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Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party

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Trade Unions

An examination of their role in a number of key industrial battles in the past number of years shows how flawed is their method, both in winning support for their point of view but also the lack of understanding in the relationship between ad hoc unofficial union organisations from below, and the official structures. Skilful tactics are a foreign language as far as most SWP-trained union activists are concerned.

In the 1970s, the International Socialists (IS - the previous name of the SWP), set up 'Rank and File' organisations in several trade unions. In one or two unions, these had a certain base. But the zigzagging of the IS/SWP also affected their trade union work. Draconian edicts from Cliff and the IS leadership closed down, quite arbitrarily, an IS-formed group of workers in 'Rank and File'. Jim Higgins wrote about this:

"The IS had some 3,000 members, nearly half of them manual workers. The group produced a number of rank-and-file papers, with a combined circulation of 30,000. There were operational rank-and-file groups in the teachers, mining, engineering, post office unions and in the TGWU, ASTMS and TASS and others I cannot recall offhand. Modest though these achievements were, they were better than anything we had before." [Jim Higgins, ibid.]

He then goes on to outline the success of the IS, in which he claims, it had a working-class base, a framework of rank-and-file activity and a number of rank-and-file publications, amidst a rising tide of militancy. He then says: "This was the plus side of the equation. On the other side was Cliff." The inane and arbitrary turn away from 'official positions' within the trade unions - branch secretaries, national executive members of unions, etc. - was a cornerstone of SWP policy throughout the 1990s until relatively recently. Then, suddenly, there was an about face, particularly after Cliff died, and they sought to enter - with basically the same methods - the broad left-type organisations in the trade unions. This was done without any balance sheet of the previous method of work and was largely ordained from the top.

Camden NALGO 1992

But their tactics in industrial disputes could be disastrous, both for the workers concerned and ultimately the SWP. The 1992 Camden council social workers strike shows this. These workers had been on strike for a long time over the issue of the re-grading of jobs. Their union at the time, NALGO (which later merged with NUPE and COHSE to form Unison), was paying full take-home pay to the strikers.

Before the strike was over, some of the strikers had gone back to work effectively abandoning their brothers and sisters on the picket line. The council announced a re-organisation of the department and that some workers would be made redundant. This included those who had supported the strike until it was officially over and some who had gone back to work before its official end.

The union's industrial action committee, of which Socialist Party member Roger Bannister was a member, decided that they would continue to pay full take-home pay to those made redundant until such time as they were able to get jobs, but not to pay those who had gone back before the strike was over and who were now redundant.

The Camden NALGO branch, under the influence of the SWP, put a resolution to the annual conference condemning this decision and called for full take-home pay to be paid to the redundant workers irrespective of whether they had crossed the picket line or not.

Roger Bannister spoke on behalf of the NEC in opposing the Camden motion. The argument of the SWP was that the NEC did not "understand the reasons that the workers abandoned the strike". Roger, in his reply, said he did not understand those who gave excuses to those who break ranks during a strike. He said: "If you go out together then you should go back together." If the strike breakers were to be rewarded with full take home pay from the union, then they would have received more than those strikers who had stuck it out. Rogers's speech, which was in defence of basic trade union principles, swung the conference and heavily defeated the Camden branch resolution.

Islington Unison

There was also the dispute in Islington Unison in 1998. This branch of the union had been a stronghold for the SWP for some time. Many of them came from the universities into local government as already-committed members of the SWP. In the 1995 elections for general secretary of Unison, Roger Bannister, a well-known, longstanding supporter of Militant and later the Socialist Party, won the support of the branch at a general membership meeting against the SWP candidate, Yunus Bakhsh. His and the SWP's methods were, in effect, repudiated in the nomination of candidates when only SWP members and a few others supported him, with Roger Bannister gaining the support of the bulk of the non-SWP members at the meeting.

The SWP had sought to impose Yunus Bakhsh on the left as a whole. This was despite the fact that Roger Bannister had a proven track record in opposing the right-wing in elections, when the SWP had ignored them. In the 1995 election, Roger received more votes than Yunus Bakhsh who, in effect, split the left. Roger Bannister received 58,052 votes (18.2 per cent) against Yunus Bashkh's 15,139 (4.8 per cent).

After this, in May 1998, the Islington Housing Benefits department was subject to reorganisation by the New Labour-led council, which involved, amongst other attacks, job losses and workers forced to re-apply for their own jobs. This was part of an overall strategy for savage cuts in council expenditure over a three-year period. The workers opposed the council's plan and Unison organised a ballot for strike action in the department. On a Friday, the ballot result was returned with an overwhelming majority for a strike. But then the council announced that some of the workers would be forced to apply for the remaining jobs after re-organisation, having 'failed' their interviews. This was clearly a provocation but unfortunately the SWP, through the branch secretary at the time, an SWP member, fell into a trap.

