In the debate that is currently blazing within the SWP this is the most potent argument in the Central Committee’s arsenal. For we all agree that the annual conference is the highest institution of our democracy. The report at the centre of the row, the Disputes Committee report, was accepted by conference, with 231 votes in favour, 209 against, and 18 recorded abstentions. Nobody, to my knowledge, has disputed the accuracy of the count. “For the sake of democracy and unity,” the CC argues, “all members must accept the vote. Just look at the numbers, and read the constitution!”
This argument simply won’t do. Some would say its flaws go back to the pre-conference discussion period and the management of conference itself. There were aggregates at which comrades who sought to raise the issue of the DC report were denied the floor; important information was withheld from the party prior to conference; comrades were expelled for pre-conference discussion; a properly formed faction was suppressed; and the factions which the CC did allow were not given proper factional rights. These are real concerns. But even if the conduct of pre-conference debate and the organisation of conference itself had been impeccable, the argument would still be unsustainable.
After delegates returned from conference, they confronted questions from workmates, allies in campaigns, and fellow members who had not been delegates. Comrades learned that the DC report had passed by a slender margin. An unprecedentedly slender margin. Some did the arithmetic, working out that fewer than two out of every five delegates had voted for it—a report that is normally passed with a unanimous or near-unanimous vote. In so narrowly escaping an actual defeat, the CC, which had backed the report, had suffered a moral defeat.
Many members were not persuaded that the matter could be put to rest. Had the conference decision been one, say, that enjoined them to take part in a forthcoming demonstration, those who dissented would have argued their case but participated nonetheless, for the democratic decision had fallen, and action was required. This matter was different: it connected directly to, and amplified concerns over, the legitimacy of the party’s internal processes and structures.
In this light it was inevitable that discussion would continue in the aftermath of conference, and extraordinary that the CC decreed that it be closed down. Superficially, the reason given was democratic: “Conference passed the vote on the DC report. Basta!” But many were unconvinced. Leninists, as you might expect, respect their constitution but don’t make a fetish of it. If reality changes, conference decisions may need to be reinterpreted.
Had ‘reality’ changed? It surely had, not least through the very process of post-conference discussion that the CC was seeking to close down. “Why,” comrades wished to know, “had such an important vote been so close? Why, if it addressed a matter of importance, is the CC attempting to shut down discussion in the branches? Do its members have something to hide? We assume not, but let’s ask comrades in our branch, and elsewhere, if they have information that would shed light on this.” As discussion of this sort mushroomed—and was then whipped into a frenzy by the publication of opinion columns and attacks in the national media—many comrades began to piece together the jigsaw of issues discussed at the DC reportback. They concluded that the conference debate had been fair and thorough in some respects but not others. In this light, the CC’s argument that “conference decisions must be respected” appeared as a hollow catechism, trotted out as a legalistic substitute for a political recognition that the party had entered a serious crisis.
The conference vote on the DC report, in short, was passed but was subsequently ‘tested’ in the real world and found to have failed. “It has led to catastrophe,” as Richard Seymour put it. “It has led to the party being denounced as the Sexist Workers Party and worse. It has led to activists being furious with us. It has led to members being ready to walk out. Some already have. So, the perspective has failed, very badly, and it has to be revisited.”
Throughout, the post-conference debate has been experienced by all involved as bruising and polarising. It has also involved members applying to an intra-party crisis the qualities of leadership that they exhibit elsewhere. “To be effective,” Colin Barker once wrote in Socialist Worker, “socialists need to constantly evaluate the changing conditions, to work out how best to organise and act. For that, ongoing democratic debate, where we exchange our views and experiences, and decide together is vital. In ‘normal’ political parties, decisions about strategy and tactics are left to a few leaders.” The SWP, in contrast, “needs to involve every member in debate and decision.” It is “not divided into ‘leaders’ and ‘rank and file’, but is made up of people who work to give a lead in their own situation—in their anti-war group, in their workplace or union branch.”
