Trip down memory lane with the hopelessly hopeful

Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists gives his assessment of the 40th AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy

ONE COULD NOT HELP FEELING ADMIRATION for the dogged persistence of the 80 or so (mostly) ageing Labour Party comrades who packed into the Brockway room at Conway Hall for the February 23 CLPD annual general meeting. Where other leftwingers have been driven out of the party or given up the ghost in the face of New Labour’s hollowing out of party democracy, or resigned in disgust at Blair’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, these Labour socialists had stuck with their party and their key aims: “a real policy-making annual conference”; “an effective and accountable NEC”; and “defence of the trade union link” (www.clpd.org.uk).

But along with admiration came pity. Tenacity has long since morphed into stubbornness and blind faith in an illusory clause-four state socialism which never can and never should exist. The welfare state, with its council housing and national health service, its bureaucratic management and patronising style, was not generously delivered gratis to a grateful working class, courtesy of an enlightened, socialist Labour government. It was part of the social democratic settlement across western Europe – a concession to placate the post-war working class and keep it from socialism. A concession financed by an ascendant US superpower with its Marshall Plan. In World War II, Stalin’s bureaucratic ‘socialism’ had vastly extended its territory into eastern Europe, and mass communist parties existed in the west, constituting a potential threat to capitalism.

These conditions do not exist today, and are not about to be replicated. In particular, the US, although still the top-dog capitalist power, is in decline (along with the decline of the capitalist system as a whole), and is not in a position to finance a recovery like the post-war boom.

But a return to Clem Attlee’s 1945 Labour government and the myth of Keynesian-managed capitalism is what the CLPD comrades hopelessly long for – and they imagine this to have been a first step in the implementation of Sidney Webb’s pseudo-socialist clause four, for the nationalisation of the “means of production, distribution and exchange”. Clause four was cunningly inserted into the Labour Party constitution in 1918 to keep workers inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution within the safe limits of parliamentary socialism. Significantly, the “immediate cause” of the foundation of the CLPD “was Harold Wilson’s rejection in 1973 of the proposal to take into public ownership some 25 of the largest manufacturing companies, covering the main sections of the economy” (http://home.freeuk.net/clpd/history.htm).

Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton North, opening the meeting, claimed that CLPD had “saved the soul of the Labour Party” by stopping “Blair mark two” – ie, David Miliband – from becoming party leader. CLPD influence had been decisive. Comrade Hopkins was campaign manager for the left’s first choice, Diane Abbott (he omitted to say: after John McDonnell had been betrayed), but CLPD also campaigned, successfully, for second-choice votes to be cast for Ed Miliband. The Blairites are “not the force they once were”, he claimed; and, with touching naivety: Ed Miliband is “not yet a man of the left”. We’ve “got to get the Labour front bench to reject neoliberalism”, give up their “‘too far, too soon’ nonsense” and emulate the public service spending and growth of – wait for it – Ecuador. “Let’s have 1945 all over again”; the 1945 election manifesto was a wonderful thing (forgetting Labour’s imperialism). “If it wasn’t for one or two mistakes in 1951,” he mused … And then: “If we collected a fraction of the taxes due, we could pay for all the things we need, and the debt would start to come down.” So much for socialism; managed capitalism will do fine, comrade Hopkins imagines.

In the afternoon we were treated to similar well-intentioned misleadership from comrade Ann Pettifor, an economics expert who, in the 1970s, had been a member of “the Alternative Economic Strategy group”. The present crisis was not one of international capitalism, she said, but of British capitalism. The trouble started with deregulation of the banks, which began in 1971. The 1944 Labour Party pre-election policy document is “as relevant today …” What must be done is to “reposition finance as servant to production – and labour”. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. It is that beautiful, mythical, managed capitalism again. To top it off, Cathy Newman announced that Ken Loach’s new film Spirit of 1945 is in the cinemas from March 15. But is it a documentary or fiction? She did not say.

The comrades were buoyed up by the presence of a lively group of younger members preparing to make a socialist splash at the Young Labour conference (Leicester, March 2-3), as they did last year. The Blairites who run Young Labour “make up the rules as they go along”, claimed Conrad Landin and Dominic Curran. YL has no independent rules – “just a chapter in the Labour Party constitution”.

Other signs of hope were mentioned. The numbers attending CLPD fringe meetings at the 2012 party conference were up, and treasurer Russell Cartwright reported that individual membership in 2012 reached 218, including 17 new members – evidently a small turn of the previously outgoing tide, and already in the beginning of 2013 a further 17 new members had joined. Alongside the individual members, there are also a few affiliates: 18 CLPs and nine other organisations, including four national trade unions.

Chris Mullin was unable to attend, so his prepared speech, entitled “A trip down memory lane”, was read out by Jon Lansman, who added his own potted history of the organisation, as did Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth. We were reminded of the major achievements of the organisation in advancing party democracy. Mandatory reselection of parliamentary candidates before each election was achieved by 1980, so Labour MPs no longer had a seat for life. Election of the party leader by the whole party, not just the MPs, was achieved in January 1981. The CLPD had originally campaigned for election of the leader by conference, but the system adopted was an electoral college of three parts – MPs, Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions. The demand that every parliamentary short list must include a woman was achieved by 1988. As comrade Gary Heather commented, this rule had been “used and abused politically, but was nevertheless the right thing to do”.

So the CLPD can chalk up some ‘successes’, it seems. However, for Labour Party Marxists, the post of party leader is an anti-democratic abomination, with its corrupting power of patronage, dispensing jobs and prospects to careerists in and outside of parliament (labourpartymarxists.org.uk/aims-and-principles).