Four SWP members, some of whom were shop stewards, worked in the housing department and were obviously faced with the sack. Over the weekend, they met and decided to organise an unofficial strike on the Monday, because of the actions of the council. This was despite the fact that the council's Housing Benefit workers already had official backing to take strike action once the council had been given the statutory one-week notice under the Tory anti-union laws. Those who were faced with the sack were no doubt extremely angry. But the SWP - with their crude attitude of always being on the 'offensive' - did not think the issue out and were desperate to get illegal action off the ground. There was a special responsibility on the shoulders of the branch secretary, Murthlewaite. But instead of a careful approach, seeking the maximum effective action, he organised a meeting on the Monday of the group of housing benefit workers and recommended a walk-out there and then. The result was that 20 workers walked out on unofficial strike a few days before the whole department could have come out in official action. The bosses threatened to sack the strikers and twelve of them in the section did not return to work, including four SWP members.

A few weeks later, the whole Unison branch membership voted by a majority not to take strike action in support of the sacked workers. Members of the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison (CFDU) - a broad left organisation in Unison which the Socialist Party was then part of - including members of the branch and the national secretary of the CFDU, kept in contact with Unison branch members and members of the CFDU worked the hardest to get a positive vote for action in support of the sacked workers. After the branch voted down a strike, the branch secretary put out a leaflet defending his leadership of the branch and announced that he would resign as branch secretary to allow a new election to take place, and he would stand, defending his record. The CFDU members in Islington put out a leaflet attacking the bosses and the plan to carry out massive cuts but also criticising the total misleadership of the branch secretary, which had led to the sacking and isolation of 12 members. The CFDU subsequently announced they would put up a slate in the election against the branch leadership.

By a manoeuvre, the SWP, using a technicality, managed to get the elections postponed. But the period between the postponed elections of September 1998 and the reconvened AGM in February 1999 was a period when the SWP's reputation with Unison members in Islington continued to decline. At a national level, the Unison officialdom took advantage of the mistakes of the SWP to attack the branch, including warning against the use of branch money to finance activities initiated by this and other branches outside the control of the national leadership. Despite the tactical errors of the SWP, the members and supporters of the Socialist Party opposed the witch-hunt against them. The SWP in Islington paid for their arrogance and their lack of a clear tactic in their rejection by the membership of the branch.

Subsequently, they changed tack, both there and elsewhere, and merged with the CFDU to form the 'United Left'. This did not represent a change in methods because they linked up with the more conservative, pro-New Labour section of the United Left - led by the likes of Jon Rogers, a UNISON branch secretary in Lambeth, who advocates remaining within New Labour - and pushed this organisation towards the right! The political shift towards a more 'moderate' political line meant they were more in consonance with the leadership of the United Left than the Socialist Party, which up to this stage had held an important position within this body.

When the Socialist Party members withdrew from the United Left, they issued the following statement:

"Our primary concern is that the United Left, under the political influence of its largest component the Socialist Workers Party, is drifting to the right at a time when the attacks of the New Labour government on the working class in general and on public sector workers in particular is giving rise to increased militancy and radicalisation amongst the grass roots membership. This situation presents us with major political problems.

"This situation is illustrated most clearly in relation to the Political Fund [of Unison] and the Labour Party... The United Left... not only continues to support affiliation to New Labour (which saw 3 million of union members' money handed over last year alone). It has also singularly failed to even seriously implement the United Left position of opening up the funds to allow support for other candidates as well as New Labour."

Together, in a bloc, the SWP and United Left leaders attempted to foist onto the Socialist Party decisions meant to isolate Socialist Party members. Having jointly backed Roger Bannister in the 2000 general secretary election against Dave Prentis, when Roger received 71,021 votes (nearly 32%), the SWP supported Rogers in 2005. Against a once-more victorious Prentis with 184,769 votes (75.6%), Roger Bannister, polled 41,406 votes (16.9%). But the 'United Left' (UL) candidate Jon Rogers received just 18,306 votes (7.5%)

Switch in union tactics

The switch which this represented in the politics of the SWP within the unions - from ultra-leftism and sectarianism to conciliation with the increasingly right-wing union leadership - was shown at the 2001 Unison conference. They tail-ended Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, once vilified by the capitalist press as part of the 'awkward squad' but now firmly wedded to propping up Blair's government. Typical was the contribution of SWP member John McLaughlin from Tower Hamlets who declared: "How marvellous to hear the brilliant speech from the general secretary [Prentis] against privatisation." But words are cheap. Prentis did not match this with proposed action in support of his members' rights and conditions. At the height of the programme of privatisation of Blair's government, if the Unison leadership had not expressed some opposition, they would have been completely exposed before the delegates.

