The Gerard Coyne danger

Stan Keable reports on debates on the Unite election, the Chatham House left and our criticisms of the LPM fraction

As readers will know, union branch nominations for the post of Unite general secretary closed on June 7, and voting will take place from July 5 to August 23.1

Four candidates – one rightwinger and three on the left – achieved the 174 nominations from more than two regions required to get a place on the ballot paper – that minimum equals 5% of Unite’s 3,474 branches. For a while, only the three left candidates had reached the threshold, but hopes of a left-only contest were dashed when rightwinger Gerard Coyne scraped through with 196 nominations. For the left, this changed the question from ‘which candidate do you prefer’ to ‘which two should stand down’, so as not to repeat the Unison debacle, where Dave Prentis’s continuity candidate, Christina McAnea, held the top post on a minority vote against a divided left.

The number of nominations becomes a secondary question once the threshold has been crossed. Coyne will be backed to the hilt by the press, the BBC and the Labour right. Back in 2017 Len McCluskey seemed to be way in front, with 1,185 branch nominations to Coyne’s mere 187. But Coyne gained 41.5% of the vote and was only narrowly defeated by McCluskey (45.4%) on a 12.2% turnout, although third-placed leftwinger Ian Allinson took 13.1% of the vote, so the total left vote amounted to 58.5%. So this time, if there were a single left candidate, Coyne would have an uphill struggle … but could still win.

The forces that support Coyne have already chosen Howard Beckett as their favourite demon. At the June 12 Labour Left Alliance organising group meeting the Labour Party Marxists successful motion – accepted by the LLA OG with just two votes against – calls on Unite members to vote for Beckett “as the best, or least worst, of the three ‘left’ candidates on offer”. It notes “the targeting of Howard Beckett by the BBC, the Murdoch press and the Labour right, including Tom Watson and Margaret Hodge, and his suspension from Labour Party membership for speaking out against Tory government deportations”.

In the LLA-organised hustings, Beckett pledged “to call out the witch-hunt against the Labour left and to support those who have been unjustly suspended and expelled from the Labour Party”. Good – but don’t hold your breath. “On the negative side,” the motion continues, “we note that he rejects the socialist principle of ‘a worker’s representative on a worker’s wage’ – that socialist trade union officials – and MPs – should live on a skilled worker’s wage … Howard Beckett is a product of the trade union bureaucracy, a well-paid, careerist, left bureaucrat.”

As for the other candidates, former Militant member Steve Turner has made clear his departure from left politics, while Sharon Graham’s key campaign slogan, “to take our union back to the workplace”, is probably code for downgrading Unite’s involvement in internal Labour Party struggles (enough to get her the SWP’s backing – textbook economism).

Speaking of former Militant members, the Socialist Party in England and Wales is giving a master class in tailism, when it comes to the election. SPEW’s preference for both Beckett and Sharon Graham and its gentle criticisms of Turner appear to be governed by diplomacy – by which left bureaucrat members and supporters have been working with. SPEW’s June 9 statement, after nominations closed, calls Coyne “a direct representative of big business and the Starmerites”, and notes Steve Turner’s “compliant approach both industrially and politically, reflected in him clearly not being prepared to challenge Starmer as Labour leader.” Consequently, “… we believe it is Steve who should step down as a candidate in favour of Sharon or Howard to carry the battle against Coyne.”

Daniel Platts

At the June 12 LLA OG meeting, 16 delegates from affiliated local groups and political organisations attended, to decide LLA’s position. Two motions in support of Howard Beckett were on the table. The LLA trade union group motion offered only uncritical support, which was why LPM submitted an alternative motion setting out a principled approach, which I am pleased to say is now LLA policy:

Trade unions limit competition between workers, thus securing a better price for labour-power. They represent a tremendous gain for the working class, drawing millions of workers into collective activity against employers.

Of course, left to itself, trade union consciousness is characterised by sectionalism. At best trade union consciousness attempts to constantly improve the lot of workers within capitalism. At worst trade union consciousness degenerates into business unionism and sacrificing the interests of workers for the sake of capitalist competitiveness and profitability.

We openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism. We do this by always putting forward the general interest of the working class, by fighting for workers’ unity and by fully involving the rank and file in decision-making.

Bargaining is a specialist activity. Consequently the trade unions need a layer of functionaries. However, due to lack of democratic control and accountability these functionaries have consolidated themselves into a conservative caste.

The trade union bureaucracy is more concerned with amicable deals and preserving union funds than with the class struggle. Operating as an intermediary between labour and capital, it has a real, material interest in the continued existence of the wage system.

Within the trade unions we fight against bureaucracy by demanding:

  • Trade unions must be free of any interference or control by the state or employer.
  • No trade union official to be paid above the average wage of a worker in that particular union.
  • All full-time trade union officials must be elected, accountable and instantly recallable.
  • All-embracing workplace committees. Organise all workers, whatever their trade, whether or not they are in trade unions. Workplace committees should fight to exercise control over hiring and firing, production and investment.
  • One industry, one union. Industrial unions are rational and enhance the ability of workers to struggle. Given the international nature of the capitalist system and the existence of giant transnational companies, trade unions also need to organise internationally.

Daniel Platts of the steering committee proposed an amendment (which, thankfully was defeated, but gained four votes), replacing our description of the limits of “trade union consciousness”, with Daniel’s view of the limits of trade unions. He evidently overlooked, or did not understand, the well known Marxist formulation in the very next sentence: “We openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism.” Here is his text:

At best trade unions can illustrate the power of the working class within society, by stopping the means of production against the wishes of the capitalist class. But rarely does this happen on any considerable scale, and usually the best they offer are merely attempts to improve the lot of workers within capitalism.

I can only recommend a visit to and reading again – or perhaps for the first time – Lenin’s What is to be done?

Chatham House left

The LLA meeting started with a political opening by Roger Silverman on behalf of the steering committee. Comrade Roger reminded us that the right would “never repeat their mistake” of allowing a left leader of the Labour Party to be elected, and noted “calls for a new party” as a result – but warned of the long list of failed left splits from Labour. However, he spoke of a “huge explosion” of discontent building up around the world: “The counterattack is coming. That will be the basis for a left split.”

In the discussion, I argued against aiming for a left split, saying we need serious Marxist organisation now, to fight inside and outside Labour. Whether or not the left is forced out of the party, the need for a socialist programme and serious organisation stands.

LPM is, of course, an opposition faction within the LLA, whose conferences have twice rejected the aim of replacing capitalism with socialism and the aim of a classless, moneyless, stateless world. So I was truly (and pleasantly) surprised to hear Daniel Platts’s confession on behalf of the LLA SC: “Most of us realised pretty quickly [after the LLA conference] that we had made a massive oversight in not putting ‘socialism’ into the LLA’s aims.” Then Tina Werkmann interjected, quite rightly: “And a membership structure!”

Yes, an individual membership structure – an essential requirement for the effective democratic organisation of socialists – has also been rejected twice. Without either a Marxist political programme or a serious organisation, we believe the LLA will remain part of the failed official Labour left, which it was set up to replace. So we should look for opportunities to draw out and emphasise sharp lines of demarcation between principled positions which consciously uphold the long-term general interests of the working class as a whole, and unprincipled compromises which accommodate to short-term sectional interests – the career interests of the latest official left bureaucrat or MP on offer, for example.

This brings me to the second main item: the – secret – left unity talks between 25 or so groups under the title, ‘Future of the Labour left’, hosted by Don’t Leave, Organise. In respect of this, LPM had submitted a motion titled ‘Accountability’. The motion reaffirmed that, according to the LLA constitution, “the LLA officers and steering committee are accountable to the OG”, and complained that the SC minutes provided to the OG suggest that “full reporting of this activity was not happening”. The OG therefore requires SC representatives attending the talks to “produce a full work report for scrutiny at each meeting of the organising group”.

The two LLA representatives in the talks, at the three meetings which have taken place so far, were Tina Werkmann and Tasib Mughal. While the SC majority were clearly uncomfortable with the Chatham House rule – the ban on reporting – they supported comrade Tina’s view that it was better to have a voice inside, so as to know what was being decided and to influence the discussions, than to be kicked out for disobeying the gagging order. Comrade Tina’s seemingly innocuous amendment, replacing a “full” report by a “verbal or written” one, actually meant ‘verbal only’. She gave the reason for this explicitly: anything written “will end up in the Weekly Worker”, and – she believes – would be met by the LLA’s immediate exclusion from the talks.

For LPM, openness is a principle which the working class needs if it is to become the ruling class. So there should be no place for the Chatham House rule in the workers’ movement.


Following the LLA OG meeting, the LPM steering committee has been critical of the position taken by the LPM fraction for not contesting unprincipled elements in the motions and amendments that were voted through.

