Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists attended the AGM for Greater London
Accountability was at a minimum at the Greater London Labour Representation Committee annual general meeting on December 13. Minutes were not available of the previous AGM, nor even of the previous meeting. There was no annual report of work, no reports from those who held posts during 2014, and no summary of facts and figures about membership and branches.
However, I understand that the Brent and Harrow branch is still holding weekly discussion meetings and is busy campaigning on housing issues, as well as mobilising people in protests against zero-hours employers. Although it was previously said that Brent and Harrow was the only functioning branch within London, I am pleased to note that Hackney branch has surfaced again: Jeremy Corbyn MP recently addressed a meeting there of nine on international issues – hopefully a step towards a more consistently active branch.
Greater London LRC itself is more like a branch of the organisation, rather than a regional committee of delegates from across London, as had been the aim back in 2010. Efforts to build a network of local branches failed: a number were formed, but quickly withered away. So the meetings still consist of individual members, not representatives.
Consequently, the AGM was in fact open to all LRC members in the Greater London area, who would have had a vote if they had turned up – but, given the low level of advanced publicity, many of them may have been unaware of the meeting, or may not have realised that it was open to them, rather than for delegates. The email circular did not explain this, and I never saw the meeting even mentioned on the Left Views Facebook page, nor on the London LRC email discussion list. In the event, there were 18 comrades present, if we include the single Young Labour activist who dropped in for part of the meeting.
Perhaps worst of all with respect to accountability, no report was given of the deliberations of the first national committee meeting since conference – despite the presence of several leading NC members: namely Graham Bash, Andrew Berry, Mick Brooks, Michael Calderbank, Simon Deville, Norrette Moore and Mike Phipps. Given the stressful battles over the election of London officers (see below), which occupied most of the three-hour meeting, one could be forgiven for thinking these comrades had turned out more for the purpose of preventing the election of LRC bête noire Graham Durham as London organiser and fellow oppositionist Judith Atkinson as London delegate to the NC than for building the LRC in London or advancing the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which conference voted to support.
Unfortunately, I was unable, for personal reasons, to attend and report on the December NC meeting – its first since the November national conference. So, like most of the several hundred LRC members in Britain, I am in the dark about the alleged ‘complaints commission’ (or whatever its correct name is) set up by the NC to deal with disciplinary matters and the “bad behaviour”, which is supposedly “driving people away” from the organisation. Or whether the NC set about systematically allocating tasks to implement conference decisions – an acknowledged failure of the 2014 NC. The customary NC report of work was missing from national conference too.
The one thing which was reported from the December NC meeting was its decision to sponsor John McDonnell’s February 15 pre-general election conference of the Labour left, and to seek sponsorship from individuals and other organisations, such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, in order to give the call for Labour left unity around socialist policies the “broadest” possible basis. That is a self-defeating method, of course, as trying to get the party ‘centre’ on side in order to defeat the right wing necessarily means watering down a socialist programme.
As I said in discussion, we need socialist MPs to act as ‘tribunes of the people’ to give leadership to the coming mass struggles against capitalism, but a capitalist Labour government will be counterproductive for the struggle to rebuild the workers’ movement and to re-educate it in the politics of socialism. Our fight must be to end capitalism – which necessarily requires socialist organisation across Europe at the very least – not for tried, tested and failed Keynesian capitalism.
I would like to thank all those comrades who have assured me that the bureaucratic “LRC culture” proposals put before conference by the NC, but ignominiously withdrawn before the vote, were “never about you, Stan”, and had not been intended to curb my reporting or my alleged “misrepresentation” – a baseless accusation which, needless to say, has never been substantiated or made specific. But neither has it been withdrawn. So, one must assume, Andrew Berry still believes that my report of the November NC meeting in Liverpool was a “deliberate attempt to undermine the LRC”. Perhaps the comrade doesn’t take his own words seriously, and believes such an irresponsible accusation can be irresponsibly forgotten.
If the clauses forbidding, on pain of expulsion, “wilfully misrepresenting the views of the LRC, its elected national bodies or officers,” etc were not aimed at curbing reporting of LRC meetings, perhaps they were aimed at excluding comrade Graham Durham – about whom some NC members continually complain in email and Facebook discussions. In that case, apart from being a proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut, the attempt to eliminate the opposition on the basis of generalised accusations of bad behaviour has spectacularly backfired. Graham has now been elected London organiser.
Although the censorship proposals were withdrawn, the desire for secrecy still festers. Some leading comrades still behave as if socialist politics are about secret, behind-closed-doors decisions by those who know best, rather than the transparency and openness necessary to draw the masses – or even the members – into our work. What else am I to think when, at the end of the London meeting, I was approached by Graham Bash and Mike Phipps and told, like a naughty child: “If any of this appears in the Weekly Worker that would be …” (pregnant pause while Mike considers what to say next) “…very bad”. So, thankfully, there was no actual threat of disciplinary action; but evidently Graham and Mike would like London LRC to be as secret and unaccountable as the first NC meeting. Why on earth? Both comrades are undoubtedly very hard working and self-sacrificing. Political secrecy undermines their effectiveness. I believe their opposition to openness is a self-inflicted wound.
