Like it or not, the SWP is the biggest group on the socialist left. Any attempt to unite will necessarily involve them, or at least substantial numbers of its activists. Nowhere is this more true than in the student movement, where the AWL has some experience of practical unity with the SWP.
As well as having regular contact with a fair number of SWP activists on campuses, we know a number of their student organisers and have undertaken joint campaigns with them as a group. Between 1998 and 2002, for instance, a major surge of anti-fees activism helped us persuade them to work with us and our allies in united left slates for elections to the NUS National Executive (which take place every year at NUS conference). Our unity drew in broader forces than either group could mobilise alone, and resulted in a stronger profile for the left in national student politics. Thus in 1998 and 1999, at a crucial time for the fight against fees, Campaign for Free Education chair and AWL member Kate Buckell came very close to winning NUS president.
This unity broke down as a result of the SWP’s turn towards the politics of reactionary “anti-imperialism”; from 2004 to this year, they refused to even discuss unity with us, preferring to cooperate with the (so-called) Student Broad Left, a front for the Stalinist Socialist Action group, who share much of the SWP’s politics on Iraq, Palestine and so on.
In 2007, at a meeting called by an independent left activist to discuss unity, the SWP declared that unity with the AWL was inconceivable and in effect walked out. The result was that at NUS conference there were two left slates for NUS executive, one organised by Education Not for Sale and another by “Student Respect” and Student Broad Left. Clearly this was not ideal, but the SWP precluded any other outcome.
This year, however, things are different. The SWP has been chastened and, to a limited extent, sobered up by their split with Galloway; meanwhile, they have had to work with the AWL and ENS in the campaign to defend what remains of NUS democracy from the leadership’s drive to abolish it. As a result, they are much more willing to engage. We have had extensive talks about whether, given our work together on ground to fight for NUS democracy, unity at a national level is possible.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the SWP students have not entirely changed their ways. They still insist on involving Student Broad Left; in fact, they have gone as far as championing Ruqayyah Collector, the SBL-supporting NUS Black Students’ Officer who, in addition to not being very left-wing, simply declared her candidacy last year with no attempt to discuss it with or make herself accountable to the wider student left. Nonetheless, because the AWL believes unity is important, we have supported ENS in perservering with the discussions (at the time Solidarity went to press, it was still persevering!)
We will see what happens: it looks very possible that the SWP and Student Broad Left will scupper the hope of unity by bureaucratic stubbornness. Nevertheless, progress which would have been unthinkable a year ago has been made — for instance in persuading the SWP, and through them, SBL that the programme for a slate would need to include a clear statement of solidarity with workers’ and other democratic movements in Iraq and Iran. Even if a slate does not happen, these discussions will help us in the bigger task of debating with and persuading SWP members in our colleges, workplaces and cities.
In any case, whatever the outcome, they have proved that the SWP post-Galloway is a somewhat different creature from what it was before — and that revolutionaries should not duck the vital task of engaging it to help re-educate its membership about what Marxism is and is not.
• For the latest on left unity in NUS see Education Not for Sale www.free-education.org.uk