The arguments of Socialist Party members that the leadership was not to be trusted, no matter how many radical speeches were made was met with furious opposition from the SWP and their co-thinkers. For instance, Brian Butterworth, a leading SWP member from Brent Council, stated at the conference: "We are all together now united with the leadership." Yunus Bakhsh, the leading SWP figure in the union, demanded that the left "trust [Dave] Prentis to deliver on the campaign against racism and fascism". This is the same Dave Prentis who has recently presided over the expulsion of SWP members from Unison in Plymouth.

Their ingrained sectarian methods have continued in the battles within Unison in the recent period. The main offensive of the right-wing dominated Unison leadership has been against four members of the Socialist Party in the infamous 'three wise monkeys' case (see The Socialist). The outcome of this struggle has not been decided as yet. It is not just Socialist Party members who have been under attack but a generalised offensive has been launched on the left including members of the SWP and others. And yet all attempts of the Socialist Party to form a 'united front' - the in-phrase of the SWP at the moment - came to nothing in the run-up to the 2008 Unison conference. Only the pressure of rank-and-file delegates and the magnificent demonstration of Unison members from the branches to which the attacked four belonged compelled the SWP to organise limited common action. This further illustrates the method and character of the SWP, which is to attain positions not by the force of argument and comradely persuasion but by manoeuvre, unprincipled combinations - in the case of Unison, with Labour lefts who also have a quiescent position towards the Brown government. Their position is, in effect, to cover up for union leaders with a past left reputation but who have moved rightwards and do not match words with deeds.

This is in marked contradistinction to the blanket condemnation of these 'bureaucratic' leaders in the past. They have swung from one extreme to another, now seeking an advance, both politically and organisationally by clinging to the coat-tails of these very same leaders. This is in place of elaborating a clear policy and, at the same time, engaging where necessary in open, friendly, criticisms of these leaders if they do match deeds with words.

PCS criticisms - SWP attacks left

Their denunciatory approach in the unions is now almost exclusively reserved for the Socialist Party. This has recently been evident in the civil service union PCS, in which the Socialist Party has a major influence and the SWP very little. Within the PCS, the SWP are compelled to work within 'Left Unity', the organisation of the overwhelming majority of the left, as a small minority and therefore scope for their usual activities is limited. But, as we have seen, this does not prevent them from making scurrilous, uninformed and incorrect criticisms of the Socialist Party on key trade union and industrial issues.

This was the case over the vital issue of pensions and the role of the Socialist Party members on the national executive of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in 2005. The SWP roundly condemned the acceptance of a pensions' agreement with the government as a "sell-out". This led to a split in their ranks with a member of the SWP on the NEC leaving them over this issue. The truth is that the national executive of the PCS, with the full involvement of the general secretary Mark Serwotka, managed to unite the whole union in defence of pensions, standing firm against the most defeatist cynicism from some of the leaders of other unions. The PCS secured the pension rights of all existing civil servants - something that was widely regarded as impossible to achieve and which was greeted with universal acclamation by PCS members and activists. The only exceptions to this were those around the so-called 'Socialist Caucus' - the "independent left group in the union" - and the SWP. They described this significant achievement as a "shabby deal", a viewpoint that was almost unanimously rejected by the PCS conference, with 98% of the members voting in favour of accepting the deal in a membership ballot. Mark Serwotka, who fully supported this deal, was never openly criticised - it was a different story behind his back - either verbally or in written criticism from the SWP. The Socialist Party was, however, condemned.

Another example of this was the 2007 Royal Mail strikes involving the Communication Workers' Union (CWU). Incredibly, in an internal bulletin, they claimed: "The Socialist Party dominated executive of the PCS pressured Mark Serwotka to back away from such a move [PCS coming to the support of the postal workers], and he felt he had to go along with them. We [the SWP] did not have enough influence in the PCS to force through united strikes."

