For this reason I consider that a prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people hold him in esteem; but when it is hostile to him, and bears hatred towards him, he ought to fear everything and everybody. And well-ordered states and wise princes have taken every care not to drive the nobles to desperation, and to keep the people satisfied and contented, for this is one of the most important objects a prince can have.
Andy has the big news about the SWP CC, in a typically well thought-out plan, managing to yet further reduce its clout in Respect by expelling leading members not deemed to be on-message enough. There’s a limit to what I can say about the concrete situation as I’m removed from the centre of events and I only know Nick Wrack and Rob Hoveman by reputation. I used to know Kevin Ovenden slightly and he struck me as a quite serious-minded and extremely loyal SWP cadre. So I’ll just add a few random thoughts of my own.
The first is that this shows the weakness of the SWP’s position. In days gone by, being an ex-member of the SWP was not much fun, whether you were formally expelled, chose to leave or (very common, this) were encouraged to resign. The only parallel I can think of is the practice of disfellowshipping carried on by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You are talking here about radical shunning – members aren’t supposed to talk to you, nor are they allowed to sell you the paper, you’re barred from attending the SWP’s public events (boo hoo) and your personal failings, real or imagined, become the source for ever more lurid legends. This often goes on for years on end. A powerful incentive to keep your head down and stay in the leadership’s good books, and it may still be true for those SWP members who have voted with their feet and quietly stayed out of Respect. For those in Respect, however, who may have built up a whole new set of relationships, life on the outside may be looking less bleak these days. If even people like Rob, Kev and Ger Francis who were formed by and were willing participants in the SWP regime are suddenly growing testicles, you know the CC is in trouble.
My second point is to flag up that Respect is something new for the SWP. On the one hand, that speaks well for the SWP, that it didn’t have a history of unprincipled alliances with dodgy characters and dubious organisations. We can all think of others on the British left with much longer records in that respect. On the other hand, nor has it much experience of meaningful long-term alliances with anybody. The SWP of years past had a standard MO of running short-lived self-generated campaigns, the political equivalent of digging holes and filling them in again. You would hold a public meeting to launch a campaign, call a march, spend six weeks postering, hold the march, hopefully get a few recruits and then move on to the next campaign. While a few token individuals of little substance may have been put on the committee, relationships with others on the left were, let us say, sporadic. Importantly, the SWP was always in a dominant position. The CC literally don’t know how to function in an alliance that they don’t control.
There is a further point, which has to do with the post-Cliff leadership vacuum. The problem with an organisation literally built around the personality of Cliff was that the old man’s death would lead to chronic instability if not paralysis. We might draw as a parallel the pious hope occasionally expressed over here that the DUP will “modernise” after Papa Doc leaves the stage. No it won’t, it’ll be more like The Sopranos. Robbo will turn on Doddsy. Doddsy will turn on Jeffrey Boy. Once you throw Baby Doc, Singing Willie and Sammy the Streaker into the mix, you have a recipe for Paisleyite mayhem. Well, the post-Cliff SWP is sort of the antimatter version. And bear in mind that, while the CC may hang together in clique fashion and present a united face to the world, it isn’t nearly as monolithic as it appears. In fact it is a seething nest of egos and ambitions.
If you remember, the Big Idea around the time of Cliff’s death was the “anti-capitalist” turn. Prof Callinicos was the point-man here, and his role in excommunicating the American heretics seemed to mark him out as the coming man. But Alex had a few disabilities. His unpopularity in the ranks wasn’t necessarily fatal, but the fact that he is essentially a part-time SWPer and doesn’t have any base in the apparat meant that, while he could to some extent set the ideological tone, he couldn’t realistically hope to emerge as paramount leader.
So the main thing about the pecking order in the last few years is that, thanks to their high profile in the antiwar movement and Respect, John and Lindsey have established themselves as the effective First Couple. This has not only left them exposed to sniping, as would be the case for any leading member trying to set himself up as emperor, but being the two CC members most closely identified with Respect may have been helpful when Respect looked to be going great guns, however it was always going to be a hostage to fortune if the project all went pear-shaped.
Andy argues that the SWP leadership’s extraordinary behaviour, not least shouting about a left-right split and the rottenness of George for internal consumption, while saying nothing of the kind publicly, can only be explained in terms of protecting Rees’ personal prestige. Well, there is something to this. Neither Rees nor German works for the SWP any more, both are Respect fulltimers and this undermines their material base in the SWP leadership. It is almost certain that, were Rees removed as Respect National Secretary, the CC would reshuffle their portfolios and find him a job back at the centre, but that isn’t the point. A defeat for Rees in Respect would be a huge blow to his credibility and prestige, and Rees is all too familiar with what that means in a culture where comrades are encouraged to put the top leaders on a pedestal.
At the same time, we know that there are different schools of thought in the SWP, although the nature of the regime obscures this for people who aren’t clued in to its peculiar political culture. There are plenty of old-school SWPers who have been unenthusiastic about Respect from the word go; there are also those who are genuinely serious about Respect and really want to build it. Our pal Rees hasn’t been making himself particularly popular with either school of late. In addition, you don’t have to be a Kremlinologist of the stature of Peter Manson to be aware of the possibility that, for motives both pure and base, plenty of people in the SWP, very likely including elements of the CC, actively want Rees to get his arse handed to him by George.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.