Labour Party NEC member Christine Shawcroft highlighted the frustration delegates felt at the 2012 party conference when the chair ignored perfectly valid calls for card votes, after they had obviously announced the wrong result on a show of hands. “Unite [the union] is angry about card votes,” reported Jon Lansman. So the CLPD included this in its Charter for a Democratic Conference, which the AGM adopted and “launched” – overwhelmingly, on a show of hands. “Calls for card votes must be respected,” it says. I wonder if the 2013 conference chair will comply … The charter sets out a wish list of improvements in the way conference is run. The conference arrangements committee “must restore its own influence (regaining control of conference from party bureaucrats, meeting without officials)” – bravo! – “and restore the role of conference as the party’s sovereign body”. More than 50% of conference time should be reserved for delegates speaking in policy debates – limiting the misuse as a public relations exercise. The criteria for motions and rule changes should be “more flexible and fair”, and voting procedures must be “fair and democratic”. Apple pie, surely? Lastly, “conference decisions and all papers should be available to party members on Membersnet” – but, strangely, there is no demand for them to be available to the public – an obvious requirement if we want to transform Labour into a mass workers’ party.

Now, an organisation which campaigns for democracy must itself be a model of good democratic practice, an embryo of what it is campaigning for in the party. But I had mixed feelings about the relaxed, easy-going consensus which prevailed at this meeting. The atmosphere was certainly friendly and inclusive, and anyone who wanted to speak had only to raise their hand and the chair allowed them to comment on the business under discussion. No time was given over for real debate on the motions, however, and almost every proposal was quickly voted through – on the understanding, it seems, that the EC would be free to amend and embellish the text where it thought fit. That was certainly the case, for example, with respect to the charter: although a text was voted on, comrades were invited to send in any further ideas for inclusion by February 28, in time to be considered at the first EC meeting.

A similar inclusiveness prevails with respect to the EC itself. Although a list of EC nominations was voted through with no discussion – and no scrutiny by the AGM as to who the comrades were or what exact politics they stood for – the longstanding secretary, Peter Willsman, blithely announced that “all are welcome on the EC” who are “willing to work hard for the organisation”. Incredibly, for an organisation of 218 members (the 2012 total), 188 of whom were, so far, paid up for 2013 (the treasurer announced), the EC nominations list which was adopted wholesale showed 43 postholders, not to speak of the 18 regional organisers (for 11 listed regions), along with representatives of the various affiliates.

The conference, then, seems to have functioned as a willing rubber stamp for the politics and proposals put before it by its trusted leadership – politics which, as I have shown above, are, to put it mildly, badly flawed.

_____

This article also appeared in Weekly Worker No 951, February 28 2013:  http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/951/clpd-trip-down-memory-lane-with-the-hopelessly-hopeful

Babies and bathwater

Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists thinks that Owen Jones has thrown out the democratic baby with the bureaucratic bathwater.

Owen Jones baby in bathtub
Owen Jones: should know better

Credit where credit is due: activists in the Labour Representation Committee feel justly proud when we see our very own Owen Jones on TV demolishing rightwing politicians and standing up for students, workers, unemployed and disabled people. But popularity carries the danger of populism, of tailoring demagogy to popular prejudices – saying things the bourgeois media like to hear, such as “The era of the SWP and its kind is over”, and “The era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago”. The Daily Mail and the likes of Nick Cohen have gone into full attack mode against the whole of the left using such arguments.

In his now infamous article putting the boot into the crisis-ridden Socialist Workers Party (The Independent January 20), comrade Owen not only criticises its “autocratic leadership” and its lack of “any semblance of internal democracy”, but also throws out the democratic Bolshevik baby along with the bureaucratic bathwater. Freedom to form factions, with freedom of discussion in public, not just internally, was the norm for the Bolsheviks when they made the revolution in 1917, just as Bolshevik-led revolutionary Russia was the most democratic country in the world, until the revolution was isolated and crushed from without, and finally reversed from within by Stalin’s bureaucratic counterrevolution. Remember, universal suffrage in Britain, including votes for women, was only won later, in 1929.

The SWP’s crisis, and the splitting disease of the revolutionary left today, is directly related to its democratic deficit, its inherited Stalinist bureaucratic centralism. When factions are banned or restricted, when minority views are neither heard nor answered, when public dissent is forbidden, then differences must fester, undeveloped, in private. The real, effective alternative for the left is not networking, but genuine democratic centralism: ‘Freedom of expression, unity in action’. That is the only road to healing unity, to mergers in place of splits, to disciplined unity-in-action based on consent through understanding, not diktat. Only a democratically united revolutionary left can win the working class majority to socialist consciousness and to the Marxist programme for working class (majority) rule leading to human liberation. That is the democratic programme set out by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party – which we should proudly defend, not shamefully forget.

In philistine fashion, comrade Owen junks history. Don’t bother learning the lessons of the Russian Revolution – the greatest achievement of the working class so far. And he advises his proposed “broad”, “networked movement of the left” to avoid being another “battleground for ultra-left sects” – implicitly denigrating the battle of ideas so necessary for our class to work out its own political strategy.

“What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity – Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated.” It is “a mystery” – to comrade Owen – “that such a network does not already exist”.

