This article is reproduced with the kind permission of The Norwich Radical

By Rowan Gavin

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault, victim blaming, abuse and manipulation, transphobia

Why do so many organisations and activists refuse to work with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)?

Because it is still led by many of the same figures who attempted to cover up a sexual assault scandal known as the ‘Comrade Delta’ incident just over ten years ago.

Because it operates a widespread strategy of organisational capture of other activist groups, attempting to infiltrate them and get SWP members into leadership positions.

Because accounts from former members present a consistent picture of an internal culture characterised by gaslighting, bigotry and the repression of dissent.

This article aims to set out a clear and detailed case for why the conscious activist should refuse to work with the SWP, using the best available sources about the past decade or so of the Party’s history and the combined experiences of many Norwich activists.

Who or what is Comrade Delta?

While the SWP has a longer history of controversy (more on that below), the inciting incident that led to many organisations cutting ties with the Party was the news that broke in 2013 about the handling of sexual assault allegations made against former National Secretary Martin Smith. Smith was referred to as ‘Comrade Delta’ by the Party and the press during the scandal, but his identity seems to have been an open secret among Party members at the time.

The most comprehensive recounting of the events surrounding the allegations against Smith, which are collectively known as ‘the Comrade Delta scandal’ and spanned several years from 2010-13, can be found in a lengthy New Statesman feature of May 2014 by Edward Platt. A 2016 blog by David Renton, a former SWP member who was in close contact with various people connected to the scandal at the time, provides a more digestible account of events.

The following is a basic timeline of the scandal, assembled from these sources along with an extensive bibliography of news reports, comment pieces, member testimonies and the SWP’s own blogs from the time (for a full list of sources, see the bibliography linked below).

  • In 2010, a 19-year-old SWP member known as Comrade W raises a complaint about Smith, accusing him of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Other members who speak to W come to believe that she was raped by Smith.
  • The complaint is investigated internally, primarily by Charlie Kimber of the Party’s Central Committee. Kimber reportedly tells W that he believes her account of Smith’s behaviour, and that disciplinary action will be taken against Smith. Meanwhile, allies of Smith allegedly ostracise members who support W, forcing some of them out of the organisation.
  • The ‘disciplinary action’ results in Smith being demoted from the position of National Secretary. However, he remains on the Central Committee, the de facto leadership organisation of the Party. Dissatisfied with this outcome, Comrade W leaves the Party in the Autumn of 2010.
  • At the Party’s conference in January 2011, several leading figures take to the stage to ‘explain’ Smith’s demotion. Little to no mention is made of sexual assault or the nature of Smith’s misconduct. Smith himself speaks, describing the accusations against him as “empty”, and receives a standing ovation. Younger members later report being confused and appalled by the event.
  • In 2012, following the Party’s participation in anti-rape campaigning, Comrade W rejoins the SWP. She brings her accusations against Smith to the Party’s Disputes Committee for further investigation, now saying herself that she was raped.
  • The Committee is assembled and schedules a hearing for October 2012. The majority of its members are friends of Smith’s and/or staffers he had appointed. 
  • At around this time, a second woman, known as Comrade X, comes forward with allegations of further sexual misconduct on the part of Smith. X is an SWP employee. The Disputes Committee hears her complaint but declines to investigate it further.
  • Weeks ahead of the hearing, Smith is provided with details of the case Comrade W plans to bring. W is not given any access to the evidence he presents in his defence until the day of the hearing itself. W reportedly leaves the hearing in tears, after having been subjected to victim-blaming attitudes, and questions about her sex life and drinking habits.
  • Following the hearing, the Disputes Committee vote by majority to take no action against Smith.
  • At no point during this process do either the Party leadership or Comrade W take the case to the police or the courts. The Disputes Committee chooses not to seek legal advice, even from legal professionals within the SWP membership.
  • In November 2012, four members of the Party are expelled after the Central Committee get wind of a private conversation they had on Facebook in which they questioned the decision to exonerate Smith. They become known as ‘the Facebook four’.
  • At Party conference, 4th-6th January 2013, the Disputes Committee reports on its verdict to members. Comrade W is not permitted to speak, though other members including Comrade X speak on her behalf, asking delegates to reject the Committee’s report. The motion to accept the report narrowly passes, by 231 votes for to 209 against, with 18 abstentions.
  • On 8th February, a group of 64 members co-sign a letter published on the blog Socialist Unity which announces the creation of an official faction within the SWP called ‘In Defence of Our Party’. The faction calls for a review of Disputes Committee procedures and for Smith to stand down from all roles within the Party. Signatories include former members of the Central Committee such as Ian Birchall, the biographer of Party founder Tony Cliff, and Pat Stack, who chaired the Disputes Committee during Comrade W’s hearing.
  • Calls for a special conference to address the concerns of this faction spring up within the membership. The Central Committee initially rejects these calls, but then changes tack and announces a special conference for 10th March, setting an unusually short deadline of less than a month for members to submit motions.
  • The Central Committee insists that the purpose of the special conference was to reaffirm the decisions of the January conference. The delegates vote to support the leadership position, but longstanding members allege that many of those involved in the vote had not been seen at previous conferences and may have been specially brought in by leadership.
  • Between the conferences in January and March 2013, the mainstream press picks up the story. Guardian journalists report having spoken to a third woman who claimed to have been raped by a leading member of the Party.
  • In the aftermath of the special conference, there is a mass exodus of members from the Party. Estimates of how many members leave during this time vary, but it seems that by July between 400-700 had quit, including some former Central Committee members.
  • Some time after the special conference, Smith also leaves the Party. In the summer of 2013, the Disputes Committee reaches a new conclusion that Smith would have a case to answer in relation to Comrade X’s allegations, but that as he is no longer a member he is now outside of their jurisdiction.

