In the big scheme of things, the resignation of Lindsey German from the SWP is not important. However, given that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) still has some social weight in the British left, and given the “Leninist “organisational paradigm it follows is still advocated by many beyond its ranks, mutatis mutandis, then the issues it raises are worth pursuing.
Firstly, the issue concerns the relationship between an SWP member, in this case Lindsey German, elected by the conference of the Stop the War Coalition as their national convenor, and accountable to the officers group of the STWC. Most people outside the SWP would expect that the individual in such a position ( while guided by the SWP’s general politics and maybe advised by her political party) would be primarily accountable to the collegiate decision making of the STWC who had elected her as convenor, and indeed that any attempt by the SWP to micro-manage her work within the STWC would be unacceptable; and indeed poisonous to long term trust and relationship building, because it would imply that the SWP regarded the STWC as a front to be manipulated, rather than a coalition of equals.
Well at a formal level, of course the convenor of the STWC is accountable to the STWC, and should not be a marionette of the SWP. However, we should not mistake formality for reality. The culture and tradition of the SWP would expect Lindsey German to follow the SWP’s dictates. The fact that this was not previously an issue was because Lindsey German was senior enough in the SWP to be above such direction.
This has always been the case since Cliff’s “turn to Lenin”. Recall that back in 1975 a large part of the IS’s industrial cadre were expelled because they would not renege on an agreement to back a broad left candidate whom they had decided democratically to endorse in collaboration with the wider left. It was considered an expellable offence, even back then, for them to refuse to back the latest hare-brained wheeze, (the silly decision to back an IS candidate against the broad left) a decision that they had not even been allowed to be involved in making.
Rather more prosaically, the reason I personally left the SWP was when John Rees told me that as a National Executive member of the Socialist Alliance, (to which position I had been elected by SA conference, and on the basis that I was secretary of one of the most successful Socialist Alliance branches) that I was not allowed to disagree with him; and that I simply had to back his decisions, without even being consulted. Recently of course Jane Loftus, president of the CWU trade union, was placed in the same position and had to resign from the SWP.
I remember being telephoned by Lindsey German immediately after the war on Iraq starting, to tell me that I should overrule the democratic decision of the Swindon Stop the War Coalition, a decision voted on by 50 diverse people, and that instead of backing the national demonstration at RAF Fairford, less than ten miles away (which on the day had 10000 people there), we had to go to London instead. I ignored her, because the decision couldn’t have been changed even had I wanted to, but the point is that the SWP has long considered it permissible and indeed standard practice to direct the work of its comrades in other campaigns, even if that subverts the democracy of the other campaigns and organisations.
It is naïve and disingenuous for some people to think that the SWP CC’s instructions to Lindsey German on how to behave in the STWC are somehow a new departure; all that is novel in the situation is that Lindsey German is now at factional loggerheads with the SWP leadership, and so the SWP and she may have different ideas. This view also overlooks the instrumental view of political alliances that John Rees and Lindsey German learned from Tony Cliff.
Cliff was a wheeler-dealer, utterly charming when you were useful to him, utterly ruthless and impersonal when he saw you as an obstacle; and given the mercurial changes of perspective he was inclined to, then you couldn’t predict your downfall coming! John and Lindsey have the same approach, but neither of them have the genuine charm of Cliff, nor his remarkable ability to maintain people’s personal affection even after he had shafted you.
Part of the dilemma for the Left Platform in the SWP is that Rees and German have done over too many people, and their personal arrogance, (and in the case of John Rees, alpha male swagger and Healy like expectations), has meant they have few friends. Given that a number of Left platform supporters come from small towns where the STWC work has been continued as a high priority, it may be that much of the support for the platform has been from comrades who are genuinely concerned by what they see as deprioritisation of anti-war work by the SWP, rather than from any particular affection for Rees’s theories of leadership. In Tyneside, personality cashes with the SWP’s less than personable North East full-timer may also be a major factor.
But the other side of the coin is ability of the power couple to turn on the charm and personability when it is in their interests. Of course Lindsey German would be sweetness and light at the national committee and officers group meetings of the STWC. Did this mean that the SWP were not playing the STWC for factional advantage? The answer to that is in places like Manchester and Oxford where the SWP have openly manipulated STWC for factional gain over long periods.
The idea that Martin Smith and the CC were playing factional silly buggers by seeking to prevent Lindsey German going to Newcastle is of course entirely plausible. But it is equally plausible that Lindsey German indeed was using the Newcastle STWC meeting for factional purposes within the SWP. (Incidently, the best way to ensure that STWC does run risk of being damaged by the factional disputes in the SWP would be for third parties in STWC to take Lindsey German’s side, as if she is a wronged innocent; or to think that SWP game playing in the STWC is a new development.)
Recall that it was John Rees and Lindsey German at the centre of forcing a split in Respect; and a large part of their motivation was that to accede to George Galloway’s request that the incompetent Rees be removed from the position of National Secretary of Respect would have weakened Rees’s standing within the SWP.
The instruction to Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman that they resign from George Galloway’s employ was a factional move that would have potentially wrecked Galloway’s ability to perform as an MP, and also irrevocably broken down trust, as the SWP leadership were presumably hoping that Galloway would be driven out of Respect. Not only was this sordid manoeuvre done solely in order to preserve John Rees’s self-aggrandised position within the SWP, but the entire SWP leadership, and most of the membership went along with it.
So it is ridiculous for Lindsey German and her supporters to claim now that she wouldn’t play factional games with the STWC. She has an entire lifetime of previous factional history, not least the acrimonious and destructive vendetta she launched when closing down Womens’ Voice in marginalising comrades who disagreed with her.
There is also the question of the SWP being a voluntary association with its own rules and traditions. Now I personally wouldn’t want to be a member of an organisation that expelled people for setting up a cultural event like Mutiny, or that directed members where they can and cannot go to speak. But it is not unreasonable for the SWP CC to expect members who have voluntarily submitted to the party’s discipline to obey the rules. Lindsey German can hardy say she doesn’t understand the SWP’s culture and traditions. This is especially the case where the CC has a reasonable apprehension that there is a hidden agenda that threatens the stability of the SWP.
But the big issue that is raised here is whether this model of political organisation can ever be effective in advancing radical social change. There is an inherent contradiction between trying to unite in one party the widest number of self-confident and assertive activists and leaders, and at the same time seeking to reduce those self-confident activists into being cannon fodder for a centralised organisation that has its own institutional biases. The result is that the SWP is less than the sum of its parts; as it under-utilises the talents and potential influence of its members; while an internal culture of deference and self-denial, provides a perfect culture for bullying and rudeness to flourish.
The Democracy Commission and the recognition of the flaws of the Rees/German style of leadership is a good start. But if all the SWP achieves is jumping from the Rees frying pan into the Smith fire, then they are little better off.
There are very real dangers in allowing political questions to be settled by expulsions and bureaucratic manoeuvres, because it simply reinforces the disempowerment of the membership compared to the full timer apparatus and the Central Committee.
Why do I care? Well it is partly because having sent past decades building the SWP, I have a residual personal interest; but more importantly, the SWP still represents a significant number of socialist activists who are an asset to the movement; I hope that they can overcome their problems and find a way to play a more constructive role.