The Labour Representation Committee’s leadership is anticipating a ‘make or break’ annual general meeting on November 8. Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports
The 21st century version of the Labour Representation Committee1 was formed in 2004 as a response to the domination of the party by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour. It is now enveloped in a crisis of self-doubt. Membership secretary Norrette Moore reported to the national committee meeting in Liverpool on September 6 that individual paid-up membership was down by about a quarter to 601, plus only 30 student members and 28 affiliated organisations. She did not name the latter, but reported, worryingly, that 151 organisations had not (yet) re-affiliated this year. Furthermore, 837 reminder emails to previous individual members had produced only 37 renewals. Chairperson John McDonnell said that individual membership had previously held steady at about 800 for a few years, so we are “200 light”. He characterised the forthcoming November 8 annual general meeting in Friends Meeting House, Euston, as a “make or break” event, and said that the executive committee wanted the AGM to focus on debating the LRC’s strategy. That will be the subject of the NC statement to be submitted to the AGM. Each affiliate and local group can submit one motion (deadline: October 3), and one amendment to either the NC statement or to a motion (deadline: October 25).The optimistic vision of a flowering of local, campaigning LRC groups has not materialised. With the honourable exception of Sussex (whose comrades were busy at the national NHS demo in London on September 6), the weekly discussion meetings of Brent and Harrow, and a small Leeds group, there was little to report about local organisation. The Greater London LRC meetings still consist of individuals, not delegates from local groups, as had been hoped.Comrade McDonnell’s series of “people’s parliament” discussion meetings in a House of Commons committee room had been packed, showing that “there is a constituency out there for our ideas”, but the LRC had not achieved a high profile and needs to find a distinctive role. And the organisation had not found fresh young blood to replace its ageing cadre, he said. Previous joint secretary Andrew Fisher, who had played a major role in running the LRC, now has young children and was busy in his role as policy officer for the PCS union. Likewise, LRC protégé Owen Jones has found fresh pastures.
Surprisingly, the NC did not discuss the similar crisis afflicting its journal, Labour Briefing, which is facing both personnel and financial difficulties. There was no report of the August “emergency meeting” of its editorial board.
The LRC’s existential crisis seems paradoxical at a time when New Labour is a tainted brand and the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance, which the LRC supports, is celebrating “the best left result since the mid-1980s”2 in the recent elections for the party’s 33-member national executive committee. In the battle for the six constituency Labour Party seats, the CLGA slate won four places and 55% of the votes cast. Kate Osamor was elected for the first time, along with incumbents Ken Livingstone, Ann Black and Christine Shawcroft, while Pete Willsman and Darren Williams were the closest runners-up. Only the CLGA had put up a full slate of six, while the rightwing Labour First stood just two candidates – Ellie Reeves, who came third after Livingstone and Black, and Luke Akehurst, who lost his seat. The two Progress-backed Blairite candidates gratifyingly failed to make it, showing that money is not yet everything in the Labour Party.
However, we should not exaggerate the effect of this small left advance – the CLGA has won four out of six constituency seats on previous occasions, in 1998 and in 2006, but that did not stop Blair going to war or the introduction of his government’s neoliberal economics. And in August left MP Dennis Skinner was voted off the NEC, where he had sat throughout the New Labour years as one of the three representatives elected by MPs and MEPs. The fact that he was tolerated for so long surely only demonstrates how unimportant the party’s NEC is to the Parliamentary Labour Party and the professional, pro-capitalist, careerist politicians who dominate it.
I had travelled up to Liverpool to attend the NC meeting as an observer. As an individual member of the organisation (I am also a member of the editorial board of Labour Briefing), I was able to speak, but not vote. In any case, only a dozen NC members turned up, so the committee was inquorate and could take no decisions. This has often happened when meetings were held outside London, but the previous meeting in July was in London, and that had been inquorate too. So decision-making falls to the smaller executive committee.
Unite delegate Judith Atkinson asked, “Why the poor attendance?” and John McDonnell, chairing, made this the main topic of the NC meeting. He set the tone by saying that he had been asking various (unnamed) activists whether they thought the LRC should continue, and had mostly received only a hesitant and half-hearted ‘yes’.
North West Unite youth activist Tom Butler wondered why his union seems to have “pulled the plug” on the LRC – perhaps referring to the several absent Unite NC members. Susan Press responded that Unite was now funding “campaign weekends”, which may be more attractive to their activists than anything the LRC can put on. More to the point, I think, the Unite bureaucracy can manage perfectly well without the LRC, and now that the Defend the Link campaign against the Collins proposals is over, it does not want to rock the boat before the general election.
Susan Press also claimed bad behaviour and hostile arguments in the LRC had driven people away. Islington councillor Charlene Pullen, she said, had walked out of the organisation because of the “hostility” she encountered in the two annual conferences she had attended. One wonders whether she would walk out of council meetings when faced with hostility from Tory councillors. In fact, as I recall, the councillor was barracked from the floor for voting for cuts – albeit as part of Islington Labour’s ‘dented shield’ policy (‘a Labour cut is a better cut’) – which some comrades (Graham Durham, among others) had thought incompatible with LRC membership, and indulged in some pointed heckling.
