Category Archives: witchhunts and expulsions

Thin end of the wedge

We must oppose the expulsion of Gerry Downing, but fight to expose his political errors, argues Jim Grant

On February 20, I attended the special general meeting of the Labour Representation Committee.

It was far from my first LRC general meeting, and the form was getting familiar. I was struck when we were treated to our annual John McDonnell boilerplate speech from the top table by the fact that things, in the standard dialectical fashion, can be terribly familiar and also completely different at the same time. We had heard that speech before as the defiant cry of a lone voice in the enemy camp; but now, it was the voice of the shadow chancellor, a fixture of television and radio, albeit still surrounded by foes.

Something similar can now be said about Gerry Downing, also among those present on February 20 and at LRC gatherings passim ad infinitum. A perennial orthodox Trotskyist gadfly, Gerry’s political journey has taken him from the cultish Workers Revolutionary Party, through several of its posthumous fragments, into the Mandelite International Socialist Group (today’s Socialist Resistance) and out again, and around the houses a little more before washing up with his own micro-group, Socialist Fight, whose operative strategy has been obedience to the letter and spirit of Trotsky’s ‘French turn’ – enter the social democratic parties in order to take the best fighters into the revolutionary party when they inevitably split under inclement historical conditions.

Gerry’s brand of Trotskyism has now become national news. During the Labour leadership campaign he was expelled, as central office desperately tried to reduce Jeremy Corbyn’s vote by purging every last individual who, by an elastic interpretation of Labour’s onerous rules, could be excluded. He was readmitted to the party shortly afterwards, in what is becoming a recurring pattern. Last week, however, Gerry found himself the subject of a feverish exchange on the Commons floor, when David Cameron himself cited his opinions on September 11 and Islamic State in order to smear Corbyn. By the time Gerry reported for a grilling on Andrew Neil’s Politics show the next day, he was outside the fold again.

He found old Brillo Pad in unusually accommodating form. We sometimes wonder if Neil’s middle name is ‘If you’ll just let me finish …’, such is the vigour of his sub-Paxmanite shtick. Yet he treated comrade Downing firmly but fairly, putting a whole series of his outrageous views to him and allowing him good time, by televisual standards, to respond. The argument that the 9/11 bombers “can never be condemned”? We must understand, before we condemn – 9/11 was a response to American incursion on their lands. “Critical support and tactical military assistance” to (among others) Islamic State? The point, Andrew, is that US imperialism must be sent packing from the Middle East.

It was Neil and his researchers who managed to dig up the most damning evidence, however, which was and remains fellow SF member Ian Donovan’s writing on ‘the Jewish question’. Comrade Ian has unfortunately collapsed into anti-Semitism in the last couple of years; he has developed a theory that US support for Israel can be explained by the fact that the Jews form a transnational “semi-nation”, and that a preponderance of them among the wealthiest Americans has led them to become the “vanguard” of the imperialist bourgeoisie. (It was after this collapse that Ian found a welcoming home in SF.)

And so Gerry was left defending this rubbish on the BBC. Neil was able to drop comparisons to Hitler and the Protocols of the elders of Zion; and despite Gerry’s protestations of ‘materialism’, the charge sticks better than it really should to a leftwinger.

Gerry’s anti-imperialism is, needless to say, confused in the extreme. The confusion stems from exactly where Gerry says it does: Leon Trotsky’s policy of critical support to anti-imperialist nationalist forces – most notably Haile Selassie in Ethiopia during the Italian invasion – and his argument that, instead of joining the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang in the 1920s, the communists ought to have fought separately but alongside them against the Japanese. This policy ultimately stems from the anti-imperialist united front advocated by the early Comintern.

The trouble is that Trotsky’s judgments were straightforwardly incorrect, and Gerry’s later ones also wrong for much the same reasons. Selassie was a British client; Trotsky’s support effectively meant supporting British imperialism against Italian imperialism. (His vigorous pursuit of this policy inside the British labour movement was thus particularly misguided.) As for China, it is difficult to see how the communists could have suffered less except by fighting the KMT and the Japanese, as they ended up doing anyway.

