Tag Archives: Martin Smith

Why I don’t buy Socialist Worker

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You weren’t a member, you tell me, in 2013 when the arguments happened. You’ve heard, of course, there was some controversy but you have been told that the people who left were sectarians. That’s true, isn’t it, they had some grievance with the SWP and they used a disagreement about the SWP’s internal procedures as an excuse to leave? Hadn’t they been planning to leave for years? 

In 2010 a man called Martin Smith (“Comrade Delta”) was the National Secretary of the SWP, its day to day leader, the person who employs the other party workers. In July of that year, a 19 year old woman (“Comrade W”) complained that he had mistreated her. She didn’t use the word “rape”, but the people who met her and heard her knew what she was talking about.

From the start, Smith’s supporters (including Weyman Bennett, who worked with him on the SWP’s anti-fascist campaign) put pressure on the women who helped Comrade W, calling one of them a “traitor”, ostracising and dismissing them and forcing them out of the SWP.

The complaint was investigated by Charlie Kimber, who is now the editor of Socialist Worker. He met comrade W, told her that he believed her and that disciplinary action would be taken against Martin Smith. The extent of the punishment was as follows: Smith was demoted from his position as National Secretary but remained in the SWP’s full-time leadership on its Central Committee.

Smith’s demotion was eventually explained to the membership at the SWP’s 2011 conference, where it was introduced by Alex Callinicos who complained about outside forces reporting on internal difficulties within the SWP. He said there was a complaint, he didn’t explain its seriousness and he said that Smith himself had asked to be moved to a different role. The session ended with delegates clapping, stamping their feet in Smith’s defence and shouting, “The workers united will never be defeated.”

In 2012, W, taking at face value the SWP’s recent involvement in anti-rape campaigns, decided to rejoin. She was still traumatised by what had happened, suffering flashbacks and was tearful, and eventually she asked the SWP’s disputes committee (“DC”) to investigate. This time, she did describe what had happened to her in 2010 as rape.

The investigation was loaded: a majority of those investigating were Smith’s friends and appointees. He was given sight of her written statement (which the SWP has always refused to publish). She was not allowed to read his.

A second complainant came forward: at this stage, the DC heard but refused to investigate her complaint.

By a majority, they decided to take no action against him. One person who dissented was the chair of the committee, who found that there probably had been improper sexual conduct – “sexual harassment” – and that Smith’s behaviour was incompatible with membership, or leadership, of a left-wing party.

At the start of 2013, the SWP conference narrowly approved the disputes committee report; from then on large parts of the organisation operated a loyalty test: if you were willing to back Smith, you could remain in the party. if not, you were told to leave. The atmosphere, at its worst, was as hostile as could be. Members of Smith’s personal anti-fascist bodyguard, men in the late 40s, spat in the faces of a woman in her 20s who disagreed with them. Smith’s supporters threatened to beat up another young, male critic. People were silenced, jeered, told to their faces to leave.

The second complaint was eventually heard. It was in writing. It too, has never been published. In careful, painful detail, it described further improper sexual conduct by Smith. This time, and for the first time in the entire scandal, the SWP’s leadership decided that a degree of damage limitation was necessary. A fresh panel was convened and Martin Smith resigned rather than face investigation.

In the SWP, you will be told that Martin Smith was vindicated. He wasn’t. The last panel to investigate his complaint found that there was enough evidence of sexual harassment that if he was to ever seek to rejoin he would have to explain his conduct.

In the SWP, you will be told that the leadership’s critics were a few malcontents, people who were on the verge of leaving the organisation anyway. They weren’t. At least 700 people left, or around a quarter of the SWP’s subs-paying membership. Among those who left were people who had given twenty, thirty, even fifty years of their lives to that organisation. 

In the SWP, you will be told that this incident belongs to history, that the SWP has learnt from its mistakes. It hasn’t, the men and women who attempted to cover up a crime are all still in its leadership.

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We need to talk about secrecy

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I have been criticised for writing openly about the crisis in the SWP, the man who began it, and what happened afterwards. Wouldn’t it be better, my comrades have asked, if I had kept quiet? Isn’t silent what any responsible socialist keeps, when faced with a crisis in their own organisation? But the reason why the party’s name is mud is precisely because the leaders of the party have tried to keep hidden what they have known and what they have done.

When it comes to disputes, the party has adopted a culture in which secrecy is treated as an overwhelming priority. An example of this at work is the rape complaint, reported on the ISN website in October. According to the woman who wrote the article, on approaching the SWP Disputes Committee, the DC’s principal concern was not to investigate but to ensure that the complainant told no-one about the complaint.