For example, we should have insisted that the principled LPM motion for critical support for Howard Beckett was a replacement for the motion of uncritical support. The motions were not complementary, so we should have voted against the uncritical motion. The fraction should also have rejected the uncritical sentence praising Howard Beckett, in that he is “by far the best of the three left candidates to be our standard bearer”.

We should also have rejected outright the amendment from Tina Werkmann to LPM’s ‘Accountability’ motion, replacing the requirement for a “full” report by a “verbal or written” report. Finally, as well as requiring LLA SC representatives in the talks to report fully to the OG, the LPM motion should have gone further, and required them to publish a full report of each meeting.

  1. Official info is available at; and↩︎

Coups, putsches and revolutions

Not only real, but counterfactual history too, can provide valuable political insights. Derek James reports on the Spring Communist University, held over the long bank holiday weekend of April 30-May 3

Organised by the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists, Spring 2021 CU, was designed, in part, to cast a sharp light on the momentous January 6 events in Washington. Titled ‘Coups, putsches and revolutions’, its aim was, though, designed not just to assess what exactly happened with Donald Trump, Capitol Hill, the boogaloos, the DC police and the servile GOP establishment, but to provide a much wider picture, so that we can draw operative conclusions when it comes to our own revolutionary practice in the future.

Speakers came from three continents, and there were participants from Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland, the United States and a whole number of other countries besides. There was, too, a wide range of leftwing opinions and factional alignments in contention. From our point of view, all very welcome. We positively seek to promote internationalism, frank and honest debate on the left and, of course, the unity that is only possible on the solid foundations provided by a principled Marxist minimum-maximum programme.

David Broder began the series of talks with ‘Mussolini’s march on Rome – glorious myth and sordid reality’. As he headed the world’s first expressly fascist regime, the study of Benito Mussolini’s rise to power is an important starting point for our understanding of the nature of fascism, and raises the question of how far we can define what happened in October 1922 as a coup. David outlined the main events leading up to the ‘March on Rome’ and how the fascist movement could be described as heading a “preventative counterrevolution” to deal with the challenge that the militant Italian working class movement posed to capitalism and the constitutional order. He argued that the fascists were not simply an instrument of capital, but constituted a middle class reaction which had its own dynamics.

Basing himself on this movement of the petty bourgeoisie, Mussolini was able to act as an interlocutor and a political broker between the movement and the liberal political elite, the state and the Catholic church. The March on Rome was in no way a ‘revolution’, but rather a piece of theatre – part of a process of political manoeuvres and negotiations between liberal politicians and Mussolini, which resulted in a coalition government in which the fascists were a minority. Comrade Broder argued that the consolidation of a fascist regime was drawn out throughout the 1920s and, although it resulted from a top-down process of integration which moulded existing state structures into a new order, its conservative economic policies and wage compression made it clear that Mussolini ruled on behalf of capital.

The resulting questions and discussion covered a wide range of issues, which also came up in other debates over the weekend. A key theme in this opening session was the nature of the working class movement during the ‘Red Years’ (1920-21) and the impact that the development of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) had on the ruling class assessment of the threat of revolution in 1922. Comrades asked why the PCd’I had failed to mobilise any effective response to fascism and discussed the impact of the Communist International’s intervention on the development of the party’s strategy. It was clear that communists internationally were faced with a new phenomenon in the form of fascism, and this was reflected in the shifting assessments of the possibilities of both revolution and fascist counterrevolution in Italy.

Furthermore, the formation of the PCd’I was coterminous with the emergence of fascism, while the debate within the international communist movement on the united front was at an early stage in 1922. For many comrades this raised the significant distinction between the united front and the popular front, and the ways in which communists should work to mobilise the labour movement against fascism and win the working class for socialist revolution were also important topics in the discussion. The issues of class, party and leadership, which were so clearly posed by the development of fascism and the consolidation of Mussolini’s regime, were of central importance and would re-emerge elsewhere in the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the 20th century.

In the following session Kevin Bean considered whether Hitler’s November 1923 ‘beer hall putsch’ was a ‘dress rehearsal for 1933’. He outlined the history of the ‘national socialist’ Nazi Party and its early development in the turbulent period of revolution and counterrevolution in Germany in the aftermath of World War I. In particular he described how the beer hall putsch illustrated the petty-bourgeois composition of the Nazi movement and its relationship with elements of the state and the ruling class. In tracing the political, social and economic dynamics that enabled the Nazis to grow into a mass movement and a significant electoral force following the 1929 great depression, comrade Bean showed how the crisis had a major impact in radicalising the petty bourgeoisie. He stressed that, whilst the Nazis had developed “autonomously” and were not simply instruments of capitalist rule, key sections of the state and the army, along with conservative and reactionary politicians, saw Adolf Hitler and his movement as useful allies to be deployed against the left and the working class. As with Mussolini, Hitler’s assumption of power as chancellor was not a ‘revolution’, but rather represented a political manoeuvre, in which German capitalism helped the Nazis to gain control of the state and launch a concentrated counterrevolutionary assault on the organisations of the working class. While the traditional bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties were eventually all abolished, the fundamental economic structures of capitalism remained untouched.

The relationship between Nazism and big business was a major theme in the subsequent discussion, along with the related question of how close Germany was to socialist revolution in this period. Attention was paid by comrades to the analysis and strategy that the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) adopted to combat the Nazis. The KPD’S so-called ‘third period’ strategy, its description of social democrats as ‘social fascists’ and the party’s failure to build an effective united front of working class organisations to fight Nazism were important topics in the discussion.

Many comrades were clear that it was the function of Nazism as a counterrevolutionary movement and its relationship with capitalism that we should stress. Above all, there was general agreement that the contemporary insights of Trotsky and his description of fascism as the mobilisation of the petty bourgeoisie into a movement – a “battering ram” – that can smash the labour movement in order to maintain the rule of monopoly capital, were useful guides, both in analysing the reasons for the defeat of the German workers’ movement in 1933, and for understanding the function such movements might play again in the future. Given the widespread tendency by many on the left to indiscriminately label all authoritarian governments and rightwing politics as ‘fascist’, this theoretical and historical clarity is vital if we are ever going to move beyond the politics of slogans and ahistorical labels.

Kornilov to Trump

The talk by Lars T Lih, on ‘How the August 1917 Kornilov coup was defeated’, discussed one of the turning points during the Russian Revolution. Lars reconsidered the widely accepted account of the attempted coup by the ex-tsarist general, and the way in which it was defeated, by taking a fresh look at the contemporary evidence and assessments of the attempted coup. He focused on the key concept of power (vlast, in Russian) in the politics of the revolution, and how conflicts about the class nature of ‘the vlast’ played out in different approaches to the army. Lavr Kornilov and the provisional government wanted to restore the old discipline, and that meant getting rid of soldiers’ soviets, long political debates and demands for the election of officers. The Bolsheviks wanted exactly the opposite.

Lars went on to look at how the defeat of the coup strengthened the left in general, and the Bolsheviks in particular. The generally accepted view on the left – reinforced by the accounts of Leon Trotsky and John Reed – was that the Bolsheviks had taken the lead in mobilising workers and soldiers to resist Kornilov and to undermine the coup by fraternising with his troops, and that this success had boosted the Bolsheviks after the low point of the July Days, when they had been driven underground, and proved to be the beginning of a sustained surge in support that culminated in the October revolution.

Lars was unsure that the Bolsheviks, as such, played the leading role, although he agreed that the soviets, where the Bolsheviks were strong, were the vital agencies for mobilising support to counter Kornilov. For Lars, the important results of the Kornilov affair were the strengthening of ‘anti-agreementism’ and the further undermining of support for Aleksandr Kerensky and his government. For the Bolsheviks, the soviets had come back to life and proved that they constituted a real and effective vlast that could now govern Russia and carry out the demands of the working class and peasants.

The discussion that followed his talk turned on both the specific and general aspects of Bolshevik tactics during the crisis. What were the political implications of the Bolsheviks’ united front strategy against Kornilov, and how applicable is it today? Some comrades made a distinction between political and military support and saw the Bolshevik approach as taking the form of a bloc with Kerensky and the provisional government against Kornilov. However, others suggested that, as war is the continuation of politics by other means, military support is political support in its most concentrated form. Thus, Bolshevik statements that they did not support the provisional government, and acted solely in defence of the soviets against the landlord-bourgeois reaction represented by Kornilov, should be taken seriously – not casually dismissed in service of unprincipled backing for various reactionary ‘third world’ regimes and movements.

