Thursday November 22 2012

UTR: Sectarian and philistine

The SWP’s fear of genuine debate was on grisly display throughout the day. Peter Manson reports on the Unite the Resistance conference

Why lie about numbers?

“The Unite the Resistance conference saw around 1,000 people fill London’s huge Emmanuel Centre,” claims Socialist Worker.

Well, not quite. The centre’s website states that the conference room “seats up to 1,000” and no more than three-quarters of the places were occupied (despite the impression created by the carefully angled shots taken by the Socialist Workers Party’s Guy Smallman).

Everyone knows that UTR is the SWP’s baby, but it was difficult to accurately assess what proportion of those assembled at the November 17 event were actually SWP members. No doubt they formed a large majority, but no SWP top leader was called to speak and the organisation’s name was mentioned only once, by a comrade from the floor - a rather naive member presumably.

Three SWP comrades featured on the platform - Sara Bennett (a Unite executive member) chaired the morning plenary session, for which Gill George (also Unite NEC) was a speaker, while Sean Vernell (UCU NEC) spoke in the afternoon plenary. While it would have been astounding if they had announced their own political affiliation, this diplomatic silence crossed the line into sheer bad taste when it was applied on one occasion right at the beginning of the day.

Comrade Bennett asked us to stand in a minute’s silence to commemorate the passing of Julie Waterson, a leading SWP comrade in her early 50s who had finally lost her battle against cancer the previous day. But what would she have made of the brief tributes from comrade Bennett and later comrade Vernell that made no mention of the organisation to which she had dedicated her entire adult life? It was as though she was just a plain old union militant, just like the rest of us were supposed to be. It really was taking the pretence too far.

Not that there was not a sizeable non-SWP contingent. The targeting of leading union figures had obviously paid off, with a few other executive members speaking from the floor in addition to those on the platform. But the SWP’s problem is that it wants to pretend that UTR is the kernel of the militant resistance, the beginning of the rank-and-file fightback.

For example, the SWP’s internal bulletin explained to members beforehand that “all those who want a fightback … need to organise. That’s what the conference is for - to bring together the union officials who are ready to fight, the rank-and-file activists, campaigners, students, disabled activists, pensioners, unemployed - everyone.”

It went on: “Unite the Resistance can act as a centre for local, national and international solidarity. It will be a place to debate the way forward, and to assess what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong. The workshops are a particularly important part of the day. For example, the NHS one will be a chance for campaigners and trade unionists to hammer out a strategy to coordinate the local fightbacks and to learn from each other” (Party Notes November 12).

Unity?

So this ‘conference’ - as opposed to similar events run by Counterfire’s Coalition of Resistance or the National Shop Stewards’ Network (Socialist Party in England and Wales) - can become the “centre for local, national and international solidarity”, with the potential to “coordinate the local fightbacks”.

Of course, there were the usual noises from the UTR steering committee about the need for unity. According to the statement it proposed, which was agreed by acclamation of those present, “Our movement needs the greatest possible unity in action, while engaging in democratic debate and decision-making regarding strategy and tactics.” Absolutely correct, of course.

Continuing this theme, Bronwyn Handyside, who was called to speak from the floor on behalf of the COR, said: “Our movement of resistance must be united.” She made the obvious point that at present we are running “separate conferences that feature the same speakers”. George Binette of Permanent Revolution, who (“for some reason unbeknown to me”, he said) was asked by the steering committee of which he is a member to propose the ‘conference statement’, declared that we have “got to overcome sectarian squabbling” - we must “try to set up a single campaign against austerity”.

But the actual action agreed was merely: “To propose a meeting with national anti-cuts campaigns to discuss improved communication and coordination in action”. Talk about paying lip service.

However, Workers Power had proposed an amendment to the statement (in reality a series of amendments, but they were to be proposed and voted on all together). WP wanted to delete the above sentence and replace it with: “To propose a unity conference with national and all other anti-cuts campaigns to end duplication of effort and division of forces.” In its leaflet handed out on the day, the group had urged: “Let’s really unite the resistance - in deeds, not just in name”. And added: “Otherwise UTR will be seen as a front of the Socialist Workers Party, regardless of the breadth of its steering committee.”

If this had been the totality of the amendment, proposed by Jeremy Dewar, then it would undoubtedly have put the SWP on the spot. But, as it was, it made up only one aspect. WP also wanted to replace “To provide a forum where activists can discuss and debate the way forward and organise action” with “To call for and organise councils of action where activists …” If the SWP’s own claims and ambitions relating to UTR can be described as pretentious, they are nothing compared to those of WP.