Stacking the complaints process against the victims; quashing dissent on the issue through dismissals and distraction tactics; repeatedly refusing to discuss the matter directly in Party communications – the Comrade Delta case has all the hallmarks of a failed coverup, initiated to defend an abusive man in a position of institutional power. It is these events that many activists and organisations are referring to when they describe the SWP leadership as rape apologists.

But, horrific and damning as this scandal is, you might reasonably wonder whether it is fair to continue to tar the organisation with the same brush over ten years later. 

In fact, the SWP Central Committee itself made a statement on 16th May this year which describes the processes of the investigation into Comrade W’s case as “entirely inadequate” and attempts to apologise for the handling of the case.

Despite this token apology, there is significant evidence that very little has changed within the Party, both in terms of leadership and of culture, since the events of the Comrade Delta scandal.

Where are they now?

A summary of the January 2013 conference was posted to the SWP blog shortly after the conference concluded. The blog, which mentions the factional disagreement that took place at the conference but makes no mention of the allegations against Smith, ends by listing the ten people who were elected to the Central Committee. This January, a similar blog was posted to the SWP’s new website, summarising the 2024 conference. It also lists the membership of the Central Committee, which has now grown to 15 elected officers.

Of the ten people who were elected to the Central Committee in 2013, eight remain in 2024: Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Charlie Kimber, Joseph Choonara, Julie Sherry, Mark Thomas, Michael Bradley and Weyman Bennett. Indeed, those same eight have been reelected to the Committee at SWP conference every year since 2013. In short, the party is still led by most of the same people who were responsible for the total mishandling of the Comrade Delta case.

Following the SWP’s statement of 16th May this year, an anonymous blog post of 21st May titled ‘Apology Not Accepted’ was shared by Renton and others. It is apparently written by Comrade W, the first woman who came forward with accusations against Smith. In it, W calls out the Central Committee’s failings in handling her case:

“the leadership of the SWP weren’t just bystanders to procedural mishap, they were actively involved in trying to stop the case from being heard, and they fought for two whole years to defend the outcome of the committee. In the process, they not only sanctioned but in some cases actively cultivated a culture of bullying and intimidation.”

