Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports on the annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee
There were slightly more than 100 comrades attending the November 23 annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee in London’s Conway Hall. That is down by a third compared with last year. Bad news for what is an umbrella organisation of the pro-Labour Party left, but surely reflective of the general state of the left in Britain.
Ed Miliband is “inching to the left”, with his promises to freeze energy prices and repeal the bedroom tax, and his successful blocking of so-called liberal military intervention in Syria. And though this has undoubtedly increased Labour’s poll ratings and made the election of a Labour government in May 2015 seem credible, it has not resulted in any increased organisational strength of the Labour left, which continues to shrink.
There have been particular problems with the LRC. Both joint national secretaries elected in November 2013, Andrew Fisher and Pete Firmin, resigned their positions a few months later. National organiser, Lizzie Woods, resigned from the organisation after a row at the April national committee. A meeting which has never been authoritatively reported. Her replacement, Ben Sellers, lasted only a couple of months before he followed suit, resigning from the LRC to join Red Labour.
Perhaps that is why the AGM was not presented with an annual report from the national committee or financial and membership reports either. Earlier in the year, individual paid-up membership was reported as about a thousand, but it should be remembered that the LRC also has significant organisational affiliates, including six national trade unions (Aslef, BFAWU, CWU, FBU, NUM and RMT), numerous trade union branches and regions, constituency and branch Labour Parties, Welsh Labour Grassroots, Campaign for Socialism (Scotland), and a variety of communist and socialist organisations.
The merger between LRC and Labour Briefing in 2012, making Briefing the journal of the LRC, has so far produced remarkably little change in the publication. The editorial board, of which I have been a coopted member for the past year, has so far declined to carry a report of each national committee meeting, on the spurious grounds that such a report would be “boring”. Consequently it is difficult for LRC members and Briefing readers to take ownership of the project, being ill-informed about the state of the organisation and of the discussions and decisions taking place on the national committee.
Apart from a couple of articles encouraging local branch-building by Ben Sellers as national organiser before he resigned, and the consistent campaigning of Sussex LRC, there has been little information about the hoped-for mushrooming of local LRC branches. The LRC remains primarily an annual conference and a national committee.
The officer problem which caused such a crisis in 2013 has been ostensibly resolved by dividing the tasks of the previous secretary post between four elected officers: political secretary, membership secretary, web manager and administrator. This has enabled Pete Firmin, who resigned mid-term as national secretary because the workload was too much for one person, to accept the post of political secretary.
As I have argued at NC meetings (they are normally open for all LRC members to attend), while sharing out the work is sensible and necessary, the organisation remains vulnerable to crisis when one or more of its annually elected officers chooses to resign mid-term, whether through personal circumstances or political change of heart. A better, more flexible solution would be to have officers elected by the national committee, making them accountable to it and easily replaceable at any time. Instead of having posts prescribed by the constitution and rules, tasks should be allocated flexibly as circumstances change. So far this rational, democratic solution has been rejected.
Moving the national committee statement entitled ‘Alternatives to austerity. Defend the welfare state. Defend the union link’, LRC chair John McDonnell MP argued that “we must build campaigns to make issues safe for the Labour Party to campaign on. They will only do that when they see there are votes involved,” he said. In an oblique reference to the failure of the Socialist Alliance, the hopeless ‘old Labour’ projects of Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and No2EU, and the confusion of Left Unity, which holds its founding conference this Saturday, he regretted that “no left alternative” has emerged. “People are still voting Labour,” he said. “We must nourish struggles within the party by building struggles outside.”
Two activists from the Boycott Welfare campaign, Clive and Robert, gave a moving contribution from the platform as guest speakers. Unemployed people and benefit claimants are clearly being badly maltreated by the system. Half a million have been already denied benefits under the workfare system, they reported.
The other platform speakers were the columnist Owen Jones and Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services union. Comrade Jones gave us his usual fare: rousing condemnation of the iniquities of the Tory-Lib Dem government and the promise that the left is winning the argument when it comes to public opinion. As for comrade Serwotka, he would not waste time repeating “how bad it is”. We need to talk about “what we’re going to do about it”. He noted that all the mainstream parties agree on the politics of austerity. “A Labour government in 2015 on its current outlook will be useless,” he said. Nevertheless “it does matter who wins”. Alongside coordinated industrial action, we need coordinated political action. “We need to discuss how to build a movement that can pressure the Labour Party and shift British politics massively to the left. Either Labour will be forced left or we will sweep them aside.”