Alongside this was the Bolshevik strategy of arming the working class and splitting the army rank and file away from the officers and the high command. This was key to the Bolshevik seizure of power, and today’s left should likewise take the issue of the army seriously if it wanted to build a movement to successfully overthrow the capitalist state. It was also clear from both Lars’ account and the responses that the study of revolutionary history is vitally important – not as a simplified ‘authorised version’, but rather as a subject for constant research and re-examination following a close, accurate reading of the primary evidence.

Alexander Gallus, from the American magazine Cosmonaut, led the discussion on ‘Left responses to the events of January 6’. He began by outlining some of the different positions on the left in the United States on what most saw as an attack on democracy, but found it hard to clearly define its character as an attempted coup. The two poles of the varying responses, he suggested, were provided by Left Voice and the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). There are those who see the storming of the Capitol as somehow representing working class anger against the political and economic system. Therefore there should be no siding with bourgeois liberals in condemning the attack. Others argue that Hitler had come to the USA and, that, therefore, we had to support Joe Biden to save democracy from an existential threat.

Alexander traced the origins of the attack to Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican Party and his constant questioning of the legitimacy of a Biden election victory. The protest was disorganised and, having wound up his followers, Trump departed the scene and denied all responsibility. Comrade Gallus went on to look at the wider political implications of January 6 and the first months of the Biden presidency for the development of the left in the US. The immediate task for the left, he said, should be to focus on raising working class awareness and class-consciousness by calling for the political independence of the labour movement, rather than remaining tied to the Democrats.

In the following discussion a number of comrades from the US offered a range of perspectives, both on January 6 and the long-term strategy for the left. There were differing assessments of the coup attempt, but most comrades argued that it was part of a strategy to create chaos in an attempt to change the outcome of the presidential election. Given Donald Trump’s position as head of state and commander-in-chief, this was a serious action – a self-coup that had some of the characteristics of Louis Napoleon’s 18th Brumaire, one American comrade argued. All were agreed that these dramatic events were very significant and showed the uncertainty and instability at the heart of the world hegemon.

As might be expected, the future of the Democratic Party was central to the debate. Some contributions looked at the early stages of Biden’s presidency and what his present neo-Keynesianism told us about the orientation of the US capitalist class and its relationship with the Democrats. Was it possible to develop a clear political differentiation between bourgeois politicians and the left by working within the party and standing on a Democratic ballot? One response rejected this argument and suggested that instead the left must make a savage critique of the Democrats and go for a clean break. Above all, demands for political independence should not be limited to simply calling for a ‘Labor Party’, but should instead focus on building a revolutionary Marxist party and a programme committed to the real transformation of the US.

Middle East

‘The August 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh – the CIA’s first Middle Eastern coup’, a talk given by Yassamine Mather, looked at the role of the US and Britain in overthrowing the elected prime minister in Iran. Yassamine provided a detailed background to the history of British and later American interventions in Iran, focusing both on oil and diplomatic interests, as well as explaining the close relationship between the ruling Pahlavi dynasty and British imperialism. The nationalisation of the British-owned oil industry in 1950 raised tensions between Iran and the British and formed the immediate backdrop to the coup. According to official documents released in the last 10 years, the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6, cooperated in 1953, using local agents to spread disinformation and build tension within the country. Significantly they also attempted to press the shah to dismiss Mossadegh and reverse his policies.

Whilst the shah dithered, Mossadegh seized the initiative after hearing rumours of a coup and mobilised the army to protect his position in Tehran. Despite appearing to have the upper hand, events then moved quickly against him, following a pattern of US intervention that would become familiar over the next 50 years. Local gangs, religious leaders and a wide range of ‘dirty tricks’ were used to encourage division, violence and disorder to undermine Mossadegh’s government over a four-day period in August 1953.

The CIA also persuaded policymakers of the necessity for intervention by stressing the threat to western interests posed by the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party. Troops from a rural background and loyal to the shah entered Tehran to ‘restore order’ and the US client, general Fazlollah Zahedi, was declared prime minister. This was followed by executions and thousands of arrests, which crushed the opposition and consolidated the shah’s regime.

Comrade Mather stressed that these events took place in the context of the cold war and long-standing diplomatic rivalries between imperialist powers, and later the Soviet Union, for control of Iran. She argued that the overthrow of Mossadegh’s regime helped shape Iranian politics in the years that followed and reinforced an existing hostility to foreign intervention in Iranian affairs. Above all, the coup against Mossadegh provided a model for US policy in organising future coups ‘on the cheap’ – without the direct intervention of American troops and all the bother of openly controlling a country.

In the discussion comrades looked at both the specific history and politics of Iran, and the wider issue of neo-colonialism and the cold war. There was a particular focus on the nature of imperialism and its historical origins.

Esen Uslu’s outline of ‘Turkey 1980 – the nature and the significance of the generals’ coup’ began by giving us a very detailed account of the role of the army in Turkish politics and society in the 20th century. He explained the importance of the army in the nation-building project following the end of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, and the ways in which capitalism was developed to sustain the power and role of the army. Given Turkey’s membership of Nato and its pivotal role during the cold war, the significance of the Turkish army as a political force increased in the post-1945 period, alongside the development of a military-industrial complex within the country. Comrade Uslu also stressed the importance of wider Turkish economic development, which not only resulted in the growth of an urban working class and a decline in the rural-based population, but also saw militant protests and revolutionary politics emerge in the 1960s.

In response to this growing opposition, the right launched the ‘Grey Wolves’ campaign of violence against the left and the working class movement, which only intensified the tensions and polarisation in society. The September 12 1980 coup aimed to restore order and further modernise the Turkish economy and society under the aegis of the army as the embodiment of the nation. Turkey was opened up to foreign capital, and state controls over key areas of economic life were lifted. This was combined with the repression of the opposition by the generals, who detained over 100,000 political prisoners in an attempt to stabilise the regime.

Esen also discussed the development of the Communist Party of Turkey and its record. He argued that its version of proletarian internationalism was not really related to the other struggles going on in the region: it saw the world and its neighbours through the prism of the USSR and its state interests. However, given the diplomatic support the USSR gave to the generals’ regime for its own strategic purposes, the party’s leadership was clearly in a bind and failed to adequately respond to the crisis: the result was that critics of the leadership who wanted a more determined opposition were expelled.

These issues were taken up in the discussion, along with the question of how far the coup could be accurately described as ‘fascist’. Comrades pointed to the size and militant nature of the working class movement, and how, despite that, the general’s coup all but destroyed the Turkish, as opposed to the Kurdish, left. Comrade Uslu agreed that ‘fascism’ should not be used as a catch-all term and that revolution was impossible without splitting the army.

The discussion also considered recent developments following president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s defeat of an attempted coup by dissident army units. Has the army finally been tamed? Esen thought not. There is, after all, the ongoing war against the Kurds and Turkey’s wider strategic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa and in the Turkic-speaking regions to the east. The possibilities of conflict in all these regions and the impact of this instability on the working class movement were also raised as being important factors in the immediate future.

Finishing off the sessions on military coups, Joel Beinin talked about ‘The Egyptian coup d’état of July 3 2013’. Again, this was a very detailed, informative account, which gave a clear picture of the role of the army in Egyptian society from the 1950s and the nature of the various movements and protests in the period before the 2013 coup. Joel detailed the relationship that the army had to the various elites in Egyptian society, as well as their relationship with the US. He outlined the protests against the Mubarak regime in 2011, explaining that the various strands, such as the movement amongst the youth, the protests against police repression and the demands from the intelligentsia for democracy, had little regular contact with the working class – which developed a rapidly increasing willingness to protest and strike over its own, largely economic, demands during this period.

The events of January 25, which overthrew president Hosni Mubarak, were, comrade Beinin argued, “half revolution, half coup”, with the army ‘joining’ the uprising and assuming power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – which remained in control until the inauguration of Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012. Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood – the only organised group with a national profile and coherent structure in a position to mount any real challenge to army dominance. Conflict between the elected president and the army culminated in a popular campaign for his recall, organised covertly by the army and military intelligence and supported by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates regimes.

Tensions mounted, as large-scale demonstrations – crucially those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – demanded that Morsi resign in June 2013. The army stepped in, using the familiar arguments about ‘restoring order’, and deposed the president. The coup drew in a range of support from the independent trade unions, feminists, leftists, liberals and Salafi Islamists. Those opposed to the army’s overthrow of the elected president included, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and regional powers such as Turkey, but not the left. The coup was met with demonstrations by the Brotherhood, which in turn faced severe repression and brutal violence by the army.

During his discussion of the post-coup period, comrade Beinin looked at the role of the US and its support for the Egyptian army. He also discussed the role, social composition and politics of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another important issue was the position adopted by the left, both in Egypt itself and internationally. What should our position be towards a reactionary movement like the Muslim Brotherhood and how should we react to the overthrow of an elected president like Morsi by the army? Surely, the left ought to be able to oppose the army and yet not support the Brotherhood. Surely, the left could defend a revolutionary situation and the democratic space that had been gained after the fall of Mubarak, against what was the army’s restorationist coup.