Likewise with, say, Islamic State – after all, who are they, really? A bunch of disaffected ex-Ba’athists, funded lavishly by factions of the Gulf monarchies. They are ‘anti-imperialist’ only in the most limited sense that they are clients of regimes that are in turn clients of the US, albeit of elements within those regimes least susceptible to the direct discipline of the US. In general, we find in the chaos of the Middle East numerous examples of allegiances spinning on a sixpence; never before has arbitrary ‘critical support’ of ‘anti-imperialist’ forces been such a hostage to fortune.

Defeat the right

It is nevertheless not so much in spite of his worsening political errors as because of them that we oppose Gerry Downing’s expulsion from the Labour Party. Every wedge needs a thin end, and by remaining wedded to the moralistic anti-imperialism of his Trotskyist extraction, with the additional seasoning of Ian Donovan’s ‘theories’ about Jews, Gerry has made just such a thin end of himself.

We do not get to pick and choose the terrain of every battle, however. Gerry’s expulsion is part of a wider project on the part of the Labour right and their cronies in the yellow press to delegitimise the left, not least by equating our opposition to Zionism and the ongoing Israeli colonial-settler project with anti-Semitism. Let us get things in perspective: despite the ravings of Simon Schama, Dan Hodges and the like, the Labour Party’s biggest problem is not that it is riddled with anti-Semites. (Even within their specific corner of the far left, Gerry and Ian are oddities.) It is that it is bound tightly to British imperialism.

A great many sitting Labour MPs voted for Blair’s war in Iraq, a course of action that has led to uncounted deaths and the rise of IS. We know what is going on – these people, with real blood on their hands, would like to use comrade Gerry as a cheap way to buttress their moral credentials. We are not prepared to let them. His notions about the proper conduct of anti-imperialist struggle are risible, and must be exposed as such (and indeed stand exposed as such). But we do not consider the Labour Party’s shadowy compliance unit, or David Cameron, or Andrew Neil, fit to judge such political subtleties.

Mutatis mutandis, take Jill Mountford. The comrade is a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, an organisation whose equivocations on the question of imperialism are – from our point of view – quite inexcusable. There has been more than one political formation in which the AWL has been the least healthy element and which would have benefited, were the AWL to be shown the door. Plainly, the Labour Party is not such an organisation. The priority now is to fight for a space for avowedly working class socialist politics as it actually is inside the Labour Party. That includes the AWL, but by the same token it includes crankier outfits like Socialist Fight. We do not suspend, for a moment, our polemical fire against them; but we recognise that they are our opponents, and not our enemies.

If these expulsions stand, who is next? The organisation formerly known as Workers Power has spent much polemical energy on defending the pro-Russian areas of east Ukraine against the ‘fascist Kiev government’, for instance. It is another, similar error: yet more Trotskyists bigging up the anti-imperialist credentials of reactionaries, whose opinions on gays and – who knows? – Jews might not play very well in the British public gallery. Organisations of the left are not under fire because their anti-imperialism is crude and moralistic, but because they are anti-imperialist.

When the Labour Party is cleansed of warmongers, city shills and cabs-for-hire, there will be time enough to deal with people whose anti-imperialism leads them to idiotic political conclusions; and with those, like the AWL, whose horror of the latter leads them to worse errors in the opposite direction. Hopefully the comrades will learn along the way. Until then, we deny the right of the Labour right to police the left tout court – no exceptions.

Threat of witch-hunt averted

Stan Keable reports on the Labour Representation Committee’s November 8 annual conference (this article first appeared in Weekly Worker No1034, November 13 2014)

Thankfully, the “thoroughly bureaucratic, intolerant and dangerous” proposal1 put before the Labour Representation Committee’s annual conference was pulled at the last minute.

Michael Calderbank, on behalf of the LRC’s national committee, agreed to remit the ‘LRC culture’ section of the NC statement that had been presented to the conference in Friends House. This, amongst other things, threatened to “suspend or terminate” the membership of individuals, affiliates or local LRC groups that are guilty of “wilfully misrepresenting the views of the LRC, its elected national bodies or officers, whether to other LRC members or the wider public, by any means” (item (c)).

