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SWP conference debates where next for the left?

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Issue 2636
Socialist Workers Party members have been at the heart of building Stand Up to Racism
Socialist Workers Party members have been at the heart of building Stand Up to Racism (Pic: Guy Smallman)

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.

The growth of the far right and racism across the world shaped the debates at the conference.

It followed the inauguration of far right Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil and Donald Trump’s government shutdown over the Mexican border wall.

In Britain, the Tories’ manufactured crisis over refugees is an attempt to encourage more racism.

Weyman Bennett from the SWP central committee said the “deep crisis of the centre and polarisation” to left and right is increasing. “What we do now matters,” he said.

Some 30 people spoke in a session on fighting racism, fascism and Islamophobia. Many described the positive impact of building local Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) groups.


Several described how workers’ struggles have fed into anti-racist activity.

Dave from Wigan said workers who have struck there are now helping to build a protest against Ukip leader Gerard Batten.

“Class struggle can generate confidence,” he said.

Nahella from Manchester said SUTR has “political clout as we have a national movement”. Others spoke about the radical right trying to organise on university campuses.

Sam, a student from Wolverhampton university, said, “If you’re not organising on campuses, you’re missing a trick.”

Natasha from Sheffield said the SWP must “reach out to EU residents” under attack. And Vimal from Birmingham argued that “we have more support than we think” for anti-racism.

Weyman said that ruling class scapegoating of migrants is “opening the door for the right”. “We are facing a plethora of far right organisations,” he said.

“There are racist populists, fascist parties and street movements.”

Weyman said the rise of different far right forces has sparked debates about how anti-fascists should respond.

And speakers stressed the need for the party to raise ideological arguments. “We have to fight for Marxist politics on how to destroy racism,” argued Esme from north London.

Ken, also from north London, said there are questions about whether Trump and Bolsonaro are fascists. He said activity is key. But “what kind of activity you do is based on theory”.

Weyman argued for building SUTR as a united front that doesn’t concede to racist arguments. He said the party had risen to the challenge of fighting the resurgent far right around Nazi Tommy Robinson.

“Last year the Football Lads Alliance mobilised 20,000 and that led people to the conclusion that we were facing a difficult year,” he said.

The year ended with anti-fascists outnumbering Robinson and Ukip supporters on 9 December in London. Now anti-racist demonstrations in London, Glasgow and Cardiff on 16 March are crucial.

Conference also debated the Tory crisis, Brexit and Labour, and what socialists’ position should be on the European Union (EU).

Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber said Brexit has caused the biggest split in the Tory party for over 150 years. Sabby from north London argued that a “low level of class struggle” meant that the debate has been pulled to the right. He said socialists should not support leaving the EU.


Others strongly disagreed. “If you really think the EU gives a space for progressive politics, think again,” argued Alex Callinicos from the central committee.

Charlie argued the key divide in British society must not be over Brexit, but over austerity and racism.

The Tories couldn’t withstand mass strikes or movements.

But Labour and the trade union leadership “are doing nothing to challenge the Tories or define a working class position,” he said.

And Labour’s focus on electoral politics limits it. People debated how socialists should respond to calls for a “People’s Vote”—effectively a second referendum.

This would split the working class and the SWP is opposed to it. But if there was a referendum the central committee would call a meeting of the SWP’s democratic bodies to decide on the party’s position.

If it was a choice between Remain and May’s Brexit, a possible option would be “active abstention”—a campaign to reject both options.

“Active abstention isn’t easy, but it is possible,” argued Dave from south London.

Several people said it is possible to win people to opposing the EU.

Rena from north London said, “There’s a lot of people out there who voted Remain that would be open to left wing arguments if they heard them.”

Karen from Manchester said that there were “secret Brexiteers” at her workplace who weren’t initially open about it for fear of being seen as racist.

Charlie argued that the key way to engage with wider layers of activists was through united fronts such as Stand Up To Racism.

Building for that also means building an independent revolutionary party.

A world in turmoil

Selma, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party in France, opened the SWP conference in a session on the world in turmoil. She said the Yellow Vests movement has shown that “austerity politics can be challenged” (see page 20).

Joseph Choonara from the central committee said the “neoliberal centre ground of politics” is disintegrating. He said a new economic crisis is likely at some point and there are “strong reasons for saying the ruling class is incapable of re-stabilising the system”.

And he argued that the left must “try and shape movements”.

Several people spoke about the #MeToo movement and the fight against sexism. Bethan from east London said, “There has been a huge surge in opposition to sexism.”


Laura from Leeds spoke about the importance of socialists fighting trans oppression. Judith from east London said some on the left have been “wrong footed” about why Donald Trump has pulled out troops from the Middle East.

She said socialists had to be clear that his policies are “another way of pursuing the America ruling class’s interests”.

Joseph outlined some mistaken responses on the left to the ruling class crisis. One is to try and bolster the neoliberal centre as an alternative to the radical right. Another is to pander to racism.

He said left reformist parties such as Labour aren’t raising the level of struggle, and that people won’t automatically move towards revolutionary politics.

But he argued that revolutionaries can grow through common activity with others and by providing “political clarity”. “We as revolutionaries can make a difference,” he said.

Fighting Tory austerity in the workplaces

Mark Thomas from the central committee introduced a session on politics in the workplace and fighting austerity.

A series of strikes have taken place over the past year, including in universities, Birmingham home care workers and the Glasgow equal pay strike.

“Each provides an example that you can fight,” said Mark.