The political gymnastics undertaken by the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and its Egyptian co-thinkers in the Revolutionary Socialist group showed the ideological and political bankruptcy of many on the left. It seemed to the comrades taking part in the discussion that this would continue to be a recurring pattern in the absence of a working class party that could generalise and unite the various protests around a coherent programme as a force for socialist revolution and transformation – not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East. Interestingly, comrade Beinin, a member of the Democratic Socialists in the USA, refused to advocate a party. It is, apparently, a failed model … Egyptian workers will find their own way forward. True, in part … but sooner or later Egyptian workers will of necessity form themselves into a party (not this or that confessional sect).

Napoleon to Trump

Mike Macnair’s discussion of ‘Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 self-coup: the army, universal suffrage and referenda’ took us back to one of the seminal works of Marxism, which still has a great deal to say to us about how we can understand coups and the role of the state during a political crisis and a revolutionary period. Mike began with an account of events in France following the February 1848 revolution and the suppression of the French workers’ movement during ‘June Days’. He explained the dynamics of the revolutionary period and showed how, in the aftermath of this repression, the ‘alliance’ between the working class and the republican middle class was shattered.

One of the results of the revolution was a new constitution, which granted manhood suffrage and a government headed by a directly elected executive president. The ‘Party of Order’ in the national assembly had hoped to elect a president – general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the butcher of the June Days – who could ‘save society from anarchy’, but it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who was elected in a landslide. In building support and consolidating his power, Bonaparte utilised latent nostalgia for the glories of the Napoleonic period, but also presented himself as both a man of the left and a supporter of the Catholic church, as the occasion suited.

Comrade Macnair discussed Bonaparte’s strategy after his election and the way in which he was able to manoeuvre and manipulate the divisions in the assembly and the Party of Order, alongside a media campaign to spread fake news. By placing the assembly in the wrong because they wanted to restrict male suffrage, he gained the advantage, which allowed him to move against his opponents in December 1851. His ‘18th Brumaire’ entailed bringing loyal troops into Paris and arresting leading members of the assembly. He followed this up with a plebiscite, which gave him a 92% vote in favour of extending his term in office – and a further consolidation of his power in November 1852, which saw the re-establishment of the empire – this time confirmed by a 96% majority in a referendum.

Mike concluded by looking at the role of plebiscites and manhood suffrage in legitimating the coup, together with the significance of Marx’s analysis of the character of Bonapartism. He argued that Marx’s writing on this is still taken seriously by many bourgeois historians and commentators, but that does not mean that we should treat his work as an infallible text, to be learnt and repeated ad nauseum as ‘holy writ’. Thus, he argued, we should read Marx critically as a stimulus to analysis, not simply as a form of citation grazing or the confirmation of ‘orthodoxy’.

These points helped to frame a lively discussion on the nature of Marx’s analysis of Bonapartism and the state, and how far his ‘predictions’ had been borne out by later developments in France. It also provoked a discussion on the role of referenda in bourgeois politics and what the attitude of Marxists should be towards them – especially where they are an accepted part of a constitutional system. The experience of the Brexit referendum in Britain came into the discussion, as did the classical Marxist opposition to referendums as instruments to frame political debate, weaken party politics and split the working class along artificial lines.

The penultimate session was the presentation by Daniel Lazare on ‘The nature and global significance of January 6’. Daniel’s wide-ranging opening looked at the changes in the international situation and the increasing instability, both within and between states, following the 2008 financial crash and the period of ‘endless wars’. It was in this context of political crisis and uncertainty, comrade Lazare argued, that the ruling class was faced with growing discontent and constitutional malfunctioning. Thus the emergence of populist reaction. He drew attention to the particular difficulties experienced by the US, Britain and France.

Daniel rested his case on a close analysis of the situation in the US and the political stasis that results from what he described as a pre-modern constitution, which binds a 21st century society to the dictates of the 18th century ‘founding fathers’. Focusing on the events of January 6, comrade Lazare argued that Trump aimed to create chaos and use the resulting confusion to overturn the results of the election, declare a state of emergency and so remain in office. It was a serious attempt at a coup, he believed, and cannot be easily dismissed as a comic opera. As regular readers of the Weekly Worker will know, comrade Lazare has defined the political divisions as akin to a civil war and he developed this argument during his introduction to the discussion by reference to the growth of white militia groups and the Black Lives Matter protests, and the carrying of the battle by Republicans to restrict voting rights into even more states. There may be a period of temporary calm under Biden, he argued, but he believed the structural causes of this crisis of governance cannot be easily wished away. There was every reason to believe that the political and economic crisis would only intensify in the years to come.

During the discussion these issues were taken up by a number of comrades, who agreed that January 6 was a serious coup attempt and that this showed the extent of the divisions within the American ruling class. However, given that the state – especially the army and the key bureaucratic elements – were clearly opposed to Trump, the chances of the coup succeeding were limited. Some comrades also took issue with Daniel’s claims about the pre-modern nature of the US constitution. However, at least when it comes to the future, there was agreement between comrade Lazare and ourselves that Marxists in the US need to fight to abolish the presidency, the Senate, state rights, the Supreme Court and the standing army. There has to be a new, democratic constitution.

Comrade Lazare wound up by arguing that the US faced a profound existential crisis and was increasingly dysfunctional.

Our strategy

The final session was opened by Jack Conrad on ‘Why prime minister Jeremy Corbyn would have faced a coup and how we can defeat counterrevolution’. Jack looked at the emergence of the Corbyn movement and the series of challenges his leadership faced from the Labour right and their friends in the armed forces, the secret state and the media. This required a detailed account of the politics of the last six years, but comrade Conrad concentrated on the nature of the politics of the Labour left and the reasons why the ruling class was so vicious in its attacks on Corbyn. He argued that Corbyn’s leadership was both the perfect opportunity for the Labour’s official left to demonstrate the ‘correctness’ of its strategy to achieve socialism though parliamentary gradualism and a tragic demonstration of the utopian nature of left reformism.

Jack indulged in a counter-factual thought experiment, imagining an alternative reality in which Labour had resoundingly won the December 2019 general election. What would the reaction of the ruling class be to such an extraordinary event? Comrade Conrad posited a number of constitutional options that were open to the bourgeoisie – such as the queen appointing an alternative prime minister from the Labour right, who could command a majority in the Commons. This was a perfectly constitutional process, although for a long time it had not been needed. Other options were also available, Jack continued, ranging from an organised run on the pound and a ‘strategy of tension’ to sap the will of a Corbyn-led government, through to more direct methods using the organs of the state, such as the army, intelligence services and the police, if push came to shove. The bloody experience of Chile on September 11 1973 showed what can be done against a timid left-reformist government.

The thought experiment continued with Jack suggesting that the election of a Corbyn government, even with its very limited ‘bourgeois socialist’ programme, had already produced a bourgeois fear of a crisis of expectations amongst the working class. Faced with this possibility, what would have happened? Jack ended his ‘what if’ counterfactual by suggesting that the official left’s binding commitment to a Labour government as the only way to implement a step-by-step programme of ‘socialism’ would produce a political disaster and calamitous defeat for the working class.

How would a Corbyn government and the official left have reacted to the inevitable pushback by Mike Pompeo, the Labour right, the Tories, the secret state, the media and the capitalist class? As they are not serious about challenging the constitution or the nature of state power, they would only lead our movement into a deadly trap. The historical experience of the Bolsheviks shows how we must seriously prepare for power by explaining to the working class the nature of the state and how we must undermine its counterrevolutionary power by splitting the army and winning its rank and file to the side of the revolution.

As was to be expected, comrade Conrad’s talk prompted a wide-ranging discussion on the nature of revolutionary strategy in Britain and the way in which Marxists should orientate towards Labour. Issues raised included the perspective of transforming Labour into a ‘united front of a special kind’, the relationship between the cycles and phases of economic and political struggle, and the dominant place that the ‘crisis of expectations’ occupies in the strategy of the contemporary left.

Jack summarised both the session and the Spring Communist University as a whole by arguing that political rearmament and education, such as we are undertaking, are essential if we are to arm the working class, win the movement to Marxism and build a revolutionary party that alone can see the back of capitalism.

Chatham House ‘left’

Who stands for what and who says what – such basic information should not be treated as the private property of a select few. Derek James calls for openness

After over a year of ‘political lockdown’ following Labour’s general election defeat in 2019, the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader and the continuing witch-hunt, the Labour left now stands at something of a crossroads. The ‘official left’, in the form of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the left trade union officials, have largely kept their heads down, hoping perhaps for better days ahead. Wishful thinking!

