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SWP conference—seizing the mood to resist in 2023

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Socialist Workers Party activists gathered to debate how to push struggles to revolutionary conclusions at its recent annual conference
Issue 2837
A crowd shot of RCN nurses union members on a picket line at St Thomas' hospital in central, London. They hold RCN placards. It illustrates an article on the possible united strike on 1 February

RCN nurses’ union members on the picket line outside St Thomas’ Hospital in central London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Socialist Workers Party activists gathered to debate how to push struggles to revolutionary conclusions at its recent annual conference

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) conference met last weekend to reflect on a year that saw a wave of resistance show the power of workers in society.

The revival of strikes has been central to British politics, and more workers look set to join the fray soon. The sight of hundreds of thousands of workers striking together brings fresh hope to all those frustrated by a world of poverty, war and climate chaos.

But it raises questions of leadership and strategy. And in this time of huge political crisis, those at the top of society ratchet up racism to divert attention from their chaos.  Rishi Sunak—the third prime minister of 2022—is doubling down on repression against migrants fleeing across the English Channel.

And at the same time, he’s ensuring misery for millions across Britain as he sinks his teeth into more attacks on ­workers while energy prices rise.

Alongside fighting the Tory regime, socialists are also busy opposing the Nato drive to wider war, attacks on trans people and the global offensive against abortion rights.

The potential is massive—people across the world are furious at the horrors of the capitalist system and can be won to the ideas of revolutionary liberation.

‘We need to argue for the type of action that can win’—delegates discuss workplace fight

Mark Thomas, from the central committee, led the session titled British Politics, Strikes and Class Struggle. He began by saying that 2022 was a year in which there was a “step up and intensification of political crisis”.

Mark highlighted the ongoing and upcoming national strikes alongside “a whole raft of local disputes” and unofficial actions. But despite the power on the picket lines, Mark slammed the “cautious approach by the trade union bureaucracy.”

The strikes have been marked by “an episodic approach and intermittent on and off strikes, a willingness to call off strikes for talks for talks or because the monarch dies”, he said. “All of this has not been able to break through.”

“A crucial question is the question of racism,” he argued. “Therefore, the 18 March anti-racism demonstration is an opportunity to bring together strikes with the anti-racist resistance.” In the discussion, delegates debated how the upturn in strikes presents socialists with real challenges but also plenty of opportunities.

Health worker Karen said that NHS workers are at the “sharpest end” of the Tory crisis, and massive votes for strikes show big numbers want to fight back.

Janet, a nurse, added, “It blew me away how many people came out on the nurse’s picket lines. “It might sometimes feel like a struggle to have arguments with officials. But we need to make them.” Julie from York explained how the reluctance of trade union leaders to take action has played out in the school where she works.

“When we conducted an indicative ballot, 100 percent of workers wanted an all-out strike after it was announced we would suffer a 13 percent pay. But Unison stalled action and said we needed patience.

“After months of this, workers are angry, and some have started to despair,” she added.

One of the most significant confrontations with the bureaucracies has come from members of the UCU union. Mark, a UCU member in Brighton, told the conference, “It’s clear that the level of struggle isn’t due to bureaucracy. In many ways the union leaders are actually quite reluctant participants.”

He added, “They are wedded to the tactics that have dominated class struggle for the last three decades, which has been a ‘stop start’ pattern of strikes. We need to argue for the type of action that has the power to win. In UCU we’ve argued that this is all out indefinite strikes.”

Steve from Brighton and Jon from Portsmouth both pushed for a great emphasis on raising funds to support striking workers. Roddy from Newham added that socialists should “create spaces for rank and file organisation that can counter the hold of the trade union bureaucracy.”

Other delegates pushed for unions to bring delegations from their unions to visit picket lines. Cat from Leicester told the conference the role that SWP branches can play when they attend picket lines can go beyond just “cheerleading.”

“We have gone down to RMT picket lines, bringing banners and papers. This gave us confidence and status, which has helped us to draw in a periphery of left wing activists.”

Resisting racist divide

The Tory push to divide workers by pushing racism the best ways to respond made for an informative session at the conference. Joint convenor of Stand up to Racism and SWP central committee member Weyman Bennet opened the discussion.

He said, “The Tories are pursuing an old strategy of divide and rule. It is a flanking manoeuvre to try to attack us on the side as our class tries to move forward. We have to commit ourselves to being part of the movement that stops them and opposes what they stand for.”

Two main strands of the discussion focused on bringing anti-racism into workers’ struggles and what it meant that the Tory government has black and Asian people in leadership positions.

Ameen from Manchester said, “There is a trend, reflected by the Labour Party that seems to want to drape itself in the Union Jack, that somehow challenging racism is not what trade unions should be about.

“It’s not inevitable that if people strike they become anti-racist. They only do so if we win people to the idea that we need class unity against a racist government.”

Ebony from south London said, “black and brown faces in high places have never been beneficial to people like me. We have a government full of black and brown faces exacerbating racism.”

Ken from east London said that a racist government led by black and Asian people meant “black nationalism has a big problem explaining what is going on.”

“We as the SWP have an analysis we can put forward that others can’t.”

