Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Reflections on 2011 SWP conference by a delegate



As the crisis engulfing the SWP continues to unfold it seems the significance of the 2011 SWP conference and the ‘special session’ (we call it that for want of a better term) devoted to an informal complaint made by a young female comrade against the leading party member later dubbed Delta, becomes increasingly apparent. Yes you read that right, this issue first arose two years ago in 2011.
 
It was at this ‘special session’ that the allegations made by a young female comrade (later known as comrade W) first became ‘public’. That is ‘public’ after a fashion because at the time the complaint remained an informal complaint and was therefore not forwarded to the Disputes Committee; and because at the time no one spoke of rape or sexual assault, while the subject of sexual harassment was only coquetted with in the most euphemistic fashion. When the conference ended most party delegates were still in the dark as to the nature of allegation against Delta.

Instead the ‘special session’ initially derived its notoriety from the standing ovation, foot stamping and the chant of “the workers united will never be defeated!” that Delta received from a significant section of the assembled delegates after he was allowed to make a speech in a session supposedly meant to address the fallout of the informal complaint made against him. Two years later comrade W, badly let down by the party’s internal disputes process, would demand a similar opportunity to address an SWP conference but would be denied by the CC. 

This is not to suggest that this is how a formal or informal complaint should have been dealt with but simply to note that such a demand appears to have been a desperate demand to be seen and heard when the flawed Disputes Committee process let comrade W down and compounded the failures of the CC stretching back two years. A serious complaint against a leading party member by a young female comrade was not dealt with on the unflinching principled basis of intransigent opposition to sexism that was a hallmark of the IS tradition. The latter, hard won position which surely owed something to the emergence of radical feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s entailed a comprehension of the roots of women’s oppression in class society but did not imply global immunity from its effects. 

There was another aspect to the notoriety the 2011 SWP conference acquired.  That was the fact that a few party comrades were foolish enough to deny that comrade Delta ever received a standing ovation in the ‘special session’. Some of those comrades claimed to have been present. Perhaps they were. But whether they are repressing their memories or drawing a discreet veil over things, such disavowals can only corrupt. 

Revolutionary socialists cannot afford to play fast and loose with the truth. The oppressed and exploited need the truth, however unpleasant. The militants and cadre of a revolutionary socialist organization must tell the truth, not just to party members, but also those they struggle alongside and seek to win. It is not always easy or expedient to do so.  For example, many in the party would like to pretend that this crisis is all the fault of the bourgeois media.  But we can be grateful to a militant teacher whom I know, who in his letter to the National Secretary excoriated this myth.  He told the truth, that the party leadership was “delusional”, and did us all a small service.


Returning to the ‘special session’ in 2011, this took place just days after rumours had circulated in some circles of the SWP, and finally been leaked to the Socialist Unity blog. Newman (an ex-SWP member, trade unionist and Labour Party member), posted a brief teasing post suggesting that SWP delegates to the forthcoming party conference should be on their mettle. There were questions to be asked about the conduct of a leading SWP member. Newman refused to divulge his source, or offer any more specific information.

So what happened? Well this is the recollection of a single comrade but it has been recalled with a fair degree of accuracy I think and with good reason. I and another comrade discussed the rumours as we travelled to the conference as branch delegates. We were anxious that the issue be dealt with openly, transparently and that comrade Delta be treated no more favourably than any other party member simply because he was a leading member.  We were also concerned about the damage to the party’s reputation if this did not happen. We agreed that I would speak to Charlie Kimber (the National Secretary replacing Delta) about our concerns.

I spoke to Kimber privately on the Saturday of conference shortly before the ‘special session’ took place (I did not know it was scheduled until Kimber told me so). I talked of my concern at the rumours circulating though I did not know the nature of the allegations. Kimber interrupted me and said he could not divulge their exact nature. I said I understood but that I wanted a reassurance that comrade Delta would not receive special treatment because he was a leading party member. Kimber assured me this would not happen and that a ‘special session’ would follow shortly that would address the concerns of comrades. I said OK and shook hands and stepped away. That was it, short and brisk. Five minutes later back inside the conference as delegates returned from a break to retake their seats I saw Delta and Kimber sharing a joke at the side of the conference stage. To say that I and the comrade accompanying were disturbed would be an understatement. Minutes later the ‘special session’ began. I and the comrade with me were so repelled and horrified we were unable to return for the second, final day of conference.

Because of the strictures of ‘confidentiality’, the name, age and branch of the young female comrade who subsequently became known as comrade W was not revealed at conference. But neither was the nature of the allegations, as we will see. A great deal of information was not shared with assembled delegates. When some delegates rose to give comrade Delta a standing ovation they and the rest of us were still largely in the dark.  

During the ‘special session’ only six comrades were actually called to speak. Comrade Delta was the penultimate speaker and in the current argot of ‘Party Notes’ you might say his extemporized speech was “warmly received.” What was the gist of Delta’s address? He argued he was “no angel” and he had never pretended to be one. There was a lachrymose element to what he said also when he talked of his “real friends”; the ones who knew who he really was as a person, comrades from his days in Westminster branch in the late 1980s. There was also a passage many would have regarded as heartfelt where Delta spoke of the stress involved in his role as the very public face of the UAF that made him, his partner and his home a target for the fascists.
  
