Divisions surface and split beckons


What political differences lie behind the heated arguments in the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Briefing? Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports on the proposed merger, and counsels against irresponsible splits

Christine Shawcroft: where are the politics? (photo: Louise Whittle)

More heat than light has been produced by the online exchanges on the Facebook pages of the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Briefing following the May 26 LRC national committee meeting. By 17 votes to 7 the NC endorsed an executive committee merger motion – that the LRC and LB should combine, to their mutual benefit: an organisation without a journal should get together with a journal without an organisation. The proposal will depend on the July 7 AGM of LB, which will debate a similar motion from editorial board member and LRC joint secretary Pete Firmin. While opponents of the merger are calling it a takeover, and warning that it will precipitate a split in both organisations, some pro-merger comrades are hinting that they may abandon Briefing if they do not get their way.

Irresponsible splits are the debilitating disease of the left. They are a crime against the struggle for unity which the left and the working class movement needs, and which both LRC and LB claim to stand for. I would urge comrades on both sides to clearly present their arguments so as to ensure that LRC members and LB subscribers and readers are fully engaged. I myself – a member of LRC and a subscriber to LB – only obtained a copy of the LRC motion three days after the NC had voted for it. And I only read about the merger proposal in the ‘for’ and ‘against’ single-page articles in the June issue of LB, which arrived in the post on the very morning of the May 26 NC meeting.

How did such a situation arise, in two mutually supportive, pro-Labour Party, left unity groups? Both seek to unite the left and to democratise and transform the Labour Party. But democracy begins at home, in our own organisations, and depends on open discussion. The problem seems to me to lie in the reluctance to air our differences in public. Many rank-and-file comrades have expressed dismay at the heated conflict which has broken out online between leading comrades, where previously differences had not been apparent. This surely points to the short-sightedness of the view that we should hide our differences, not ‘wash our dirty linen in public’, that publishing criticism will frighten away potential supporters, that we should ‘leave our guns at the door’, and so on.

In his pro-merger LB article, comrade Firmin argues that the merger will give Briefing “a bigger base, bigger readership and wider audience” and that there is “much overlap of both political views and personnel (and even more so of supporters)”. The LRC is “in need of its own publication”, but “to start one in competition with Briefing would be a duplication of effort”. LB fights to “channel the demands of the broader movement and campaigns towards the party and a Labour government”, he says approvingly, while the LRC is “committed to fighting for the Labour Party to support the resistance …”. Implicitly criticising LB for being one-sidedly orientated towards the party, to the neglect of the extra-parliamentary mass struggle, he argues: “Labour Briefing … needs to recognise that there is a layer of activists who see Labour as a neoliberal party, some seeing little point in relating to the broader labour movement at all … socialists … have to win their activists to our ranks, pointing out how political gains can be achieved through the labour movement …”

Some comrades have asked me whether the merger plan will be put to the next LRC AGM. But Pete’s proposal is “to transfer Briefing to the LRC with immediate effect, with the aim of a relaunch at this autumn’s Labour Party conference”.

Editorial board member John Stewart put the case in the June issue for LB “retaining its independence … unless others can demonstrate the superiority of their proposals”. “Briefing’s durability” – it’s been around since 1980 – “gives it a stability lacking in the LRC”. Comrade Stewart doubts “LRC claims … of over 1,000 members and dozens of affiliates”. But, although it is not a precise measure, the two Facebook pages seem to back up the claim: LRC – 1,463 and rising; LB – 120.

Comrade Stewart displays an unconscious hypocrisy with respect to democracy and open discussion. On the one hand, he worries that an article like his 2007 piece “advocating support for one of the leading lights of the soft left” – namely, John Cruddas – would not “be included in a future LRC Briefing”.

On the other hand, he holds up the bogey that LRC affiliates – the New Communist Party and the Morning Star Supporters Group – might be given space to support “the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia … and the governments of North Korea and China”. And worse: “Recently, another affiliate, Labour Party Marxists, repeatedly criticised Briefing chair Christine Shawcroft in print during the Labour NEC election campaign.” Well, firstly, it was comradely criticism, which Christine accepted. Secondly, if criticism of leaders is out of order, I have to ask comrade Stewart what exactly he thinks is wrong with North Korea or China.