The defeat of the Corbyn movement and the ascendancy of the Labour right has only produced demoralisation and disintegration on the Labour left. Leaving aside the expulsions and suspensions, thousands have left the party, either going into ‘activist campaigns’, such as ‘Kill the Bill’, or dropping out of politics altogether.

Groups that were established to organise the left in the Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions, such as the Labour Left Alliance, have also suffered from the same process of disorientation. In a series of online conferences, rallies and meetings since March 2020, comrades have come together to discuss how we might rally the Labour left and carry the fight to the right, but all that seems to have happened is a proliferation of networks and campaigns that have not gone very far.

It was in this light that the LLA’s organising group (OG) met on Saturday April 24, with ‘left unity’ high on its agenda. In particular, members of the OG were eagerly anticipating a report about recent developments and the news (first heard in March) that sections of the organised left in the party and trade unions had been meeting to discuss a strategy to reorientate and rebuild after the defeats we have suffered. From the start we in Labour Party Marxists had warmly welcomed these discussions and fully supported the participation of the LLA in any such initiative, especially if it aimed to develop a common left slate for future national executive committee and other internal party elections.

However, our hopes that this initiative might actually be based on the adoption of a serious and principled politics were dashed. The report from the LLA representatives who had attended the meetings and the discussion on the OG showed just how far away this ‘left unity’ project really is from such politics and – what was worse – how far the majority of the LLA leadership were willing to go along with it.

Everything that was reported back to the OG showed that this initiative, far from being a new beginning, is completely suffused with the restrictive political culture and bureaucratic methods of the official left. The meetings take place using the so-called ‘Chatham House rule’, which means that there can be no reporting of who attended and who said what.

Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, is, of course, a bourgeois think tank that provides a platform for political insiders to express themselves with what for them amounts to a rare honesty. Current presidents are Baroness Manningham-Buller (former MI5 director), Lord Darling of Roulanish (former Labour chancellor) and Sir John Major (former Tory prime minister). The so-called Chatham House rule was adopted in 1927, and states: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held … participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

LLA officers seem to have taken this to the point where the “information received” is itself to be guarded. Even the LLA’s own discussion on the left unity meetings finds itself going unmentioned in the OG’s official minutes. Unbelievable! Why the secrecy? Concealing political participants, political differences and political proposals from rank-and-file scrutiny is par for the course for the bureaucrats and careerists, but what has the authentic left got to hide? Why can’t we know who has been attending the left unity meetings and learn what they said? Reports are circulating that Shami Chakrabarti has chaired meetings, with leading trade unionists from Unite, the Fire Brigades Union, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union and representatives from over 30 Labour left groups. The state and Keir Starmer certainly know who was there: why can’t the rank-and-file members of the labour movement know as well?

The Chatham House rule should have no place in the workers’ movement. The left must tell the truth to the working class: when it comes to politics we have nothing to hide; democracy requires knowledge and the open expression of differences, not privileged access to information, gagging orders and a secret inner-circle of unknown individuals. After all, knowledge is power. It enables everyone in a democratic organisation to understand what is going on, make judgements and take action on the basis of all the facts, not just what a select few wants to let us know.

The LLA was formed by leftwingers who rejected the control-freakery of Jon Lansman’s Momentum project. Yet now, by going along with the vow of silence imposed by the official left, the LLA leadership is effectively colluding in the same secretive politics and bureaucratic manoeuvring. This ‘left unity’ project is already repeating the deficiencies of the previous form of left unity it is meant to replace – the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA), in which a stultifying unity is imposed from the top and from which the politics of the militant left are excluded. In last year’s NEC elections, the LLA rejected that position: why retreat now, by falling in behind the official left, when the need to assert an authentic left position is all the greater?


The cause of unity must go hand-in-hand with principle: if we simply repeat the compromises and bureaucratic politics of the past, this can only produce yet more defeats for the left.1 The authentic left should not be content to merely act as spear-carriers or voting fodder for the official left, but should instead put forward principled conditions for its support during any discussions about joint actions. In this spirit, supporters of LPM presented a motion to the LLA’s OG. Amongst its key sections was this argument:

The slate should have a clearly defined, principled basis, which all candidates must sign up to. While the specific demands can be defined during the discussions, they should include elements such as the rejection of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) misdefinition of anti-Semitism, and the re-admittance of comrades suspended or expelled during both the ‘first’ and ‘second’ waves of the witch-hunt, along with democratic demands, such as ‘a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage’ and the accountability of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the NEC and the party conference.

The motion also put forward a clear strategy that the LLA should adopt during any negotiations about a common slate. Bearing in mind the strong showing of candidates the LLA supported during the 2020 NEC elections, LPM asserted that the LLA should have a candidate on any common left slate in a winnable position, not just a token slot at the bottom of the list. The LLA should not just go along for the ride: as far as LPM was concerned, it should not be a case of ‘unity’ at any price – essentially a repeat of “the tried and failed politics of the past that resulted in unacceptable compromises and countless retreats by the official Labour left”, as our motion put it. It concluded with a clear, principled position that, if an agreement on these terms cannot be reached amongst the left, the LLA should stand its own slate of candidates on a principled platform.

In the discussion, the same tendencies to compromise quickly became apparent. Although there was no objection to the specific demands that the LPM argued should be “the clearly defined, principled basis which all candidates must sign up to”, setting “conditions for our support during these discussions” was too rigid and would tie the hands of the LLA leadership, should they be lucky enough to be offered a seat at the negotiating table. We had to be flexible and not impose demands, we were told. Furthermore, by being insistent at this early stage, ‘the red lines’ LPM demanded would alienate potential supporters.

In response to LPM comrades’ demands for a clear and principled position, supporters of the majority of the OG suggested that we were not serious about any negotiations for ‘left unity’ and that, if the LLA adopted the LPM motion, it might result in the LLA’s exclusion from any future meetings. All familiar stuff for comrades who have been around the Labour left for more than five minutes – except this time the arguments for taking things gently and not frightening the horses came not from careerist MPs or trade union bureaucrats, but from comrades in the LLA leadership, who think of themselves as principled, left militants! The amendment that watered down the LPM motion was carried by 8 votes to 5 (no abstentions), with the substantive, neutered motion being passed by 9 votes to 5, with one abstention. Needless to say, our LPM comrades voted against the motion.

It is clear that the LLA leadership will not be informing its supporters, or its affiliated organisations, about these secret negotiations. It seems happy to treat the Chatham House rule as a ‘superinjunction.’ LPM comes from a different tradition, the tradition of openness and gaining strength by seeking out the truth. As Lenin put it: “publicity is a sword that itself heals the wounds it makes”.2 We, therefore, expose all the shady manoeuvres on the Labour left – from the split that led to two similar monthly publications called Labour Briefing to Jon Lansman’s Momentum coup in October 2016.

This was an approach applied by our co-thinkers who founded The Leninist in 1981 and it is one that our political current has upheld in the various attempts to unite the left since the 1990s, such as the Socialist Alliance, Respect and Left Unity.3 It is one that we shall continue to adhere to. We are obliged to inform the rank and file about what is going on behind their backs, and to arm them with the principled politics needed to build a militant, principled and well-informed left.

  3. For the article in The Leninist, see See also the Weekly Worker archive, and;↩︎

Hollow man for hollow times

With Labour facing a string of defeats on May 6, Derek James looks at the continuing problems facing Keir Starmer

It has not been a good few weeks for Sir Keir Starmer. On April 19 he was unceremoniously booted out of a pub in Bath, with the landlord reportedly saying that Starmer “has completely failed as the leader of the opposition.” He has “completely failed to ask the questions that needed asking …”1

This very public PR disaster, straight out of the classic political comedy, The thick of it, could not have come at a worse time for the Labour leader, as the party faces a series of important elections on May 6. But Starmer’s altercation with an irate publican is not his only problem. As he was marking the first anniversary of his election as Labour leader, rumours and press speculation suggested that senior figures in the Parliamentary Labour Party were dissatisfied with his performance as leader of the opposition and that moves were afoot to oust him. Various names were put forward as possible replacements, including Angela Rayner, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.2 Although there were the usual public declarations of support and disavowals of any leadership ambitions, it is clear from these well-placed stories that ‘leading figures’ are involved in manoeuvres and jockeying for position in any future contest.