Lack of honest reporting and commentary, about the discussions and decisions in the meetings of our leading bodies, is an important factor inhibiting the involvement of the LRC rank and file and the growth of the organisation. Comrade Lois from Hackney expressed her frustration at not being privy to the real political differences of opinion underlying the hostility that was evident during the election of officers at the London AGM. There was plenty of friction, she said, but the political arguments were not out in the open. So any newcomer, or someone like herself who had not been attending recently, could not fathom the underlying hostility. And, she added, “it always seems that only a small group makes the decisions”.
Although the email announcing the meeting set a deadline for nominations, this innovation was set aside by chairperson Judith Atkinson (with no objections), and nominations for all posts were invited from the floor. First to be elected was Judith herself, who was the only nominee for chairperson. A job-share was agreed between Graham Bash and Norrette Moore for the key job of London secretary, and it was agreed to drop the post of treasurer as superfluous – the London organisation does not normally handle money and has access to central funds when necessary.
When it came to the post of London organiser, there were two nominees: Graham Durham versus retiring 2014 organiser Steve Ballard. Comrade Durham asked that each candidate present their views before the vote, which chair Judy agreed, and – as in Labour Party councillor selections – we were invited to ask questions, so long as the same question was put to each candidate. It was all about aspirations for the future, as no-one could point to anything concrete that London LRC had done during the past year – and, obviously, comrade Ballard’s year in post had not made a difference to that. Comrade Durham, on the other hand, was able to point to the lively Brent and Harrow branch, which he had helped to build, and promised to promote active branches which will “campaign on the street against the coming destruction of adult social services and children’s services, and the record levels of cuts and closures coming this year, after the general election”. He added: “There should be at least 10 London branches, and 20 nationally.”
Then we had question time. Michael Calderbank kicked off, asking the candidates to “give an undertaking not to campaign against LRC policies” – to which Steve answered “No”, he could not give such an undertaking, while Graham simply said “Yes”. Norrette Moore, who has played the role of moderator of the LRC’s online discussion, asked if the candidates accepted her role. Both candidates replied negatively. Graham answered that she had refused to circulate details of specific campaigning actions which he had posted, and Steve said she should not have been placed in a position to make such decisions.
In turn, I asked two questions: “Are you a member of the Labour Party?” and “Do you agree that the LRC should campaign for all socialists to join the Labour Party in order to change it?” It emerged that not only is Steve not a member, but he regards the struggle to win socialist policies in the party as a lost cause, while Graham has been a member for 44 years and is committed to bringing socialists into the party: “I know many people who want to join the Labour Party, but will not come in so long as Tony Blair is still a member.”
From the candidates’ replies in these hustings, Graham Durham was clearly the best candidate for London organiser, in the interests of building the LRC and raising its profile. But the vote was tied at five each (with several abstentions), with several – not all – of the leading NC members desperately voting for comrade Ballard, simply to defeat comrade Durham at all costs. But Judy Atkinson resolved the tie in favour of comrade Durham by using the presiding chairperson’s casting vote – her second vote for comrade Durham. This controversial decision was upheld after Rail, Maritime and Transport union veteran (and now vice-chair) Carol Foster confirmed that this was standard practice in the RMT. A motion from Andrew Berry declaring “No confidence in Graham Durham” was declared “not competent” (after all, he had just been elected, and objections to his candidacy could have been made during the hustings session), and a motion from Simon Deville and Andrew Berry of “No confidence in the chair” was then defeated when the meeting voted 9-4 in favour of next business.
‘Next business’ was the election of two vice-chairs, for which there were three candidates. However, Steve Ballard decided to withdraw, after which Labour Briefing editorial board member Simon Deville and Brent and Harrow activist Carol Foster were unopposed.
Next came a surprising controversy over the election of London’s representative on the LRC NC. Chairperson Judy Atkinson claimed that she had been elected London rep at a previous meeting and was already in post until the next AGM; she therefore ruled that the post was not up for election. Whatever may have happened at a previous London meeting a couple of months ago (sorry, I do not know the facts), this was an intolerable infringement of democracy. Understandably, Michael Calderbank’s motion of “No confidence in the chair” succeeded this time, by eight votes to three, and vice-chair Carol Foster took over for the rest of the meeting. Andrew Berry was then elected NC rep by seven votes to Judy’s five, and comrade Keith Dunn was elected unopposed as deputy NC rep.
At the end of the meeting, the thorny procedural question – whether a vote of no confidence can unseat a chairperson permanently, or can only challenge the ruling in hand – remained unresolved. But Judy Atkinson was reinstated as London chairperson by six votes to five.
Frustrating as these shenanigans may be, nevertheless a difficult meeting resolved all issues through discussion and votes and, importantly, the acceptance of majority decisions – essential if the LRC is to survive and flourish.