So neither the ‘LRC culture’ section, proposed by the NC, nor the Labour Party Marxists amendment to it was voted on. This amendment would have deleted all but the first two paragraphs, and listed examples of “bureaucratic tendencies” which “we must guard against” in order to defend freedom of discussion and the “open, inclusive and mutually supportive atmosphere” which the NC statement claimed to defend.

Moving the section, comrade Calderbank had reminded us that the first priority is “getting the politics right” and stated, quite rightly, that “the culture of the organisation is important too”. Debate is essential “within a shared viewpoint”. I agree. Interestingly, he explicitly upheld the right to heckle, praising comrade Walter Wolfgang of Labour CND – who was present – and had been manhandled out of the 2005 Labour Party conference for heckling Jack Straw over the invasion of Iraq. As James Marshall wrote recently, heckling is a “time-honoured way for the weak to challenge the power of the strong”.2

Accepting the right to heckle was not the view of all, however. Communication Workers Union activist Gary Heather, who had been chair of Greater London LRC for a number of years, “reluctantly” supported the NC’s proposal, and was “disappointed that it was necessary”. He could not “see why heckling is necessary”. Likewise Susan Press, who had “chaired the worst meetings of the national committee, where people were shouting each other down” (I believe this must refer to the notorious April 2012 NC row, which broke up in disarray, and was never minuted). She said: “Heckling is not acceptable in any shape or form. It is the last refuge of those who have no rational argument.”

I would ask comrades Press and Heather to reconsider this one-sided, negative, fixed view of heckling, evidently born of bad experiences. A heckle can be a quick way of contributing to a debate without wasting time, whether in support of a speaker or critical of what they are saying, and is not always and inevitably disruptive of the discussion.

Of course, heckling might sometimes be unacceptably disruptive – the chair should intervene when appropriate – or it might be off-putting for a particular speaker, who is certainly entitled to say ‘No heckling, please’. But a blanket ban would be overkill, and accusing those who do not want such a ban of being in favour of disruption, as some do, is inaccurate and unfair.

Bad behaviour

Explaining why the NC had found it necessary to make its proposals, comrade Calderbank surprised me by referring to “bad behaviour” in the Workers Revolutionary Party and Socialist Workers Party. Both of them, he said, had “covered up bad behaviour” – something the LCR must not do, if it is to be a ‘non-sectarian’ organisation, free from the deficiencies of the ‘sectarian’ left. The reference to the SWP is, of course, its cover-up and mishandling of the ‘comrade Delta’ rape accusation.

Comrade Calderbank here spectacularly misses the point of the SWP’s deficiencies in respect of the Delta case, in my view. The SWP did not have a policy of tolerating rape – or sexual abuse or discrimination: quite the opposite. It did, however – and still does – run an extremely bureaucratic regime – by which I mean a regime which restricts debate to such an extent that anyone expressing a dissident viewpoint soon finds themselves subject to a silencing order or even summary expulsion. It is precisely the outlawing of free speech, and the forbidding of public criticism, that creates fertile conditions for cover-ups by a ruling or dominating bureaucracy. It is precisely the open reporting of NC meetings, and Labour Briefing editorial board meetings, which can help to guard against bureaucratic cover-ups and keep our leadership accountable.

“A lot of nonsense” has been written about the NC proposals, said comrade Calderbank, and assured us that the NC was not “preparing for a witch-hunt” – but, there was “no place in the LRC for sectarian activity”. Not very reassuring. Now “sectarian activity” must certainly be a very bad thing, not to be tolerated, but in case anyone wondered what he meant by “sectarian”, he went on: “Telling lies to discredit the LRC or to build their sect” might help to sell “sectarian gossip sheets …”

Having been explicitly accused of “misrepresentation” in “a deliberate attempt to undermine the LRC” in my report of the October NC meeting3 (an irresponsible accusation not backed up by any explicit quote, nor by ‘putting the record straight’ with a public reply), I cannot avoid the conclusion that he was talking about my article, and the “sectarian gossip sheet” was a reference to the Weekly Worker. Item (c), quoted above, in the NC’s “examples” of behaviour which the LRC will “refuse to tolerate”, fits perfectly with comrade Calderbank’s hopelessly, if unintentionally, sectarian phrases.

