushing out onto the streets and saying we have a responsibility to keep people safe.
“The ‘Take the Knee’ initiative helped us be on the streets, but socially distanced.”
Neil from Waltham Forest said, “Black lives can’t matter until black trans lives matter. It’s really important to link the struggles.”
Ruby from Glasgow added, “The growth of the far right necessitates that anti-racists don’t stay at home.
“Anti-racism has to be on the street in the safest way possible because if we vacate that space it’ll be filled by racists.”
A debate took place on whether to add an amendment to the session’s commission about the SWP pushing for SUTR to explicitly oppose Israeli apartheid.
Martin from the Black Country said, “We need a very clear profile as the party saying we are against anti-Palestinian racism and Israeli apartheid.”
Sophia from the CC disagreed with this approach. She said, “As the SWP we are uncompromising on our position over Palestine. But in the united front we don’t put ultimatums on people. We need the strongest possible anti-racist movement in Britain.”
The amendment was voted down.
Over 400 members attended the conference held online.
The “Where We Stand" column in Socialist Worker was changed to include opposition to discrimination against disabled people and those who experience mental distress.
The Central Committee (CC) that leads the organisation on a daily basis was elected. The CC is Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Brian R, Camilla Royle, Charlie Kimber, Héctor Puente Sierra, Jess Walsh, Joseph Choonara, Julie Sherry, Lewis Nielsen, Mark Thomas, Michael Bradley, Sophia Beach, Tomáš Tengely Evans and Weyman Bennett.
Conference also elected a 50-strong national committee to guide the party’s work.