Martin Smith: a retrospective


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.

7 responses »

  1. Smith was NOT the swp organiser when the BNP lost their first council seat on the Isle Of Dogs in 1994.
    He became the East London Organiser in Nov 1994…Beacon was kicked out by a big anti nazi campaign in May 1994. The organiser in East London was a guy called Ade walters who quit in Nov 94 as he was expecting to become a dad.
    The Swp have always massaged smiths ego by giving the impression that he wad the organiser at the time.

      • Hope I didnt sound rude…it is something that has long irritated me….totally agree by the way…1 person should not be credited for that victory … every person involved should take great pride in that achievement…I have never understood socialists claiming personal credit…seems a bit needy to me personally…
        By the way…interesting blog

  2. For the record Smith did not lead a group of attendees at the 2010 Right to Work Campaign conference to occupy the ACAS HQ. At least as far as I’m aware that was not his intention although if it was it was a major failure of leadership.

    What did happen was that he and a number of other ‘organisers’ encouraged a group of SWP members and a few comrades close to the organisation to march to the ACAS HQ to lobby the talks. As an alternative to going to the pub after what I had found to be a pointless exercise I wandered down the road to the nearby ACAS offices.

    Once we were there a few slogans were shouted and it became obvious to all that after a short time we would disperse and go home. However one comrade rattling the doors of the entrance found, no doubt to his surprise, that the door was open. Bingo! Within moments fifty of so comrades were in the lobby and having a bit of fun for that was all it was.

    A minute or so later an inner door popped open, helped by a size ten DM, and the comrades walked into a lift lobby. By this time Martin Smith and Judith Orr had entered the building. I cannot be certain but I think I heard Smith shouting to kick the door in but cannot be certain.

    With a bunch of us in the lift lobby we found ourselves without leadership until one idiot suggested using the lifts to lobby the talks. Having suggested that course of action I went up with the first group only for us to find ourselves in empty corridors and after trying a number of floors we returned to the lobby and left the building. As the second lifts doors were closing I heard the voices of a number of ‘organisers’ urging comrades into the second lift. A second group, as we all know, used another lift and fount the talks and lobbied them.

    The point of all this is that I find it very difficult to believe that Smith deliberately organised the invasion of the ACAS talks. Things happened spontaneously as mostly young comrades took advantage f the lax security at the ACAS offices to let off steam. Smith however seems to have encouraged what happened and can be held responsible for not exercising the leadership he claimed. Frankly I think that when we were in the lobby he realised that it was a mistake and made his exit leaving the poor bloody infantry to take the consequences.

    • I think the key issue neprimerimye isn’t who sent people into the lifts but who it was that invited a group of SWP members to go the building? I’ve heard it said that the crowd spontaneously left a RtW event and coincidentally found itself at ACAS, but that has always seemed unlikely to me. And having recently met the person who was asked by the CC to phone friendly trade unionists and deny that Martin was there, I don’t doubt that elements of the day (at the very least, a picket of the building) were planned by Smith

      • Yes I agree and I joined the march to the ACAS building as a result of being encouraged to do so by a full timer who is close to Martin Smith. I also saw Smith walking at the head of the march. In fact a number of full timers were going round the crowd dispersing from the sorry RTW meeting suggesting they join the march.

        But I repeat I know for a fact, as I saw it happen, that the first door was opened by a comrade simply trying the handle. The second door was kicked in by an idiot after a first attempt by another idiot to do so failed. However and I cannot be certain of this I think I heard Smith calling for the inner door to be opened.

        For my money though the political responsibility for the fiasco, enjoyable though I have to say it was, does lie with Smith who was most certainly present and could have stopped it at more or less any point. As I live in West London and spoke with many comrades who were regularly visiting the picket lines it did not hurt us too badly with the rank and file. But it did with their leaders and with many other militants around the country.

  3. “….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.”

    It’s never been that hard to get Trade Union leaders to speak to large(ish) public events.
    Mark Serwotka spoke from the platform at the last LRC Conference (despite his union not being affiliated to the Labour Party)
    Kevin Courtney spoke to the Liberal Party Conference in September (despite not being a Liberal)
    The problem is that the SWP doesn’t seem capable of organising such events anymore.
    The Delta Affair is by no means the only reason for this.

    The ANL & StWC were excellent examples of how to build a broad United Front, reaching a mass audience.
    RtW and UtR are little more than front organisations for the SWP.
    UAF suffers from similar problems.
    By definition a United Front means finding people to unite with.
    It doesn’t mean stuffing meetings with supporters, then asking a few TU leaders to occupy decorative positions.

    There’s a tendency amongst SWP oppos & exes to blame Martin Smith for everything.
    But there’s a bi-polar problem at work here that pre-dates his alleged misdeeds.
    (“minimising what he did, and lying to the party at our 2011 conference”
    seems like rather a strong statement for a lawyer to make about these).
    Do you have any special lawyerish insights that allow you to judge these matters?

    The formation of Respect was the flip side of ultra-leftism.
    Did the same people who now blame Smith for everything oppose it?
    Respect wasn’t a United Front of “a special kind”, or of any kind.
    It was a political bloc.
    Since the SWP didn’t have the politics to win over its majority, the logic of its formation was political liquidation.
    The roots of the SWP’s current crisis were sown at this point.

    Counterfire has helped to create a genuine coalition with the Peoples Assembly.
    But the fight against Austerity will be a long and hard one.
    The forces involved in the PA could be pulled in several different directions by it.

    Counterfire’s political vision extends as far as the United Front, but then things start to get foggy.
    Being a small organisation with no press, it’s in an even weaker position than the SWP was in StWC or ANL.
    The PA’s full-timers work out of the Morning Star’s offices.
    Anita Halpin describes it as the “paper of the Peoples Assembly”
    Who knew?

    Unite & PCS are major funders and the Labour Party are involved too.
    The situation is fluid.
    Like a few things at the moment, the PA could go either way.
    But if you don’t dip your toes in the water you can’t learn to swim.

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