The Socialist Unity Network
Andy Newman is a member of the Socialist Alliance's national executive.

End of an Era?

Andy Newman

The recent decision by the SWP to withdraw from commercial printing came as a big surprise. They are also selling the premises of their print shop.

Since the early 1970s the commercial operation of the SWP, East End Offset, has provided a steady income for the party: printing publications as diverse as Private Eye and the Morning Star, as well the SWP's own papers and magazines.

Indeed this source of income has party insulated the SWP from the financial consequences of up and downs in its membership. Today the SWP has a full time apparatus of around 100 employees totally disproportionate to its effective membership (estimated at around 1500). Alongside the annual financial appeals, the commercial profits from printing have allowed the SWP to continue to raise a relatively high national profile, despite the fact that its membership seems to have been steadily falling since the early 1990s.

Having an exaggerated professional apparatus has also historically been a problem for the Militant/Socialist Party. In recent years this has allowed the SP to project a profile higher than its political significance, and it has encouraged the cadre of the SP to overestimate the ability of their organisation to fill the gap to the left of Labour without engaging any longer in a left unity project.

Given the significance to the SWP of its printing operation, the manner of the decision may seem surprising. A letter was sent to the 100 National Committee members from the Central Committee, announcing that the decision had already been made. Surely a decision with such far-reaching consequences to the organisation should have been fully debated, with the various options put before the membership though Internal Bulletins?

The reasons given for the closure are threefold:

  1. there is only a limited commercial market for newsprint not in full colour
  2. upgrading to handle full colour is not viable
  3. the party's publications need to be in full colour to compete

To me, these reasons don't really stack up. The SWP's claim that "all of this represents a consolidation of our position & will strengthen the Party & its publications" sounds remarkably like an attempt to dress up bad news as a step forward.

The idea there is no market for monochrome and two tone printing is dubious, as many provincial local papers are still printed mainly in one or two colours, using similar technology to East End Offset. According to the newspaper society this is the fastest growing sector of the market. In any event, it can be assumed that the managerial and staffing costs of East End Offset are lower than equivalent commercial enterprises, and they probably have less industrial relations problems.

The SWP's internal weekly mailing, Party Notes, claims that an upgrade would cost 1 million and spending this much would be crazy. However as an established national print firm with 30 years experience and national titles in its portfolio, a bank loan would have been available. The SWP membership and the wider support for Socialist Worker could also have generated 500000 for a specific upgrade appeal. If other commercial printing firms are upgrading -then why not East End Offset? It is in any event not clear why this has come to a head so suddenly, the daily tabloids have been full colour for the last ten years or more.

The SWP says that their paper has to be full colour, and that the competitor magazines for Socialist Review are full colour. Both of there arguments are open to question. People buy SW for its political content not its print quality. The high price of 80p compared to 35p for the Mirror or 60p for the Independent is a bigger difference than the lack of full colour.

An interesting point of comparison of course is that back in 1973 when the IS acquired its current presses Socialist Worker under Roger Protz's editorship had a paid sale of around 20000 per week. In addition the various Rank and File papers were selling thousands of copies. This meant that the IS's own publications made the print-shop viable. This is a good comparison as the Swindon Evening Advertiser today has a paid print run of 26000, and is a commercially viable printing press. The SWP has not for many years published its sales figures, but I estimate a paid sale of 5000 is optimistic.

This also raises the question of what the SWP sees as competitor magazines for Socialist Review? That is anyone's guess. I think this is the one publication in the SWP's stable that is still consistently worth reading, although it could be much better if it opened its editorial policy to allow a debate with other strands of opinion.

So what is really going on? We can only speculate.

It has been a bad year in some ways for the SWP. It has failed to grow out of the anti-war movement, in spectacular contrast to a very real growth during the 1991 gulf war.

Although the Stop the War Coalition was a fantastic achievement, it was very demanding on the SWP. In many areas of the country only a minority of SWP comrades were actively involved with Stop the War on a week by week basis - for example I understand that only two SWP members have been attending Bristol StWC weekly meetings. This has led to a certain fatigue for some, and a bit of disengagement with the rest of the movement for others. What is more there has been a failure of the whole left to really engage with the argument of whether we could have stopped the war if we had made some different tactical decisions after 15th February. This has led to subsequent anti-war activity being a bit aimless.

Similarly, the launch of RESPECT has led to some wear and tear on the SWP. Although there were special meetings open to all members to discuss RESPECT, there was no internal bulletin produced in this period, so competing opinions were not enfranchised. The tactical decision to ban Socialist Alliance candidates in the June elections was not even discussed with SWP members on the SA national executive - yet I believe this has proved counterproductive in demobilising a wider layer of SA activists who would otherwise have been active building both the SA and RESPECT.

In this context, I think the SWP is overstretched and has been spending beyond its means, gambling on a new influx of members that has not materialised. I don't know about RESPECT's finances, but I also fear that the cost of a full nationwide mailing has placed a financial strain onto the SWP.

I therefore suspect that the SWP are pulling out of printing and selling the premises just to balance the books.

Whatever happens, after June 10th the SWP needs to open itself up to a debate about decisions made over the last few months, and how it can move forward as an organisation. If it is not too late the decision to close East End Offset should be postponed until the membership is able to make an informed, collective decision on whether this valuable resource for the movement should be lost. It is time for the SWP to open the books!

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June 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism