The CC staked the party’s future on Martin Smith. When he was first accused of sexual misconduct, in 2010, the response should have been to suspend him, properly investigate and expel if any hint of misbehavior was found. Instead there have been years of attempts to hide the complaints.
When our leaders have been asked in private why they gambled so heavily on protecting Smith they have had a stock answer: that without him, the party would not be able to do industrial or anti-fascist work in future. How could the leadership get to a point where they believed this was true?
Smith joined the SWP in the 1980s, and was an activist in the CPSA (fore-runner of today’s PCS trade union) before first taking a high-profile role working for the SWP in 1993. He was asked to be the SWP’s East London organiser after the BNP’s Derek Beackon won a council election to a council seat at Millwall. The Anti-Nazi League campaign was helped immensely by the presence of a number of SWP members in key jobs (eg among the council workers who walked out after Beackon was elected) and living in the council estates where the BNP was trying to build.
Smith was still the SWP district organiser for East London in 1994, when Beackon lost his seat. He was not slow to claim the credit for that victory.
In the early 2000s, Smith was promoted to work for the SWP’s industrial office, and for a couple of years brought real vigour to the job. He worked with the party’s carworkers, postal workers and railworkers, encouraging them produce rank and file newspapers. At their peak, according to Smith, they were selling between 2,000 and 5,000 copies per issue. (What we would give to still possess networks with that sort of audience…)
From 2004, when he became National Secretary of the SWP, Smith retained overall responsibility for two key areas of the party’s work, our industrial politics and our anti-fascism.
This was a heavy responsibility; the tasks take time, require different skills. The other leaders of the party took a gamble that Smith would have the vigour to play both roles well. At least at the start, he did apply himself with energy. But his tactics always involved top-down maneuvering and the longer he was in post the less success he had.
In 2006, the party initiated an “Organising for Fighting Unions” (OFFU) event, also intended to build the party’s then electoral initiative Respect. The conference was built around a mix of left union leaders on the platform in front of an audience of 700 or so, heavily leaning on party members.
“OFFU” did not survive the collapse of Respect. It was replaced by a new campaign “Right to Work”, which responded to the election of the Coalition government in 2010 with a conference attended again by about 600-700 people. Right to Work was eventually mothballed, without any adequate public explanation of why, in around spring 2012.
Unite the Resistance then took over, having its first conference in November 2012, again with 700 or so attendees. The same formula – a conference of left-ish union leaders and audience of largely SWP members – obtained, perhaps unsurprisingly, more or less the same results each time it was tried.
There was one change: UTR differed from its predecessors in that it sold itself to SWP members as a temporary alliance with the trade union bureaucracy, who would agree to grace SWP platforms in return for something. Quite what we would give them was never spelled out.
Smith’s supporters have pointed to his key contacts in the unions – Mark Serwotka of PCS and Kevin Courtney of the NUT – as the source of his importance. However, when our much smaller rival Counterfire employed more or less used the same formula for their People’s Assembly, both Mark Serwotka and Kevin Courtney assumed positions on the platform.
UtR does rally the party’s trade union members in the few unions where we have still any base. But it has not done more than that. And it is not a strategy that requires Smith’s personal input.
Smith seems to have recognised that the drift to cheering for the union leaders has its problems, and occasionally led a balancing lurch to the left.
At the end of the 2010 Right to Work conference, Smith led a couple of hundred SWP members to occupy the nearby headquarters of ACAS where Unite leaders were negotiating with British Airways over the Cabin Crew strike. The occupation was national news. But the Cabin Crew workers thesmelves did not support the stunt, leading to an embarrassed apology in “Party Notes” two days later “We are trying to bring together a serious coalition that can resist the cuts … That means when we hold stunts and protests we need to point all our fire at the Con-Dems and the bosses, and should try and avoid at all costs protests that embroil Labour and trade union leaders in them”.
Smith’s anti-fascism showed the same problems. Julie Waterson was removed from the Anti Nazi League leadership in 2003. Shortly after, the Anti Nazi League merged with the organisation to its immediate right, the National Assembly Against Racism. The new group, Unite Against Fascism, had good relations with the TUC race relations committee and other union grandees.
Unite Against Fascism mobilised opposition to the threat of the BNP. The press were haranguing us all with endless stories of “bogus asylum seekers”, New Labour were conciliating the racists, and the fascists were winning more council seats. The party, under John Rees and Lindsey German’s leadership, was in the ropiest of conditions, with barely half the branches outside London that we had had five years before. The party lacked the activist base to fight a campaign on the scale of the heroic anti-fascism of the 1970s.