The caption to the picture selected to accompany comrade Stewart’s article gives us a pointer to the politics that appear to be involved in this dispute: “Tony Benn addresses delegates to the 2008 Compass conference at Briefing’s fringe meeting. John McDonnell MP refused to attend because of John Cruddas’s association with Compass” (the rightwing Labour pressure group “committed to help build a Good Society”).

However, we should not judge the opposition to immediate merger by the limitations of John Stewart’s arguments. But what does he mean by saying that his “greatest concern” is “that an LRC takeover may lead to negative developments on the wider Labour left”? Apparently those against the merger believe that a journal can only be genuinely “pluralist” if it is not controlled by any one group. The anti-merger leaflet, backed by comrade Christine Shawcroft and distributed at the May 26 LRC NC meeting, makes this clear.

“It’s no good saying that ‘LRC Briefing’ would be ‘pluralist’: there’s plenty of ‘pluralist’ magazines trotting out their own line; and plenty more ‘pluralist’ magazines debating the ‘pluralist’ lines within their own organisations. Above all: who will take a commitment to ‘pluralism’ seriously if you close down a pluralist magazine and set up, using its name, the magazine of your own organisation?” The implication is that LB, at present, has no political line of its own, and if it adopted a line, that would diminish the range of (left) opinions willing to write for it. If “LRC Briefing” is also to be “a journal of debate within LRC” with space for both majority and minority opinions, “will it be made clear what is the majority position? Hang on a moment – where has that ‘pluralism’ gone, then?”

Briefing’s genuine pluralism”, the leaflet claims, would be “killed off” if it were “directed exclusively by the NC of a single organisation on the left”. So what kind of left unity should we strive for? Instead of fighting to unite the left politically and organisationally, do the authors of the anti-merger leaflet advocate preserving the disunity of the left, so that the diverse tendencies can enjoy fair and equal access to the pages of LB?

This defeatist horizon seems to be a fetish arising from a unity moment in Briefing’s history. “When the [Workers Revolutionary Party] collapsed in the 1980s,” explains the leaflet, “Labour Herald called for unity of left publications. At a meeting of Herald, Briefing, International and Socialist Viewpoint, Graham Bash announced: ‘I am all for unity. Let’s have a joint magazine. The only preconditions are that it is called Labour Briefing and that no one group has control.’” The leaflet complains that Graham has not explained his reasons for abandoning “Briefing’s ethos”.

I cannot speak for comrade Bash, but there is an obvious justification for his change of heart: the circumstances have changed. The unification of several left journals to survive hard times for the left after the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike may well have been a positive step, but today we need to build a higher level of unity.

Comrade Christine Shawcroft has fully identified with the leaflet’s contents. I should like to hear the views of the other six NC members who voted ‘no’: Ted Knight, Jon Lansman, Gary Heather, Claire Wadey, Lois Radice and Miles Barter. And I should like to hear all NC members declaring against irresponsible splits. In other words, if you lose the vote, stay together. Accept majority decisions, insist on minority rights.

Come on over

Motion carried by 17 votes to 7 at the May 26 LRC NC

The EC notes that members of the Labour Briefing editorial board will be putting a motion to their AGM to transfer Labour Briefing to the LRC.

The EC notes the proposal by members of the Labour Briefing editorial board and if the motion is passed at the Labour Briefing AGM (on July 7), we would agree to take the magazine on.

The EC notes that Labour Briefing – like the LRC – has always followed a pluralist line, promoting discussion within the labour and trade union movement. We would pledge to maintain that tradition.

We also believe that having a magazine associated with the LRC would be beneficial for the following reasons:

  • It would create more space for discussion and debate within the LRC and wider movement.
  • It would give the LRC more visibility, and would help us to recruit and retain membership and affiliation.
  • It would assist in organising the Labour left and trade union movement.
  • We could develop a coordinated and integrated communications strategy, incorporating the website, magazine, email, Twitter and Facebook – as well as to reach LRC members who are digitally excluded.

In taking on Labour Briefing, the LRC would agree to maintain its pluralist traditions and coverage of Labour Party, trade union, social and international struggles. We believe becoming a magazine hosted by the LRC would broaden the base of Labour Briefing and help it to develop as a useful tool in organising the labour movement left.

We believe that the correct structure to run the magazine would be an editorial board accountable to and delegated from the national committee, though with the authority to coopt (subject to NC approval).