On the streets for Palestine last December (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Resistance to the Israeli onslaught and Palestinian resistance dominated discussion across the weekend. Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber told the conference, “There has been a sustained, massive social movement on the streets.

“We are part of the movement and we are trying to build the movement. But we also want the movement to win, so we don’t just celebrate. It’s also important that we bring up a particular set of politics—anti-imperialist and revolutionary.”

Charlie added, “We have a new movement central to which are young people, particularly Muslim young people and particularly young Muslim women. We have to think about how we work alongside those people, bringing them towards our revolutionary politics.”

Charlie stated that the big marches are “crucial as they give people the confidence to move onto other things”. “But we also want more militant activity as well,” he added.

“We need to think about how we’re raising this issue in the workplace. Understanding the power of the working class is central to the possibility of a wider revolution against capitalism and against imperialism. Every form of resistance matters. Every form of collective activity matters.

“But currently it’s too low. We need to seize the moment.” Many people talked about why it’s important to continue to work both within groups and to be flexible about new ones that are springing up. But many also stated that it’s essential to be a radical current within the pro-Palestine movement.

Hussein from Cardiff said that now is the time to “push the envelope as a party and be as radical as possible.” “We’re not condemning any of the Palestinian resistance movements,” he said. Judith from Hackney added, “We want to build and mobilise the biggest possible protests.

“But we also want to be the most radical and take on the biggest ideological questions.” Harry, a sixth form student from Dorset, said that the issue of Palestine is mobilising wider layers of people. “We have had two walkouts in secondary schools with over a hundred students each time,” he said.

“I think this demonstrates just how far-reaching this movement is.” A number of delegates discussed how workers are setting up groups in their workplaces for Palestine. “Palestine groups should be spreading way beyond health workers,” said Gary from Haringey.

Adam from Harlow explained how CWU union members have organised around Gaza while the bureaucracy stays silent. “It’s appalling they’ve done nothing in a union of 300,000 members,” he said. “We set up CWU Members for Palestine, passed motions in branches, and set up a WhatsApp group.  

“We also publicise pictures of us on the demos on Royal Mail forums and are being invited to speak at protests. This is the rank and file acting in defiance of the bureaucracy.” The explosion of the movement for Palestine requires a sharp turn by the SWP, national secretary Lewis Nielsen stated.

“It is necessary for us to recognise the scale of the political shift taking place,” he said. “This is a crisis of imperialism, climate change, Covid and inflationary surges. Palestine heightens the sense that we live in an era of permanent catastrophe.”

Lewis highlighted the potential for explosive resistance from below. “There are significant sections who aren’t content with the solutions put forward by the establishment, who are drawn to more radical slogans,” he added.

“The situation we face in Britain is one where we have a zombie government heading to defeat, Labour heading to Downing Street but with huge disgust from the left, and the huge movements on the streets. We have to be excited. We need to be exhilarated on what we do to shape it and how we come out of it.”

Rob from Bradford spoke about how his branch meetings have grown threefold. “Early on we set up Bradford Friends of Palestine,” he said. “But it’s about more than just initiatives, and about providing forums outside of branch meetings. “Our programme around Palestine is about politics that goes into the nature of imperialism.

“We now have members and contacts in the university. Now we need to develop people’s politics.” A question was posed about why Socialist Worker used the word “rejoice” in its coverage of 7 October when Palestinians broke out of Gaza. A headline read, “Rejoice as Palestinian resistance humiliates racist Israel.”

Simon from Socialist Worker replied, “This was a test—do we sit, or jump and recognise something transformative has happened. We rejoice in anyone who humbles imperialism.”

Building the left in an era of crisis

In a session on crisis, imperialism and the age of catastrophe, Alex Callinicos from the central committee said, “The war on Palestine represents the intensification of a general crisis of capitalism.”  He went on to describe the “multi-dimensional” challenges to the system—including imperialism, ecological breakdown, economic crisis and the growth of the far right.  

Alex also highlighted the real danger that the war on Palestine could spread geographically. This, he said, outlined the way US imperialism is weakening. “The new situation is extremely volatile,” he said. “The far right has been able to capitalise from the crisis but the new period opens huge possibilities for the radical left.

