I’ve held off for a while commenting on the shitstorm unleashed by Gorgeous George’s frontal attack on his putative comrades in the SWP, mostly because I was waiting to see if the SWP would respond. Bearing in mind that Lenny and the other SWP bloggers have been keeping very quiet on this issue, a lot of the discussion has been pretty one-sided. Happily, the SWP CC’s official reply is now out in the open. All the documents are helpfully gathered in one handy place at the Conrad Party of Great Britain site, where you can also read an entertaining article by Peter Manson in the latest Weekly World Worker News [pdf] – take it with a pinch of salt, but enjoy it all the same.
Much of what George says rings absolutely true about the SWP’s modus operandi, which they have imported into the Respect apparat. The anathematisation of individuals is a key one – witness Salma Yaqoob, who was built up by the SWP when they needed her to stitch up Brum Socialist Alliance, then when she started to emerge as a serious figure in her own right, and an impressive media performer – with which Respect is not exactly overburdened – she found herself consigned to exterior darkness. Another is the “test” – the idea that the SWP, having taken stick for downgrading gay rights in deference to Muslim sensibilities, would then order Muslim councillors to dance on a float at Pride may seem comical, but is all too credible.
He’s dead right, too, about the culture of organisational amateurism. Anyone with any inside experience of the SWP could have told him this years ago. Carelessness with money, of course, goes with the turf in an organisation where membership figures and paper sales exist apart from empirical reality, in a complicated mathematical system designed to advance people in the pecking order via (as Duncan Hallas said of the Healy movement) “bluff, bluster and bullshit”. And I certainly recognise George’s complaints about a personnel system where people just pop up with no clear job descriptions. Any SWP member of a few years’ standing can tell you stories about someone who got hired at the centre because he was good with computers, and then was sent out into the field as a district organiser; or a female comrade of hilarious ineptitude who suddenly becomes a fulltimer because she fucked somebody on the CC; and so on ad infinitum. Some of these stories are probably apocryphal, but if they didn’t contain an essential truth then they would have no power. And George is correct that a serious party shouldn’t operate in this way.
So much for George’s criticisms, but what does he want? Probably, in the Brechtian sense, he would like to abolish his party and elect another one. The SWP may have lionised him, but he has never had much affinity with them, and regards most of them as little better than gofers. Indeed, George often expresses his regret that the CPB/Morning Snore, a current much closer to his own politics, hasn’t joined Respect. Notwithstanding that he namechecks a few of the outstanding activists outside London, I have little doubt that he would love to ditch the SWP brass – God knows, the Rees-German-Callinicos-Begbie junta are hard to take at the best of times – and draft in some tankie Stalinists to replace them. Whether he can pull off something along those lines remains to be seen.
The SWP are in a little bit of a bind here. Yes, they probably command a majority of Respect’s membership, and they can, if they put their minds to it, pack the conference. But the power dynamics within Respect don’t favour them. To put it bluntly, Respect without the SWP would be weakened but still viable. It might even attract in some punters who are put off by the SWP’s involvement. But Respect without George wouldn’t be viable for five minutes, and the non-SWP membership, by and large, owe their loyalties to George. Remember also that George is the conduit to the Muslim vote bank – he is an MP, but John Rees couldn’t even get elected to Tower Hamlets council. Not only is George the indispensable national figure, a sort of little Bonaparte, but on the ground in the East End it turns out the Bengalis are better at packing meetings than the SWP are.
Add to that the internal tensions that the Respect turn has generated within the SWP. Significant numbers, especially outside London, may have nominal Respect membership but simply don’t do any Respect activity, much to George’s – and the CC’s – annoyance. Then again, one hears a steady trickle of reports of SWP cadres going native in Respect. This leaves the CC in a delicate position – if it pulls the party out of Respect it might, just possibly, energise some disgruntled comrades, but it would leave quite a few behind as well. And then there’s the fact that a reversal of the Respect turn would cause a huge loss of face for the infallible CC. Not to mention the important question of what the SWP would do without Respect.
This is what adds some comic bathos to the CC document, which opens with a weary sigh about how George has suddenly launched this attack out of the blue, when there are far more important things to be at. They also rhyme off Respect’s impressive electoral performances, tactfully skating over the failures. They also talk about how they want to expand Respect’s base in the non-Muslim working class, which is a bit cheeky of them. It does lead Peter Manson into setting up a dichotomy between the socialists and the Asian businessmen around George, but then the SWP’s record in the East End has seen them time and again support the Asian businessmen and mosque elders against progressive Muslims.
And what do we end up with? The assurance that the SWP will agree to everything George demands, except for the resignation of John Rees as national secretary. And a bit of waffling about Metronet, which is apropos of absolutely nothing in this discussion. I also love this gem: “The original vision of Respect lay behind the whole selection procedure for the GLA that has seen a list of candidates that reflect fully the London working class.” With Lindsey topping the list?
And where do I stand on this? Well, my instinct is not to support either side. I wouldn’t trust George as far as I could throw him, no matter what about the correctness of his criticisms. As for the SWP, I would love to think they would wake up, rediscover some principled politics and ditch the Respect turn. However, bearing in mind the sort of internal regime the SWP has, the near-total absence of democratic procedures or of an internal opposition, and how far removed from Marxism the permanent leadership are… I’ll not be holding my breath. In the meanwhile, I’ll be watching this saga with a beady satirical eye, because the mayhem possibilities are just too good to miss.