As a result of the informal complaint against him, Delta stepped down from, or was removed from, his post as National Secretary.  But he remained on the CC.  Delta informed us all that he was “happy as a pig in shit” to be returning to the Industrial department where he had always been happiest.  Had the class struggle been the tempest we had all hoped it would be when the Con-Dem government was elected in 2010 with their vicious plans for austerity, it might have provided Delta with a suitable distraction.  This performance was followed the rapturous applause and chanting of some of the assembled delegates that left other delegates bewildered in their seats.

Yet Delta’s speech has obscured two other significant contributions that day. Setting aside crass contributions from Sheila McGregor and others, Delta was followed by a brave young Asian female comrade (I cannot recall her name) who invited the delegates to consider if their applause and chanting was really appropriate given the context. 

The other significant contribution – the significant contribution in hindsight, was that of Alex Callinicos, who kicked off the ‘special session’. It was a euphemistic triumph. At no point did Callinicos talk of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Instead Callinicos began by saying that he had something a bit unpleasant to relay but it would only take a moment of time before we returned to the main business of conference. There was a young female comrade who was upset at Delta and his behavior. Without divulging any real detail, Callinicos explained that Delta denied having done anything wrong but acknowledged that the female comrade was upset with him and he was sorry for that. Delta would no longer place himself in the presence of the female comrade. It was all so vague and Callinicos implied that the female comrade no longer wished to give the impression that she reciprocated Delta’s interest. Delta was sorry for any distress caused but he denied he had actually done anything wrong. It was a bit of a misunderstanding and both Delta and the female comrade wished to put it all behind them. 


Almost two years later, during a preconference period, four young comrades were picked out from a number of party members taking part in a closed Facebook chat where misgivings about the CC’s handling of Delta’s case was being discussed, and expelled for ‘secret factionalising.’  The comrades were considering how to raise the issue at the SWP’s forthcoming annual conference. Some linked the question to the party’s democratic deficit and others wondered if a faction should be formed for conference. Shortly before the expulsions, some supporters of Delta considered circulating a petition calling for his reinstatement to the CC during the pre-conference discussion period at the close of 2012. This was before the the delegates had even set out for the conference in January 2013 and when many comrades were still in the dark as to the seriousness of the complaint against Delta.*

The narrow vote “approving” the Disputes Committee report on the case of comrade Delta in January, reflected the process of awakening that had begun when the CC expelled four of our brightest and best, and was continuing. In attempting to put a lid on the scandal, the CC inadvertently brought the growing crisis to a boiling point.

As everyone knows by now, there were 231 votes for and 209 votes against with 18 abstentions. The members of the DC got to vote on their own report too. Such a narrow vote is almost unprecedented in any session of annual conference and even more so for the proceedings of the Disputes Committee where the affirmative vote is traditionally unanimous.    

The CC, our bankrupt leadership, have serious questions to answer about their own conduct in the last two years. It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that our CC embarked on a furtive enterprise to diminish the charge against Delta and limit the fallout as they worked assiduously to rehabilitate Delta. In embarking on such a course they were evidently fortified by the arrogant assumption that they would get their own way, as they often have. They were determined to retain a comrade who was regarded as just too indispensable to lose. Recently in my branch the CC member who was present argued that Delta should be on the current CC slate. Unsurprisingly in the face of the crisis made by the CC, more and more party members are drawing the conclusion not only that Delta is not indispensable but that the scandal raises far wider and deep seated issues about the adequacy of our party structures, of accountability and the extent to which party members democratically control their own party. These issues will simply not go away unless we respond to them with the degree of seriousness and urgency they demand.

-        - Jules Alford
      
* Originally I claimed mistakenly that this petition - which certainly existed and to which I will return to soon - had circulated in the South Wales pre-conference aggregate before Christmas. This was wrong and I would like to acknowledge my error - openly. I would like to thank comrade Rob again (from South Wales district) for alerting me to this error (see the comments exchange below). I have accordingly removed the passage. I understand that there was a motion put to the aggregate thanking comrade Delta for his role in the UAF which is obviously aomething very different. More horizontal communication between branches and comrades in a revolutionary socialist organisation would of course make verification of such claims far easier.  


5 comments:

  1. For your information I saw no South Wales petition for "Delta's" reinstatement at the South Wales aggregate. There was a motion put to the aggregate thanking him for his work in UAF . I saw this myself .

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  2. Thanks for the correction Rob. Unlike the 2011 SWP conference which I attended (at least the notorious Saturday discussed above), I was not present at the South Wales aggregate as I belong to a different district. It is an unfortunate fact that obstacles related to the nature of our overly top down internal regime militate against horizontal communication between comrades in different branches and make it much harder to confirm such stories than should be the case.

    I understand that the motion that was presented to your aggregate thanked Delta for his work in the UAF and that it was passed 9 votes to 6 votes. Please correct me if this info is wrong.

    It is my understanding that a number of comrades wanted to circulate a petition calling for Delta's reinstatement and this briefly appeared. More details have been passed my way which I need to confirm and I will return to this subject again soon.

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  3. Thanks , Julian . All I can say is that I myself didn't see a petition . The vote on the motion sounds right .

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  4. Further to this and after talking to other comrades present there was absolutely no petition whatsoever in any shape or form .
    By the way in case the above voting figures give a false impression of the size of the meeting there was also a substantial number of abstentions .

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  5. Again thanks for that Rob. As I say I am now aware there was no petition in the South Wales aggregate but it did briefly appear elsewhere but more on that soon. I was also aware of the abstentions in the South Wales aggregate though I don't know how many.

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