Open Letter
Concerning Events in Birmingham Since the Autumn of 2001

We set out here details of key events that have poisoned the atmosphere on the Birmingham Left since the autumn of 2001. There seems to be general ignorance and a misconception as to what has happened, so we feel it is time to put the record straight. At the heart of the problems in Birmingham has been the behaviour of key SWP members. The Left outside Labour in Birmingham had been united as never before during the 2001 General Election campaign. But this completely unravelled during and after the Afghan war and the situation has continued to deteriorate ever since.

1. The 5th February 2002 General Meeting of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition (BSTWC) and its Aftermath

This meeting overturned the democratic constitution of the BSTWC, thereby forcing a split. The facts are these. At this meeting, a highly contentious "amendment" to a motion (but, in effect, a motion in its own right) was put forward by the Chair of the coalition (Salma Yaqoob) and seconded by an SWP member (Lynne Hubbard). The meeting was systematically packed with SWP and Socialist Action members who voted in favour of the amendment. The amendment did away with the hitherto democratic and open structures of BSTWC: elections every three months, committee meetings open to all, and regular general meetings. Thereafter, only the rump BSTWC committee had the right to decide when a general meeting takes place, when elections take place, and who is invited to attend committee meetings. The amendment, which had not been circulated in advance to Coalition members, including committee members, was voted through in a highly dubious manner - but, in any case, should have been disallowed as it brought in significant rule changes. Such amendments are clearly not allowed in democratic organisations. This resulted in what can only be described as a "bureaucratic coup" where Steve Godward, the Vice-Chair of BSTWC, was removed. Thereafter, BSTWC became a political cabal of Salma Yaqoob, the SWP, and Socialist Action. The implications were clear: anyone opposed to this undemocratic railroading simply could not work in the "new" coalition, and that is why half the members walked out (including, apart from the SWP, all members of the Socialist Alliance). The result has been a disastrous split in the anti-war movement in Birmingham, and great acrimony on the left in general. Attempts to unify last summer, when 3 officers from the National STWC came to Birmingham, also floundered.

Thereafter, BSTWC did not have a general meeting for TEN months - starkly revealing its new undemocratic character. The cabal has made all the key decisions, including when meetings take place and who speaks from the platform at public meetings. Prior to war breaking out, Doug Jewell, Vice-Chair of BSTWC, had agreed that the Chair of Birmingham Socialist Alliance (Steve Godward) could speak on the platform the day war broke out. But at the demo on 20th March, he was prevented from speaking, yet various people from other organisations spoke. (A comrade who asked whether there would be a Socialist Alliance speaker was told that Lynne Hubbard was the SA speaker; yet it was not Lynne but Steve who had been nominated by the Bham SA Committee.)

As a result of continued pressure and appeals for unity, the BSTWC officers did eventually call a general meeting in December 2002. This set up a delegate forum taking reps from local groups. But even this has now proved too much for the officers of BSTWC. They have pushed yet another constitutional change through the delegate forum, getting it to abolish itself. BSTWC will become a membership organisation with general meetings only every three months - leaving all decisions in the hands of the officers meantime.

2. The BTUC Teach-In on Iraq and Palestine on Sunday 6th April 2003

A Teach-In on Iraq & Palestine was organised by Birmingham Trades Union Council with the support of Unison Education. Steve Godward, vice-president of BTUC, was approached by the co-ordinator (who had previously been the key organiser of a successful teach-in the previous year) to speak at the event. This invitation was appropriate as Steve had travelled to Palestine in February 2003 as the BTUC delegate on a Trade Union visit, whose aim it was to help bring about the twinning of Birmingham with Ramallah. However, as the co-ordinator was a supporter of the BStW Network (the group formed after the coup on Feb 5th), she was subjected to attack by the cabal.

This brought the first threat from the SWP (via their organiser) that Steve would be "politically finished" in Birmingham if he spoke at what they rubbished as the "Network event". Steve declined the blackmail. Lynne Hubbard (SWP and Unison) argued against the Teach-in even though her union had given support to it. At a BTUC Executive a week before the event (and clearly documented in the minutes), the SWP & CPB formed an unholy alliance in an attempt to cancel the Teach-In. But they were beaten, and a very successful Teach-in duly took place, which was boycotted by the BSTWC. Not surprisingly, this episode has caused enormous tensions within the BTUC Executive.

3. Birmingham Socialist Alliance AGM on 1st July 2003

The AGM of the national Socialist Alliance, in May, had voted for a resolution which called for moves towards greater left unity. But it soon became clear that the SWP were putting a particular interpretation on the resolution. John Rees had started discussions with Dr Nasim of the Central Mosque and Salma Yaqoob about an electoral alliance for the 2004 European elections. These forces organised a rally in Birmingham two days before the Birmingham Socialist Alliance AGM, with George Galloway, Dr Nasim, Salma Yaqoob and John Rees all on the platform. The SA was hardly referred to - in fact socialism didn"t figure much at all. The talk was of a new coalition around "core values".

At the Bham SA Committee meeting on 3rd June arrangements for the AGM were agreed, including a ruling that only members already recorded as paying national subs would have a vote. Anyone joining on the night could attend as an observer.

Given that the previous Members' Meeting of Bham SA had been poorly attended, and also given that at the time of the committee meeting there were only about 45 paid-up Birmingham members, a room was booked for the AGM which would hold 30 people.

