Looking back, I think that democracy in the party took a nose-dive when it decided to abolish the weekly branch meetings. Thereafter, all discussion took place at District level, invariably with a full-timer (CC member, local organiser or someone from the paper) leading off with their take on things, followed by the leading local hacks expanding on this, with very little space for anyone else to get a word in let alone a dissenting word. The abolition of local branches also meant that delegates to national Conference - the party's decision-making body - were now elected on a district slate rather than directly by the branches. Ger Francis took great pleasure in stitching up the district slate to try to exclude individuals he didn't like, even making untrue allegations about them in order to poison other comrades' minds against them.
I feel that my experiences with trying to raise the issue of religion within the SA were a foretaste of the way the SWP was going, and only now in the wake of another war can we see exactly where it has taken them: into an unholy alliance which has little to do with socialism. Any attempt to raise issues about the reactionary views commonly related to various religions (e.g. abortion, glb rights) would be construed - depending on the religion concerned and which term of abuse was the flavour of the week - as "racist", "islamophobic", "sectarian" or "ultra-left". Good secular Asian socialists whom I know personally have been dismissed as "Maoist". The South Asian Alliance, which has held meetings and film showings to protest against the massacre of Muslims in Gujurat, has been slandered as "Islamophobic". It is a sad day when so-called socialists descend to the level of trading insults instead of engaging in honest debate about challenging issues.
I have just been reading Tony Cliff's autobiography "A World to Win", and noted how frequently he stressed the twin errors of sectarianism and opportunism. In my opinion the SWP has gone from sectarianism in the 80s (failure to work with broader united front movements over the miners' strike and the poll tax, at least initially) to opportunism now (willingness to work with anyone vaguely anti-war and likely to get elected).
I attended Marxism 2003 and had to admire the spin they put on things, it's worthy of New Labour. "Why did the Liberal Democrats get the anti-war vote in Birmingham?" asked John Rees. Well, one factor we could point out is that they have repeatedly encouraged Lib Dem speakers on STW Coalition platforms, both locally and nationally, while refusing a slot to the Socialist Alliance even when specifically asked for one.
But another reason why the Lib Dems won the seat in my ward (Sparkhill) is that they did years of bloody hard donkey-work, putting out a newsletter every couple of weeks saying what their candidate had achieved in the neighbourhood and encouraging residents to contact him with their views. The SA can't expect to just parachute in a few weeks before the election and achieve the same result. There are no short-cuts to electoral success - it's not just a matter of getting the candidates or the slogans right. The Socialist Party in Holland now have 9 seats in Parliament (out of 150) and they have achieved this by setting up neighbourhood offices in the community, helping people with their benefit forms etc. By doing so they have earned respect. The Socialist Alliance needs to do the same. I can't see the SWP getting their hands dirty with this sort of thing, somehow.
Sue Blackwell, July 2003
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