John McInally, Vice-President of the PCS, and a prominent Socialist Party member in the union, demolished this charge of the SWP in a forensic article in Socialism Today. He wrote:

"What then is the truth behind the assertion in the SWP's statement? In summer of 2007 - when the postal strikes were taking place - the PCS was conducting a mass consultation with members in which the leadership spoke directly to 25,000 members at around 3,000 meetings. The PCS NEC had unanimously agreed this strategy after two previous one-day strikes against compulsory redundancies, low pay and unfair pay systems, privatisation and in defence of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme... The PCS led the campaign to unite pay struggles in 2007, which it tried to base on the successful united campaign to defend pensions in 2005... Mark Serwotka, with the PCS NEC's full backing, wrote to various public sector unions - including the CWU - asking to meet with a view to link up plans for campaign work and joint action where possible. The CWU leadership did not take up this offer. In fact the first the PCS knew of the CWU plans for action was when the union announced a series of strike days for the postal workers. The CWU leadership, including the president - SWP member, Jane Loftus - missed a real opportunity to link up their campaign with that of the PCS."

He concluded:

"The left has the duty to debate how we respond and, while there will be real differences on occasions, this can never be an excuse for adopting the type of cynical methods that have been used in the SWP's article to openly lie about a campaigning left union leadership for dubious factional advantage." [John McInally, 'The PCS, the CWU dispute & the struggle for public sector workers' unity', Socialism Today, Issue 116, March 2008.]

On the issue of public-sector workers' unity in the struggle on pay, the SWP attacked the Socialist Party members in the DWP section of the PCS. But they conveniently forgot their cuddling up to the leadership of Unison, including general secretary Dave Prentis, especially at the 2007 Unison conference. They opposed a ballot for immediate industrial action proposed by Socialist Party members, in favour of the leadership's proposal for a "third consultative ballot". It was Socialist Party member Roger Bannister who subsequently moved a successful motion on industrial action of Unison in support of a two-day strike.

Manoeuvring in the NUT

In 2007, the Socialist Party backed the candidature of Martin Powell-Davies for vice-president of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which upset the cosy relationship that the left had built up with the right. The Socialist Party is in favour of the maximum left unity. But not the 'unity of the graveyard' when organisational collaboration is used a an excuse to cover up what needs to be done in the urgent position facing the working class in Britain now, and particularly in the convulsive period we are entering.

This, in turn, led to the removal of Socialist Party member Linda Taaffe from the National Executive Committee of the NUT. She was removed from the left slate for the 'crime' of pressing for urgent action in 2007 on the long-delayed pay claim for teachers. A majority on the National Executive Committee - including the left - equivocated and constantly delayed setting a date for a ballot for effective industrial action. Her criticisms, not just of the right but of the 'left' in the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) and the Socialist Teachers' Alliance (STA), were entirely justified given their compliance with the right. This resulted in some of the left resorting to the most undemocratic measures, including shamefully 'avoiding' sending in a nomination paper for Linda Taaffe from one branch they controlled. This removed an effective left representative on the NEC who had been part of the national executive left for ten years. Moreover, her replacement on the slate of the 'left' was also included on the slate of the right! This individual voted with the right at his first NEC meeting!

One of the lefts most vehement in attacking Linda and organising to have her removed was the SWP's Nick Grant - who was subsequently elected to the 2008 NEC in place of her. When the national executive once more refused to legitimise an earlier ballot in favour of action, Grant, in a graphic demonstration of the new 'openness' of the SWP, refused to answer questions from teachers as to who of the 'lefts' had voted against further action: "Let's not be personal". Under pressure, the NUT leadership, in September 2008, were compelled to ratify a ballot. To do otherwise would have been totally unviable, given the huge rise in the cost of living and the standstill in teachers' wages. But the equivocation over a considerable period of time of this National Executive Committee with a nominal 'left majority', which was opposed by the Socialist Party, does not bode well for sustained effective action in defence of teachers' pay and conditions in the future.

Similar methods were applied in the lecturers' union NATFHE over the then incumbent general secretary Paul Mackney in 2002. Over the objections of Socialist Party member Andrew Price, then the executive member for Wales, the SWP used their electoral weight to impose on the left in a completely unprincipled and opportunist fashion support for Mackney. The policy of the leadership of Mackney and Barry Lovejoy was to 'name and shame' colleges who would not pay the nationally-agreed pay award. In effect, local branches of the union were left to sort the issues out. This represented reneging on their trade union responsibilities for unified national action. Yet the SWP lined up behind Mackney because he was prepared to give verbal support to the Stop the War Coalition and flirt with the idea of the Socialist Alliance at that stage. There is a long tradition in the British trade union movement of leaders who are radical on international issues but the opposite on domestic questions; 'the love of the distant'.

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