Nevertheless, in moving Labour Party Marxists’ amendment, I accepted comrade Calderbank’s, and the NC’s, good intentions. But, I said, “the best of intentions can lead to the worst of outcomes”. They do not intend a witch-hunt, and they do not want to be expelling people – they just want comrades to toe the line and obey their interpretation of acceptable behaviour. Sorry, comrades, no thanks. The inclusive and tolerant atmosphere we all yearn for must, above all, be tolerant of the free expression of minority views (within a shared socialist viewpoint, of course). It goes without saying that violence or the threat of violence should not be tolerated, but the NC proposals are “superfluous” in this regard, I said.

In the discussion, comrade John Moloney also asserted that the proposals were superfluous. Points (c), (d) and (e) (“wilfully misrepresenting” etc, “disruptive behaviour” etc, and “bringing the LRC into disrepute”) were “totally subjective”, while “expulsion for violence or threats of violence don’t need new rules”, he argued. And points (a) and (b) (“physical, sexual or verbal abuse, attacks or harassment”; and “discrimination or abuse on the grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion/belief”), he said, “we do anyway”.

Graham Durham said the NC proposals were “politically motivated”. “The class wants to fight”, he said. “This is a motion to expel those who want to fight.” And the alternative NC slate led by comrade Durham, in their flyer, said: “We support the right of socialist political groups and individuals to have freedom of discussion in the LRC and are opposed to any attempts to introduce codes to allow exclusion or expulsion.”

John McDonnell MP, unusually, intervened in the debate to correct an assertion by comrade Durham that the origin of the NC’s concerns about LRC culture had been an incident in a meeting in a House of Commons committee room, where he had been accused of supporting the “fascist” government in Kiev – but, as he had explained at the time, he had been misquoted, and had never said that he supported the Kiev government (leaving aside whether it is fascist). The misrepresentation had been resolved immediately, in that meeting. In fact, explained comrade McDonnell, the ‘LRC culture’ proposals arose in response to bad behaviour at NC meetings at which he had been absent, due to ill-health.

Any instance of “disruptive”, “threatening” or “bullying” behaviour should, likewise, be dealt with at the time, and not stored up as a perpetual complaint against those you disagree with. The “worst” behaviour was undoubtedly at the April 2012 NC meeting (which I did not attend), and I do not envy Susan Press the extremely difficult task of trying to keep order as chair of that meeting. I understand it broke up in disarray and, as minutes of the meeting were never distributed, I have never seen a proper report of what happened. So we are left with mutual recriminations and vague, unsubstantiated allegations and generalisations. After two and a half years, it is futile to attempt retrospective disciplinary action by inventing an inappropriate catch-all code – which is what the NC’s proposals amounted to.

In the conference itself – despite sharp political “attacks”, difficult moments of heckling, individuals occasionally speaking over or ignoring the chair, sometimes continuing speaking after being told to stop – all these instances were handled with reasonable discretion at the time. The organisation showed itself tolerant of debate, and thankfully did not give way to the few philistine voices wailing against “wasting time” on debate, or complaining about “sectarian divisions” – read ‘political debate’.

Left ‘pressure’

Last year I reported a one-third drop in attendance at the annual conference – it was down to a little over 100 in 2013. This year, however, I am pleased to report no reduction in attendance, with approximately 110 comrades packed into the small hall at London’s Friends House. Perhaps we have passed a low point, and can now start to grow. In any case, tolerance of minority views, debate and majority decisions is the way forward. United action requires that minorities be heard – or else why should they join, and why should they stay?