But surely there is no mystery here. Everyone on the left is well aware that the disunity and consequent ineffectiveness of the anti-cuts, anti-austerity movement is a direct product of the disunity of the bureaucratic left sects. Each group attempts its own ‘broad’, ‘united’, would-be mass, front organisation. The road to effective mass action is through the struggle for organisational unity, the merging of the revolutionary left groups around the political programme of Marxism. It may seem paradoxical, but organisational unity and unity in action require freedom of opinion, not suppression of dissent. Revolutionary unity requires voluntary discipline in a democratic-centralist Marxist party, not anarchist networking.

However, again, credit where credit is due. Comrade Owen rightly directs his imagined broad left network towards the Labour Party, as it is still part of the workers’ movement: “Labour’s leaders are still to offer a genuine alternative to austerity”, but, he says, so long as the trade union link ties Labour to the working class, “there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people”. But “compelling the party” is here limited to “pressure” rather than winning democratic control over the bureaucracy by the members. If only, he says, we had “a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the coalition … the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right”.

The LRC, however, aims much higher than merely putting our party leadership under mass pressure, according to the ‘Aims and objectives’ section of its rules and constitution (www.l-r-c.org.uk/about/constitution). Rule 2 sets out to “restore the operation of a fully democratic Labour Party”, and rule 5 seeks to “transform the Labour Party into an organisation that reflects the interests of all sections of the working class”. As an essential part of this struggle for democratic control of the party (not merely “pressure”), rule 3 appeals to “all existing Labour Party members and to all socialists outside the Labour Party who it will encourage to join or rejoin the Labour Party”.

When comrade Owen naively offers to “all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity” his dream of a broad network free of left debate, he is really leading them up the garden path. They need the truth, not imaginary short cuts. The struggle for democracy must be fought and won in all sections of the workers’ movement. In the revolutionary left organisations, in the trade unions and in the Labour Party, the bureaucracy must be made into servants, not masters.

_____

This article first appeared in Weekly Worker No 948, February 7 2013:  http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/948/babies-and-bathwater

LRC AGM: No short cuts to rebuilding

The November 10 AGM of the Labour Representation Committee was on balance positive. But the left is still painfully weak both organisationally and politically. Andy Gunton of Labour Party Marxists gives his assessment

Those arriving at Conway Hall were met outside by Christine Shawcroft, Lizzy Ali and Richard Price – comrades from the minority who opposed the decision to offer the Labour Briefing journal to the LRC. Flogging their own “original” LB, they declined to stay for the meeting, leaving before LRC joint chair Pete Firmin opened proceedings.

Sadly, comrade Shawcroft also has resigned her LRC membership, thankfully taking very few comrades with her. Despite that, numbers were down. There were 160 comrades compared with 180 last year. Why the organisers are claiming 200 might owe something to wishful thinking. Or was it a factional pose? The only vote to be counted on the day involved a total of just 87 comrades (for and against – with no sea of abstentions in sight). Splits, such as has occurred in LB and the LRC, might help to clarify political lines. They can, however, lead to the weak, the inexperienced, the demoralised dropping away into inactivity. And that is what seems to have happened.

The Shawcroft-Ali-Price faction is clearly rightwing. They seek an alliance with the centre of the Labour Party, crucially those in parliament. As for comrade Shawcroft’s journal, it is a vanity project for a bruised ego and exemplifies a sadly frivolous attitude to democracy and class discipline all too common on the left. That LB proper has seen subscriptions rise substantially can only but be good news. And unsurprisingly the AGM voted overwhelmingly to adopt it as the official journal of the LRC.

John McDonnell MP moved the national committee statement. He outlined the work of the LRC over the last 12 months, highlighting the LRC’s role in helping to set up Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (Squash – www.squashcampaign.org), and challenging the “suits” in the “larger, bureaucratic unions”.

He lambasted the Labour leadership for its timidity: 85% of proposed cuts have yet to be implemented; we face a triple-dip recession; there are 3.5 million either unemployed or working part-time; and benefits are being slashed. So it is time to draw a “line in the sand” and for LRC members to set the terms of struggle in the Labour Party: “No cuts! Our class is not going to pay for their crisis.”

Comrade McDonnell called on LRC members to build up campaigns in communities to support anti-cuts councillors. It was time to target so-called ‘pay day loans’ and “bullying bailiffs”. He finished by calling for an “international struggle against capitalism” and for “systemic change”.

Veteran campaigner Tony Benn then took the stand. “The Labour Party is not a socialist party,” he told the audience. It is a “party with socialists in it”. Very true; and something those comrades who wish to ‘reclaim’ the party, as well as those who now denounce it, would do well to note.

Our party has never been a vehicle for working class power; it was founded as a voice in parliament for the trade union bureaucracy. To transform it into a genuine ‘party of labour’ requires unremitting struggle against the bureaucratic and pro-capitalist right, within the party and within the trade unions. And that requires a combative and politically educated working class. As Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists said, moving our LPM motion, the struggle must be to “transform the Labour Party … to fight for working class interests”.

In truth, there were rather too many top-table speeches and not enough time for the real business. As a result movers of motions were restricted to three minutes, while those opposing had only two. One for and one against – that was the sum total of every debate (although the mover also had the right of reply).

Many comrades expressed frustration because amendments are not permitted at LRC conference, meaning that rather more often than not you are faced with either passing an unsatisfactory motion or leaving the LRC with no position on a pressing issue. Fortunately, however, a motion from Communist Students to accept amendments at future conferences was passed by a clear majority.