She goes on to specifically mention Weyman Bennett, who “privately and publicly told people that I was a police spy”, and Alex Callinicos, who she says “played a key role” in reframing conversation within the Party around issues of democracy and organisation in order to distract from the rape allegations against Smith.

Smith himself seems to have disappeared from the public eye since 2013; his Wikipedia page ends with a brief description of the Comrade Delta scandal. According to Renton, in Summer 2013 he was spotted at a central London pub with a group of 100 or so SWP members who had been part of his faction within the party. Later that year he was awarded a funded PhD in the Social Work department of Liverpool Hope University, resulting in protests by students and local feminist activists. SWP member Michael Lavalette was head of the department at the time, and is still a Professor there, but Smith is not listed under their current staff records.

What even is the SWP anyway?

Tony Cliff, a former Zionist living in London, founded the Socialist Review Group in 1950. Its core ideological position was opposition to the expansion of the Soviet state under Stalin – instead, Cliff encouraged fellow socialists in Britain to look back to the work of Lenin and Trotsky for their revolutionary method. The group was renamed as the International Socialists in 1960, and then became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977.

The SWP is not itself registered with the Electoral Commission as a political party. However, its members have stood as candidates in various elections over the years as part of multiple coalition organisations, including the Socialist Alliance from 1999-2005, and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition from 2010-2017, when it left following a dispute relating to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Legally speaking, the SWP seems to currently exist as two companies: Larkham Printers & Publishers Limited and Sherborne Publications Limited. Larkham was incorporated in 1977 (under the name Witchbay Limited for its first year of existence); Sherborne in 1991. Companies House records show members of the current Central Committee listed as the two company’s officers. 

These companies’ primary stated purpose is the publication of Socialist Worker, the infamous SWP-run newspaper. However, the small print at the back of issues of the paper says that it is “Printed by trade union labour at Reach Printing Services”. 

Reach PLC is a media conglomerate and owner of the MirrorStar and Express, known for buying up local papers en masse and reducing them to vehicles for advertising. Reach Printing Services does not list Socialist Worker on its ‘Our Clients’ page.

Trot tactics

The SWP employs a variety of controversial tactics in its campaigning and organising work. It is most famous for its invasive approach to distributing and advertising the Socialist Worker.

SWP activists frequently flood protests organised by other groups with high-quality posters and placards, emblazoned with some slogan relevant to that particular movement under a header advertising the Socialist Worker. SWP members can often be seen attempting to sell papers at protests or community events that they were not invited to.

I’ve been attending demos and protests of various kinds in Norwich for over a decade, and have witnessed SWP paper sellers in action many times. They usually target younger people, or those they assume are not familiar with the Party’s recent history. Some attempt to avoid more seasoned activists who might raise objections to their presence; others seek out objections in order to stoke conflict and draw attention to themselves. One local SWP activist has a reputation for getting particularly loud and aggressive with little provocation.

if I knew then all of what I know now I would have walked away, but I was a vulnerable young activist, trapped by the feeling that I had to do something

Handing out placards and selling posters is the most visible form of the Party’s widespread tactic of attempting to capture and control social movements. Since the ‘70s, the SWP has been known for founding front organisations in attempts to coordinate and influence broader leftist action while disguising its Marxist and Trotskyist tendencies. Some of its most famous fronts include: the Anti-Nazi League, which claimed partial credit for the famous Rock Against Racism concerts; the Stop The War Coalition, which was one of the organisers of the million-strong march against the Iraq War in 2003; and Stand Up To Racism (SUTR), which was founded in 2013 at the height of the Comrade Delta scandal.

