Paper Cut outs: Encounters with Trotskyism in the UK

The Trot Tree, a political cartoon charting the development of Trot parties in the UK using strands of Leon Trotsky's hair as illustration

A record of personal encounters with various British Trot sects over the years.

Submitted by Reddebrek on March 31, 2023

"I'm up for a Bolshie-fight!
I am a Trostkyite!
I know what I want, don't know how to get it
I want to destroy the independent labour parties
Cos I, I wannabe Leon Trotsky
No Zinoviev me"

Trotsky-ism in the UK

Way back in 2016 I wrote The SPEW and Me, a short account about my encounters with the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW), recently I've been in a reflective mood and have decided to expand it into a document detailing my encounters with some of the other factions of the Trotskyites in the the United Kingdom.


A few words on the background of myself and the UK. My political education has led me to change and develop as I gain more knowledge and experience, nothing unusual there it happens to everyone more or less. What is a bit strange is that much of my development was stimulated by close proximity with the British labour movement, its orbiters and challengers. And yet despite this connection I can honestly say that Trotskyism holds no appeal for me whatsoever. The reason this is surprising is that the Trotskyists as a whole are quite large and prominent in the UK's left wing spaces, and several have set up experienced fronts for attracting the unwary socially conscious amongst the students and Trade Union members.

It wasn't for lack of trying though, I've run into about half a dozen front groups and over a hundred newspaper sellers, stalls, and recruiters using petitions to harvest contact details over the years. And, while I'll concede their are differences between the groups and even individual members of the same outfit, generally speaking the encounters have been unpleasant and they show the same logic and point of view regarding the organisation and how it sees the public, its members and its potential recruits. So, I feel tallying the most notable cases in one place would be beneficial especially given that I still see the occasional "Anyone familiar with ____" style questions from people who have been approached by one of their touts.

The SPEW and Me

In Britain for some reason the most common and longstanding strain of leftism is Trotskyism. This has always been a bit of a mystery to me because even the Trotskyists loathe Trotskyists. I'm joking, but not by much, in activist circles Trots seem to be poison, and on most Trotskyist sites I've stumbled upon the group they seem to hate the most is another Trot group. Off the top of my head theirs the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Socialist Party in England and Wales (SP/SPEW) the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) Solidarity (also in Scotland) the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), Workers Power(WP), the Workers Revolutionary Party(WRP) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Counter Fire and I must be forgetting at least a dozen and have never heard of several more. Many have very bad reputations and reputations are all I know them by, with one exception.

I have a bit of personal experience with one Trot group, and curiously enough it was the one that had a fairly decent reputation in some circles. That was SPEW often known as just the Socialist Party, but I'll keep referring to them as SPEW because I don't like them being associated with Socialism, and I hope I'll adequately explain why that is below. Here's a list of the times I encountered the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

But first a brief disclaimer, apart from the last incident this is all from memory and happened several years ago, so do bear in mind that I'm going to be a bit hazy on the details.

In 2011 I was at a UCU picket at the University of Hull, in addition to the striking lecturers, some local TUC council members, me and a mate we also had a few unaffiliated Socialists and the student section (about half a dozen) of the SPEW. It was a standard negotiation picket, a petition to sign support, banners saying UCU and “honk if you support hardworking lecturers” you know, not exactly building the barricades. The Student section seemed to have Les Mis ringing in their ears however. They turned up as a group, kitted out with some home made banners and a megaphone, but instead of manning the picket and showing support they tried to get everyone to form some kind of rally. They marched around us chanting about Cairo and Wisconsin, and some third place I really don’t remember, Athens maybe?. When it didn't work they just left, as in walked off immediately leaving the rest of us very confused. Now that was not a very good first impression of the party in action, but I just wrote it off as a bunch of over enthusiastic students not really understanding the reality of these things.

A year later or thereabouts in Grimsby the SPEW as a party group tried something similar at a Fireman’s Brigade Union protest, they were forcefully told to knock it off or be banned from any other FBU event. It was rather embarrassing; now they take part in the protests but afterwards try to encourage people to attend an additional meeting they set up nearby. I've never taken them up on the offer so don't how well attended these side meetings have been but if their election results are any indication the strategy hasn't worked very [ur=]well[/url].

And when TUSC was formed the group spent months fighting with the local Labour party over control of the Union branches, the fight was purely about officer elections and affiliations, and of course financial support for the local council elections, even though TUSC only put up one candidate a year at the time. Though to be fair to them in recent years they've put up a few more. The attempt failed and back fired pretty badly, since the local Labour party is still pretty heavily concentrated in the TUC unions in the area giving them the edge in politicking. The whole thing resulted in the few SPEW union branch officers they did have(all of whom had gotten their positions before the position jockeying) were isolated and had their reputations sunk because the ordinary members resented them wasting time trying to use them for political fights.