Trade union link

Moving motion 12 on the Labour Party-trade union link, Maria Exall complained that the relationship provided a transmission belt for poor Labour Party politics into the unions. The link “works in the wrong way”, she said, calling instead for “political trade unionism”.

Understandable sentiments, clearly born of frustration with the lack of democracy within the party. But the problem with our party historically was precisely that its politics bore the stamp of “political trade unionism”, rather than the reverse. Blairism represented a clear break with this, symbolised by the formal abandonment of the old clause four. That some of the affiliated unions are now fighting back, picking on the openly pro-capitalist Progress faction, is, of course, to be welcomed. But clearly it is not enough if we want to see a socialist Labour Party.

The vision of a pure trade unionism free of party politics emerged again during the debate over motion 3, which sought to commit the LRC to democracy and grassroots organisation in the unions and to support various campaigns, such as the Grass Roots Alliance in Unite. Speaking in support of the motion, comrade Keable called for democracy in the workers’ movement, while Steve Ballard demanded the “emancipation of the trade unions”.

Jon Rogers fired the first shot in opposition. He was followed by Tony Lyons: apparently it is “not within the remit of the LRC to intervene in trade unions”. A ridiculous position, which cedes control of these important bastions of working class defence to the bureaucracy.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Vicky Morris regretted that, while she could support “the vast majority of what’s in the motion”, the LRC should not commit to support the Grass Roots Left in opposition to other groups in Unite. But pride of place went to Thomas Butler. He took the stand to oppose motion 10; not because of its content, but because of the organisation behind it. In what amounted to the call for its expulsion, he declared the LRC affiliation of the Stalinite New Communist Party a problem: a problem for him, and a problem for his union, Unite. Unite would not affiliate to the LRC while it played host to the likes of the NCP.

In the end motion 3 fell.

Fighting cuts

Jenny Lennox chaired the panel discussion involving Labour councillors, with Andrea Oates from Broxstowe opening. Describing herself as an “anti-cuts councillor”, she told the meeting she had been personally affected by cutbacks and expressed her “frustration with the Labour Party passing on Tory cuts”. Arguing also against rent rises, she had stood on an explicitly anti-cuts platform. But she felt isolated: “There’s not a lot of support out there,” she admitted.

Fellow Broxstowe councillor Greg Marshall told comrades that Labour councillors in nearby Nottingham were implementing cuts. However, he and comrade Oates had the support of their party branch and local trades council, and were holding regular stalls in the town.

Preston councillor Matthew Brown outlined his Proudhonist vision of council-owned, income-generating wind farms, cooperatives and worker-owned businesses creating “alternatives to capitalism locally”. (While cooperatives are something our movement should seek to develop in the process of forming our class into a future ruling class, municipal utopias are no response to the current crisis.)

Unsurprisingly, the spectre of Eric Pickles loomed large. Council chamber colleagues of Gary Waring (Hull) warned him that, should they fail to make cuts, “Pickles will step in and do the job”. Islington’s Charlynne Pullen demanded we adopt a “realist position”; Labour councillors cannot “abdicate responsibility”. Islington had brought services back in-house, implemented the Boris Johnston-touted living wage and set up a ‘fairness commission’. “And made cuts,” came a heckle from the audience.

The subsequent debate focused on motion 1, with most calling on comrades to back it. Jackie Walker from Lewisham implored comrades to “support each other and not fight among ourselves”. The AWL’s Pete Radcliff said anti-cuts Labour councillors needed to be organised and visible, that councillors and trade unions must be brought together: “the LRC should take a lead in this”.

Councillor George Barrett from Barking and Dagenham spoke of his expulsion from the Labour Party last year for standing up against cuts. We need an organisation of anti-cuts Labour councillors, he said. Dan Jeffery, a councillor from Southampton, expressed sympathy with those who called on individual councillors to make a stand, but organisation was needed. Pete Firmin recounted the experience of Lambeth councillor Kingsley Abrams, who had taken a public stance against cuts. He had reluctantly taken the whip and abandoned his opposition after pressure had been applied by Unite.

Opposition came from Ted Knight. “I do not find it difficult to vote against cuts,” he told comrades. Labour councillors should “lock Pickles out of their town halls”. There are “no two ways” to oppose cuts, he said.

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack opened the session on ‘Fighting back industrially’. In a wide-ranging speech he gave an accurate and honest appraisal of where we are and what we need to do. “Workplace organisation has been thrown back in the last 20 to 30 years,” he reckoned. It was not sufficient to make demands of union tops “without organisation on the ground”. He castigated the left for its fragmentation, correctly calling for a single anti-cuts organisation. But to think austerity can be defeated in Britain alone is “naive”, he warned. We require international organisation to defeat austerity, and we need to discuss what drives it. According to comrade Wrack, the “labour movement has been overly modest”; we are “failing in our task.” The crisis raised questions about what sort of society we want to live in. We need to raise the demand for “a different sort of society.”

Political weaknesses

Two motions taken during the session on internationalism brought the political weaknesses in the LRC into sharp relief.

Motion 5 addressed events in South Africa surrounding the Marikana massacre, when striking miners were gunned down by police. Mike Phipps set the tone for the subsequent debate. While moving a separate motion, he took the opportunity to urge comrades to vote it down. He alleged that the emergency motion called for the splitting of the South African trade union centre, Cosatu. Not true.

The motion included a call for the break-up of the triple alliance, which subordinates the South African Communist Party and Cosatu to the African National Congress. It demanded that they, along with the South African Communist Party, the Young Communist League and the South African Student Congress, must “fight for the political and organisational independence of the working class”.