This discontent at the top of the party is not coming from what passes for the left in the PLP – the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs has long been cowed into acquiescent silence. Rather the unease about Starmer’s leadership, and Labour’s electoral prospects, comes from the Labour right, who see their own careers and opportunities for personal advancement stalled by yet more ‘wasted’ years in opposition. So these rumblings of discontent are not about matters of principle or political direction: leaving aside the obvious differences in personal style and image, there are no fundamental disagreements between Starmer and his potential rivals in the PLP. The ‘responsible opposition’ and ‘quiet radicalism’ that are the hallmarks of his strategy are still widely supported by Labour MPs.3

The main problem for the Labour right is the opinion polls and what they tell us about the party’s electoral chances next month. Thursday May 6 will be the first major electoral test since the general election of December 2019, with elections being held for local councils in England, local and combined authority mayors, the mayor of London and London assembly members, police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, the Senedd Cymru/Welsh parliament and the Scottish parliament – not to mention the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election.

The latest opinion polls give the Tories a nine-point lead over Labour (43%-34%) – a gap which has been opening up over the last three months as the Johnson government’s ‘vaccine bounce’ has become clearly apparent in the figures.4 Similarly, Boris Johnson’s personal approval ratings have grown over the same period (54% approval, 46% disapproval), whilst Starmer’s have ‘tanked’ into negative territory (33% approval, 42% disapproval) after a strong showing last year following his election as Labour leader.5

For a new leadership that plays up Starmer’s quiet competence in contrast to Johnson’s showy boosterism and Corbyn’s extremism, these figures are worrying. For all the promises ‘to bring Labour home’ and regain its lost ‘traditional’ supporters, Starmer’s appeal to the mythical ‘centre ground’ so beloved of bourgeois politics has appeared, for the moment at least, to have largely fallen on stony ground.6

This strategy, targeted at so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters who went over to the Tories in December 2019, will be put directly to the test in the Hartlepool by-election on May 6. This North East constituency has almost the classic ‘Red Wall’ profile of a ‘left-behind town’ which voted heavily for Brexit and where Labour’s electoral base has been declining steadily over the last 30 years.7 In line with the national picture, the latest opinion polls give the Tories a seven-point lead in the constituency – a result that, if translated into votes on polling day, would be a disaster for the Labour leadership.8 Although opinion polls are only a snapshot, not an infallible guide, and given that the wide variety of electoral contests, from devolved parliaments down to district councils, will inevitably produce different local variations on May 6, it is still likely that the results will be disappointing for Labour.9


How will the Labour leadership react to a poor performance? More importantly, given the media speculation and the well-placed stories about unease on the back benches, will Starmer face a leadership challenge if there is an electoral setback next month? What are the options open to them?

A leadership challenge is not really on the cards and, should anyone from the Labour right attempt it, it would be a career-wrecking folly on their part. From the point of view of further ascending the greasy pole, far better to wait, especially if Johnson maintains his opinion poll lead and calls an early election in autumn 2022 or spring 2023, when the Tories can still benefit from ‘the vaccine bounce’ and before the post-Covid economy moves back into recession.10 So any manoeuvres currently being undertaken by the aspiring careerists of the Labour right are directed at the medium term rather than immediate gain – a jockeying for position, following what is expected to be another general election defeat for Labour, whenever it comes.

For the Labour right – the overwhelming majority of the PLP – these careerist calculations are inextricably linked to their wider political function in bourgeois politics. Labour’s historical role as a bourgeois workers’ party has been to maintain the capitalist status quo by containing and diverting working class struggle into safe, constitutional channels, The Labour leadership, the PLP and the trade union bureaucracy act, in Daniel de Leon’s memorable phrase, as labour lieutenants of capital within the workers’ movement, and police its politics to create a reliable ‘second eleven’ for capitalism.

In this process, maintaining tight control over the politics and the organisations of the Labour movement is vital – which is why the Corbyn movement and the potential challenge it might have posed to politics as usual was such a fright for both the ruling class and the Labour right. A strong, determined Labour left, committed to democratising the party and clearing out the openly pro-capitalist politicians from its ranks, would have meant the end of the careers of the Labour right and the loss of Labour as a pliable instrument for maintaining capitalist constitutionalism. That, of course, did not happen, but the memory of that potential remains as a warning to both the capitalist class and the Labour right to never again relax their grip over the party.

Starmer is perhaps the personification of the determination to heed that warning, with his numerous political and personal connections with the state and the legal system: his whole career to date has bound him hand and foot to the ruling class and the higher echelons of the state establishment more openly than any previous Labour leader.11 As far as capitalism is concerned, he is the safe pair of hands par excellence.

At the moment the same goes for the Labour right: although he has not turned out to be the Wunderkind they hoped would revive Labour’s electoral fortunes and reset their parliamentary careers back on the right track, Starmer is the best that they can hope for at present. He has proven effective in corralling what remains of the official left in the PLP and maintaining the right’s control of the party machine. He has kept up the attack on the left in the Constituency Labour Parties and continued with the smears and slanders against socialists and anti-Zionists. On that score there is little for either the Labour right or the ruling class to complain about – job done!

However, the problem that Keir Starmer and the Labour right now face is much more fundamental than the swings and roundabouts of opinion polls and normal electoral cycles. It is that Starmer and his ilk offer nothing to working class voters, other than pious platitudes and a ‘programme’ that is a pale imitation of that of the Johnson government.12 He does not even pretend that he can offer us even the most limited social democratic reformism.

So, despite all the talk of ‘new leadership’ and rejecting ‘business as usual’, Starmer has revealed that he truly is a hollow man for hollow times, and that the bankruptcy of the Labour right and its pro-capitalist politics really has found its perfect embodiment in the shape of the Right Honourable Sir Keir Starmer, PC, QC.13

Meanwhile, albeit with a heavy heart: vote Labour on May 6, but redouble efforts to build a viable revolutionary alternative to all the rotten manifestations of Labourism.

  9. It is clear that this wide range of quite different electoral campaigns will throw up quite different results on May 6. For example, in Scotland, and to a much lesser extent in Wales, questions of independence and the nature of devolution will be important, whilst in England the local elections can be taken as a verdict on the Johnson government’s performance. Alongside this, many contests will also have a specifically local flavour. Thus, the Liverpool mayoral contest will give voters a chance to express their opinions on Labour’s record in governing the city and the crisis following mayor Joe Anderson’s arrest. For events in Liverpool see ‘Careerism on the Mersey’ Weekly Worker March 11.↩︎
  13. See ‘Hollow man for hollow times’ Weekly Worker February 25.↩︎

Focus on big questions

Tory commissioners should concentrate minds, writes Derek James of Labour Party Marxists

The announcement that Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government secretary, was appointing commissioners to oversee some of the functions of Liverpool city council had been expected since the arrest of directly elected city mayor Joe Anderson in December.1 Although no-one has actually been charged, Jenrick’s statement has only added to the sense of crisis in the city and further fuelled the as yet unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, bribery and witness intimidation that have continued to swirl around the local authority.2

It would be too easy to dismiss the current situation as simply parish pump politics of purely local interest, or a product of Liverpool exceptionalism that is of only fleeting interest beyond the city. However, the nature of the allegations made in the report and Jenrick’s attack on local democracy point to much more fundamental crises in both the Labour Party and the system of local government that go beyond political machinations or the supposed corruption of powerful individuals.

The ground had been well-laid in the run-up to the announcement and so all the actors had their script off pat. Jenrick led the charge when he suggested that the government-commissioned Caller Report painted a “deeply concerning picture of mismanagement” and revealed a “serious breakdown in governance” in Liverpool.3 The report apparently revealed, he said, that the council had “consistently failed to meet its statutory and managerial responsibilities, and that the pervasive culture appeared to be rule avoidance”.4 In a damning comment, which made all the headlines in the local media, Jenrick argued that the report showed that there was an “overall environment of intimidation, described as one in which the only way to survive was to do what was requested without asking too many questions or applying normal professional standards”.5

The most important part of the local government secretary’s statement was the government’s decision to send commissioners in to Liverpool to run “certain and limited functions” of the city’s council for the next three years, including overseeing an improvement plan. In three key council departments – highways, regeneration and property management – all executive functions will now be transferred to the government-appointed commissioners.6 Jenrick also proposed to reduce the number of city councillors from 90 and replace the current electoral cycle with a whole-council election every four years.7

Labour MPs played their supporting roles to perfection and fell over themselves in rushing to back up the government’s attack on local democracy in Liverpool. In the Commons we were treated to a master class of ‘responsible opposition’ at its best – in other words, the most abject, supine cooperation, as we have come to expect from Starmer’s Labour leadership. Thus the shadow communities and local government secretary, Steve Reed, declared:

Labour both here and our leadership at the city council accept this report in full … We support [Jenrick’s] intention to appoint commissioners, not at this stage to run the council, as he says, but to advise and support elected representatives in strengthening the council’s systems. This is a measured and appropriate response (my emphasis).

