The workshop on discrimination and violence against Europe’s Roma communities which I attended on the afternoon of Unite Against Fascism conference (25 February) was excellent – informative, alarming and a call to action. No doubt there were other useful parts of and aspects to the event. But as a conference it was not so much a failure as a farce. It gives me no pleasure to write such a report - I think we should be seriously alarmed.
So bored was I during some of the eight speakers who addressed us for almost two hours in the opening plenary that I counted the number of people in the hall several times. Including people outside and in the balcony it came to about 200-250, so let’s be generous and say 350 during the day – smaller than previous years and remarkably few for the conference of a campaign backed handsomely by all the major unions. (According to NUT Deputy General Secretary Kevin Courtney, the NUT alone gave UAF £55,000 this year!) Of these perhaps twenty were members of Socialist Action and a hundred members of the SWP - the two left groups which in reality dominate the leadership of the campaign.
There has been quite a bit of fuss, including inside the SWP, about the lack of democracy in UAF, and so this year – for the first time since the campaign’s founding in 2003, believe it or not – there were elections for the national committee. However even this small step was largely a formality or, to be blunt, a fake. Rather than a proper open election for a multi-member committee, candidates had to be nominated for a variety of individual positions (chair, vice chair, secretary, assistant secretary, parliamentary officer and so on).
Obviously this will have discouraged people from standing – and, lo and behold, there was only one candidate for each position. (Many of them were nominated by “Love Music Hate Racism” and “One Society Many Cultures” – “organisations” which decide these things how, exactly?) However this was only achieved by excluding Justin Baidoo, a young socialist and trade unionist from South London wishing to challenge SWP full-timer Martin Smith for assistant secretary, on a technicality. (See here.) The chair of his union branch had sent in the nomination, but failed to send in the reaffiliation form.
Given this is the first time UAF has held elections, and given there were no other contested elections, you might think something could be done? Wouldn't it have been positive to have a real election? But no, rules are rules – that is, when they allow the UAF leadership to carve out opponents. I guess it would have been particularly embarrassing for the SWP to have Martin Smith criticised from the left by a young, black socialist. (I should say that Justin chose not to get up on the floor of the conference and demand a vote on his exclusion – which I think was a mistake.)
Nonetheless, surely the election still went ahead, with participants having the chance to vote for “Re-Open Nominations”? Don’t be silly! The "candidates" were simply declared elected. I wondered if some SWPers cringed at this total absence of democracy.
It was not possible to submit motions to the conference. Cambridgeshire TUC and Traveller Solidarity were told repeatedly that their motion on solidarity with traveller communities would be taken, but it wasn’t. It wasn't even mentioned! If there was “no time”, then why have so many top table speakers banging on for so long? I really hope it had nothing to do with the fact that the agreed mover of the motion was publicly supportive of Justin Baidoo.
I’m struck by the SWP’s hypocrisy. Last month they turned up to the conference of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a campaign they do not really support (preferring to maintain their own Education Activist Network front), and literally screamed and shouted that the event – with its open elections, open motions, caucuses and so on – was undemocratic because the generous time alloted for discussing motions ran out and they thought their favourite ones might not get discussed, and because people opposed their thuggish attempts to take over. But when they organise a conference – EAN, UAF, whatever – then carving out candidates, not allowing motions and so on is all perfectly fine and democratic.
The reason Justin Baidoo was excluded is not just a sectarian factional reflex. It was because Justin was standing to raise political criticisms of UAF and its failures in fighting fascism (for the short program he and others including the AWL distributed at the conference see here). At the conference the contradictions in UAF’s politics were there for all to see. In fact, despite the lack of democracy and dissent, they seem to be boiling over.
Thus there was a quite heated discussion (only a discussion) on whether to call for state bans of EDL and other fascist marches, led by Socialist Action (for) and the SWP (against). This seems to be becoming more and more of an issue – and rightly so. And: a number of SWP speakers, including UAF leaders Weyman Bennett and Martin Smith, stressed that they are for class demands which undercut the base of fascism.
So then why shouldn’t this be included in the politics and demands of the campaign – which is what we were there demanding? Weyman Bennett got a lot of applause for demagogically declaring that David Cameron was a racist and should be sacked as prime minister – yet the SWP opposes the demand to kick Cameron and other Tory politicians out of UAF! Similarly, Martin Smith said that he regularly told Labour MPs that the best way to undermine the BNP would be to fight for millions of new council homes and decent jobs for all – but the SWP militantly opposes such demands actually being part of the campaign.
These two problems are, obviously, related. As a logical conclusion of all this, UAF is still saying “Don’t vote Nazi”, ie vote for anyone who isn’t the BNP.
Meanwhile the alliance with right-wing political Islam continues, now in the shape of the East London-based Islamic Forum of Europe, whose Azad Ali was “elected” UAF vice chair. No one on the left, as far as I know, suggests the IFE and its like are terrorists (I mention this because it’s a straw man Ali raised repeatedly – criticise us, and you must think we're al Qaeda) or that we should refuse to stand even with Islamists to physically defeat fascist violence. But the idea that the left should be building a political alliance with a group that has established a bigoted, reactionary and repressive political climate in the Bengali community of Tower Hamlets is astonishing.
Martin Smith also said, more than once, that disagreement and debate in a united front can only be a good thing. That’s right, but then why the lack of motions and the fixed elections?
It should go without saying that mobilising to confront the EDL and challenge the BNP and other fascists must remain a top priority. Despite the far right's failures over the last year, the conditions for it to grow remain, and we should not be complacent. But to counterpose all this to the need for democracy and political debate within the anti-fascist movement is utterly false. The two go together. To fight effectively, we need open debate over politics, strategy and tactics.
SWP members, in particular, face a choice: do they want to continue this undemocratic lash up with the right-wing Stalinist sect that is Socialist Action, a lash up dominated by non-class politics that are incapable of defeating the far right, and excluding dissident voice in order to keep the whole structure in place? Or will they listen to their Marxist education and working-class, democratic instincts, and change course to build the kind of effective anti-fascist campaign that is badly needed?
Meanwhile, trade unions and other affiliates and supporters of UAF should start asking questions and exerting pressure about the way the organisations is run.
• I may have got this or that small fact wrong. If so, please post comments and, if convinced, I will amend as necessary.
• We will report further on initiatives to politically realign the anti-fascist movement soon.