This is embarrassing stuff and it didn't endear me to them in anyway, but SPEW are a national organisation and so maybe I've just had some bad luck? Well no, I also have example of an incident when the SPEW as a national organisation behaved in a very disruptive and opportunistic way.

For me the most egregious example of a SPEW highjacking was what happened to the National Shop Stewards Network. I wasn't directly involved in this but friends were so I learnt quite a bit about the group and its breakdown and the role of the SPEW. It was also a very public falling out so I was able to look up a few things and refresh my memory. This for me was the event that soured me on the party as a whole, I don't think I was every really in danger of joining them but it after this it meant I didn't have any time for them at all.

The NSSN was a network for shop stewards in various unions across the country, hence the name. More importantly it had succeeded in growing in some parts beyond a contact list into actual working groups and so had a physical presence. The SP had put a lot of effort into this network that had been founded by the RMT union in 2006 and for awhile had received quite a bit of credit from Trade Union types. However in 2011 it soon became clear that the SPEW were only interested in the NSSN because it was supposed to be just another front for the Party and as such all non SP members ended up resigning.

Effectively killing what had been a fairly active support network for the sake of party strategy. If you go to the NSSN [url=]website[url] today its indistinguishable from a leftist blog site, all the news is about demo marches, "building the pressure" and solidarity (best wishes) with groups and people but no actual practical steps for any of them. The only times it does discuss strikes or workplace actions its by Unions on their own at best its a newsletter, about actions going on independently of itself. In contrast the old group was full of updates and news about workplace struggles, like for example the Yorkshire and Humberside bulletin from 2009.

I don’t bring up the NSSN because I have an attachment to it, I don't really. While it was doing some interesting things it remained firmly a creature of the Trade Union movement. Conservative, defensive and dominated by officers and staffers, even though it proclaimed that it's main goal was building the rank and file. I think on balance the old NSSN was better than what it became for whatever that's worth.
No I bring it up because in addition to my tangential connections to the NSSN it exposes the SPEW as just another opportunistic group concerned with its own influence. By the time SPEW had decided to exert controlling influence on the NSSN it had already agreed to join the anti cuts struggle. The problem and the reason for the split revolved around the question of how. The majority non SPEW officers agreed that the NSSN should be part of a wider anti cuts movement independent of any of the other organisations.

“The NSSN Conference on 22nd January will feature an important debate about the network's role in the anti-cuts movement, which is likely to be decisive in determining the organisation's future. The meeting of the majority of current NSSN Officers held on 5th January unanimously agreed that the NSSN should seek to build unity between the existing anti-cuts bodies and to oppose any attempt to further fragment the developing but still fragile anti-cuts movement. We urge all NSSN supporters and like minded trade unionists to attend our conference to help ensure that the NSSN plays a positive role in unifying the emerging anti-cuts movement and in building support for the sort of industrial action that will be crucial to beating back the coalition's attacks.”

Emphasis mine.

However SPEW wanted the NSSN to join its own anti cuts organisation that was being setup at the time.

“The purpose of this Conference is to put before shop stewards and workplace reps a proposal to set up a working class trade union based campaign that is able to intervene on a clear no-cuts programme in the forthcoming battles.”

Emphasis mine.

Both sides of the dispute, NSSN officers on one side(SPEW blamed one Dave Chapple a CWU shop steward in particular) and the SPEW Executive Committee (which to me is telling*) claimed the opposition was unrepresentative, and dishonest. And while I’m no stranger to a fight between two dishonest groups equally as terrible, after this dispute came to ahead it was followed by mass resignations which does suggest that the NSSN officers were the more popular and closer to the truth of the matter.

On the 22nd of January meeting the SPEW members dominated (its an old tactic from the days of Militant, called stacking a meeting) and forced through their proposal. This meant that from 23rd of January the NSSN had to work to setup a project of the SPEW, on behalf of the SPEW. Understandably the non SPEW members didn’t feel like working for a political party they weren’t members of and so walked away. And that was all she wrote for the NSSN. This dispute tanked SPEW’s reputation, amongst the trade union constituency, the jewel in the crown for most Trotskyist groups. At least one General Secretary had written an open letter to dissuade them from this plan and the shop stewards informed the rest of the union apparatus. And of course all the other leftist groups wasted no time spreading the information. It’s also clear that the dispute was purely about control, the NSSN had already agreed to resist the public spending cuts in some form so this couldn’t have been motivated by principal, unless we count naked self interest. If the SPEW were genuine in building a powerful anti cuts movement and had no interest in controlling the NSSN they had several options, 1) join an already existing anti-cuts group, or 2)set up their own group but keep it independent of the NSSN. Either option would have allowed them to work with the NSSN on its own terms.

