On an occasion in the last couple of months, I was speaking at a public meeting alongside a senior official of the trade union movement. His tone was folksy, with deliberate and repetitive swearing, declarations that he could speak openly “among friends”, and a loudly-announced disinterest in the detail of the latest government attacks on unions (“I don’t need to tell you, you all know how much they hate us”). These were of course details which his audience, almost entirely made up of trade union reps rooted in local workplaces, needed to know if they were ever going to successfully resist them.
He made a passionate appeal to his listeners not to put too much pressure on the TUC to call co-ordinated strikes or even prepare the ground for them (it will, he said, be a decision for affiliated unions not for the TUC which has no members to call out), and he criticised those from the rank and file who were making demands of their leaders.
“Everyone in the room is a leader”, he insisted – not that he was going to lead us anywhere – “it is up to you to deliver the change, in education, in collective bargaining, in voters’ minds about the economy, which alone will improve workers’ lives.”
I am intrigued by this concept of leadership, not because of the individual who expressed it but because it feels so familiar from the group of which I have been a member these past 20 years.
I will be writing more, over the next weeks, about the years I have spent in the SWP. I will save for another, longer piece the great moments, the times and the people that so inspired me of the possibility for revolutionary ideas to become the common sense of hundreds of thousands of people that I chose to remain a member, even though even at the age of 20 I could see, as we all could, that the leaders had clay feet
But here I wanted to convey how proud I have been to be a member of a group in which for long periods of time I was only slightly active – when I would go to meetings I had not organised, and I watched new people coming through.
When I rejoined the SWP in 2008, I did not become a branch secretary, I was not a full-timer nor was I a regular contributor to the group’s publications.
For two years, my main contribution was to book speakers for a North London branch, which had not met, in any sustained way, for more than five years.
My comrades seemed to appreciate that by the radical innovation of actually booking speakers for meetings every week, and thinking about different topics we could have, we were able to “grow” a small branch so that at one time it had around 3 people at meetings every week, and at another time, the number was more like 15.
This was a mundane task, not the sort of anything that anyone will put on their imaginary “activist CV”. But when we combined it with asking people at sales if they wanted to come to meetings, the dual effect was to bring a few people into contact with socialist ideas, who had never heard of them. Bringing new people and longstanding comrades together was not “the revolution” but it felt good.
I say all of this only to express my regret for those people in the SWP who form our national leadership, and who in several cases have not been part of that process, sometimes for decades. For them, the SWP is an office in Vauxhall where those who hang on long enough through every bureaucratic intrigue are guaranteed, eventually a senior position. And it is a series of meeting rooms (of admittedly, declining numbers) where a permanently revolving set of grey-bearded comrades listen quietly to their talks, laugh at some of their jokes (although there are many fewer even of them than there used to be), and then let the speaker depart, whereupon thode audience members presumably clear all the chairs away. If you only interact with people as an audience, you can have a very bad sense of what people think – even the people who continue to vote for you.
You can become frustrated with them, and (as we have seen repeatedly in the last ten years) bored of their activities. You can start to wish – frankly – that they would all go away and leave you to the more important task of meeting the General Secretary who is in the news, or recording an interview with Russia Today, or finishing the article that you’ve never written which would prove once and for all how much more you know about a topic than Owen Jones
There is a kind of leadership which says “every one of you is powerful, if only you can find the right opportunity you could be part of changing history, and I will give all my energy to try and inspire every one of you in the hope that individually, you, could be the person who at that key moment, makes the contribution which moves everything”. And there is a kind of leadership which says “I’ll go through the motions but don’t bother me, don’t you see I’ve got something more important to do.”
Each style can satisfy itself with the slogan “we are all leaders; you are leaders too”, but the two types of speaker mean different things by it.