SUTR is a particularly revealing case study of SWP tactics. Like most of its front organisations, the SWP founded SUTR with the support of various other organisations and high-profile figures to lend it legitimacy. However, it retains significant control over the group – Weyman Bennett, one of the core Central Committee members who led the SWP through the Comrade Delta scandal, is SUTR’s secretary and co-convener. SUTR placards and branding are startlingly similar in style to the SWP’s in-house materials, though they leave off the usual Socialist Worker header.

When SUTR positioned itself as a key player in the anti-Trump solidarity protests of 2016-17, ex-SWP members and other activists repeatedly attempted to raise the alarm about its complicity in rape apologism. Jeremy Corbyn and other figures from Labour and the left faced criticism for speaking at SUTR events.

At the time, I was a recent graduate involved in organising a solidarity demo for the day of Trump’s inauguration. It had originally been under the auspices of a Green Party-organised group focused on the impacts of Brexit, but I quickly found myself shouldering full responsibility for the event with little support. In those circumstances, it was encouraging to be approached by a local group connected to something called ‘Stand Up To Racism’, who were able to offer their help in promoting the event.

It wasn’t until someone I knew from my student union asked me in the street ‘Are the Greens working with the SWP now?’ that I started to learn about the SWP’s front network and the events of 2010-13. It was crushing. I put a brave face on it and went ahead with the demo anyway – if I knew then all of what I know now I would have walked away, but I was a vulnerable young activist, trapped by the feeling that I had to do something and without any other obvious avenues to do it.

Stories like this are all too common. Just last year, the local branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) was shut down by its committee, which was comprised of former SWP members and trade unionists among others. They initiated the shutdown rather than face criticism from Palestinian and other POC activists who reported experiencing racism and gatekeeping within the group. In April, a ‘new branch’ of Norfolk PSC was launched, with a nominated committee including known local SWP activists such as Mary Littlefield, who has written for Socialist Worker. Since its formation it has been working with the Norwich branch of the Stop The War Coalition, which also features SWP activists in prominent roles.

Cult culture

Coming into contact with the SWP’s deceptive method of organising through its fronts is a painful experience for many young people taking their first steps into organising. It is frustrating and alarming to see hard-working activists, who profess commitment to vital causes like anti-racism or trans rights, simultaneously align themselves with an organisation with a history of institutionalised misogynist abuse.

Why do they continue living with this doublethink, more than a decade on from the events that destroyed the Party’s credibility? In my research, I have identified two key reasons: because Party policy requires them to, and because the internal culture of the SWP is still rife with abusive practices.

One key element of the SWP’s organising model is a form of decision making it calls ‘democratic centralism’. Each year, there is a three month period leading up to Party conference in which members are allowed to form factions and develop policies to put to conference. At conference, proposals by factions and by the leadership are put to a simple majority vote by delegates. Afterward, for nine months of the year until the lead up to the next conference, members are expected to act in complete support of the policies passed at conference, even if they do not themselves agree with them. Those that fail to do so may be censured or summarily dismissed – as was the case with the Facebook four during the Comrade Delta crisis.

It is frustrating and alarming to see hard-working activists, who profess commitment to vital causes like anti-racism or trans rights, simultaneously align themselves with an organisation with a history of institutionalised misogynist abuse.

In short, SWP leadership requires members’ total loyalty to the ‘party line’ at all times. This goes some way to explaining why local SWP paper sellers, when challenged about the handling of the Delta case, tend to loudly and defensively insist that ‘nothing was proven’ and that the Party has reformed its practices. That is precisely the line that the conferences of 2013 and 2014 voted to endorse, and so they risk expulsion from the Party if they say otherwise.

But it is not only fear of expulsion that has the Party’s remaining members standing by its leadership on their handling of Delta so many years on.