The woman quoted correspondence from the DC in which she was accused of breaching confidentiality (and I understand that the DC does not dispute sending her those emails), and concluded:  “Throughout the whole of this process the need for confidentiality was constantly repeated to me. I, as someone who had been through something horrific, was being told that I could not talk to my friends and comrades”.

The same concern with secrecy has characterised our handling of the two original complaints.

There are I think three main explanations given for the weight that the SWP DC gives to keeping complaints secret.

First, the desire for secrecy comes from the complainants concerned. Not in the “ISN” case, clearly. And neither was this the pattern in the cases of X or W. Comrades have been told repeatedly that the complainants were asking us all to protect their anonymity and the secrecy was only there for their sake. But the first complainant attempted to address our January 2013 conference directly (she was stopped by the CC). Had she spoken, in public, she could not have kept her identity wholly secret thereafter. She wanted her accuser’s name to be identified and his crimes publicly known. The second complainant spoken at the same conference, and would have spoken again in March, if our former National Secretary’s supporters had not mobilised to prevent her attending conference.

Second, it has been suggested that the SWP’s emphasis on secrecy merely mirrors that of the courts. But the courts don’t work in secret at all. Our civil and our criminal trials are heard in public. Indeed hearing them in public is something to be defended. It operates as a shield to both parties. For the complainant, it means their case is properly heard; and (often enough) it is publicised in the press. Reporters will notice details such as that the woman complainant was in tears when giving her evidence.

Allowing the women to speak in court and, indirectly, through the reporting of the case, means that they cannot be defamed by the sorts of cold slanders which have been circulated through the SWP by Idoom supporters including some on the CC. It’s much easier to portray a woman as a police agent or a feminist who hates the SWP if you are talking about someone who’s name is not known and who no-one has seen setting out some basic facts about their own case with dignity.

The person subject to the complaint also has a degree of protection if their case is in public – because their explanation of what happened is also publicly available. And if they are cleared, they can tell the world what the court decided and why. They have an explanation for why the Jury or the Judge reached the decision they did. That explanation is more than our former National Secretary has ever had.

When lawyers get things wrong in court, because there are journalists present, the story reaches the world. If people are asked sexist questions, or their representatives make sexist arguments in court; the people making these arguments will be held accountable in public. The presence of journalists and the reporting of rape trials has been one dynamic tending to reduce a little the extraordinary institutional sexism that rape complainants have to endure.

If any rape trial in any court Britain had been handled as badly as our investigation, it would have been national news. If any other employer (and of course, in relation to the second complainant, the SWP was the employer) had handled a complaint of sexual harassment as badly and victimised a witness as wilfully as we did, that employer would be a public disgrace.

Third, there is an idea that by not telling the world what we have done wrong, we will be protected, because the information will never surface. The problem here is that it just doesn’t work. It is not a coincidence that Edward Snowden has just been voted the Guardian’s person of the year. We are in an age where information surfaces and those who try to curtail it look ridiculous.

Thousands of people on the left in Britain and internationally now know at least some of the worst facts about our rape investigation: the failure to investigate in 2010, despite what the woman told our CC her complaint involved; the sexist questions that were asked in 2012; the refusal to allow comrades to seek reform of the DC at our conference in January 2013; the attempts by the chair  at the January conference to restrict speakers from raising any of the detail of what had happened during the investigation; the CC’s failure at that conference to allow any open discussion of the future role in the SWP of our former National Secretary; the CC’s attempt in January and February to restrict any DC reform to the sole question of increasing secrecy; the attempts after March to frustrate the hearing of the second complaint …

The person subject to the complaint has an obvious interest in secrecy; the current CC also thinks it has an interest in keeping its handling of the dispute as quiet as possible – both from the members of the SWP and from the rest of the left, including all the people who are usually our audience.

But you can’t sustain an organisation by constantly pretending to its members that you haven’t mucked up the most important decision of your political life – when you have and everyone can see it. You can’t pretend to be Rosa Luxemburg or Noam Chomsky or Bert Ramelson or whoever our  leaders fancy themselves to be if you look in the mirror of public opinion, and find David Brent staring back at you.

Even now, I don’t believe that Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber grasp the enormity of the harm they have done, to their own reputations, to the SWP’s reputation, and to the cause of the left.

The government recently introduced secret courts for certain National Security cases. Socialist Worker‘s report was brief and to the point: “Secret courts deny justice”. Yes, of course they do.

We haven’t had secret courts in Britain on any scale since the defeat of King Charles in the revolution of the 1640s. They were removed not only because there was a tremendous popular movement against them (although, there was a struggle). They died also because even the powerful grasped that they do their side no favours. People who are not told the full truth assume that everything they hear is a lie.

And they assume that there are further embarrassing details, which are also being kept hidden from them.

Martin Smith: a retrospective

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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.