Alongside this leftist posturing, WP’s ‘transitional method’ was also on display, with the call for “an emergency programme for jobs and growth” and “refusal to pay the debt” - alongside “nationalisation of the banks … under workers’ control” and “rolling back all cuts and privatisation”. The idea that a capitalist Britain could opt out of its debts and then expect to smoothly implement a “programme for jobs and growth” is absurd, of course. But WP believes that the fight itself will take workers, step by spontaneous step, to the international workers’ revolution.

The (non-SWP) chair for this session, Liz Lawrence of the UCU NEC, got slightly confused at this point when she called for one speaker in favour of the amendment and one against. Some SWP comrades objected that we had just heard a speech in favour and everyone knows that “debate”, SWP-style, ought to consist of just one brief intervention from each side. But WP was allowed a second speaker (not that it did them any good).

Opposing the motion for the SWP was Marianne Owens. She said that, although there was “enormous anger”, there was “not necessarily confidence” amongst the class, and so “Slogans for councils of action are no substitute for organising on the ground.” (The statement about working class confidence, by the way, was directly contradicted by both Gill George and Sean Vernell, who specifically stated that the problem was not “our members’ confidence”, but lack of leadership from the union bureaucracy.)

But comrade Owens was on very shaky ground when she opposed the unity call. At this stage we need to “talk to the other groups”, she said. “If you just call a conference, who’s going to turn up?” How about SWP, SPEW and Counterfire members for a start? But there was no need for a card vote when the chair called for a show of hands.

Debate?

Despite all the SWP talk about the need for “debate”, this was the nearest we got to it. It was the only time comrades expressed disagreement with others on anything. I think I am safe in saying that everyone agreed that we need to resist the cuts through united strike action - a general strike in fact - but that was about as profound as it got. True, Matt Wrack of the FBU (one of only two of the usual ‘big name’ speakers, the other being John McDonnell MP) put forward a rather different “alternative to austerity”. He said: “If their system can’t afford it, let’s start discussing a different system - a socialist society.” This should be “put on the agenda as part of the battle against cuts”. But it was most definitely not on the agenda of this ‘conference’.

In reality, of course, it was more like a series of rallies than a conference. In between the two plenary sessions, you had a choice of six ‘workshops’ - on the international struggle against austerity, protest and the law, defending the NHS, austerity and equality, education, and benefits - where you could listen to another batch of platform speakers, together with a few people called from the floor.

As for the one actual “debate” (if you could call it that), it was crammed into a few short minutes at the end of the day. In fact the organisers seemed intent right from the start on squeezing it into as short a time as possible. Early in the afternoon plenary comrade Lawrence pointed out that, although the day was due to end at 5pm, in view of the protest going on against the Israeli assault on Gaza, we should aim to finish soon after 4pm, so we could go and express our solidarity with the Palestinians.

Solidarity with Gaza was, rightly, a theme that came up throughout the day - a “Palestinian activist” (who sounded like an SWP member to me) was added to the platform speakers in the morning. She pointed out in her speech that “a working class movement from below is the best ally of the Palestinian people” and the “most important solidarity” we can give is to “continue to fight against austerity and bring the Tory government down”. So obviously we should have stayed to the end rather than head off to the Gaza protest, don’t you think?

Just to make sure that there was nothing approaching a genuine exchange of views, comrade Lawrence announced during the afternoon plenary that the speakers called from the floor were making for such a “lively debate” that the session should be extended - which meant the 45 minutes put aside for actually taking decisions - the election of a new steering committee and the vote on the ‘conference statement’ - would be further reduced.

In fact the election of the committee did not take long at all. The list of 40 names (including two WP comrades), plus another two added verbally by the chair, was approved in its entirety without dissent. Although, if last year is anything to go by, this year’s committee will not be exactly busy. I hear the outgoing steering committee was never officially convened.

But let us look on the positive side, as expressed by Party Notes: “A very impressive steering committee was elected, with a wide representation of key trade union activists from across the unions and across the country.” The day had been a “big success”, thanks to the presence of “over 1,000” “delegates”. It not only “showed the potential to unite activists across the trade union movement” behind the call for a general strike, but “also showed how those activists can pull wider sections of the movement around them” (Party Notes November 19).

I do not mean to imply that the event was worthless. There were some good, militant speeches and by and large the final statement was sound. There were useful speeches not only from John McDonnell and Matt Wrack, but also from Owen Jones, Sheila Coleman of the Justice for Hillsborough campaign, a representative of Disabled People Against the Cuts, and Tumi Moloi from the Rustenberg miners’ strike committee in South Africa. (It was a little disconcerting, however, to hear comrade Moloi address us as “ladies and gentlemen”, having thanked the “chairlady”.)

No, it was useful on one level. But the SWP’s sectarian dishonesty and philistine disdain for genuine debate will ensure that UTR cannot become a real player in the working class struggle against austerity. Even if there had been 1,000 people present instead of 750, what difference would that make? The SWP may call them “delegates”, but overwhelmingly they represented no-one but themselves.

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