Opposing, Robin Hanford reminded comrades that the ANC was a member of the Socialist International and therefore a fraternal organisation of the Labour Party. How could he, he demanded angrily, go to a meeting of the SI’s youth organisation and denounce the ANC? And why not, comrade? Surely, it would be inexcusable if you did not. As one comrade correctly pointed out during the debate, the ANC government is “a capitalist government”.

Moving emergency motion 1, Gerry Downing called on comrades to defend activists in the Democratic Socialist Movement of South Africa. The DSM – the South African section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International – is campaigning in support of striking miners and has been targeted by elements within the SACP as a result. Accused of being linked to, or involved in, several apartheid-era atrocities, DSM details – names, addresses and photographs – have been posted on an internet forum associated with the SACP. This amounted to a hit-list and was “an invitation to assassinate DSM members”, declared comrade Downing.

There was greater controversy with motion 4 from the Irish Republican Prisoners Support Group. It called for the release of political prisoners, highlighting Palestinians in Israel and Naxalites in India. However, it was the paragraphs dealing Irish republican prisoners which split the meeting.

Opposing motion 4, a comrade from Socialist Appeal warned, should we pass the motion, we would have to call for the release of those who had murdered prison officer David Black, shot while driving to work. Such actions were not part of working class tradition, he claimed. Presumably comrades from the AWL were of a similar opinion: they also voted against. Nevertheless, the motion was passed, by a margin of 52 to 35.

Broad church

The Labour Party Marxists motion was passed, almost unnoticed, it seems. Given the politics on display from the majority of comrades, this cannot be because Marxist ideas won out against reformism. The LRC majority has not abandoned its Labourite politics; it remains wedded to the forlorn hope that a Labour government, of whatever political stripe, is better than the Tories.

The LRC church is a broad one. It contains members, often councillors, who in times past would have been considered very much on the soft left of the party. They, alongside left Labourites masquerading as Marxists, and Marxists masquerading as left Labourites, form the core of the LRC.

Around Ted Knight, Graham Durham and Gerry Downing there exists an amorphous grouping of comrades whose ultimatist response to cuts – ‘General strike now!’ – is basically healthy in terms of class instincts, but refuses to acknowledge the parlous state of our class, politically and organisationally. We cannot call forth battalions which do not, as yet, exist, no matter how splendid our slogans sound. That is why our LPM motion specified that “Our key aim … is to rebuild, democratise and re-educate the entire labour movement.” There are no short cuts.

Progress: Capitalism’s Trojan horse

Attacks on Progress should be welcomed, but should the left vote for Aslef’s rule change? Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists looks at the issues

Lord David Sainsbury

Lord Sainsbury: main backer

Pledging, on day one of the Labour Party conference, to “kick the New Labour cuckoo out of our nest”,1 Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Labour’s biggest affiliated trade union and biggest financial backer, declared war – on behalf of the trade union bureaucracy – against the party’s pro-capitalist Trojan horse inside the party, Progress.

He was backed up by the leaders of the second and third biggest affiliated unions – Dave Prentis of Unison and the GMB’s Paul Kenny, and by a rule-change resolution from leftwing train drivers’ union Aslef, which Kenny told the GMB conference in June “will outlaw Progress as part of the Labour Party – and long overdue it is”. He added: “This is about an organisation funded by external vested interests, who seek to gain influence over candidate selection and in internal elections.”

The Aslef motion, however, like all rule-change proposals not backed by the party’s national executive committee, will only come before Labour conference next year.

McCluskey further upped the stakes by saying Unite would be prepared to end its affiliation if it decided it was no longer being listened to: “The Labour Party has no god-given right to exist. The Labour Party can only exist if it is the voice of ordinary working people and in particular of organised labour.”

Though this sounds admirably leftwing, what is really at issue is the power of the trade union bureaucracy, as opposed to those who would turn the Labour Party into a British version of the US Democratic Party. Of course, it was the trade union bureaucracy, an inherently conservative social caste, which made the Labour Party an electoral runner at the start of the 20th century. The big unions switched their support from the Liberals and opted instead for the newly formed party of Kier Hardie and Arthur Henderson. While the trade union bureaucracy has traditionally provided most of the Labour Party’s funds, they have often used their block votes and organisational muscle to hold the party to the right and defeat leftwing critics.

That was overtly the case until Tony Blair, who managed to remove the old clause four, turn the annual conference into a media circus, get the backing of the Murdoch empire and secure significant donations from the super-rich, big business and media celebs. For a time it looked as if he was going to delabourise the Labour Party. So what we are seeing is a rearguard action by the trade union bureaucracy.

For the “Blairite dead”, as McCluskey called them, electoral success is everything; class struggle is old hat. For careerists, on the other hand, gaining office is what it is all about. Their self-justifying claim is that Labour in office can deliver fairness and protect the poor and vulnerable – but fighting for our rights disqualifies us from their benevolence. They see the trade union link, along with strikes and demonstrations, as a vote loser.

Although their candidate, David Miliband, was narrowly defeated, crucially by the votes of trade unionists, in the 2010 leadership election, the Blairites are far from “dead”, and remain a threat to the traditional role of the trade union barons in the party. With swathes of MPs, many of them in the shadow cabinet, the ‘project’ is busily renewing itself. And, through Progress, they are having considerable success – in the selection of council and parliamentary candidates and in setting the agenda for Labour’s “priorities in government”. Progress is extraordinarily well financed, thanks to the largesse of Lord Sainsbury (see below). Claiming to be merely “a journal which organises events”, its mentoring, web of well connected contacts, ability to shoo people in as interns and research assistants, and the production of a wide range of well researched policy papers gives the budding careerist everything they need for success.