I do feel sorry for the members who put years of effort into the organisation only to have another group wreck it for them. And for any workers who relied upon the NSSN in their workplace struggles because this politicking couldn't have helped.

A textbook case of highjacking, in hindsight this wasn’t really surprising given that SPEW is the child of Militant. But there you are. I don't really have an overall point here, I just thought it'd be worth sharing my experiences with this group for reference purposes. Though I suppose it might be useful knowledge for anyone interested in joining such an organization. I mean when I first encountered the "Socialist Party" tm I didn't know about their Trotskyist leanings or their dodgy heritage. They talked a good British leftist game about nationalisation and the need for workers militancy etc, which was in tune with my politics at the time.

Fortunately I held off joining until I knew more about them and my education took me in a different direction.

*To elaborate the dispute was publicly between a group of NSSN officers and the SPEW executive committee as a whole and not just the party members who had joined the NSSN. Which confirmed the allegation that the SPEW members were carrying out party orders.

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty Need to work on the Alliance part

Quick note: this account is related to the UCU strike section of the SPEW part.

I talked a bit about how me and a friend supported a picket of UCU lecturers at Hull University above. In addition to the SPEW student contingent who walked off to hold a demonstration on their own there was also a small showing by the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) student section. Three people in total, though on reflection I can only confirm that the groups leader was a paid up member of the AWL. Anyway, as the picket wore on, my friend suggested we go and see how the other pickets were doing since we were just members of the public showing our support we could come and go as we pleased. The University of Hull is an open campus with multiple points of entry spread out over several square miles.

We spoke to the UCU stewards but they were unsure of where exactly the other pickets had been set up. At that point the leader of the AWLers speaks up and politely gives us directions, so we thanked him and went on our way, only we couldn't find any of them. So, we went back and later learnt that he had lied to us to get us out of the way. If you're wondering why such pettiness? Well, earlier in the day he had approached us to give us the "talk" the sales pitch for his group, which is how I knew he was AWL as he had no identifiable merch like the young SPEWers did. We were polite but not interested and he soon gave up and ignored us for most of the time we spent there. I think he wanted to get rid of us since we were of no use to him.

This may seem like small beer, and in a vacuum I'd agree, even a small setup like the AWL is bound to have a couple arseholes in the mix. But its not in a vacuum, this wasn't my only run in with the AWL its the main one I had, I've had plenty of run ins with eager recruiters on TUC marches who become dismissive and rude once its clear they aren't getting a bite and I know other people who've had similar experiences with AWL. And while the AWL are one of the more atypical Trot groups -support for Israel being one of their more notorious- this pattern of behaviour isn't one of their differences, its one of the things they share in common.

Socialist Appeal: The SApps found themselves a Sap

This one is personal, well more personal then the others. I have a friend who I don't see much of any more. First it was the usual things, time and distance as we go down different paths, but recently their has been a further strain on our relationship, my friend has joined Socialist Appeal. Socialist Appeal like the AWL were part of the Trot filter feeders who latched onto the British Labour party until Keir Starmer kicked them out. Of all the established Brit Trots they kept the lowest profile, aside from seeing them trying to sell newspapers outside Labour party events I had managed to avoid them. Now, it seems they've managed to infiltrate my limited social circle.

I'm not going to use real names, the odds of my friend discovering this are slim to nil, like most Trot converts he just doesn't read outsiders any more, but still. My mate used to be quite a nice person to hang around with, have a beer, chat about shows and films and play video games with. Politically he was a Tory who like the works of Milton Friedman and other economists I hadn't heard of before. But, he was good to socialise with and we didn't talk politics. Well, I didn't talk politics with him, another friend who was closer to him and even shared a flat for a couple of years with did talk politics, and he came around bit by bit. So we could talk a bit more freely, and things were great for awhile, then his job and a move took him out of direct contact outside of messages.

This is going to get confusing so to limit that a bit let's call my Trot friend Leon, and my other friend who features quite a bit in this account, uhm, Cliff.

Unfortunately, my words at the introduction have come to haunt me "my political education has led me to change and develop as I gain more knowledge and experience, nothing unusual there it happens to everyone more or less". Well, my friend Leon is a normal person and they've been on a similar journey, only now they've taken a very different path. Currently Leon is a paid up member of the SApps, and he has been behaving much like the stereotypes of the British Trotskyite. He is an aggressive pushing of their paper, he flooded messages with links to the online version, when my other friend Cliff went to stay with him for a few days Leon while still perfectly hospitable kept pressuring Cliff to buy several copies of the paper, and while they were out socialising in the pubs and bars of ______ Leon would occasionally break off to flog newspapers to people trying to enjoy a drink.

