A brief catalogue of my encounters with the lesser spotted subspecies of the British Trot in the wild. Careful it may bite you.
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 (CGPB) 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 this side meetings have been but if their election results are any indication the strategy hasn't worked very well.
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 website 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.”
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.”
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.