Echoing the government’s line, Reed added that the proposals were not, “as some would put it, a Tory takeover”, but were simply a measure to put erring Liverpool back on the straight and narrow: he reassured us that the government commissioners would “intervene directly only if the council’s elected leaders fail to implement their own improvement plan.”8

The response of other Labour MPs was not much better, as they joined in the attack and supported the imposition of the commissioners. Even the comments of left Liverpool MPs Dan Carden and Ian Byrne were respectfully muted, as they sought reassurances from the Tories that the Covid pandemic response and other vital local services would continue to be resourced and supported.9

No surprise

The acute embarrassment of a Labour leadership now presented with such an alleged scandal in Liverpool city council is almost understandable. Having spent the last year trying to prove their responsibility and respectability, along comes a good old-fashioned municipal corruption case, which unhelpfully reminds voters of the bad old days – and in a city that is synonymous with militant leftwing politics to boot!

As was only to be expected, the local opposition to Labour in Liverpool, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, have made hay during the current mayoral and local council election campaigns by blaming the crisis on a ‘big city boss’ political culture and offering themselves as the anti-corruption candidates who can finally clean up the city.10 The local media have also been playing up the chances of Stephen Yip, an independent mayoral candidate, whilst the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Tusc) also has a candidate in the field, who could take some votes away from Labour. Although the outcome of the election is, of course, uncertain, the fact that Labour may have a hard fight to hold on to the mayoralty shows the seriousness of the situation the party now faces in Liverpool.11

For many leftwingers in Liverpool the situation revealed in the Caller Report comes as no surprise. From the very beginning, the mayoral system was criticised as an anti-democratic and unaccountable concentration of power in the hands of a single individual and a small cabinet clique. The ‘political culture’ of intimidation and bullying, along with the opportunities for corruption and jobbery revealed in the report, are clearly always inherent in such a Bonapartist system.12 The potential to exploit contacts and contracts in regeneration and building projects for personal gain has always existed in local government. Whether in the small-town peculation in Mugsborough, satirised in The ragged-trousered philanthropists or in the real local government corruption revealed by the Poulson case in the 1970s, from Westminster to the smallest town hall, corruption and capitalism are inseparable throughout the political system.13

However, just as important as this systemic potential for financial corruption is the political corruption that it breeds – especially in the form of powerful and unaccountable local mayors. Our opposition to the imposition of the Tory commissioners on Liverpool and the defence of local democracy must be combined with a complete rejection of both the mayoral system and the political strategy of Labour rightists, such as Joe Anderson. His municipal strategy combined supposedly defending essential services through the politics of ‘the dented shield’ with ‘playing the system’ to make up for the budget cuts imposed by the Tory government’s austerity programme.14 This ‘new municipalism’ echoed Blair’s New Labour strategy and was based on a much-vaunted partnership between local government and capitalist developers, with the aim of encouraging private-sector investment and regeneration to both increase the local tax base and, through a convoluted form of trickle-down economics, improve the living standards of the city’s population.

It was, as Joe Anderson liked to boast in response to his critics, “the only game in town”.15 Now that Robert Jenrick has called time on that particular game and as the labour movement starts to mobilise against his attacks, the question goes beyond protest and opposition. We must think about the type of politics and strategy we need, if we are going to fight back in Liverpool and elsewhere. The experience of Liverpool city council and its fight with the Tories in the 1980s looms large amongst leftwingers in the city and for many comrades on the Labour left that type of municipal strategy and mass mobilisation remains the best way forward.

However, given the very different political and social context of the 2020s it is all too clear that we cannot simply wish such a movement into existence, so what strategy should the left now pursue in what are our very changed and straitened circumstances? At the moment the focus is on protest, but it will be these important issues of both local government and wider political strategy that inevitably come to the fore in the coming weeks, as the Liverpool labour movement’s campaign against the Tory commissioners starts to build up momentum.

  2. For the background to this story see ‘Abolish the mayors’ Weekly Worker January 21 and ‘Careerism on the Mersey’ Weekly Worker March 11.↩︎
  3. For full details of the findings see↩︎
  5. See, for example, front-page splash, ‘FAILED’, in Liverpool Echo March 25 2021. The story focussed on the allegations about the council’s toxic culture, climate of fear and wholesale neglect of the city’s interests.↩︎
  9. Ibid.↩︎
  13. R Tressell The ragged-trousered philanthropists London 2004. Obituary:↩︎

Getting our act together

Derek James of Labour Party Marxists welcomes the coming together of the Labour left. However, the cause of unity must go hand-in-hand with principle

After what has been a frankly disastrous year for the Labour left since the election of Keir Starmer as party leader, reports that the leaders of most of the organised left groups within the party and trade unions have met to discuss the way forward are positive.

In the wake of the retreats and compromises of the official left, from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs downwards, and the resulting disorientation and demoralisation in Constituency Labour Parties, news that the Labour left might at last be getting its act together will clearly be welcomed. Equally important is the fact that the Labour Left Alliance was invited to attend and did so, along with members of Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), the Labour Representation Committee, Jewish Voice for Labour, Red Labour and leading figures from the trade union left. It seems that the meeting took no firm decisions on the future strategy of the Labour left and instead established a working group (which did not include any members of the LLA) to report back to a future meeting on areas such as slates for national executive committee elections and ‘left unity’.

Rather than waiting for the outcome of these deliberations, comrades in the LLA should urgently discuss the crisis now facing the Labour left and develop the alternative strategy needed to build a real fighting left current in the party. A good way to start is to understand the recent history of the Labour left and its various interventions in National Executive Committee and other internal elections. The main ‘left’ electoral grouping in the party, the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA), emerged in the late 1990s in response to Blairite remodelling of Labour. Made up of the CLPD and various other small ‘left’ currents, it claimed, as the name suggests, to give the party’s ‘grassroots’ members a voice on the NEC. In the face of Tony Blair’s attacks on party democracy, the CLGA argued that the ‘left’ was too weak to stand by itself and so deliberately reached out to the ‘centre’ when selecting candidates.

Even following the mass influx of leftwingers into the party and the election of Jeremy Corbyn, this unprincipled strategy of appealing to the ‘centre’ remained, and was if anything reinforced by the emergence of the Jon Lansman-led Momentum and its role within the CLGA. Two major criticisms can be levelled at the CLGA: firstly, its strategy of reaching out to the largely mythical ‘centre’ means that many of its candidates could hardly be defined as ‘left’ in any real sense of the word. These ‘broad front’ politics really are a dead end for the left. Indeed, when elected to the NEC, so-called ‘left’ candidates have actually joined the witch-hunt rather than defend the left from attack!1

Secondly, the selection process for candidates is undemocratic and involves horse-trading by various ‘left’ fixers and careerists jockeying for position behind the scenes. As with the current nomination process for the conference arrangements committee, the national constitutional committee and the national women’s committee, a list of candidates miraculously ‘emerges’ and the whole Labour left is enjoined to unquestioningly nominate and vote for it.2 In practice this means that important sections of the Labour left are deliberately excluded from both the process of choosing the left’s candidates and the final recommended lists suggested by the CLGA.

This type of gate-keeping was very much in evidence during the 2020 NEC elections. The LLA approached all of the major left currents, including the CLGA, in an attempt to secure a common left slate. These attempts were rebuffed, and the LLA supported its own slate of candidates, whilst also calling for a vote for the CLGA candidates. During the campaign some supporters of the CLGA argued that the LLA was ‘splitting the left vote’ and would hand NEC seats to the right. The operation of the PR system used in the election was deliberately misrepresented by these comrades as part of a campaign to undermine the LLA-supported candidates and thus maintain their electoral monopoly over the Labour left.3 In the event, not only was the left vote not divided, but the leading LLA-supported candidate, Roger Silverman, secured a creditable vote and showed that there are still comrades in the CLPs who will back authentic left candidates.4


Perhaps it was the strength of this vote that produced the invitation for the LLA to take part in these discussions amongst the left, but, if reports of the meeting are accurate, it is clear that the official left still wants to keep a tight rein on future developments. Even so, it is important to stress that this meeting could be the start of an important initiative and, as such, Labour Party Marxists strongly supports the LLA’s participation in it.

However, the next stages could turn out to be decisive for the success of this project as a fighting campaign that the authentic left within Labour can wholeheartedly support. There is nothing wrong with different groups on the left negotiating about the composition of electoral slates or reaching agreement about which candidates we can support.

What turns that quite normal form of politics into unacceptable and unprincipled ‘horse-trading’ or an undemocratic ‘stitch-up’ is when important sections of the left are excluded from the discussions and there is no principled basis for the agreed slate beyond getting particular individuals elected. Too often in the past ‘left’ slates in NEC elections have been about cosying up to very unreliable ‘soft lefts’ or securing the careers of aspiring professional politicians. Given the leadership’s continuing attacks on party democracy and the purging of the CLPs, we are not prepared to be just spear-carriers or voting fodder for the official left.

