Friday, March 15, 2013
The crisis in the SWP, part III posted by leninWe had been waiting anxiously for reports in a nearby Wetherspoon's, holed up with the four recently expelled comrades. This was Saturday 5th January. A tense, polarised conference was already under way. One of the co-conspirators shook my hand when I arrived, and informed me with an appalling smirk that my presence there, simply being seen with the four, could be grounds for expulsion. "Well, fuck em," I glowered. "Yeah, that's the spirit."
The reports weren't coming as often as we would have liked. What we were hearing wasn't good. It wasn't just that we weren't winning votes. We didn't expect to. It had been clear from some discussions before conference that even some of those who were on our side about the rape allegations were absolutely horrified by some of the discussions favouring radical changes to the party's structures. There was a fear of federalism, or of becoming a talking shop, of being so busy with internal discussion and voting and so on, that our ability to intervene in real struggles would be diminished. As a result, we were losing heavily even on relatively moderate amendments saying that, maybe we should discuss things rather than trying to shut everyone up. But even so, the margin of dissent was way higher than in most conferences. Clearly, the faction had helped stir things up to a degree, despite its very short life. More troubling was the attitude of some of the members supporting the leadership. Evidently, paranoia was running high. People really believed that there was a plot to wreck the party, stirred up by sleeper agents of the ISG or Counterfire. There were also a few physical threats.
Then there was the tone of the leadership's contributions. "The elephant in the room," a CC member had reportedly explained, "is what has happened to the student movement since Millbank. The students are turning inward because the movement has collapsed. The current debates are a symptom of pessimism arising from that collapse." This was a stunningly delusional and self-serving analysis, but it would be repeated in other contexts by other CC members. The emerging line was that the students had lost their way because the party had failed to take an 'ideological turn' after Millbank, and effectively argue the party's politics on women's liberation, among other things, in SWSS groups. This foreshadowed a series of doomed, miserable, finger-wagging SWSS events staged after conference.
Strikingly, there was barely a hint of discussion of the real subject, which was allegations of rape and sexual harassment, until the session about the findings of the Disputes Committee which investigated the allegations. Comrade W, whose complaint was dealt with by the Disputes Committee, was barred from attending this session. In this session, the details of the complaint itself were not discussed, nor was the accused, or any of the complainants named. The discussion was purely about how the complaint had been handled, and the chair intervened a few times to complain that speakers were bringing up details of the complaint itself - though in fact none of the speakers did. The leadership's strategy boiled down to a few main points:
First, all the main speakers in favour of accepting the Committee's findings were women. This was important, because some leadership supporters would emphasise the fact that the investigation was led by five women. With greasy insinuation, they would wonder how anyone could imply that these experienced female comrades were somehow dupes of the accused. Surely, they suggested, this was sexist in itself?
Second, the line was one of deference: all the people on the DC were experienced, trustworthy and politically principled comrades who would definitely have taken action if they thought the accused was guilty of rape. The implication here was later spelled out to me. The Committee was made up of experienced cadres who have a special "political morality" which means that they would not protect a rapist. Any imputation of conscious bias in favour of a colleague and political superior was unthinkable, while unconscious bias was highly improbable.
Third, when dealing with the complaints of the women about how they had been dealt with, the approach was one of 'false flag' denial. For example, they denied that the women had been asked about what clothes they were wearing when the alleged events took place, knowing that no one had said otherwise. Simultaneously they ignored the claims that were actually made, regarding the sexist and hostile questions directed at the women. The same tactic was later deployed by the CC in the single Internal Bulletin before last weekend's Special Conference.
Finally, while there was no explicit aggression against the complainants, those supporting the findings stressed that they had reached their verdict because they did not think the accused was guilty. Anyone looking for ambiguity in the fact that the verdict was 'not proven' was misguided. This foreshadowed the moves after conference to claim that the accused had been 'exonerated'.
Such a line raises the question: how could the accused have been 'exonerated'? Surely, 'not proven' meant that they had been unable to determine the truth between two contesting sets of claims? Surely in turn this meant, given our understanding that women generally don't make up claims of rape and sexual assault, that there was a strong possibility that the accused was guilty? Or had the Committee proved that the women were liars? Evidently, some people did believe the women were liars, because they had said as much. Certainly, loyalists of the accused had spread vicious rumours about the complainants. (One of these loyalists reportedly sat in the conference hall, while delegates heard tearful testimony about how the women had been treated, muttering the word 'lies'.) But was this a line which the party was prepared to officially defend? Obviously not. However, since the leadership wanted to defend the right of the accused to continue to work for the party and represent it in united front work, they had to insist that no trace of suspicion remained. Therefore, the official line would be the untenable one that both the complainants and the accused were 'comrades in good standing'.
We heard that the vote had passed narrowly in favour of the Committee's findings. This was agonising. The narrow vote was all the more remarkable given the abstentions. It was clear that the leadership had failed to win a majority of delegates to its position. Yet it had still just about managed to defend the indefensible. Delegates had left the debate exhausted, shattered, weeping. Most people had never heard these arguments before, and thus never understood what the debate was about. Would they go back to their branches and shut up? Would they feel that, whatever their own views, the debate had happened fair and square, and it was "time to draw a line under it"? It seemed extremely unlikely.
The shock of revelation didn't necessarily galvanise people to take a more radical position on other matters. The CC's chosen slate for the leadership, excluding two of the dissidents, won fairly comfortably. The vote on whether to accept the expulsions of the four comrades went harder for the CC than other votes. In fact, the voting figures suggest that a large number of delegates didn't attend the session, suggesting that it just didn't interest them. To me, this indicated that the vote reflected more than just reflex loyalism. Rather it was a manifestation of an informally hierarchical culture that had developed in the party. Had these comrades been part of the inner circle, their expulsion would have been controversial and the turnout would have been higher. Because they were seen, incorrectly, as waifs and strays, it didn't matter one way or the other what happened to them.
Moreover, there was a real sense of debacle around how some of the Democratic Centralism Faction had intervened in the conference. One of their members spoke both for and against his own motion. Another spoke against expulsions by denouncing those who had been expelled. When the leadership's chosen slate for the new Central Committee was endorsed by conference, they begged the two remaining dissidents not to step down as they had promised they would. I presume the reasoning behind this was that it was better to have a CC with a couple of bureaucratic dissidents than no bureaucratic dissidents. But resignations would have accelerated the crisis for the leadership, while the result of their staying was unimpressive. One of the two drank the kool aid - though not before spending some time bolstering his credentials as a top secret dissident. The other was forced to resign after it was clear that the leadership had already taken out most of his base in the full-time apparatus, and was coming for him.
At the end of the Disputes Committee session, the chair had urged people to avoid raising details of the session in their report-backs to branches and districts. The following Monday, Party Notes reported that conference had endorsed the Disputes Committee's findings, but also insisted that it had agreed that the case was concluded and should not be discussed again. This was not true. There had been no agreement to cease discussion of the subject. It was clear that, following the most polarised conference in the party's history, in which the CC won an extremely controversial vote by a tiny margin, they were going to try to shut down any further discussion. Yet this merely indicated the extent to which they were living in a bubble. Hundreds of delegates had voted against the leadership, not just on a particular perspective but on what to many was a matter of socialist principle. The idea that people would shut up, or leave quietly, was outlandish. There would be serious discontent in branches and districts. There would be resignations, and resignation statements. And there would be an article by Laurie Penny.