Dossier

It was back in February that the attack on Progress began in earnest, with the circulation to all Constituency Labour Party secretaries of an anonymous dossier: ‘A report into the constitution, structure, activities and funding of Progress’.2

This dossier informed CLPs that a company called Progress Limited was created in 1994, and is controlled not by shareholders, but by its guarantors, whose names are “unavailable for public inspection”. So “we do not know who owns or controls the private company”. Its first director, appointed by the guarantors in 1995, was Derek Draper – at the time a researcher for New Labour’s ‘third man’ (after Blair and Brown), Peter Mandelson. Because Progress consists “wholly or mainly” of members of a registered political party, it is legally obliged by the electoral commission to report all donations of £7,500 or more. As a result the dossier was able to reveal the £250,000 per year donated by Lord Sainsbury since 2001, which he raised to £260,000 in 2010.

“Vesting power of political activities … to a democratically constituted membership structure,” the report concludes, “appears entirely absent.” Members of Progress receive its journal and discounted access to events, the report says, but have no democratic say in the organisation – more like being a member of a fitness club than a political organisation. When, in January 2012, Progress announced a range of new officers, there was “no evidence of a notice of poll, nomination period, electoral procedure, or publication of result, as would be expected in a democratic organisation”. Unrepentant ex-New Labour minister Stephen Twigg replaced coalition collaborator Alan Milburn (David Cameron’s social mobility tsar) as honorary president, and ex-Liberal Democrat and ex-New Labour minister Lord Andrew Adonis became chairperson.

Unfortunately, the anonymous dossier looked for technical rather than political means to defeat Progress, suggesting the expulsion of Militant as a model. “The last time the NEC considered the matter of non-affiliated organisations operating within our party was during the battle to expel the Militant Tendency, when the NEC determined to set up a ‘register of non-affiliated groups to be recognised and allowed to operate within the party’.” So in place of the old list of proscribed organisations, the NEC now has a ‘legitimate affiliates’ list. “The terms of eligibility are revealing – groups had to be open and democratic, should not be allowed to operate their own internal discipline, and could not be associated with any international organisation not supported by Labour or the Socialist International. Where an organisation was unable to meet these criteria, they were to be given a three-month period to put their house in order.”

From 1996 to 2006, says the dossier, the media reported Progress as a “Blairite think-tank”, but from 2010 it “underwent a transition from loyalty to the leader to providing a platform for supporters of ‘New Labour’ against the new leader”: ie, against Ed Miliband. So, instead of condemning the New Labour politics of Progress, the dossier attacks it for becoming that evil thing, a faction: “Progress has transformed itself into a factional body that self-identifies with New Labour and as such has its own ideology, policies, candidates and campaigns.”

The anonymous authors are here displaying their own bureaucratic propensities. They do not recognise a leadership faction as such. So New Labour control-freakery was okay when it demanded “loyalty to the leader”, presumably with their backing. “Whilst this form of organisation is distasteful” – god forbid that party members should organise freely around their own ideas (eg, Marxism and the supersession of capitalism) – “we would be foolish to believe that similar organisations do not operate at the fringes of our party. The key difference … is that those organisations do not have the funding available to Progress …” Yes, massive business funding is “distasteful” in a workers’ party. After all, who pays the piper calls the tune.

The dossier ends with the recommendation that the NEC should set up “an inquiry into the organisation and activities of Progress” and “must consider amending the rules of the party to place constitutional requirements upon members associations in matters of fundraising, governance and discipline”. In other words, an administrative fix for a political problem, in a way that strengthens the bureaucracy’s control over the rank and file. Unfortunately, Aslef’s rule-change proposal fits the bill.

Defending Progress on February 21, Robert Philpot admitted on its website that there was a democratic deficit. Progress “never claimed that membership of the organisation bestows rights other than to receive the magazine and attend our events”, he stated. “We are a magazine which organises events, like the New Statesman,” he proclaimed, with tactical nous. “There has been no change in Progress’s purpose since its creation. The organisation was established to promote the modernisation of the Labour Party and the election or re-election of Labour governments: something we continue to vigorously support.”3

Legitimacy

The attack on Progress was continued by Michael Meacher in theNew Statesman (March 15), repeating everything in the anonymous dossier, including its factual errors and implied condemnation of factions of all hues. He accused Progress of “crossing the red line of legitimacy” from being a political campaigning body to “a party within a party”.

In June, the GMB conference carried a resolution against Progress, entitled ‘Maintaining unity in the Labour Party’, which highlighted its immense business funding and sponsorship and pointed out that “the November 2001 edition of Progress magazine sought to undermine Ken Livingstone’s campaign for London mayor”. The resolution also “noted” that Progress “argued that Labour’s front bench needed to support cuts and wage restraint” – thus “Progress advances the strategy of accepting the Tory arguments for public spending cuts.”4

Unison’s Dave Prentis emphasised his dislike of factions, more than of rightwing politics: “Progress seems like a party within a party. Our affiliation is to the Labour Party. We don’t expect an organisation to be able to grow within it.”5 Ed Miliband’s riposte should be noted, and we should hold him to it with respect to left views and organisations: “We should be a party open to ideas, open to organisations and open to people that want to be part of it, not excluding people or closing it down.”6 But unfortunately he was defending the free expression of anti-working class politics within the party.

