This is a guest post by S Wells
Since special conference, the sense has grown that the present leadership would be incapable of organising a demonstration, a union meeting, a t-shirt stall... if it did not have the notes left to it by others who had done the job better over the past 60 years. An obvious starting point is the publicity for this year’s Marxism festival, with the prominence it gives to such “highlights” as talks by Suzanne Jeffery, Joseph Choonara and Jane Hardy. The website takes what has been for years one of the best events on the left, and makes it feel old and unexciting.
The party now has a “theory” section on its website for which the primary criterion appears to have been the length of time the author has spent on the CC. There are 24 books and articles by Cliff, and 12 by Callinicos but a mere 2 by Paul Foot, 2 by Michael Kidron and 1 by Nigel Harris. There is no danger of any reader inadvertently being guided to the publications of the party’s more libertarian (and livelier) past.
Then we have the troubles at Socialist Worker; beginning with an article in December calling for a vote for Labour against Respect’s Lee Jasper, and culminating in May’s attack on Owen Jones for supporting a referendum on the EU (a referendum which, as recently as this March, SW too had publicly supported).
The paper has not always been especially lively; Chris Harman in particular was criminally ill-used as its editor, only blossoming again when he was allowed to edit the ISJ. But one thing Chris knew as a certainty was the importance of checking your articles, and only running a piece if you were sure.
Owen Jones has been an important ally of the SWP in recent years. When he speaks on platforms of UAF, UtR, anti-cuts groups, etc, he boosts the size of a meeting that would otherwise bring just 50 people, to three times that number or more. He is the shared megaphone of the left. In politics, it is perfectly legitimate to antagonise your former allies (Marx in particular spent decades doing it). But if you’re going to annoy them, do so for a reason, to get some benefit. What has the party gained? We have been made to look like a collective of cross toddlers, still irking at Jones’ snubbing of Marxism. Our pettiness has won us no friends at all.
When you look at the rump party’s present leadership; the question that recurs is “why was he, or she, promoted?” I doubt there are many people outside our ranks who grasp quite how weak we now are. To put it as bluntly as I can; the second longest serving member of our central committee is Michael Bradley, our industrial organiser. Really, what seasoned union activist, finding themselves suddenly in a hard-spot, would phone Bradley for his advice?
At Tony Cliff’s 80th birthday celebration, Paul Foot imagined out loud the conversation that might have taken place between Cliff and the immigration officer who would have met him off the boat from Palestine.
“You see officer, in fifty years’ time, I will have my own organisation, with about 100 people working for me, and something like 10,000 members.” (Imagine Foot’s parody of Cliff’s heavy, Jewish accent)
“An organisation, you say?” (Foot, in Blimp-mode)
“Yes, a left-wing political party.”
“Ah, but we’ve got one of those already, the Labour Party.”
“No officer, to the left of Labour.”
Here, Foot paused, acting out the officer racking his brain. “I think I’ve heard of them, the C-C-Comm-unists?”
“No officer, because I say Russia is…”, the room was in guffaws long before Foot got to his “state capitalist” punchline.
We laughed, because the joke played to the party’s sense that we were the largest force on the far-left in Britain, and growing quickly. It was all of a piece with Chris Bambery, explaining to the party conference three years earlier, a phone call he had made to the Labour Party asking how well they were recruiting. “Not as fast as the bloody Trots”, he claimed to have been told. Or Charlie Kimber boasting in print of the “incredible statistic” that the Labour Party’s average age had ascended to the shocking figure of 48. The implied comparison was of course with ourselves; an organisation large often to threaten the Labour Party’s dominance, but with an average age (then) about 20 years lower. The future belonged to us, didn’t it?
Fast forward 20 years and it is a painful exercise to ask how much of Kimber’s polemic now applies to us: “Nor is the party just older. Its class base has shifted. A party which was once composed largely of workers is now dominated by wellintentioned members of the new middle class. They are committed to Labour ideas, but they are not in the main rooted in the workplaces and housing where most working class people, and most Labour voters, spend their time. Just one in four members are manual workers. Only 17 percent live in council houses compared with 25 percent of the whole population and 39 percent of Labour voters. There are as many Labour members in the lecturers’ union NATFHE (membership 70,000) as
there are members in the public employees’ NUPE section of the UNISON union (membership 580,000)…” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1993/isj2-061/kimber.htm)
The SWP is not merely older than it was; it is also smaller. For those of us in the faction this was perhaps the most shocking of our recent experiences. When finally we managed to get hold of the membership lists (which once were issued, routinely, to all branch activists), we learned what a very long tail of non-members the party is carrying. In 1995, if a person had not paid subs within 2 years, they were removed from the membership lists. In 2013, a large majority of the party’s claimed membership had not paid anything for more than 2 years. We found entry after entry reading something like, “last subs: August 2001 £5.” A party with a paper membership of around 7,000 turned out to have had just 2,300 subs paying members (and this was before the 350 resignations this March alone).
A party which cannot administer its own records is, by definition, a party on the verge of its demise. Because if you can’t say (even in private) what the real income is and what the real expenditure is, how on earth can you decide whether the party has too many journalists, organisers or (dare I ask) too many … managers?