  • Tue 24 Jan, Holocaust Memorial Day meeting, 6pm online
  • Sat 4 Feb, Stand Up To Racism and Trades Union Congress trade union conference Fighting for anti-racist workplaces   11am-4pm, central London and online
  • Sat 18 March, March Against Racism, London, Glasgow and Cardiff

Taking on all forms of oppression

Rising sexism, homophobia, transphobia and disability oppression must be met with a determined socialist response, argued Sophia Beach.

The central committee member told the conference, “Matters of oppression have been key mobilising factors for people worldwide. We have not only seen questions of oppression mobilise people, but also a rise in repression from the right.”

Sophia said comrades must be ready for debates in the “incredibly ideologically contested” movements. “In order to engage with debates in a productive way, we need to have political confidence in our own ideas. We want to be firm in analysis that when we encounter backward ideas, whether we encounter them in struggle or our places of work.”

Michael from north London opened the discussion among delegates. He pointed out that the wave of strikes had made it easier to raise questions of LGBT+ oppression among workers than at any time in the last 30 years.

Laura from Glasgow agreed. She said picket lines allowed socialists to raise LGBT+ liberation in ways that are not “just theoretical”.

“We need to show that the right is trying to divide the working class,” she said. “And, we need to convince people that trans rights are not in opposition to women’s rights.”

Judith from Hackney pointed out that the right to control your own body “goes to the heart of liberation struggles”. She described the overturning of the Roe v Wade legal judgement on US abortion rights as a “qualitative change”. “This is the biggest attack for a generation, and it’s a mobilising issue in Britain,” she said.

Rob from Birmingham was one delegate who spoke about the way that disability is a working class issue. “The SWP needs to be talking to more disabled people,” he added. “We need to talk to them about women’s rights, LBGT+ rights and black rights—because disabled people are in all of those groups too.”

Worker and student unity

In a session on student work, central committee member Lewis Nielsen stressed the importance of building Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS).

He said, “Decades of privatisation and neoliberalism have meant the student experience is one of extortionate fees, heavily exploited staff and corporations on campuses. But that hasn’t stopped big ideological struggles on campus.”

Lewis said a critical task is “building solidarity and tying in students to wider strikes.” Students told conference about how visiting picket lines made a difference in their SWSS groups.

Eddy from Liverpool SWSS said, “We found a really good relationship” with the local dock strikers. And Jake from Leicester said strikes have been a focus for growing the society and as a result they “have managed to get eight people to join the party this year”.

Frankie from Edinburgh SWSS said their group grew because “The main thing that sets us apart from other organisations on the left is that we have a network of students and workers working in tandem.”

Anju from south London and Patrice from Liverpool argued the importance of reaching out to international students. Patrice talked about her successes of hosting events in solidarity with protests in China and Anju called for international student caucuses.

A debate arose with Chris from York saying, “I remain unconvinced by the strategy. If we were to put the whole extent of effort we have put into building SWSS meetings into building branch and public meetings, students will be drawn to them,” he said.

Lewis disagreed saying, “Campuses are some of the most political places at the moment.”

Building revolutionary groups in a strike wave

Amy Leather, the joint national secretary of the SWP, opened the session. She said the waves of crisis engulfing the ruling class created huge opportunities for the party, but that it can only grasp them if it is bold.

“The strikes have transformed the mood. They’ve made real the potential power of the working class,” she said. “There is the opportunity to recruit people to revolutionary organisation, which in turn can help the class win real victories.”

Amy said local meetings played a vital role in the recruitment of new members—but also as a means of offering them a way to be involved.

Much discussion was had about how branches should organise most effectively. Mark from Manchester called weekly meetings the “strategic centre that operated to clarify political leadership and organise interventions.”

And new member Deimante, from the same branch, pointed to how short, informal chats within meetings would make newcomers feel more confident.

Much of the session focused on how to recruit into the party strikers from the recent wave of disputes. Despina, from east London, said her branch had recruited four times the number of people as the year before because it took “very seriously” the building of big public meetings every six weeks.

Ursla Hawthorne who works at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, announced there would be a series of events to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.

Delegates also debated whether branches should continue to offer an online element to in-person branch meetings.

The Central Committee said that although Zoom access may be required for accessibility reasons, in-person meetings are the best for bringing people together and making it easier to organise.

Against the recommendation of the Central Committee, delegates voted to accept an amendment to the summary of the session that read, “Wherever possible an online option should be provided in order to offer maximum accessibility and inclusion.” Amy said, “Every branch needs to position itself as the place where the most radical workers and students meet to discuss and organise.”

Global crisis of capitalism

In a session on building the global resistance, Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber argued there was an “acceleration of the crisis of capitalism.”

He argued, “When we think about crisis, we need not simply to be cheerleaders of resistance, we need to be the people taking up specifics of these crises but linking them to the battle against the capitalist system itself.”

Martin from Manchester argued, “Capitalism’s own tools for dealing with its crises are increasingly unable to come close—the Cop27 talks were a bust.

“We are in favour of mass mobilisations and direct action, but we want a type of mass movement that challenges the state and system in a radical way.

Anne from Islington said how revolts over the last few years in countries such as Iran and Sudan show how crises can lead to “mass rebellion from below”.

 “And we see in embryo when strikes take place, that people cant move from destruction of the system to the creation of an alternative.”

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.

The Central Committee (CC) that leads the organisation was elected. The CC is Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Brian R, Camilla Royle, Charlie Kimber, Hector 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 new disputes committee was also elected. It deals with disciplinary matters within the organisation.

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