Clive Dean reports on an organisation in sharp decline, politically at sea and now lacking any strategic perspective
At its height just 82 people attended the zoom call for the AGM of the Labour Representation Committee, held last Saturday
February 5. Far less than would attend the ‘normal’ face-to-face meetings in London’s Conway Hall. But nowadays it is dangerous to even appear on the same computer screen as those who have been expelled … and spies from Labour’s Victoria Street HQ were undoubtedly recording and readying new lists of those to be ‘investigated’. The AGM had been postponed from October last year, presumably in part out of fear of the witch-hunters, but also due to the pandemic and toll that has taken in terms of human resources.
There was a full agenda, but, thankfully, the non-appearance of billed guests Apsana Begum MP and Unison president Paul Holmes allowed some space for questions and debate. Exactly what the LRC leadership ‘normally’ seeks to avoid by packing the agenda to the rafters.
Having said that, potential time was still taken up by the rally-style guest speakers – Neda Abu Zant from Palestine and John Lister from SOS NHS. Then there were the constitutional amendments and policy motions to consider, but these contained nothing at all controversial, just tidying up the rules, affiliating to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and updating policy on housing, local government cuts and open selections.
An emergency motion on the Russia/Ukraine tension would have been in order, given the imminent threat of war and the LRC’s affiliation to the pro-imperialist cat’s paw, the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. It draws an equals sign between “western imperialism” and “Russian imperialism” but gives the game away by championing “Ukrainian self-determination”. Nato expansionism and the Russian question within Ukraine is brushed over. But no, the nearest we got to a contentious vote was on the proposal to open up the zoom chat feature (lost 29:25).
Time given over for questions and debate featured in the morning session, both following Jeremy Corbyn (originally billed as a panel speaker) and around the LRC executive’s political statement. These were by far the most interesting, well, to be honest, the least boring, parts of the proceedings, so I will concentrate on the issues that came up.
Jeremy Corbyn’s contribution contained some unexpected points – he began by expressing his solidarity with those who have been suspended and expelled from the Labour Party. Does that include those witch-hunted under his watch? He asked the question, “Did we make mistakes while I was party leader”, and replied, “Yes, plenty”. He defended his efforts to mobilise the 400,000 who joined the party during that period and his attempts to transform the party into a campaigning organisation.
He lamely criticised the current party leadership for concentrating on suspensions and expulsions rather than organising against the Tories. He mentioned the tension over the Russia/Ukraine border, but went no further than calling for peace (perhaps he was aware of tensions within the LRC). He did, though, alert us to the non-danger of Boris Johnson attempting a Falklands-style engagement to save his failing premiership.
Chairing, Matt Wrack asked for questions for Jeremy – not something I’ve encountered before!
Tina Werkmann was first to seize the opportunity and asked him to elaborate on the mistakes. Agreeing with his assessment that anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had been overstated for political reasons, she asked if he agreed that calling for zero-tolerance of anti-Semitism was a mistake, and that education was a better response. She also asked if it would have been better to face down the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party rather than compromising, as the right were part of a class war against the Labour left.
Nick Wrack also thought it was important to look at what went wrong. For him the key issues were the failure to mobilise the mass membership and the retreat from open selections. Looking forward, he considered it vital for the left to be clear on the questions of “What is socialism?” and “How do we get there?” Managing capitalism was not the answer: the profit system had to be abolished.
Other contributors steered clear of ‘mistakes’, though Alison McGarry thought that a Corbyn victory in 2019 would have faced a coup, something the left was totally ill-prepared to rebuff, she said.
Some of Corbyn’s responses were illuminating – apparently he is preparing a book about his time as leader, which will include self-criticism. He told us that at his first prime minister’s questions he was aware that in the PLP seated behind him he had the support of barely 15 MPs. While his leadership was able to garner strong support using social media, dealing with the mainstream media had been a big failing. As if the mainstream media was ever going to come over to support a Corbyn-led government. Corbyn agreed that discussing ‘what socialism means’ is important, and his Peace and Justice Project will be inviting everyone on the left to contribute 500 words on this subject – not exactly a recipe for clarity.