Of course, disruptive behaviour should not be allowed to prevent discussion. But attempting to ban heckling, announcing that it will not be tolerated and anyone engaging in it will be removed, as successive LRC conference chairpersons have done (including comrade Press, I recall), is counterproductive and dangerous. Have we forgotten how comrade Walter Wolfgang was manhandled out of a New Labour conference? He expressed his opposition to the Iraq war … by heckling. Behind the charges of bad behaviour is the desire to silence unwanted critics.
Val Graham (Chesterfield) made a similar complaint. She had been on the receiving end – presumably on the LRC’s or Briefing’s Facebook page – of “accusations”, she said. For example, she had been called “pro-fascist” and “pro-imperialist” in online arguments about Ukraine. Such accusations are indeed serious – but they are not simply mindless insults. They are political epithets, expressing sincerely held views. If they are wrong, they need to be answered, not silenced. Unfortunately, two motions on Ukraine submitted to the NC by Brent and Harrow LRC were not discussed, using the rather convenient excuse that the meeting was inquorate – grounds which could just as well have been used to justify discussing nothing at all.
A dozen more comrades joined the NC members for the evening public meeting, and heard Clara Paillard (PCS), Manuel Cortes (TSSA), Ian Hodson (BFAWU), and Sheila Coleman (Hillsborough Justice Campaign). The theme, “A trade union agenda for Labour”, was taken from John McDonnell’s lead article in the LRC’s four-page hand-out for the annual Trades Union Congress. His article complains that “for three decades the proportion of wealth generated within our economy has grown dramatically for capital, but declined for labour.”
But the response of comrade McDonnell and the LRC is one of desperation – hoping against hope that the ‘next Labour government’ can be persuaded or pressurised to defend working class interests, and that the trade unions, dominated as they are by a self-serving bureaucratic caste, will do the persuading.
On the contrary: while we certainly need socialist MPs and MEPs elected on an explicitly socialist programme to act as tribunes of the people, we should not be campaigning for Labour to form a government to run capitalism, which would attack its base, disempower and demobilise the working class movement and thereby pave the way for a yet more reactionary Tory government – a process we have seen often enough, and which should not be stupidly repeated.
The workers’ movement should only attempt to form a government when it has a reasonable chance of defeating the capitalist class and sustaining socialist development – and that will require the active support of the vast majority of the working class and the population as a whole (not just 51% of voters). And it will require that level of support across Europe too. Our present task is the long haul to rebuild and re-educate the movement to reach that level of readiness, and that struggle must be done in opposition to any capitalist government. Given the present appalling condition of the left and the workers’ movement, we need the ‘next Labour government’ like a hole in the head.
For comrade McDonnell, however, “The return of a Labour government provides the opportunity to redress this latest history of exploitation. If the next Labour government is to stand any chance of tackling the grotesque inequalities of present-day Britain, it needs a trade union agenda.” There follows a wish-list of good things the trade unions should persuade Labour to do.
But the Labour-loyal trade union bureaucrats are already ensuring they will not rock the boat in the run-up to May 2015. That is surely why they closed ranks and voted for the rotten compromise of the final Collins proposals. And at the July meeting of the national policy forum the union delegates – all except Bectu – voted down an amendment calling for an emergency budget to reject Tory spending plans for 2015-16 and beyond and to set out a policy of investment for jobs and growth.
Here, it seems, we have trade union representatives voting against the policies adopted by their own unions – showing the need to democratise the unions, to make the bureaucracy the servant, not the master, as an essential part of the struggle to do the same in the Labour Party.
If only the front bench will listen and adopt leftwing policies, runs the argument, then it can win enough votes to form a government. The Tory-led coalition government must be got rid of at all costs! A Labour government is the only alternative! But, as Darren Williams writes in the same LRC hand-out, “anything less than a clean break with austerity will put the next government on a collision course with its own natural supporters”. In fact we need much more than a break with austerity. The struggle to democratise and transform our trade unions and party into forces for socialism has nothing to do with putting pro-capitalist Labour politicians into government.
1. Founded by the Trades Union Congress in 1900 to give working class interests independent representation in parliament, the original Labour Representation Committee went on to become the Labour Party in 1906. Not a socialist party, but a federal party open to affiliation by all working class organisations – trade unions, socialist organisations and cooperatives – until the chimera of clause four ‘socialism’ was introduced in 1918, along with individual membership and constituency organisations. The newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain was denied affiliation in 1920, and bans and proscriptions against communists and the left were gradually introduced. The outlawing of the left was accompanied by freedom for anti-working class rightwing careerists to impose welfare cuts, wage restraint, strike-breaking, anti-trade union laws, imperialist wars and neoliberal privatisation and austerity, while retaining their Labour Party membership.