This has gone on for sometime now, thankfully, Leon has come to realise we aren't interested in buying his paper so he stops pushing it on us. Though he will still message some of us to tell us about the latest great article by some person we've never heard of who on googling turns out to be one of the leading lights of the SApps. If it stayed at that level this would just be embarrassing, or as the kids say `cringe` it certainly makes me cringe from second hand embarrassment. But its sadly more than that. For a group that decries the exploitation of the proletariat the SApps seem to have little issue exploiting their own. The pushing of newspapers isn't just a symptom of overenthusiasm from a convert, its actively coerced from above. There is a table charting how many papers each group has sold, I know this because Leon once showed it when his group did particularly well on it.

In addition, Leon has changed quite a bit. Back in the Tory days he would disagree with the rest of the group but it wasn't a source of tension, we either moved on to other topics or in the few times we stayed on topic he was opinion to hearing other opinions. Now? I would say Leon reminds me of a walking tannoy system. What is Leon's views on X? Well if you could ask him, but its often quicker and easier to look up what the SApps line on the subject is. And when he's been in a social gathering that talks about things the SApps are in disagreement, he'll either get argumentative or just go silent in that awkward way where the body language is telling you a boiler is getting close to bursting. And in addition the SApps are taking up more and more of his free time, often he's spending his weekends manning something or walking a street corner hawking a paper or a leaflet or something else. He still keeps up the golf, and spends his disposable income on expensive soviet kitsch, Lenin busts and a Trotsky tee, tat like that.

I don't see a good end to this story. The best case scenario is that eventually Leon realises he's being taken advantage of and then drops out of politics all together. Worst, he stays the course and ends up alienating everyone around him.

Addendum: The Socialist "Workers" Party

This is just a short one. I think the most surprising thing about my encounters with the Trots is how little I've run into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Nowadays, this isn't that odd, the fallout from the horrific exposure of sexual assault by leading members and the steps the SWP took to shield them from consequences has caused severe though sadly not fatal damage to that groups influence. But even back in the days of the political joke about the fastest growing party in the UK being the "ex-members of the SWP" I had little experience.

This was back when I was still a student, the SWP were holding a stall in the hall for members, and as I passed by someone came up to them and made the obvious crack about how its ironic that students are part of the Socialist Workers Party. I imagine their student arm got this quite a bit. Anyway, one of the stall holders immediately reached into his pocket and pulled out an invoice from a year earlier that showed he had been paid for some summer work. I think he thought this was a damning rebuttal, but to me it just looked sad. Keeping hold of an old payslip just to prove your prole cred wasn't impressive. For starters, back then most 15-18 year olds were paid cash in hand for work they did on the side, I certainly was, so having an official payslip suggested a form of privilege, probably nepotism. Could be totally wrong about that of course, only encountered him for about a minute before we both went our separate ways, but this is about my impressions.

And that's it for the Swappers. Like SPEW, AWL and all the rest I've been in physical proximity to them many times on protest marches and demonstrations but those encounters weren't worth mentioning.


So then, what was the point of all this? There are problems with anecdotes, but I don't have any sympathy for the school of thought that rejects them entirely. That said, I don't want anyone who reads this to take it as gospel on its own. I want this to be added to the body of evidence concerning Trotskyism in the United Kingdom. I have had other encounters most of which were unpleasant, but its even less substance than the SWP section. I have also had some encounters with people that were pleasant, mostly ex-Labour members who joined TUSC, I thought about including them, but "ran into X after not seeing him in years, he looked well and we caught up" didn't seem worth getting into. And, to be honest I'm not sure they were fully converted to the cause, most of these were kicked out of Labour and I think joined TUSC as it was the only group in the area remotely like the Labour party.

Speaking of TUSC, looking at now in the 2020s, I'm reminded of the mean-spirited joke about the audience of the BBC political panel show Question Time. "And tonight as always our audience is made up of die-hard partisans (SPEW members), single issue nutters (the members of the few non SPEW groups) and the remaining seats have been filled by people looking for somewhere dry to sit now that the library has closed (ex-Labours)". So far it continues to fail to coalesce into a coherent political grouping. I think SPEW may eventually come to regard the initiative as a total failure and retire it in the future, but we'll see.

Its perfectly fine to agree with or disagree with what I've written above, the steps to anonymise and the passage of time means its a bit fuzzy. I recommend looking at other accounts of dealings with these specific groups and the other Trot groups that are active in Britain.