This raises the necessity of PCS affiliation to Labour. Why should we have to “pressure” Labour, as if from outside, in order to shift the politics of our own party? Why not simply exercise our democratic rights within it? Instead of “sweeping Labour aside”, why not sweep the pro-capitalism, anti-working class, pro-austerity right wing out of our party?
Guest speaker Philippe Marlière of the Front de Gauche (Left Front) described how Nicolas Sarkozy, the “French Thatcher”, was “stopped by the voters” after 12 months, only to have the Socialist Party’s François Hollande break all his promises and continue austerity. He alerted us to the transatlantic trade agreement about to be signed between the EU and the US which, in the name of growth, will actually mean a massive loss of workers’ rights and ecological safeguards.
Jeremy Corbyn MP tilted at the illusions of those who have a rosy picture of Labour’s 1945 government. Its record was contradictory, he said. Alongside its undoubted social achievements, its foreign policy included not only the independence of India, but also the partition. It participated in the formation of Nato, and in 1949 Clement Attlee secretly authorised the spending of £200 million on nuclear weapons without consulting parliament.
Perhaps the most important issue confronting the LRC is the threat by Miliband to weaken the link between the Labour Party and affiliated trade unions. And conference heard Andrew Berry from Unison, Maria Exall of the CWU and Ian Hudson of the bakers’ union (BFAWU) robustly defending collective decision-making. Yet motion 5 from Labour Party Marxists, which sought “the end of individual ‘opting out’ of trade union political funds”, was voted down by a two-thirds majority. Sadly that majority included the LRC’s political secretary Pete Firmin, though Graham Bash, the de facto editor of Briefing, abstained. Those opposing us offered a variety of spurious reasons why collective decision-making and solidarity should not apply in the workers’ movement when it comes to politics. Eg, individual rights need to be respected, that or we endanger the precious unity of Britain’s trade union movement. A combination of nonsense and being in thrall to the status quo.
Moving the motion, I pointed out that a deal was being hatched behind the scenes between the bureaucracies of the party and of the trade union movement. A deal that would be rubber-stamped at the March 1 special conference. This view was underlined when Walter Wolfgang informed us that the special conference is programmed to last only two hours.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s motion 13, ‘Internationalist campaign in the European elections’, was, surprisingly, the only motion to which amendments were moved. This was the first conference at which amendments were permitted and incorporated into the pre-conference timetable, following a rule change proposed by Communist Students at the 2012 AGM.
Two amendments were moved, including the one from Labour Party Marxists. Moved by Patrick Smith of Hull LRC, this sought to carry out what had been decided in 2011, but not implemented: ie, “to initiate a short statement setting out our position and circulate it around Britain and Europe for signatures”. It also called for the LRC to channel its resources, during the coming EU election campaign, into organising “as much support as practicable for Labour candidates supporting our statement”. This should be done in preference to illogically advocating a blanket Labour vote when most Labour candidates will surely be following a version of British nationalist politics, arguing how “Britain’s interests” can best be served within the EU.
The internationalist policy adopted by the LRC conference in 2011 was sound. Motion 15, ‘Against British nationalism – for a workers’ united Europe’, stated: “That demanding withdrawal from the EU, or opposing British entry into the European single currency, is a British nationalist position which misidentifies the enemy as ‘Europe’ rather than the ruling class. This is not altered by tacking on a slogan like ‘Socialist United States of Europe’.”
In 2013, however, the Brent and Harrow LRC amendment was carried, deleting clause two of the motion: “That advocating withdrawal from the EU or anything like that undermines this fight [against British nationalism]. Britain withdrawing from Europe would not benefit workers in Britain and would almost certainly boost nationalism.” The successful amendment leaves the rest of the motion intact, but adds the promise of “an extensive debate” in the event of an in-out referendum. Jam tomorrow.
Working class internationalism favours maximum working class unity, the maximum merging of peoples, except only where temporary separation is necessary in order to restore trust. British withdrawal from the EU, or the withdrawal of any EU state, carries the reactionary logic of separate development and ‘national interests’ in place of common class interests.
The LRC is facing backwards on Europe, despite its pious declarations “to oppose British nationalism”, for a “Socialist United Europe”, a “European constituent assembly” and a “European workers’ government” – all proclaimed in the same motion, alongside this latest refusal to recognise that advocating withdrawal means nationalism.