In these unfavourable conditions, UAF did well to keep anti-racist campaigning alive. But there was always something discordant about the campaign: in the way that one month’s success was never used to build the next month’s activity, in the drop-dead dull format of UAF annual conferences, in the lack of transparency or accountability about the campaign’s tactics and finances.
This was also true of UAF’s ally Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR). Smith used to claim that LMHR had “adopted the punk DIY ethic.” However, while LMHR successfully recruited many musicians and swathes of volunteers, LMHR events always felt top-down. There was never a democratic relationship between the organising core and the young activists who would be courted for a particular event and then, often as not, dropped suddenly.
One nadir was the 30th anniversary festival in 2008; at which the gap between the celebrity status of the performers and the lack of an LMHR organisation was made good by privatising the event; giving security, refreshments, etc, to the private outfits who run all the “normal”, corporate festivals.
In his capacity as head of LMHR Smith also embarrassed the party by forging a relationship between our organisation and the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon. Smith invited him to speak at Marxism in 2004, when Atzmon began spouting some of the anti-Semitic rubbish he now specialises in. Despite SWP members challenging Atzmon from the floor, Smith continued inviting him to SWP events, and to perform with him at concerts as late as 2007.
Unite Against Fascism faced a new challenge after 2009 with the rise of the English Defence League. Smith took the decision that the party (with or without UAF) would confront each and every EDL demonstration. This was a tough demand and hard to deliver. UAF’s top-down approach hadn’t built anything like as strong local groups that we needed.
The pressures of the campaign led UAF to swing between either “broad” demonstrations quite separate from EDL mobilisations on one hand, or small numbers directly confronting the EDL on the other. Several of the demonstrations, including Bradford in 2010, became Popular Front-ish mobilisations away from the local EDL, while local youths unassisted by SWP members fought Tommy Robinson in the streets. Others were almost the exact opposite with small groups of young comrades being treated like “cannon fodder” in small, stunt-ish confrontations. Anti-fascist work is vital but Smith’s leadership was not perfect and he is not irreplaceable.
Any activist can test their own success in whatever role they have found for themselves by seeing what happens when they finish and someone else has to take over from them. If the organisation they leave behind is strong, if more people are involved then, they can be proud of themselves.
The CC will tell us that UAF and UtR have been glowing successes. They will never tell us how few members either campaign actually has than it used to, what funds they have raised, how many people are involved compared to 5 years ago.
All of us can see with our own eyes that UtR is less than it was, while UAF is decreasingly capable of mobilising anyone outside the SWP’s ranks. Even the number of comrades willing to turn out for either campaign is fewer than it was as recently as 12 months ago. These “united fronts” have taken more and more of the party’s resources to get less and less impressive results. It was on Smith’s watch that they suffered their decline. Progress will not involve simply repeating the same models, again and again, until nothing is left.
You can also see the measure of Smith in the way he has tried to defend himself since the complaints were made: encouraging his friends to speculate about the complainants and smear them, minimising what he did, and lying to the party at our 2011 conference with his “I am no angel” speech.
When it finally became clear this summer that the party would properly investigate the second complaint, Smith resigned rather than face a second enquiry into his behaviour. No-one who was accused of crimes on this seriousness would keep quiet; they would use every opportunity to clear their name. Smith did not because there was nothing he could have said.
Smith’s friends in the leadership will no doubt to continue to plead his innocence. Something like a hundred people from his faction met at a central London pub in June, with Smith himself trying to duck away and pretend he had not been seen.
I do not doubt that his faction continues to meet, and co-ordinate its response to his critics. But loud as Smith’s friends continue to protest his innocence; his actions speak louder than their words.
This leaves the party with the worst of both worlds: Those who thought Smith played an essential role have lost him. But nor has the party appeased those of us of who grasped that the first disputes procedure was “mate’s justice”.
The party has lost hundreds of members and has a terrible stain on its reputation in the wider movement – a stain that won’t wear away with time, or be removed by expelling or suspending more members.
To move forward, the SWP needs to do two things. Firstly, we need to admit to the terrible mistakes made by not handling the allegations against Smith properly from the moment the first complaint became tolerably clear – summer 2010. And we need to apologise unequivocally for his treatment of the two women.
Second, we need to admit that his role in the party was in any case mixed. When other members of the leadership suggested he was irreplaceable, they were describing their own weakness, not his strengths.
What his case exposes more brightly than anything is the fallacy that you can build a healthy socialist party by restricting all decision-making to a group of a dozen or so people. Were they geniuses of the highest calibre, this would still be an error. With the CC we’ve had, it has been a disaster.