McCluskey accepted Miliband’s argument, undermining Kenny’s and Prentis’s hard line (but he has now rejoined them with his ‘Kick the cuckoo out’ slogan). The furore, McCluskey said, was due to “the amount of money being ploughed in”. However, “I would be concerned about banning any group. It is a dangerous route to go down”.7

Progress, for its part, denies having any policies – it simply wants to get Labour into government. But its promotion of New Labour is announced proudly on its website: “Progress is the New Labour pressure group which aims to promote radical and progressive politics for the 21st century.”8 And its business-sponsored events give plenty of scope for ideas which weaken trade union influence and undermine working class party membership. In his speech to the Progress rally at Labour’s conference, president Stephen Twigg called for building “Labour supporters’ networks in constituencies up and down the country. If we can get hundreds and thousands of Labour supporters signed up, we strengthen our relationship with local communities. And we should then look to reform our party to give supporters a bigger say – perhaps starting with the London mayoral selection for 2016.”9

This contempt for the right of members to democratically control the party is beautifully illustrated in an angry blog comment by a Progress supporter: “… does coughing up £40 a year [membership fee] entitle anyone to special privileges [ie, members’ rights] over the party to influence policy?”10

In response to the demand for “acceptable standards of democracy, governance and transparency”, Progress has tried to clean up its undemocratic image. It held an election! A “strategy board” was elected in September, consisting of four members chosen by each section – members, councillors and parliamentarians: 425 members and 86 councillors voted, but the parliamentarians were “uncontested”.11 Trouble is, the elected board does not run the show – it meets just three times a year to “approve” decisions made by the organisation’s directors. And it is allowed one “representative on any interview panel constituted to appoint a new director of Progress”.12In short this is sham democracy.

Pre-split

Progress, it seems obvious, is a pre-split formation. For all its supporters’ proclaimed single-minded devotion to getting Labour elected, their real interest is getting themselves into government. Their chief financial backer, David Sainsbury, was New Labour’s chief backer, donating £18.5 million to the party between 1996 and 2008, but when Miliband won the leader election the donations dried up. During the 13 years of New Labour government, he was the longest serving minister.

But Sainsbury has a fickle history. If (when) the fight against austerity produces a stronger Labour left, we should not be surprised to see Sainsbury and Progress ditch Labour and split to the right, as he has done before. After joining Labour in the 1960s, he was one of the 100 signatories of the infamous 1981 ‘Limehouse declaration’, which led to David Owen’s Social Democratic Party, a rightwing split because of “the drift towards extremism in the Labour Party” and because “a handful of trade union leaders can now dictate the choice of a future prime minister”.13

When, after the 1987 general election, the SDP merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats, Sainsbury and David Owen created the “continuing” SDP, which was wound up in 1990. With Labour already committed to neoliberalism by Blair, Sainsbury rejoined in 1996, becoming a key player in Blair’s team. A year later, Blair made him a lord. Nothing to do with his money, of course.

The Aslef rule-change proposal is the wrong way to tackle Progress. A capitalist Trojan horse should have no place in a genuine workers’ party and Progress should be opposed on that basis.

Notes

1. The Sunday Times September 30.

2. The dossier can be downloaded fromhttp://liberalconspiracy.org/2012/02/20/revealed-that-dossier-on-progress.

3. www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/02/21/response-to-the-recent-document-concerning-progress.

4. www.gmb.org.uk/pdf/Motion%20154.pdf.

5. The Guardian June 18.

6. The Guardian June 22.

7. Ibid.

8. www.progressonline.org.uk.

9. www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/09/30/progress-rally-speech-stephen-twigg.

10. www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/05/12/keynote-address.

11. www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/09/27/results-of-progress-strategy-board-elections-2012.

12. www.progressonline.org.uk/campaigns/progress-strategy-board-elections/terms.

13. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Limehouse_Declaration.

An irresponsible split

Differences should be brought out into the light of day, writes Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists

Delegates were no doubt perplexed to find two rival publications with the same name – Labour Briefing – on sale at TUC congress in Brighton this week. Both journals argue for socialist ideas in the Labour Party and both claim to be the continuation of 32 years ofLabour Briefing as a pluralist forum for the Labour left, trade unionists and campaigners.

Following the democratic decision of the July 7 Briefing AGM to make it the journal of the Labour Representation Committee, the genuineLabour Briefing (labourbriefing.org.uk) is therefore produced by the LRC. The LRC is led by John McDonnell MP, has 1,200 or so individual members and around 150 affiliated organisations, including national trade unions, and a democratic structure.

The other version – the self-styled “original” Labour Briefing(labourbriefing.co.uk) – has no democratic structure. It is a spoiler launched by six comrades for whom the LRC is “too leftwing” or “ultra-left”. They continue to treat Briefing as their personal property, despite the open invitation to participate in the LRC’s new editorial board. Other comrades who argued against the merger have nevertheless accepted the democratic decision, to their credit. Jon Lansman, for instance, was a signatory of the anti-merger motion, but has now joined the editorial board.

Despite its much greater resources, it has to be said that the LRC’s initial 12-page TUC special looks like the poor relation, when compared with the 16-page “original”, with its gloss paper and the traditional Briefing banner, only slightly amended – the words “the original” appear in small print in the dot above the ‘i’ of Briefing. We must do better with the Labour Party conference issue, LRC comrades!

