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SWP line in Unite the Resistance: carry on regardless

Jeremy Dewar, Unison shop steward and elected member of Unite the Resistance steering committee, asks what effect the internal crisis of the Socialist Workers Party is having on its trade union work

Unite the Resistance steering committee, elected by the conference in November, held its first meeting in London on 19 January. Socialist Workers Party members were in the large majority, as one would expect, this being one of “their” front campaigns, so it was of special interest to see how they would react after the explosion of dissent in their ranks following their party conference.

Those expecting or hoping for a change in their sectarian approach to the anti-cuts movement and rank and file organisation in the unions will, unfortunately be disappointed on this showing.

At the same time, it soon became clear that the SWP had no intention of breaking their strategic alliance with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. On the contrary, they appeared more uncritical than ever of the fake lefts in the NUT, even more desperate to court favour with Labour MPs and councillors.

What is Unite the Resistance?

Sean Vernell kicked off the meeting with a defence of UTR as “not just another anti-cuts organisation”. He said that, “even if there weren’t any cuts, there would need to be an organisation like UTR to link up rank and file union activists with each other and with union leaders who were ready to fight”.

Of course, he continued, if UTR disagreed with union officials “like Kevin Courtney” (of the NUT), then “we would have out that argument, maybe even a sharp argument if necessary”.

I pointed out that this did not make any sense whatsoever. Every activist who has heard of UTR thinks it is an anti-cuts movement – albeit one focused on the union struggle. Resistance to what exactly, if not the cuts programme?

But even were Vernell telling the truth, this still does not amount to a defence of UTR’s right to exist. An organisation that unites militants with left wing bureaucrats is to most activists a Broad Left. And we already have a broad left type organisation: the National Shop Stewards Network.

To remind the comrades, the SWP joined a walkout of the NSSN in Spring 2011 in protest against the Socialist Party railroading through conference a proposal to set up its own anti-cuts campaign – in rivalry to the already existing Coalition of Resistance. Ironically, the SP at the time claimed this was not rivalry but a union-focused addition to the anti-cuts movement.

Immediately after the walkout there was excited talk about setting up a non-sectarian rank and file organisation, not the property of any socialist group. Nothing came of it. Until June that year, when the SWP, with Martin Smith at their head, launched UTR – “their” NSSN with a remit wide enough to also eclipse COR, or so they hoped.

Unfortunately, as we shall see, UTR has also inherited all the weaknesses of the NSSN.

Tied to the bureaucracy

Vernell’s quip about not shying from a “sharp argument” with Courtney has certainly come back to haunt him in double-quick time.

The first half of the two-hour meeting was taken up with a report and discussion of potential strike action, primarily over pay, by the NUT, UCU and PCS. Sara Tomlinson reported back from a London Regional meeting of the NUT, where 300 members, including Courtney, Alex Kenny and General Secretary Christine Blower voted unanimously in favour of strike action on 13 March.

Trouble is, when the only vote that matters took place – four days later at the NEC – the motion for strike action was lost 22-20. So what do UTR and the SWP do now?

“Activists have no choice but to intensify their calls for strikes on NEC members,” said Nick Grant, SWP member on the NUT executive, in Socialist Worker.

Just like last year in the wake of the pensions fiasco, activists “have no choice” because the SWP and SP, the two largest far left groups in the UK, have refused to countenance organising the rank and file independently. Therefore there is no real pressure on the NEC right wingers to back action and no grassroots group prepared now to go to the UCU and say, “You lead a strike and we will pull out as many schools as possible to walk out alongside you.”

Sharp arguments – if and when they materialise – are not going to fundamentally challenge trade union bureaucrats, be they Mark Serwotka or Dave Prentis. What will is if someone defies them and starts to wrest control of the union from them. And that is precisely what UTR is not about.

Build the party, build the front

In the second hour, we were treated to a series of reports about how different regions were building UTR meetings to promote its pamphlet, Trade Unions and the fight against Austerity. Michael Bradley was among those who tried to propose that these rallies – sometimes referred to as “conferences” though of course without any powers to decide anything fundamental – be built alongside other political tendencies in a “spirit of open debate and dialogue”.

But how can this be so? Why would the NSSN, COR or indeed any political tendency build for a meeting to endorse someone else’s policies? It is a charade, a game of unity and coming together but one where division and the end-result of this “debate and dialogue” is predetermined: “We asked the NSSN to participate but, hey, what can you do?”

Further, the pamphlet in question does not even reflect the SWP’s own policy and puts forward an inadequate and, taken as a whole, disastrous policy for the rank and file.

  • It provides a false analysis of the struggle so far, failing to have a “sharp argument” with the left wing leaders who betrayed their own members after Brendan Barber, Dave Prentis and co. pulled the plug on united action.
  • It fails to point the way forward through organising the rank and file independently of all wings of the bureaucracy, and building councils of action to win the call for a general strike.
  • And it proposes a Keynesian solution of increased tax and spend, while refusing to call for the nationalisation of the banks.

We pointed out these flaws at the UTR conference but were outvoted. In any case, for the second year running the SWP had written and published the pamphlet (without any recourse to the then steering committee, so far as we are aware), so perhaps even that was a sham.

Make or break

The trade union comrades in the SWP were among the most active in mobilising for the big strikes in 2011. They undoubtedly form an important layer in the unions. But they could become part of an even more important layer if they mobilised to overturn bureaucrats –whenever they sell out or hesitate.

To achieve this the comrades must argue for their party to change course. No one is denying left wing groups the right to take initiatives or launch campaigns, especially where there are none. But UTR does not have a “better record” than either NSSN or COR in stopping sell-outs or launching strikes. Neither is the SWP a real “party” as such, capable of mobilising sufficient workers on its own to make a difference.

What are needed right now are:

  • Unity between all the anti-cuts groups, through the convening of a voting conference to set up an anti-cuts federation, jointly sponsored by as many of the national umbrella groups, and local and specific campaigns as possible
  • A rank and file movement in and across the unions, taking their lead from the tactics employed successfully by the “sparks” on the construction sites, which is truly independent of all wings of the bureaucracy.

The SWP leadership, under the direction of Martin Smith in this particular case, launched UTR as a sectarian spoiler against Counterfire and the SP and in direct contradiction to the real needs of the working class. Marxists have a name for such tactics: sectarianism.

But sectarianism often hides an opportunist content, and this is the case here. The SWP leadership, fearful that their group may feel exposed and isolated, shunned even, following the exposure of their rotten internal regime, will seek allies from left reformist leaders wherever they can find them. In return, their criticism, as in the case with the NUT executive this weak, will be muted or silent.

In reality, however, the working class needs the opposite kind of leadership: one unafraid to say what is and mobilise against traitors in our leadership. Backroom diplomacy in these circumstances is also betrayal.

The students in SWSS have gamely organised in opposition to this tried and failed leadership. The organisation’s trade unionists should too – before the Tories destroy the welfare state and the last remaining bastion of trade unionism in the UK in the process. That is how high the stakes are.

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