Dave from Wigan spoke about a hospital workers’ strike there and stressed the importance of SWP branches getting stuck into disputes. Selling Socialist Worker before the strike helped socialists build solidarity with strikers–and showed the relevance of the SWP. “We recruited three union stewards,” said Dave.

Jim from Glasgow spoke about the women council workers’ strike for equal pay. “While the struggle is at a low level, we have important disputes,” he said. “And we have to be involved from the beginning.”

UCU union members said the university pensions strike last year showed the power of taking action.

Carlo from Dundee said, “We should not underestimate how the strike transformed the union and people’s ideas.”


Conor, a student from Manchester, said building solidarity for the strikes helped people see the importance of working class struggle.

Liz from north London described how the Unison union branch there had successfully pushed for strikes among traffic wardens.

She said it is the role of revolutionaries to “always organise for a fight”.

Mark said there is a dominant mood among unions of waiting for Labour rather than fighting now. And Labour isn’t “giving full expression to the anger” over attacks such as Universal Credit.

But he said revolutionaries can attract workers by taking up ideological questions such as solidarity with Palestine.

Mark highlighted the 23 February Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) trade union conference. Deepening SUTR in trade unions is an important task for all socialists.

How do we organise the resistance today

One session debated how to build a revolutionary party in the era of Corbynism.

Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber said a revolutionary party is necessary because of the unevenness of working class people’s ideas and the centralisation of the state.

He said publicity, social media and contacting people are key to building branch meetings.

Tim from Swansea said that “attractive and unusual” meetings can bring the party’s politics to new audiences. Brian from south London pointed to the use of music and video.


New members described how they joined the party and stressed the need to recruit. “If you don’t ask them to join, they never will,” said Jasmine from north London. Selling Socialist Worker remains at the heart of building the party.

Simon from east London argued that selling the paper “translates into strengths” where sales are organised and carefully planned.

Charlie said comrades must work with a wide range of people but also raise socialist politics in SUTR meetings.

“If you don’t feel the need to read, you’re not engaging enough with the ideas in the movement,” said Dave from north London.

Charlie said SWP members should be optimistic. “We need a bigger organisation,” he said. “That requires a high political level, engaging with the issues of the day, thinking about our meetings, attention to our publications, and thinking about who we can recruit.”

Voting at the conference
Voting at the conference

Standards for revolutionaries

A group of comrades presented a report on expected behaviour in the SWP. Emma from east London said its starting point was that revolutionaries are “tribunes of the oppressed”.

“We strive to have behaviour that does not reinforce oppressive stereotypes,” she said. “Branches need to be places where people feel encouraged to take part in activity and should be safe.” New guidelines include suggestions on how reports of unacceptable behaviour can be dealt with, and how the party can support victims.

“Every member needs to feel both entitled and empowered to raise a concern if unacceptable behaviour occurs, including unacceptable behaviour by members in leadership positions,” the guidelines said.

Conference agreed that the pressures of capitalism shape everyone and can lead to “unequal” relationships and “oppressive behaviour”.

The Central Committee plans to organise a day?school on sexual oppression.

Conference elected a disputes committee to deal with complaints in the year ahead.

Votes and elections

The conference elected the leadership bodies of the SWP. Delegates elected a central committee (CC) which leads the organisation on a daily basis. This includes four new members. The new CC is made up of 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.

It includes SWP members from all over Britain to feed in experiences and make decisions.

Each session saw a number of comrades agree to prepare a commission to reflect the discussion.

These were open to amendments and then voted on.

Young, angry and open to building radical politics

Lewis Nielsen from the central committee introduced a session on young workers and students.

He argued that the “sense of chaos and turmoil which permeates society is even stronger for young people”.

Movements across the world are “young and open to radical politics”.

But the far right is trying to grow on university campuses–with a “non-existent” response from the NUS.

Labour is failing to tackle the racists. “Not once has anyone tried to set up a Momentum society on campus,” said Lewis.

This has left a “huge political space” that Stand Up To Racism and Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS) must fill.

Lewis argued that “every district needs a strategy” to engage young people.


Many students talked about organising SWSS.

Students have built societies at campuses such as Wolverhampton, Bristol, UCL, Sheffield and Newcastle where there haven’t been SWSS groups for years.

Josh said his SWSS group in Wolverhampton had seen “massive growth” and has a “big presence on campus”.

He said this was down to consistent campaign stalls and using social media.

Sophia from Bristol spoke about a campaign over students’ mental distress.

She said the Labour Party had little involvement in it, showing there is a “vacuum” that SWSS groups can fill.

Matteo from UCL had helped to organise a sit-in against racist treatment of students and staff. This helped him to organise a bloc of students to join a demonstration against Nazi Tommy Robinson.

“A few years ago that wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. “Work does bear fruit.”

Others described organising among young workers.

James from south east London built a union at his pub, which eventually led an unofficial strike last year. “We’re the next generation of trade unionists,” he said.

Ruby from Glasgow said taking students to picket lines during last year’s equal pay strike “taught a lesson about the centrality of the working class”.

Many said the SWP’s Socialism 101 events had helped to connect young people across the party, and develop them theoretically. Fay from east London said going to Socialism 101 “encouraged me to go and be an activist in the workplace”.

A number of people across conference said climate catastrophe has led to a new generation of activists wanting to organise direct action.

Huw from Bristol said socialists have to argue for socialist transfor-mation to stop climate change.

Martin from Manchester added that the SWP’s arguments can’t be reduced to simply saying we need climate jobs.

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