Tyneside Socialist Workers Party has taken the extraordinary step of issuing a public statement - aimed at the wider Left and labour movement in the North East of England - dissociating itself with one of its own members. The statement claims, 'The Tyneside district of the SWP have become increasingly concerned at the bureaucratic conduct of Tony Dowling a member of the SWP in his role as Secretary of the NESSN.' It makes a number of rather wild and scattergun assertions, with no evidence, but here is the central allegation:
'[we were] very concerned to see firstly the bureaucratic heavy-handed approach taken by Regional Secretary Dave Harker towards the Youth Fight for Jobs Campaign; this resulted in a number of activists wishing to be taken off the network list.... We were even more concerned when Tony Dowling Tyneside Secretary mirrored that bureaucratic approach with regards to an event organised by the IWW in conjunction with the National Union of Mineworkers. To discover that Tony an SWP member refused to circulate details of the event on the grounds that he regarded the IWW as 'political' shocked our members'.
The substance of the denunciation of Tony is something very minor and trivial. The reaction is therefore utterly disproportionate. It can only be understood as a political and factional attack on an internal critic of the leadership’s perspectives. It is a highly personalised attack on someone, rather than discussing the matter politically in a tolerant, respectful climate. It is also inappropriate – indeed unprecedented – for the party to openly denounce (there’s no other word for it) one of its own members to the wider movement.
The district leadership’s complaint is that Tony allegedly declined to circulate a particular message from the IWW group on the North East Shop Stewards Network (NESSN) email network. That’s it: there’s one email Tony suppsoedly didn’t send, which the SWP district leadership thinks he should have sent. This is extraordinarily minor.
The rest is unsubstantiated blather, e.g. accusations of a ‘bureaucratic’ approach without a scrap of evidence in support. The actual accusation isn't even true, as it was the North East-wide regional secretary who took the decision (based on the network's rules).
Tony would have been unable, according to NESSN’s constitution, to circulate the message. If he had adhered to ‘party discipline’ he would have broken the rules as a NESSN officer. The network’s last AGM specifically ruled that the IWW should be designated a political group, rather than a trade union in the conventional sense, so it therefore wouldn’t be appropriate for anyone in a Secretary role to circulate its messages.
The purpose of the network is to promote, and where possible co-ordinate, trade union campaigns, movement events and working class solidarity. In a non-sectarian spirit the Secretaries do not circulate material for specific politcal groups. However, networkers have access to the full list of around 200 email addresses and can always distribute political material if they wish.
If SWP members want to change this rule they should propose it at the next AGM – that would be an entirely reasonable approach. But it is unacceptable to pressure an individual comrade with an elected role in a broader organisation – in this case the NESSN – to break that organisation’s rules. It is also opportunistic: Tyneside SWP has no particular sympathy with the IWW, but simply wants to attack a key Left Platform supporter.
Parts of the Tyneside SWP statement are dishonest, for example its claim to having been enthusiastic supporters of NESSN. Tony is the only member who has been consistently involved in it during the last year. Otherwise the SWP has been remarkably lukewarm. The victimisation of Unison activists in the North East is referred to, inexplicably, but it is utterly irrelevant to all this – referring to it is merely an opportunistic attempt by the current Tyneside SWP organiser to smear Tony.
Tyneside SWP has, surprisingly, resorted to using a notoriously embittered sectarian to actually circulate the message. Clearly the organiser lacks the courage to distribute it himself. The sectarian sender of the document writes, 'The next committee meeting is in December and the next full meeting of the NESSN is in January. I think I might now start to attend these meetings'. He clearly approves of this attack, but all those who are non-sectarian and genuinely striving for left unity will be deeply troubled.
Tony is very well-respected throughout NESSN, as he is in Stop the War and other campaigns. He has a far better political relationship with activists outside the SWP in Tyneside than those attacking him do. It is reckless and sectarian for the SWP’s local leadership (with the full backing of Martin Smith, National Secretary) to publicly dissociate itself from him.
This reflects a wider turn away from sustained united front work, focusing instead on narrow ‘party building’ and short-lived SWP fronts. Local SWP members are currently trying to build an anti-war public meeting that bypasses Tyneside Stop the War completely. This, again, is unprecedented – the SWP has always worked through Stop the War in its anti-war work. The meeting has even, astonishingly, been arranged for the same evening (30 November) as the Tyneside group’s next organising meeting.
The situation has only got so awful becuase the SWP leadership allowed it to, in particular by foisting someone with a reputation for (what might politely be described as) an adversarial style on the membership. All concerns and criticisms have been ignored, and those making them have been heavily criticised.
The current abuses of democracy, the personal vilification, the use of disciplinary measures - all this should give SWP members and those who care about the future of the revolutionary tradition cause for deep concern. But just as importantly, we now see these growing problems damaging the wider campaigns and movements of which SWP activists are a part.