On the night, however, the room was packed out with about 90 people in attendance, and the meeting had to be moved to a much larger room in order to comply with fire regulations. Over 70 people requested voting cards on the grounds that they were paid-up members, and the new membership list which Will MacMahon brought down from Head Office confirmed that most of them were. Thus a virtual doubling of the Birmingham membership had taken place during the month of June! About 4 dubious cases (who were not recorded as paying national subs but had been told by the Secretary that they would be allowed to vote) were given voting cards after this was put to the vote by the chair of the meeting. There has been some contention about these cases, but they did not all cast their votes in the same direction and their votes did not make a difference to the outcome of any of the elections.

Members of the SWP challenged all the existing Officers except the Secretary, an SWP member, who was re-elected unopposed. Lynne Hubbard stood against Steve Godward for the Chair; Salma Iqbal stood against James Cunningham for Membership Secretary and Rachel Smith stood against Rehan Hafeez for Publicity Officer. The Treasurer's post, which was vacant, was also contested: Stuart Richardson, a long-standing activist in BSA, contested this post as did Sue Phillips, a newcomer.

While only three of the new candidates were SWP members, they were without exception nominated and seconded by SWP members or supporters. They were all elected, the closest contest being the post of Chair which was won by Lynne with 39 votes as against Steve's 35. This 35 included about 22 independent socialists, whereas very few independents voted with the SWP.

At times the debate was acrimonious. In an earlier stage of the meeting, when reports were being given on the previous year's activities, Stuart Richardson quoted John Rees as having told him, in connection with his talks with Salma Yaqoob and a leading figure in Bham Central Mosque, that the electoral platform would be a limited one regarding women's rights and would make no mention of gay rights. Lynne Hubbard replied to this that Yacoob's politics on women's and gay rights were better than Richardson's. At this point the Chair rebuked her for making a personal attack on another comrade.

In arguing why their slate should be elected the SWP claimed that the existing committee - especially Steve Godward - were opposing the policy passed at the May national conference. Steve maintains that this is not the case. His article in Weekly Worker has been distorted into allegations that he is "refusing to work with Muslims" which is absolutely not true.

We maintain that the SWP packed this meeting. While it is true that no-one who joined on the night was allowed to vote, it is absolutely clear that in the preceding weeks the SWP organiser and others had phoned around party members urging them to join the SA so that they could turn up and vote for the SWP slate at the AGM.

4. Socialist Alliance National Council in Birmingham on 19th July 2003

The Socialist Alliance National Council had to deal with the fall-out from the Birmingham AGM and the disquiet over the SWP's "Peace and Justice" initiative. It was a stormy meeting.

The developments described above had set alarm bells ringing around the SA. The National Council dealt with four resolutions - one from Mark Hoskisson of Workers Power which was against the whole idea of an electoral bloc with the mosques, one from Erdington Socialist Alliance protesting at the packing of the Birmingham AGM, one from Lesley Mahmood and Steve Godward that dealt with the Birmingham events and also reasserted that the SA should support only candidates unequivocal in their support for women"s rights, gay rights and socialism, and one from the SWP which argued that everything they had done had been fine. The latter also included some blatant untruths: that the Birmingham rally had discussed "the possibility of establishing a socialist alternative to Blair" and that a majority of the former Birmingham SA Exec. were opposed to the national SA resolution.

In the first debate, on the Workers Power resolution, SWP members tried hard to suggest that anyone opposed to their idea must be against working with Muslims. Several speakers, Independents as well as Workers Power, pointed out that this was not the case: their objection was to a bloc with the mosques which would mean abandoning working class independence. It would mean in effect giving a veto to the mosques on the electoral programme. This was quite different from the Preston campaign where the local mosque had given support to Michael Lavalette who stood clearly as a Socialist Alliance candidate. The WP resolution was lost 43-17.

Perhaps the most telling part of this debate was that the SWP delegates voted en bloc to prevent Rehan Hafeez, Birmingham SA member (and ex-Press Officer) having speaking rights as an observer. Rehan pointed out that not only did he know the Birmingham situation well, but he was the only member from an Islamic background who had asked to speak! To no avail.

This censorship was repeated in the discussion on the other three resolutions. The SWP bloc also voted against letting observer Sue Blackwell, who had chaired the Birmingham SA AGM, having a voice. Fortunately, other independents who were delegates could not be silenced and a series of founding members forcefully made clear that the SWP was threatening the whole Alliance through their behaviour - in effect they could be left with a "Socialist Worker Alliance". One member appealed to the SWP to withdraw their resolution - which they did, but only after the others had been safely defeated. Voting was:
Erdington resolution defeated 33-29-5;
Mahmood-Godward resolution defeated 34-25-9.

At this point Workers Power announced their withdrawal from the Alliance, arguing that the SWP had now entrenched the idea of a cross-class electoral bloc. Other "dissidents" have decided to stay and fight but will be discussing the future both in Birmingham and nationally. What is absolutely clear is that the harm done to the SA has possibly been irreparable.


Plainly, from the above catalogue of events, the damage to the Left in Birmingham has been immense - weakening anti-war work as well as the attempt to set up a principled left opposition to New Labour. We hope that before people make comments regarding Birmingham - and generalising from the Birmingham experience - they will take careful note of our Open Letter.

Signed by, in alphabetical order (N.B. those with an asterisk after their name have recently resigned from the Socialist Alliance):

Sue Blackwell
Joyce Canaan
Pete Duffy
Steve Godward
Rehan Hafeez (not his real name - see elsewhere on this site)
John Knowles
Bernie McAdam *
Miriam Muller *
Dave Rogers
Arash Shakib,
Sarah Teversham
Alan Thomas
Sue Thomas *
Harry Watson
Mia Werson

This site is owned and maintained by Sue Blackwell.
It was last updated on 1st May 2008.