The Socialist Workers' Party's annual conference, which took place
over the weekend of January 7-8, witnessed an event unprecedented in
the last twenty years: a contested election. What's going on?
The SWP's pre-conference bulletin No 3, contained an announcement
from Portsmouth SWPer John Molyneux of his intention to stand for the
group's Central Committee, on a platform mildly critical of the SWP
leadership. Molyneux is an SWP member of longstanding, and his
challenge was significant enough to receive a reply from the CC.
At the conference, Molyneux's proposal that he be elected in addition
to the take-it-or-leave-it slate proposed by the existing CC received
57 votes to 208 with 11 abstentions.
This figure, just over 20% of the conference, is not negligible,
particularly in comparison to the 100% monolithism that has been the
SWP's internal life for very many years. It may also be that the
majority of SWP members are more critical-minded than its conference
However, the figure is surprisingly small considering the ultra-tame
nature of Molyneux's critique.
His document is, by his own admission, a "simple platform", produced
by a "loyal rebel". It contains not a single sharp criticism, either
organisational or political, of the SWP's current trajectory, or a
single substantive proposal for remedy.
One only has to talk to two or three SWPers to realise that there is
widespread unease within the SWP about the political character of the
Respect Coalition and their group's relationship to it. Yet
Molyneux's critique does not broach this issue at all. In fact, he
declares as one of his concluding points that he "strongly
support[s], in theory and practice, the party's united front
initiatives including and especially the Respect project". Most of
his political criticisms concern not the current period but the years
after the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe.
Molyneux raises the issue of openness and accountability within the
SWP, for instance in terms of assessing changes in the group's
membership (i.e. its recent decline, despite all the boasts about
being central to "the movement"). But he makes no proposals for
democratisation or even liberalisation, beyond more honesty on the
part of the existing leadership and, of course, his own elevation
Molyneux notes that without "adequate and honest information about
the state of the party it is very difficult for [members] to
participate in democratic debate about its strategy and tactics.
Moreover they are not really expected to do so, whatever the formal
democratic procedures." In the past, primarily in the 1990s, this
problem produced serious political deviations. But the implication,
totally illogically given that the SWP's democratic life has if
anything declined since then, is that everything is much better now.
The SWP has published a selective report of the CC election in
Socialist Worker, in which the defeat of Molyneux's candidacy is
described as taking place "in the best democratic traditions of the
party". But the fact that the leadership has felt able to deal with
Molyneux without resorting to its normal tactics of bullying and
expulsions suggests they are aware both of the weakness of his
critique and of the lack of political culture which would provide him
with a more receptive audience in the wider group.
We do not know whether Molyneux will now try to rally the ranks, on
however inadequate a political basis, or return quietly to being a
good SWP citizen. But perhaps his defeated attempt will encourage
other SWPers to set out on the difficult road of thinking for