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Socialist Workers Party conference—debating where next for the left

Socialist Workers Party activists gathered to debate how to push struggles to revolutionary conclusions at its 2022 conference last weekend
Issue 2787
Climate protest targets Cop26 in Glasgow

Climate protest marches through Glasgow during Cop26 in November, 2021.


The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) conference met last weekend amid a deep crisis of the capitalist system as a whole and the Tories in particular.
 
Covid-19 has exposed all the failings of putting profit before people’s lives.
 
And the fiasco of the Cop26 climate talks underlined that capitalism will no more tackle catastrophic environmental collapse than it will deal with pandemics.
 
Faced with growing anger from below, ruling classes ­everywhere are turning to repression and racist scapegoating.
 
Boris Johnson is no exception. But he also has seen his popularity slump as more people are sickened by his lies, corruption and Covid-19 rule exemptions for the rich. And there are ­pressing issues over pay, rents, energy prices and the cost of living that will loom large in 2022. 
 
But Labour’s march ­rightwards underlines that it offers no real alternative.
 
Socialists have to be involved in the movements combating racism and climate change.
 
And there are opportunities for the SWP to grow, particularly among students and young workers. This requires the party to be actively involved in all the working class movements of resistance.
 
It also requires leadership and political clarity about the way forward for the fightback and the battle for socialism.

 
Strengthen the climate resistance
Central committee member Lewis Nielsen introduced the discussion on where next for the climate movement
 
He said, “It’s quite telling that 2021 started with wildfires in Australia and ended with wildfires in Colorado.”
And he argued that building a climate movement is not a “side issue”, the severity of climate change makes it “a central priority for us in the SWP”. 
 
He said it was important to take radical ideas into the movement. 
 
“We have to approach one of the biggest crises of the system as revolutionaries,” he summarised.
 
Lorna from Glasgow explained how the party built a strong presence on the protests at Cop26 in the city. 
“What set us apart from other groups was our presence on the day. We had thousands of placards scattered throughout the demo and our stalls were vibrant.”
 
She added the intervention of the party alongside others helped to make the event so successful. 
 
Josh from Newham, east London pointed to the deepening radicalisation of the climate movement and said, “post-Cop more activists are questioning capitalism”. 
 
Tony from Plymouth said the party should keep sight of the links between the climate crisis and imperialism
He said, “Accelerating climate catastrophe is one of the driving tension towards war.” 
 
Students Matt and Jeandre in Liverpool explained how socialist politics related to 40 organisations in their local Cop26 coalition.
 
Julie from York said that continued involvement with climate groups like Extinction Rebellion is still important. 
 
She added that activists involved in the blockade of an Amazon distribution centre had discussed how they could get wider layers involved, including Amazon workers. 
 
Suzanne said that activists should continue to organise within Cop26 coalition groups. She explained that keeping coalitions together could “broaden and deepen the movement locally and nationally.” 

‘There has been an increase in radicalism and a return to movements on the streets’
Amy Leather from the central committee spoke on building the SWP and student work in a time of crisis.
 
To make the SWP “stronger and better able to shape resistance and struggle” a focus was put on increasing student work and engaging with new members.
 
Amy said the systemic crises of capitalism mean many people “are drawing revolutionary conclusions”. She added, “There has been an increase in radicalism and a return to movements on the streets”. 
 
“A deep crisis in entwined with a growing radicalism where Labour is no longer such a focus as it was under Corbyn.
This means there is an audience for revolutionary socialist ideas, so it is possible to recruit, but it is not automatic.”
 
Eddie from Liverpool said their Socialist Worker Student Society’s success in recruiting had been down to focusing on “issues people care about” such as trans rights and the climate. 
 
Hannah from Glasgow said “a consistent presence on campus” is vital in building larger student groups”. She added being “as radical as possible” made a huge difference. 
 
Joseph from the central committee said, “Students coming on campus today have been socialised in an era of this multifaceted crisis.”
 
He added, “If you’re in a city with one small university you have an audience of 5, 6 or 7,000 students. They are looking to the left for answers.”
 
Mark Thomas and Jess Walsh from the central committee and workplace and unions department opened a session on the workplace and trade unions.
 
Mark argued that there’s a “serious assault on the cost of living for working class people”.
 
He said, “People who don’t feel the urgency of fighting today can feel it tomorrow. It’s introducing a degree of volatility and the potential for unexpected developments.” 
 
He added that one factor is the shortage of workers. “At least some workers feel an increased sense of their own bargaining power and the willingness to be combative,” he said.
 
Jess argued for SWP members to push workers and trade unions into battles for social justice.
 
“This will help to build the unions with younger workers who are drawn to these movements and bring politics into movements against oppression,” she said.
 
Some comrades talked about building strikes and difficulties posed by anti-union laws.
 
Jon, a Unison member from Portsmouth talked about the national ballot of council workers in England and Wales. He said the likely result was a vote for strikes, but a reduced turnout below the 50 percent threshold.
 
“Much of the Labour left in Unison are focussed on elections,” he said. “But maximising turnout is more important.”
 
Sean from the UCU union said the tactic of “disaggregated” ballots—where branches votes separately—was crucial to win action. But others said it was hard to generalise such a tactic.
 
There was a debate over a NEU pay campaign and the actions of SWP members on the union’s national executive committee. Conference rejected an amendment critical of a decision.
 
James from Chesterfield described how his SWP branch took student members to a strike by workers at B&Q to “experience what workers’ struggle looks like.”

 
Fighting back against racism
Weyman Bennett from the central committee introduced the session on building the anti-racist movement.
 
He noted how the movement’s main target shifted from fascist groups towards the Tories and state racism.
 