“There was a wide ranging discussion among delegates. Anne from north London said it “feels like we’re living through a kind of merry-go-round of the horsemen of the apocalypse”.  Putting the organised working class at the heart of the movement for Palestine is the thing that will help drive forward the struggle in a direction where we can talk about revolution as the solution,” she explained.   

“People want to tear the head off the system, but it has to be organised.”   Martin from Manchester said, “Some 33 million people in 2022 fled their homes to escape climate change or natural disaster and that trajectory is one that’s likely to increase.  

“It’s an important example for us to show how there will be a political crisis that comes out of the ecological crisis.”   Liam from Edinburgh talked about the threat of the far right globally. “It is exploiting the crumbling of the neoliberal centre,” he said.

“There is also a polarisation to the left where the struggles for the liberation of Palestine have become a lightning rod for workplace and student action.” Sheila from east London also focused on workplace politics. “We need to bring the confidence people feel on national protests into the workplaces and equip workers with the arguments needed to win over more of their colleagues,” she said.  

Alex replied to the discussion by pointing out that the crisis does not make the left “helpless”. “The ruling class is internally fragmented,” he said. “This creates huge possibilities for struggle from below. “It’s an opportunity to show ourselves as leaders in the struggle—and to draw people around us into a stronger and more effective organisation.”

Rank and file has exposed limits of the union leaders

While the massive strike wave of 2023 might be over, workers’ struggle is still alive, central committee member Jessica Walsh told the conference. “We are not at the heady heights of action we saw last summer, but we shouldn’t think we are in the same position as before the strike wave,” she said.

Jessica added that there is now a growing tension with the union leaders. “Last year we saw the ineffective strategy of the union bureaucracy based on stop-start action and having long breaks between strikes. This strategy fails as it does not put sufficient pressure on the bosses.”

And she explained that workers organising from the ground up is essential. “We’ve seen the emergence of rank and file networks like NHS Workers Say No, the UCU Solidarity Movement and PSC Workers Say No. “These are places where we can have a debate about how we can deepen the struggle.” 

Zak, a St Mungo’s striker, told the conference, “During our dispute Socialist Worker took up the arguments of the dispute, arguing for strike committees. We also argued against winding down the dispute and for members’ democratic control of their dispute.”

Carrie, a Unison union rep, explained that winning over workers to the SWP’s analysis of the union bureaucracy is vital. “One of the things that we’re trying to win inside the working class movement is the argument that it’s not about MPs or parliament. “It’s not trade union officials who change the world, it’s the organised working class.”

Roddy, a member of the UCU union, told the conference that revolutionaries have a vital part to play in the coming struggles. “We understand that the key division in the trade unions is actually between the people and the trade union leaders,” he said.

“They will not lose their jobs or their wages as a result of the cost of living crisis.” Benji, a student nurse, added that the fight for the NHS needs to be renewed. “Let’s push and build for defiant strikes,” he said. “We should rally once more for our NHS and to restore pay.”

Keep up the defence of refugees

Weyman Bennett from the central committee set out the challenges for anti-racists in Britain and internationally. “The far right is trying to present itself as the alternative and is growing on the streets and in parliament,” he said. “I’m immensely proud of the party and our members in Stand Up For Racism.

“Every time fascists have set up and said refugees are not welcome here our members speak up.” But, Weyman warned, “There’s no space for complacency Rishi Sunak’s government is in disarray, and is blaming black people and migrants.”

Delegates from across Britain said fighting racism and the far right in 2023 meant they were faced with tough arguments. Nimi from West Wales said that the far right mobilisations against refugees being housed in hotels in Llanelli must be a warning. “We can’t take anything for granted,” she said.

“We didn’t have the support for welcoming refugees from local trade unions or other anti-racist groups. It shows just how quickly a situation against refugees can take hold.” Alex in Glasgow added that anti-racists must be consistent to beat the racists. “Our campaign against the far right mobilising against refugees in hotels in Erskine was a 12-month campaign,” Alex said.

“For some time SUTR mobilised every single weekend.” Other speakers made it clear that the far right isn’t only looking to build support through anti-refugee sentiment.  Micki from south London said anti-racists couldn’t ignore far right attacks against Drag Queen Story Time at the Honor Oak Pub.