Ex-member testimonies from as far back as 1995 speak to an abusive culture within the organisation. They describe how ex-members feel “traumatised” and “disoriented” by their experiences, how Party leaders rely on the unpaid labour of people of colour while subjecting them to flagrant racism, or how leadership have continued to dismiss allegations of misogynist bullying years on from the supposed reform of practices that Party leaders claimed took place in 2013-2014.

One particularly striking account was published to Tumblr in April by an anonymous young trans person, who spent four months as an SWP member in 2023. Their message was clear: “the Socialist Workers Party hasn’t changed and actively poses a threat to young activists”. Even in their short time in the Party, they witnessed or were subject to an extreme range of abusive and problematic behaviour, including:

  • the treatment of marginalised members as disposable;
  • a total lack of care for accountability or member safety;
  • explicit co-opting of minority struggles to patch up the Party’s reputation;
  • a complete lack of transparency about disputes or complaint procedures;
  • a “creepy” refusal to discuss the Comrade Delta case;
  • extensive gaslighting and guilt-tripping in response to questions or criticism;
  • consistent and blatant transphobia in the words and actions of longstanding members;
  • repeated instances of non-consensual physical contact;
  • an absurd degree of censorship in private group chats.

This is the culture that surrounds SWP members. They are constantly told that they should avoid contact with other left-wing organisations, that it’s unhelpful to ask too many questions, that building the party takes priority over all other concerns. Many members are traumatised by their experiences in this environment, but often don’t feel able to leave unless they are lucky enough to have support networks outside the Party. Perhaps it is not surprising that the remaining members have such a distorted view of the Comrade Delta scandal and how their Party’s culture enables so much abuse.

So what now?

It is not clear why exactly the SWP chose to make their empty apology post now, in May 2024. The anonymous former member who posted to Tumblr in April later reported hearing rumours that the post was an attempt at damage control made in direct response to their whistleblowing.

However, according to a post by the steering group of rs21, a group founded by ex-SWP members after the Comrade Delta scandal, the apology post was not shared by the Party’s official accounts or any of its core members on social media. They speculate that the post is intended as a resource for members, who can share it with potential recruits to assuage their concerns about the Party’s history of enabling abuse.

Notably, the next iteration of the annual Marxism conference run by the SWP is coming up in July – at time of writing, an ad for the conference appears rather conspicuously in the middle of the apology post. Disappointingly, popular left-wing figures including Jeremy Corbyn appear on the programme for the event, alongside SWP stalwarts like Callinicos and Bennett. It remains to be seen whether the election called for July 4th will disrupt the conference, but it is certainly believable that the apology post was partly made to reassure potential attendees of Marxism 2024.

Whatever other contextual factors the SWP may be responding to, I think the ‘Apology Not Accepted’ writer is on the money in calling out the post as a calculated and undeserved attempt to rehabilitate their reputation. A similar attempt is being made here in Norwich. I was originally prompted to start work on this piece back in March, when I was shocked to see posters around town advertising a “Public meeting hosted by the Socialist Workers Party” for International Women’s Day. 

That’s right: an organisation with a documented history of rape apologism has the gall to openly organise an event for International Women’s Day. Clearly, they feel enough time has passed that they can come out from the shadow cast by their front organisations to prey on vulnerable activists again.

Locally, SWP activity extends beyond that one IWD event. According to the Instagram page of the Norwich Socialist Worker Student Society (which is not actually an official student society at UEA), Norwich SWP are organising regular ‘public meetings’ on a variety of political topics. That page also provides a link to, but that site doesn’t seem to actually exist.

If you know anyone who has expressed interest in the SWP, who has worked with one of their front organisations, or who has just innocently bought a copy of Socialist Worker, please direct them to this article or to some of the sources listed here. They deserve to know the truth that the SWP leadership are still so keen to deny in their deluded attempts to continue ‘building the party’. They may be keen to repair their reputation, but we don’t have to let them.


Editors note: a correction was made to this article shortly after publication clarifying who was involved in the shutdown of Norwich PSC last year.

Featured image credit: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr

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