What holds true in campaigns and in union branches also applies within the party itself. We recognise that a leadership body is necessary, but also that its personnel, and its strategies and tactics, should not be sacrosanct; they should be open to discussion by the membership. The CC takes a lead in determining the party’s direction and day-to-day running but is accountable to the membership on an ongoing basis. Its decisions are only legitimate, and can only be put into practice effectively, if they gain support, day in and day out. It must win the membership to its positions.
Much of the post-conference discussion has centred upon questions of the party’s internal procedures, its structures, and the CC’s handling of the disputes and of the post-conference crisis. But the central and underlying issue throughout has been one that connects directly to a core concern of our politics: women’s oppression, with particular reference to questions of coercive sexual behaviour. If left unlanced, this boil risks debauching our good reputation on confronting sexism.
Let us be clear: this is not about sex. Nobody has the slightest interest in the liaisons of the comrade under discussion. Except insofar as these relate to questions of the politics and the reputation of the organisation of which he was such a prominent figure. We’re speaking of questions of oppression and institutional power—and here, gender and age matter.
The charge is not that we show tolerance to sexist behaviour (or worse) within our ranks, but that we have done so when CC members have been involved, whether through poor process (e.g. in this case, that friends and ‘loyal lieutenants’ of the accused sat on the DC), or via the inclination—conscious or unconscious—to shield them from criticism due to their supposed indispensability to the organisation, or a combination of both. If this is so, it would seem that one ‘political morality’ applies to the membership but a less stringent one for the leadership, when in fact the contrary should apply. Leaders should be held to higher standards, for two reasons. Being in a position of responsibility, they are role models within the party and in some respects its outward face. In addition, their very authority, and the kudos or internal ‘celebrity status’ that it brings, enters into the power dynamics at play in personal relationships in which they engage, and should be borne in mind by those who deliberate upon disputes in which they are involved.
With respect to the handling of the case over which the debate has arisen, three basic positions have emerged. One, advanced by the CC, is that it was managed fairly well throughout, albeit with the provisos that the first time the CC heard about the case it should have been transferred to the DC, and that perhaps some minor tweaking of procedures would be advisable. A second is that there were serious flaws in the disputes process. A third is that there were serious flaws in the disputes process and the CC covered up allegations of sexual harassment. (A rider to the third position: the insistence by the CC that when they were first made aware of the case it was not a complaint is untrue. If something looks like a complaint, sounds like a complaint and is treated like a complaint, then it deserves to be called a complaint.)
The case that the CC has presided over a cover up is robust. For reasons that will be apparent to all, the full details will not be posted online. But we (and other concerned party members) would welcome the opportunity to share them with comrades, in appropriate forums. For a charge relating to a crisis that is unfolding in the here and now, the appropriate forum cannot be the 2014 conference. For a charge that is as serious as this, the appropriate forum cannot be the party’s individual branches. Instead, it should be, in its general aspects, addressed at a special conference and, in its particular details, investigated by a special commission elected at that conference. Comrades who in recent weeks have vigorously opposed our view will then have the opportunity to come to their own judgments. We believe they will come round to our viewpoint, and will understand why we raised our voices. For, if it becomes clear to you that a cover up has taken place on a matter of such gravity, what else can you do? Deny it? Place your trust in those who have so crassly breached it by engaging in a cover up?
If the CC denies its accusers the opportunity to prove their case, it will be demonstrating not only weakness but a bankrupt ‘political morality’. If it attempts to deal with charges of mismanagement and cover up by means of censorship and censure, the motivation will be transparent to all: to close down and efface discussion of their own cover up. The membership, we believe, will not permit that road to be taken. What is required instead is, to begin with, recognition that something has gone very seriously awry: in the way that a complaint of harassment was dealt with; in the disputes procedures; in the cosy relationships within the CC and between CC and DC; in the stage-management of conference and the problematic nature of relationship between leadership and membership. A special conference is necessary to help rebuild effective party democracy, to renew the organisation, and to draw the clearest possible line under this festering cluster of issues that threaten to seriously tarnish its reputation.
- Gareth Dale