Discussing new anti-migrant and police bills, Weyman said these would not only target people trying to cross the Channel, they would also attack black people in Britain.
 
Weyman also pointed to the huge anti-racist feeling in Britain and how that could be mobilised for national demonstrations in Glasgow and London on 19 March and Cardiff on 20 March.
 
He also said Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) is organising an online Holocaust Memorial meeting on 24 January and a trade union conference on 5 February.
 
The wide trade union support for protests is part of a tradition of black and white working class unity, he said.
 
The session also highlighted arguments within anti-racism that revolutionary socialists must take a position on, in particular privilege theory.
 
Weyman said some ideas can weaken the movement and the SWP had a crucial role in defending it.
 
The discussion covered the Drax reparations campaign and action against Home Office dawn raids in Pollokshields, Glasgow.
 
Nahella from Manchester spoke about SUTR’s campaign defending black footballers who faced racism following the Euro tournament.
 
Demanding Boris Johnson and the Tories were held to account “really resonated with people,” Nahella said.
At demos “the biggest applause was when we attacked Johnson, the Tory government and the hostile environment”.
 
Zak from Harlow said the crisis for the Tories “presents both opportunities and dangers for the left”, as the scale of the racist offence is ramped up to divide people.
 
“In the absence of huge working class struggle what we do in united fronts is absolutely crucial,” he added.
 

 
Debating how to break the chains of oppression
Sophia Beach from the Central Committee opened the session on “How do we win liberation from oppression?”
 
Activists in liberation movements increasingly understand their fight in the context of the struggle against the state, she said. 
 
Tomáš Tengely-Evans from the Central Committee also opened the session.
 
The question of how we win liberation is central, Tomáš argued. If you understand oppression as flowing from capitalism and class society, then you need to look to forces that break that system. That’s why Marxists see the working class as central to the fight against oppression, he said.
 
Speakers from the floor debated how to put our politics into practice. Eleanor from Newcastle said, “There is a problem with transphobia on the left.” 
 
She argued the SWP should join protests against organisations that argue trans rights threaten women’s rights. But a motion to join protests at Women’s Place UK events was defeated.
 
Others said a better approach is to build trans rights campaigns. Tiffany from Norwich said, “We need to move away from debates with people like JK Rowling towards actually building solidarity.
 
“I organised solidarity with the Weetabix strike. I got trans women to do a photo that was sent to the picket line. 
 
“The convenor phoned me and we had a long conversation about workers’ rights and trans rights.” Michael from Haringey brought his NEU union banner on a trans pride march. “It helped mobilise our members in the union and cemented their support for trans and non-binary rights within the union,“ he said.
 
Jan from Islington said, “Neoliberalism is attacking women. Every year in Britain 54,000 women lose their jobs because they are pregnant.”
 
Nadia from the SWP’s national office talked about responding to divisive arguments. “Our starting point is that we stand with people wanting to fight oppression. Sometimes in meetings, people can go on tirades about everything that’s wrong with privilege theory and identity politics, I don’t think that’s right.”
 
She argued a better approach is to explain how the SWP’s politics are able to “transform society”.

 
Let’s hit at Tories in trouble 
Introducing a session on British politics today, Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber said, “While people died, the Tories were living it up. That should be a spur to struggle.
 
“Coronavirus is an indictment of the criminal subordination of human life to the needs of capital accumulation, encouraged by the failure of Labour and the trade union movement to put forward any real resistance.
 
 
“It should be a very strong place for revolutionaries to organise, but there is a major problem—the weakness of the left.”
 
Charlie argued, “We have to put forward a systematic argument for more struggle, for more campaigns, for more strikes.”
 
Esme from east London spoke on the NHS crisis “that creates huge bitterness among health workers”.
 
She said, “There has been a shift in the bitterness and class anger, but where is the opposition? 
 
“Labour have utterly failed to put up the sort of resistance and organisation that could drive home the crisis in the NHS.”
 
Moyra from west London argued that housing will be a significant issue in 2022 “because it covers all things we’ve been talking about—climate, institutional racism
 
“It’s all generational including students, and mental health,” she said.
 
Charlie said, “There is another area where there ought to be resistance, but there hasn’t been—Scottish independence.
 
“We fight for independence, but also put distinctive politics as socialists, not nationalists.”
 
Charlotte from Glasgow said, “many people frustrated with the SNP’s lack of progress looked for alternatives.
“The Alba party formed and sadly many socialists joined that party that has turned out to be led by bigots.”

 
New Socialist Worker online
Socialist Worker online editor Tomáš Tengely-Evans introduced our new website to the conference.
 
He said that the website should be a tool to amplify and intervene in struggles and build a revolutionary socialist organisation—just as the newspaper is.
 
Tomáš said that meant every comrade needs to use the new website and share its articles.
 
And he said every branch needs a social media team, to include social media in their interventions in strikes and protests. This can include taking video interviews with strikers on picket lines to publish on social media, and to share Socialist Worker articles about the strikes.
 
Branches’ social media pages should be places that people look to for news, analysis and updates on local struggles, he said.

 
Elections and amendments
Over 400 members attended the conference which was held online. Across two days hundreds of delegates and observers made contributions. 
 
Each session saw a vote on a commission that summed up the direction of the SWPs work. 
 
These were open to amendments and voted on. For instance the were amendments on the party’s new website, protests over trans oppression, and trade union work among others.
 
The Central Committee (CC) that leads the organisation 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.
 
A disputes committee was also elected. It deals with disciplinary matters within the organisation. A number of amendments to the rules and the procedures were discussed in order to clarify the committee’s work.

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