“We didn’t give them an inch,” she said.  Several speakers also spoke about building the confidence of the black members of the party.  Samira from south east London said, “Part of the shift in our work has to be the development of our black members to become leaders of the anti-racist movement.

Focus on the streets—not the ballot boxes

In the session on British politics Joseph Choonara discussed the Tory crisis and the impending election. “This year will see an extraordinarily nasty general election fought largely on the basis of scapegoating and racism,” he said. “And we know that the Labour Party has an extraordinarily weak record.

“There are large numbers of people saying how can we possibly support this warmonger. The SWP will support credible, genuine left wing candidates standing to the left of Labour. But there are millions of working class people who are going to vote for Labour.” 

An amendment was put forward to the commission for the session about the SWP’s position on voting Labour. Liam from Plymouth said, “The primary focus is the movement, and the election is secondary. But we’re using the language of ‘complicity in genocide’ so can we be taken seriously if we call for a vote for the people that are complicit in genocide?”

Joseph replied, “All kinds of scoundrels voted for a ceasefire. Palestine can’t be the only criteria. How we vote will come down to a broader mood in the working class.” In the discussion Sky from Manchester also talked about the rise in attacks on LGBT+ people. “Labour holds little hope for LGBT+ people—many are reluctant to vote Labour,” she said.

“The movement has moved on from the slogan ‘trans rights now’. We need to build a bigger party to influence change from below.” Bob from Glasgow spoke about the elections in Scotland. “We are for the breaking up of the British state, and historically we have supported independence from working class people.

“But the movement on the streets has disappeared. The support for independence has been taken over by conservative forces in the SNP who have no chance of delivering independence. Our orientation is Scotland should now be part of the political perspective.” The details of who to vote for in Scotland were remitted to the National Committee for further discussion.

Students must rise to the new challenges

Sophia Beach from the central committee introduced a final session about student members and Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS). She said, “Almost every SWSS group has either called a protest over Palestine themselves or worked with others to launch one.

“But Palestine isn’t the only focus. The rise of racism and the nastiness of the Tory attacks on refugees are key mobilising factors for students as well. Building Stand Up To Racism is a priority for all of us in the year ahead.” Sophia urged SWSS groups to intensify their interventions on campuses, help shape the movement nationally and fight to build a revolutionary party that can change the world.

She concluded, “We’ve got a number of battles in the year to come but with a clear strategy on campus we can rise to the challenge.” Tara from Central London SWSS spoke on working with other organisations to build a new London Student Action for Palestine Coalition. 

Tara argued, “The success in joining up universities across London shows the case for a national student movement.” Diana from Essex SWSS drew attention to the obstacles placed on SWSS by universities banning meetings on campus and attacking activists.

And Joanna, a UCU union member, argued that combined activities of staff and students can provide confidence to students pressured by the universities. Eva from Edinburgh argued that “SWSS needs to be present at strikes and pickets.” “The movement for Palestine liberation needs to unite trade unions and students, building for a mass strike for Palestine,” she said.

Conference democracy 

Around 500 SWP members attended the conference which was in person for the first time since the pandemic began. Across two days, 114 delegates and observers made contributions. Each session saw a vote on a commission that summed up the direction of the SWP’s work. These were open to amendments and voted on. For example, there were amendments on opposition to antisemitism and building our LGBT+ activism.

The central committee (CC) that leads the organisation on a day-to-day basis was elected. The CC is Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Camilla R, Charlie Kimber, Héctor Puente Sierra, Jessica Walsh, Joseph Choonara, Julie Sherry, Lewis Nielsen, Mark Thomas, Michael Bradley, Nadia Sayed, Sophia Beach, Tomáš Tengely Evans and Weyman Bennett. Conference also elected a 51-strong national committee to guide the party’s work. A disputes committee was also elected. It deals with disciplinary matters in the organisation.

Events 

Saturday 27 January, TUC Protect the right to strike demonstration in Cheltenham
Wednesday 7 February, Workplace day of action for Palestine called by Stop The War
Sunday 11 February, Stand Up To Racism trade union conference in London
Saturday 2 March, Smashing the Sexist System day school for International Women’s Day in London
Saturday 16 and 17 March, Stand Up To Racism demonstrations in London, Glasgow (16th) and Cardiff (17th)
Thursday 4 to Sunday 7 July Marxism Festival in London

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