Remember the Left Alternative? Okay, maybe not. The Left Alternative, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is the current incarnation of the post-split Reespect/Left List/Left Party that did so well in the May elections. You remember, when Lindsey German came so close to winning a seat on the GLA? No? Still drawing a blank?
This puts you in the good company of many Socialist Workers Party members, who have been asking themselves “Whatever happened to the Left Alternative?” And so it has come to pass that in the latest Party Notes – made available to us, as so often, via Andy’s good offices – that Martin Smith seeks to enlighten the cadre. Martin sez:
We want to avoid if possible any bruising election contests. We should only decide to stand on a case by case basis.
The Left Alternative should push its supporters into arenas like the Charter, PSNPP and support left candidates in their campaigns.
It should be reduced to minimal, but still existing, role.
This needs to be reviewed regularly because this situation could change very quickly.
So the LA is going to be a parked front, much like Globalise Resistance, kept just about ticking over in case there’s a need to dust it off again. This makes sense. Since the election debacle, practically all the SWP’s allies – who weren’t too numerous to begin with – have flaked off. The four Tower Hamlets councillors have gone, three to New Labour and one to the Tories. Kumar Murshid has gone. The very able Sait Akgul seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. And the SWP itself doesn’t have the membership or the money to keep a halfway serious electoral intervention going under its own steam.
Martin also expatiates a little on changes in the office, the context of which is supplied by a Left Alternative bulletin:
The officers of the Left Alternative are sad to have to inform our members of the resignations of John Rees and Lindsey German from the officers group and National Council. However, they remain members of the Left Alternative.
John and Lindsey have been tireless members of the officers group and National Council since the inception of Respect. As National Secretary, John has provided consistent judgment and direction in the most difficult political circumstances, while Lindsey has been our inspirational Mayoral candidate in the GLA elections in both 2004 and 2008.
The National Council, at its meeting on 6th September, agreed a unanimous vote of thanks to John and Lindsey for everything they have done for our organisation. We are proud to have them as members of the Left Alternative and look forward to continuing to work with them in campaigns from Stop the War to the People before Profit Charter.
a) Chris B to remain on the steering committee until the October conference.
b) Charlie K and Martin S to go onto the LA steering committee at the conference.
c) In the run up to October conference the CC should discuss who should oversee the LA work after the conference. In the meantime, Chris, Charlie and Martin can both oversee the work and be the CC point of contact.
d) Alex or Chris H will introduce caucus on the Friday before the NC.
What does this mean? Well, the obvious inference is that there has been a coup on the CC at the expense of the Power Couple, and that jazzboy Martin has been the prime mover behind it. And now was as good a time as any, since their power rested, particularly in Rees’ case, in his heading up of the electoral front, a front that’s now moribund. And this palace coup appears to be backed by all the heavy hitters on the CC, including the party’s two theoreticians, Harman and Callinicos.
My first reaction to this is, about fucking time. The period of Rees’ ascendancy has been one long lurch from disaster to disaster, with occasional flashes of potential in between. In this tragic-comic situation, the tragic part is that, in fact, it’s been John and Lindsey who’ve been associated with attempts to break out of the old sectist rut and turn towards some type of united front politics. Unfortunately, they’ve been congenitally unable to make that work. The trouble with united front or coalition politics is that, in the nature of things, you’re going to be working with people to your right, and that creates liquidationist or opportunist pressures. Those pressures are an inevitable overhead, and it’s a matter of taste as to whether you think them a price worth paying for the sake of a possible, but far from inevitable, future as the revolutionary wing of a much bigger movement. Hence the pressures from those who preferred the certainties of the old-style SWP politics, and hence John and Lindsey making openings to other forces, and then ruining it all by the most crass manipulation, or by seeking to square the circle by promising enormous gains right around the corner. You know the phrase, hoist by your own petard? This is a good illustration of what it means.
So that helps explain the SWP’s spotty track record over the last ten years. They went into the Socialist Alliance, then smashed it up for the chance of something bigger and shinier called Respect. They built Respect into something with real potential, then smashed that up for the sake of Rees’ amour propre. They took their members into the Scottish Socialist Party, a hugely positive move, then bore direct culpability for its failure – as there’s no way the Tangerine Man could have got away with doing what he did without the unstinting support of the SWP. You want to know why nobody wants to work with the SWP these days? It’s called experience.
Then, of course, there’s the character of Rees himself. People who have known him for very many years, and at much closer quarters than myself, have told me they never trusted him. Certainly, there have been strong criticisms of his leadership qualities for a long time. In fact, even his elevation to the CC wasn’t unanimously popular. I stick to my position that he’s basically a high-functioning sociopath, and would further point out his tremendous vanity, which explains the explosive reaction when Galloway suggested he could do with someone to work alongside him. His ability to switch from being utterly charming when you’re of use to him, to petulant and spiteful if you get in his way, gives you some clues as to why he’s quite good at putting an alliance together, but a fucking liability if you want to keep one together. So his eventual defenestration shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
So, what now? The first thing you notice is that this has all taken place on the CC level, and if there was any consultation of the membership I’ve missed it. A week ago, any rank-and-file cadre who criticised Rees would have been accused of disloyalty. And so it might be again, once he regains favour. There are, of course, a few things to be tidied up. There is an SWP conference at the turn of the year, which will require a line to be agreed on for the IBs, and a slate for the incoming CC. And John, assuming he stays on the CC, will have to be found a job that will keep him occupied without allowing him to do too much damage. Perhaps he’ll get the SWP’s traditional equivalent of Siberia, being put in charge of the bookstall while he serves out his penance.
If the CC were smart, they would initiate an open discussion amongst the membership as to what’s gone wrong. This is unlikely, as the outcome might be unpredictable. They should also try building bridges to the former allies – and former members – who Rees and German have so royally pissed off over the years. This is also unlikely, as it might involve a loss of face for the infallible leadership.
One thing that’s clear is that the Left Alternative is a dead parrot. Let’s be blunt, a leadership of Martin Smith, Charlie Kimber and Chris Bambery is not designed to be attractive to the punters. What’s most likely is a return to the pre-1997 modus operandi of building a standalone sect through paper sales and agitprop campaigns, with the bulk of recruitment coming through SWSS and adults being recruited in ones and twos from strikes and demos. This is an attractive model to SWP old-timers, and from the apparatchik’s point of view – or, to put it another way, from Martin Smith’s point of view – would be the most sensible way to proceed. There is one big problem, which is that the SWP is about a fifth of the size that it was ten years ago, which would tend to cramp its style a little. But yeah, that’s probably what we’ll see happen.
In the meantime, let us pause a moment and pay tribute to John and Lindsey, who might for a while have considered themselves modern Britain’s answer to Lenin and Krupskaya. It would take a heart of stone not to piss yourself laughing.