Supporters of LPM will back LLA participation in any discussions on a united left slate for next year’s NEC elections, along with proposals for a campaign against the witch-hunt and in defence of party democracy. However, the LLA should set conditions for its support during these discussions. The slate should have a clearly defined, principled basis which all candidates must sign up to. While the specific demands can be defined during the discussions, LPM thinks that they should include elements such as the rejection of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association misdefinition of anti-Semitism, and the readmittance of comrades suspended or expelled during both the first and second waves of the witch-hunt, along with democratic demands such as ‘a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage’ and the accountability of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the NEC and party conference.

LLA should also argue that, given the strength of its showing in the 2020 NEC elections, it should have a candidate on any common left slate for the next elections in 2022 in a winnable position – not just a token slot somewhere down near the bottom.5 The LLA should participate in any meetings and discussions about political and electoral strategy in good faith and with a desire to see such a common, principled position emerging.

It is not a case of ‘unity’ at any price – that would simply be a repeat of the tried and failed politics of the past that resulted in unacceptable compromises and countless retreats by the official Labour left. So, if agreement on these terms cannot be reached amongst the left, the LLA should be prepared to stand a slate of candidates on a principled platform of its own. Such a campaign would galvanise the authentic left in the Labour Party and show the clear distinction that exists between genuine left militants and the compromisers and careerists of the official left. Principled politics is the key to building a real united and fighting left in the party.

Although at an early and somewhat tentative stage, these discussions amongst the organised Labour left are encouraging and give us the opportunity to argue our case for the building of a real left current within Labour that will fight for class politics and the socialist transformation of society.

  1. Another victim of the witch-hunt’ Weekly Worker March 28 2019.↩︎
  3. For details of the elections and the various arguments advanced by the LLA and other left groups, see ‘Candidates, slates and votes’ Weekly Worker October 8 2020; ‘Cutting through the cant’ Weekly Worker November 19 2020; ‘Cowardly fake left peddles lies’ Weekly Worker October 22 2020.↩︎
  5. In STV elections the position of a candidate on the slate is decisive in securing the required number of preferences and transfers to get elected. For example, in the 2020 NEC elections Momentum told its supporters to vote in a specific order of preference to maximise the vote for the candidates it supported. This was organised regionally and was effective in securing strong votes and the necessary transfers for left candidates.↩︎

Defend David Miller

Championing unrestricted freedom of speech does not imply political agreement. Derek James of Labour Party Marxists explains

The campaign to get Bristol University academic David Miller dismissed from his post is just the latest example of a growing clampdown on free speech that is having a chilling effect on public life. Whether it be the restrictions on public protest proposed in the Johnson government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill or the continuing smears from the Labour right, which equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, these attacks are intensifying and now pose a serious threat to any forms of political dissent labelled as ‘extremist’ by the powers that be.1

In the case of professor Miller, the campaign has taken an all too predictable turn, with over 100 MPs and peers signing an all-party motion demanding that his university ‘take action’, accusing him of “inciting hatred against Jewish students” and claiming he has “undermined the safety and security of Jewish students under the pretence of free speech”.2 For these parliamentarians the core of their complaint is Miller’s opposition to Zionism and his ‘unacceptable views’ on the oppressive nature of the Israeli state.3

These attacks on David Miller, however, have not gone unanswered. The newly formed Labour Campaign for Free Speech (LCFS) has joined in the fight to defend both Miller and wider academic freedom. It has already mobilised support from an impressive range of academic and public figures, including Ken Loach, Alexei Sayle and Noam Chomsky, as well as organising online rallies and meetings to publicise the case.4 The latest event held to back David Miller took place on Saturday March 13 and attracted over 300 participants who heard from, amongst others, well-known rapper Lowkey, Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, Israeli-raised academic Moshé Machover, and Deepa Driver, a campaigner for Julian Assange.5

The keynote for the rally was set by a spokesperson for LCFS, who argued that this is an important test case and that, if successful, other academics critical of Israel, could also be targeted and possibly fired. The aim was to create a climate of fear and silence academics, and others, from speaking out against Israel’s policies. The LCFS statement also correctly saw the conflation of criticism of Zionism with the hatred of Jews, and the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism to ban all serious criticism of the state of Israel, its policies and its ideology as the essential underpinnings of the campaign against Miller.6

However, it was Moshé Machover’s contribution that pointed to the wider political significance and international context of this ongoing campaign. The targeting of academics and political activists by the British establishment, pro-Israel organisations and the Labour right was designed to do more than stifle all opposition to the Zionist colonisation project and the Israeli state. As he has consistently argued, comrade Machover suggested that this campaign and support for Israel amongst the British ruling class is not motivated by an ideological commitment to Zionism per se, but is rather intimately connected to an essential strand in British foreign policy – toeing the US line. Thus, support for Israel – a key Middle East ally and junior partner of the imperialist hegemon – is not simply symbolic: it is both strategically and politically fundamental to the calculations and interests of the British state.7

Understanding these state connections and political interests is vital if we are not to fall into the trap of solely focusing on the Zionist lobby or arguing that, in pursuit of their sectional project, Zionists have successfully ‘captured’ the leaderships of the two main parties in Britain.8 As with the familiar, but profoundly wrong, arguments that it is the Israeli tail that wags the American dog, this approach actually inverts, and thus seriously distorts, the real nature of the political and power relationships between Britain, the US and Israel.

Significantly, the weaponising of anti-Semitism is an international phenomenon, used to not only undermine support for Palestinian rights, but also to weaken anti-imperialist politics and hinder the development of mass anti-war movements in Europe and the US. Increasingly, the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is being broadened to similarly equate radical opposition to capitalism itself with anti-Semitism and thus identify political dissent with ‘extremism’.9 So, in fighting back against these definitions and this policing of ‘acceptable’ perimeters, the politics of anti-imperialism must, of necessity, come together with the politics of free speech and the right to dissent. Moreover, for campaigns like LCFS to be both principled and successful in mobilising support, it is essential that this convergence occurs and that these links become indissoluble.

Our interests

All of which brings us back to the campaign to defend David Miller. Labour Party Marxists champions unrestricted freedom of speech, publication, organisation, assembly and the right to strike.10 At the launch conference of LCFS, our supporters strongly argued for the long-established Marxist view that open debate and the right to question ideas, conventions, rules and laws are fundamental democratic rights and valuable historical gains which must be vigorously defended.11

Thus we agree that the campaign to defend David Miller should be supported without reservation. It should go without saying that, in this context, an injury to one is an injury to all: any attack on his right to free speech is an attack on all our democratic rights. As comrade Machover argued before last Saturday’s conference, “David Miller should be defended by all those who value freedom of speech and in particular academic freedom.”12

However, our full support for professor Miller’s democratic rights does not extend to unconditionally backing his politics. In fact, we have fundamental differences with him on the nature and significance of ‘Islamophobia’ as a political dynamic that shapes the foreign and domestic policies of western states.13 His alignment with pro-Shia groups and work with religiously-oriented organisations like the Islamic Human Rights Commission points only to a sectional and religiously sectarian form of politics and runs counter to the radical, secular traditions of the workers’ movement.14

Likewise, David Miller’s analysis of the Zionist lobby and its political influence in the Labour Party fails to look at the wider context and reduces politics to a series of elite manipulations and machinations. He places particular emphasis on the links between Keir Starmer and ‘Zionist money’, and the way in which both Labour and the Tories are financed by Israelis or those who sympathise with Israel, such as Trevor Chinn – who was said to be close to both the New Labour project and to Boris Johnson, while the latter was mayor of London.15

Trying to explain the witch-hunt against the left, or political developments more generally, in this way seriously leads us in the wrong direction. If we are going to defeat the slander that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism and defend our democratic rights for free speech, then we can really have no time at all for these conspiracy theories or talk of shadowy networks working behind the scenes.

In politics it is not always open to us to choose our battleground, but the fight to defend David Miller and free speech is one campaign we must win. Free speech is not an optional extra or a bourgeois luxury – it has been fought for historically by the working class and it is a right we must maintain. It remains central to democratic politics and absolutely essential if we are to build a conscious movement that can take power and make the working class the ruling class.

  7. ‘Weaponising anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker April 23 2020.↩︎
  9. See, for example, the ‘anti-Semitism conference’ organised by the US state department in 2020 (↩︎
  10. ‘We light fires’ Weekly Worker February 18 2021.↩︎
  11. ‘End the contradiction’, Labour Party Marxists.↩︎
  13. See N Massoumi, T Mills and D Miller What is Islamophobia? Racism, social movements and the state London 2017.↩︎

Refound Labour as a real party of labour