No NC report was presented to conference, and no membership figures or list of current affiliates were given. But comrade McDonnell candidly reported the views of some affiliates, who have said, “We can’t send delegates, because you don’t do anything”. Sussex LRC, with a record of effective organisation, public meetings and campaigning rivalled only by Brent and Harrow, submitted an emergency motion to “restructure” the NC, which NC member Clare Wadey described as “too large at 67 members, or inquorate” and her admission that “it has been totally ineffective” was not challenged. Political secretary Pete Firmin confirmed that “everyone agrees” that the NC needs to be restructured, but “the question is how to do it”. And, on that basis, conference voted to remit the Sussex proposal to the new NC.

Guest speaker Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union brought “greetings from the TUC general council”, and said that to get rid of this coalition government the only alternative is a Labour government – “but we need to have a discussion about that”. He contended that “Toning down the rhetoric to get Labour elected is a disastrous route” and was very critical of the trade unions’ role in the Labour Party. After a unanimous anti-austerity vote at the TUC congress in September, almost all union delegates at the national policy forum had voted down an “emergency budget” resolution. Instead of posing “austerity lite” against “austerity armageddon”, we need a “socialist renaissance”. He commented: “People are prepared to fight, but do not think the organised left is the answer.”

Disagreement over our assessment of the state of the workers’ movement was brought out in the hustings session, where two of the three rival candidates for the post of political secretary presented their cases. In the event, Pete Firmin was elected with 59 votes to Graham Durham’s 21, while Louise Reece, who did not speak, received 12 votes. Comrade Durham’s oft-repeated charge that Pete Firmin and the LRC leadership are pessimistic and defeatist, while the working class is itching to fight if only it is given a lead, was countered by comrade Firmin’s sober assessment that the “bad state of the movement is reflected in the bad state of the LRC” – the sort of honesty that is necessary to face up to, and remedy, the weaknesses of the organisation and the workers’ movement as a whole. Self-deception does not help at all.

Vicky Morris of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty moved the successful motion, ‘Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory’. This commits the LRC to “advocate a Labour government as the best outcome of the May 2015 election” and to “advocate a Labour vote, at the same time as advancing working class measures as demands for the labour movement to press upon the Labour leaders …” Comrade Morris said that Labour had adopted policies to abolish the bedroom tax and repeal the Social Care Act as a result of pressure, and such pressure could achieve similar results with respect to a Labour government in office. Assessing the “condition of labour movement forces”, she said that the “direness of the Labour Party reflects and feeds back onto the direness of the trade unions, which, in turn, reflects and feeds back onto the direness of the socialist left”. In these circumstances, she argued, “there is no realistic alternative to voting Labour and the election of Labour government”.

The NC statement, moved by comrade McDonnell and adopted by conference with minor amendments (apart from the ‘LRC culture’ section, of course), offered a similar perspective: “Our task is to campaign for the Labour leadership to represent the interests of the working class by offering a real alternative to austerity in the form of socialist policies.” Left MPs, said comrade McDonnell, must resist the attempted rightwing coup against Ed Miliband: “The first meeting of the LRC NC must set about the task of bringing together left MPs and councillors on a socialist platform, so they can become a distinct socialist element influencing the Labour government after the May general election.” The election may produce a small Labour majority – in which case we must ensure “the socialist left is a distinct element in the coalition of forces behind the Labour government”. Labour may be simply the biggest party, in which case we must argue against a coalition with other parties, and for a minority Labour government to “enact policies in the interests of the working class”.

Comrade McDonnell welcomed the Greater London LRC amendment to the NC statement, under which “the LRC will prioritise support for Labour candidates that support LRC policies”. This is an improvement on the AWL’s call for an across-the-board Labour vote, and sensibly allows us to direct our limited forces in support of leftwing and socialist candidates.

Notes

1. See http://labourpartymarxists.org.uk/the-culture-we-need-comes-with-thorns.

2. Ibid.

3. ‘Inclusivity and intolerance’ Weekly Worker October 9; and http://labourpartymarxists.org.uk/lrc-inclusivity-and-intolerance.