Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lindsay German: united fronts or just fronts?

I don't normally comment on this sort of thing but there are a couple of things worth saying about the resignation of Lindsay German from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

It's important for two reasons. Firstly because Lindsay is the convener of the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) the most important umbrella group in the UK organising against military aggressions. The second reason is because it helps illustrate a problem of how political activists involve themselves in broader campaign groups.

In brief, she has resigned after decades of service to the party after the national organiser of the SWP instructed her that she was not to attend a StWC meeting that she'd been booked to speak at that evening. Told that this was a matter of party discipline Lindsay knew that if she did speak at the event she may well find herself expelled and choose to jump rather than get the push.

This came on the back of a long running factional battle that goes way back into the split from Respect and a rather obscure set of mild differences over political perspectives which, once aired, have started to snowball into quite real differences in approach.

At this point I shall declare that I rather like Lindsay, although I haven't spoken to her for quite some time. It's also worth stating that the arbitrary rulings she was facing were not so very different from the kind of discipline she has expected of other comrades when she had the whip hand. I recognise though that not every dom can easily switch to sub.

Regardless of this she should not have been put in the position of having to choose between her commitments to the coalition she leads and the party that she supported.

The key point for me is that genuine coalitions, that include a politically broad range of organisations and members, united around specific set of demands have to have an independent life of their own if they are to maintain mutual trust. The difference between a united front and, well, just a front is whether one organisation can unilaterally trump the decisions of the coalition without reference to its structures.

I'm a member of the Stop the War Coalition and an activist in the anti-war movement. If I book the convener of my organisation to speak at a meeting I don't expect to be told that someone I've never voted for, who belongs to an organisation I don't belong to has cancelled my speaker for me. That would rather undermine my confidence that I'm a member of an independent organisation.

The issue is not whether it's nice for Lindsay to speak at a meeting, she may or may not feel it's personally unfair to be forbidden to speak. The issue is whether members of one organisation can cancel the plans of a different organisation unilaterally.

I can't hold the SWP national organiser to account, even if I could expel him from the coalition he'd still reserve the right to instruct SWP members however he sees fit within it. If the coalition chose to make an official complaint about this specific instance of stupid interference in its work the SWP would go into an immediate fit and insist this was a witch hunt against the left, because there's no one quite so adolescent as a petty dictator whose edicts have been politely questioned.

The fetish for centralised party discipline, where members accept arbitrary, overbearing and misjudged micro-management of their activity, is not my cup of tea. I'm also rather partial to the odd bit of democratic transparency in organisations I belong to.

The SWP may feel it owns its members, that's distasteful but something they submit to willingly. However the SWP does not own the movement nor the Stop the War Coalition. If it wants to work constructively with anti-war activists, trade unionists, or whomever in its campaigning work it needs to recognise the limits of its command structure ends where the democratic rights of members of different organisations begin.

If you tell someone they cannot speak at an event, you are also telling the attendees of that event that they cannot hear who they want to, in this case the leader of their own organisation. That can't be right. Lindsay was not speaking in a personal capacity but as StWC convener which makes the order for her to cancel not a matter of Lindsay's personal SWP membership but a matter of political control over the Coalition.

Treating a branch of the StWC as if it is a subsidiary of the SWP is not on, not least because the StWC is a larger, more influential organisation than the SWP.

There is also a broader point that can be made here.

All political activists that are involved in campaigning work and also happen to be members of political parties are, in a sense, the servants of two masters. When the orders of those masters conflict they have to make a choice and that's for them to decide how to react, but when they have a position of responsibility in a coalition no one has the right to tell them to betray their commitments or subvert democratically agreed decisions.

That's undue influence exerted through undemocratic means.

If the SWP does not want Lindsay to speak at a meeting I suggest it persuades the organisers of their case rather than issue orders that bypass their quite correct control of their own event that they are organising. The activists of the SWP do not hold some magical historical privilege that trumps the rights activists who are non-members.

Normal parties do not expect immediate, psychotic subservience to every dot and comma of party memos. Nor do they demand that every branch of any united campaigning organisation they are involved in should be subjected to the codes and rules of a party they do not belong to. If they were to do that it would be a very good argument for excluding members of that organisation from holding any position of responsibility in any campaigning organisation.

This tension exists for all parties that involve themselves in broader groups, but it only exhibits itself in this extreme form with organisations that are so insecure that they see any decision contrary to its position as a matter of hard discipline and any speaker who is not exactly on message as some sort of enemy.

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