Amazingly, the LRC executive’s political statement was exactly the same document that was due to be presented back in October, with a small appendix added that covered the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban take-over. Hence some of it was painfully out of date. For example, the pledges to build support for Cop26 events in Glasgow. The slogan for the AGM was ‘building the resistance’, and this seems to be the ‘positive’ course for the LRC projected within the statement. In fact, the LRC’s old strategy of backing left MPs and getting Labour into office as the road to socialism has been completely exposed as utterly illusory. Indeed the LRC has no answer about how to fight the ongoing anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism witch-hunt. Hence, in the absence of anything approaching a viable strategy the LRC leadership clutches at “the trade unions, climate change protests, Black Lives Matter, in solidarity with the Palestinian people, defending asylum seekers and migrants, resisting violence against women or discrimination against disabled people, fighting Universal Credit and the cut in its uplift, parts of the mutual aid movement and many more”.
In moving the statement, Graham Bash sounded the alarm for the LRC, which, along with the rest of the Labour left, had failed to stop the witch-hunt. He rightly agued that the Starmer purge was class war, and that over 200,000 members had already left the party. He urged those remaining not to give up and noted that alternative electoral ventures usually failed miserably. He urged the LRC to rise to the “challenges” – tailing existing protest movements? Otherwise the LRC was no longer fit for purpose – which is clearly already the case.
At least 15 members joined in the discussion, though many were oblivious to the stark warnings from comrade Bash, and some were totally off beam. Predictably there were voices calling for a new non-Marxist broad left to bring together all the left groups within Labour, united around ‘a dozen points we all agree on’. Ironically such unprincipled unity can only encourage further demoralisation and disintegration – because it is bound to fail. Others endorsed the suggestion to divert efforts into supporting broad movements outside the party – again a route away from socialist politics. Many gave examples of the crisis of democracy within the party and how it is damaging the prospects for left candidates. But throughout there was an undercurrent of despair, summed up when Nick Wrack asked “What is the LRC for?”
In reply to the discussion, comrade Bash declared that this time the fight within Labour was different, and the party we know may not survive. On supporting those standing against Labour he recalled backing Ken Livingstone and Dave Nellist in earlier struggles, and would support Corbyn should he be forced to stand outside Labour. His blunt answer to the question “What is the way forward?” was that he didn’t know – the struggle will provide the answers. Surely a declaration of strategic bankruptcy.
The unhealthy spirit of hopelessness also affected other areas of the AGM. Nobody felt the need to question the treasurer’s report, despite an ominous loan for £5,000 which appeared to be funding an ‘organiser’. The 18 officers and the new executive committee were all elected unopposed, though nominations for some posts were only received on the day, and at least one post remains unfilled. Only five of the candidates deigned to submit a personal statement, so perhaps it is just as well there were no votes. A look at the attendance record for the retiring executive reveals that at least one third of them had resigned part-way through their period in office.
A new editorial board was elected for the LRC’s ‘monthly’ journal, Labour Briefing. But there was no comment on its non-appearance since September, and no update on the email received in November, advising members: “We are pausing production while we re-organise and hopefully relaunch.” The talk is that when the relaunch comes it won’t be printed anymore, but will be just another one of those worthy but largely pointless online publications, that no one organises to support and very few go to the bother of reading.
When it ‘normally’ appears, Labour Briefing proclaims that “The LRC is a democratic, socialist body working to transform the Labour Party into an organisation that reflects all sections of the working class.” A thoroughly dubious formulation. No, we should seek to drive away, overthrow, the labour and trade union bureaucracy, not reflect, let alone promote, their narrow sectional interests and self-serving careers. But that is exactly what the LRC has been all about, and look how it has ended. Failure, complete and abject failure.