The furore that erupted in some circles over the SWP’s stunt at the BA talks was, imho, somewhat excessive. Yes it was stupid and counter-productive but it appears to have been a spontaneous action on the part of some over-excited (and young) rank and file SWP’ers after some rousing speeches at their ‘Right to Work’ conference, rather than a considered decision by the group’s experienced members and leadership.
The decision of the SWP to support Jerry Hicks in the election for general secretary of Unite is a much more worrying (though less commented upon) indication of this group’s retreat from rational class politics. Hicks is a supporter of the Galloway-“Respect” outfit that did so badly at the general election, though (strangely and inexplicably) his campaign within Unite is mainly backed by the Labour Party entrists “Socialist Appeal.”
The announcement came out of the blue on Tuesday of this week. It had, apparently, been agreed at an SWP (Central Committee?) meeting on the previous Saturday. Prior to that, all the indications were that the SWP and its leading Unite members agreed with the decision of the main left grouping within Unite (the United Left), to support Len McCluskey.
The United Left put out the following ‘more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger’ statement:
” (The) United Left is proud to be a genuinely broad-based socialist rank and file
movement in Unite the Union, bringing together working class shop stewards
and activists of no particular political affiliation, the Labour Party,
Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party and other
groupings. By uniting together the forces of the Left in UNITE we seek to
overcome our differences and make a strong and effective voice for the Left
in our Union, to build a strong fighting back union based on effective lay
member democracy and control, and with a socialist vision politically for
“The United Left at its 2009 hustings meeting in Manchester democratically
agreed to support Len McCluskey for General Secretary by an overwhelming
vote and therefore calls on all United Left supporters to actively support
his candidature and work hard for his victory in the forthcoming UNITE The
Union General Secretary election.
“It is with deep regret that we note that the Socialist Workers Party at its
meeting on Saturday 22nd May 2010 has agreed to call on all its supporters
to back Jerry Hicks for General Secretary, in the full knowledge that this
will bring its members in United Left in conflict with the democratic
position of United Left. It is of particular concern to the United Left
National Co-ordinating Committee that this decision was made not by SWP
United Left supporters alone, but by the SWP as an independent political
party, the majority of whom are not members of UNITE The Union and have no
rightful voice in the affairs of UNITE let alone United Left.
“United Left NCC has no wish to exclude SWP members from United Left, but
must insist on the following standards of conduct from SWP United Left
supporters for the duration of the UNITE General Secretary election:
SWP members in United Left must not use the United Left e-group or any
other United Left vehicle for communicating support for Jerry Hicks
SWP members in United Left must not openly campaign for Jerry Hicks,
including submitting nominations or distributing leaflets. If they wish
to do this they should withdraw from United Left (and not attend United
Left meetings) for the duration of the General Secretary election.”
The leading SWP’er within Unite, Pete Gillard, replied “on behalf of SWP members in Unite“, as follows:
“The SWP members of the United Left accept the decision of the National Coordinating Committee with regards to our participation in the UL, following our decision to support Jerry Hicks in the General Secretary election.
“SWP members who attended the 8th May NCC meeting, which agreed on the principles behind the NCC’s statement, fully concurred in that decision. We recognized at the time that this might affect us at some time in the future depending on our decision over the election. Following the SWP’s decision on Saturday, Pete Gillard immediately offered his resignation as National Editor.
“While we have what is clearly a significant difference over the General Secretary’s election, on most issues we will still be united. We will be opposing the attacks from the ConDem government and their allies amongst the employers. We will be voting for the same motions at the Policy Conference next week. We will be working to build a fighting back union with lay control at every level. We are still committed to building a United Left.
“It is for that reason we wish to continue to participate in the UL as fully as possible over the next six months around the general questions of organizing solidarity and fightback, even if we are rightly to be excluded from any discussions about the GS election.
“We would like to correct one part of the NCC statement. The decision to support Jerry Hicks was voted on exclusively by SWP members who are members of the union. As on all questions other SWP members had opinions, but the decision was taken by those who will have to carry it out.
“We hope that in the future what we have in common will prove more important than the current differences. We are going to have a long hard fight under this government and, however difficult it may be achieve at times, in the end unity is necessary.”
What is most immediately noticeable about both statements is the polite, non-confrontational tone of each of them. The leadership of the United Left is sorry to have to break with the SWP comrades, just as they (the SWP) are anxious not to burn their bridges with the United Left. Indeed, one furious United Left supporter wrote (to Pete Gillard):
“I do not see that the courtly exchanges between you and Martin ( Martin Mayer – Chair of the United Left) does any credit to either of you. What you are doing will damage the chances of building a serious politically focussed union to fight for our class in the hardest economic period any of us have seen in our lives. That Martin sees this as some equivalent of the Eton v Harrow cricket match does not in any way lessen your culpability, whether that is through stupidity, treachery or some other vice is less important than that you and your more experienced comrades knew the damage that is being done and are willing to trade the defence of the class for a few headlines in a paper that few read.”
* the United Left is the joint organisation formed out of the former T&G Broad Left and the former Amicus Unity Gazette group;
* the United Left held a hustings in Manchester last year that overwhelmingly backed Len McClusky as GS candidate: Hicks walked out (twice);
* Hick’s platform is an incoherent jumble of policies not noticeably to the “left” of McCluskey’s…
*…but Hicks is on record as arguing that retired members should have the same rights within the union as employed members: a fundamental attack on rank and file democracy and, indeed, trade unionsim itself;
* a split in the left vote could let in the Stalinoid right-winger Les Bayliss.
No-one (at least no-one at Shiraz) is arguing that McCluskey is the perfect candidate. But he is supported by the main left grouping within the union. Comparisons have been made with the PCS in 2000 when some on the left (including the AWL, but not the SWP or the Socialist Party) supported Mark Serwotka against the “Left Unity” candidate Hugh Lanning, and Serwotka won. I’m not that well up on the details of what happened in the PCS then, but it does seem to me that the comparison is misplaced, if only because Serwotka stood on a clearly superior platform to Lanning, whereas Hick’s platform is little or no better than McCluskey’s. Perhaps even more importantly (and PCS activists may want to correct me on this), I suspect that the United Left is more representative of the majority of rank and file activists within the union, than was the PCS “Left Unity” group that backed Lanning in 2005.
Anyway: the SWP’s willingness to break with the United Left, its willingness to back a politically incoherent and egotistical poseur like Hicks, and its lack of explanation for doing so, all suggest an organisation that is fast losing touch with the labour movement and with rational working class politics.
One final point: the SWP’s (self-) exclusion from the United Left over this business may well have the thoroughly undesirable effect of giving the Stalinist CPB an opportunity to increase their influence within the left of Unite.