Feigning exclusion, the six splitters – Lizzy Ali, Stephen Beckett, Jenny Fisher, Richard Price, Christine Shawcroft and John Stewart – say they formed the LB Co-op to act as “a custodian of Labour Briefing to protect it against being taken over by a hostile group”. Their version, we are promised, will be “an independent voice and forum for socialist ideas in the Labour Party and trade unions”. The editorial excuses their irresponsible split by repeating the mantra of a “hostile takeover”, despite the fact that the merger proposal originated in theBriefing editorial board itself, most of whom were LRC members. It wrongly accuses the pro-merger comrades of “contempt for Labour Party members”, on the basis of a paragraph in LRC joint secretary Pete Firmin’s successful AGM resolution: “Briefing is predominantly sold within the Labour Party to Labour Party members. This is a weakness, as membership of the party has been decimated, and the Labour left is almost invisible to the outside world.” But surely this is merely a truthful estimate of our current weakness.

Although a few LRC members have expressed the view that the splitters should be expelled, and never again supported in any Labour Party election, most are more sensible. They want Christine Shawcroft to return to the LRC fold, but will support her in any case. “There is a long list of people I would not vote for before I got to Christine,” wrote one comrade.

In the “original” September special issue, comrade Shawcroft criticises the “tendency on the left to write off the bulk of party members … in a game of ‘prolier than thou’”, which “manifested itself on the Briefingeditorial board occasionally” and “led to Briefing drifting away from ordinary party members and away from our original mission of encouraging members to speak for themselves”. Christine argues effectively that the party membership should not be written off. “The ultras” are wrong, she says, to claim “that the fact that David [Miliband] got more votes in the constituency section than his little brother is proof of the inherent conservatism of party members”. In his electioneering, David did not announce “that he was the son of Tony Blair”. “He stood on false pretences, and members were taken in”.

These arguments are all well and good against those who would give up the fight to democratise the party, establish rank and file control over the party bureaucracy, open the party up to include all working class and socialist organisations and tendencies, and win it for the interests of the working class majority and socialism. They are not reasons for splitting from the LRC, whose aim is precisely to transform the Labour Party, not abandon it. As the genuine, LRC-controlledBriefing underlines, “The LRC is a democratic, socialist body working to transform the Labour Party into an organisation that reflects all sections of the working class.”

Having backed the successful motion at the July 7 Briefing AGM that the journal should “become the magazine of the Labour Representation Committee”, many LRC members, as well as Briefingreaders and supporters not in the LRC, are variously “outraged”, “disappointed” and “sad” on Facebook and Yahoo at the decision of the six anti-merger comrades to flout the majority decision. However, before getting too righteous about the “disgraceful behaviour” of once “trusted comrades” who “ignore democratic decisions”, etc, we should remember that the boot might well have been on the other foot, so to speak, had the vote gone the other way. Some pro-merger comrades made it very clear before the Briefing AGM that “we have had enough”, and “we will walk” if necessary. Indeed, Graham Bash had walked out of the editorial board as early as February.

Mike Phipps, who played a pivotal role in winning support for the merger, explained convincingly to the September 8 meeting of Greater London LRC why it was necessary. Briefing, Mike said, has been in long-term decline, because the Labour left has been shrinking. There was a real danger that Briefing would become unviable, like Voice of the Unions, which had been absorbed byBriefing. The 2011 AGM was attended by only about 25 comrades. On the other hand, the LRC was growing and needed a journal. About 80% of the Briefing editorial board were LRC members, Should the same overstretched team produce two journals? Nothing was “forced through”, as the “original” Briefing claims; indeed Christine Shawcroft, a leading opponent of the merger motion, chaired the AGM. Both sides had mobilised, and the AGM was unusually well attended. The vote was very close: 44 to 37, with three abstentions. Several of those pulled in to oppose the merger were won over during the debate.

So the merger was necessary. But I disagree with Mike’s insistence that the split was about personalities, not politics. On the contrary, the personal clashes on the editorial board were fuelled by political conflicts. While the splitters use red-baiting to ingratiate themselves with the so-called centre of the party, the LRC is looking outwards to win all trade unions to affiliate to Labour, and to campaigns like Occupy, in the hope that they will supply new blood in the struggle to transform Labour. As Pete Firmin’s merger motion said, “class struggle is the agent of change in the Labour Party”.

The reluctance of Briefing cadres to publish their disagreements in the pages of their own journal made it difficult for readers and supporters to discern the unarticulated political differences which gave rise to the eruption of personal hostilities on the editorial board at the start of 2012. As the bulk of the editorial board were LRC members, a merger with the LRC might have seemed non-controversial. But the splitters have been uncomfortable about their association with the LRC, especially its left wing, fearing it will endanger their alliance with the so-called centre of the party, especially the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance, which between them got Christine Shawcroft successfully elected to the NEC. Their true colours can be seen in the despicable display of McCarthyite red-baiting in their editorial, where it is alleged: “… members of the LRC – aided by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which produces the Weekly Worker – attended the AGM of Labour Briefing and forced through a vote …”

The splitters’ “original” Briefing hypocritically claims to be “a non-aligned magazine which is open to all” and that it was set up because readers “did not want to be shut up by the LRC”. But aren’t they the ones who, at the January 2012 editorial board meeting, opposed publication of my letter, mildly critical of sectarian comments by Christine Shawcroft? In her short report on the 2011 LRC AGM, Christine had light-heartedly wished the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the New Communist Party and Labour Party Marxists – all affiliates of the LRC – would “go and play in someone else’s organisation”. The argument over whether to publish the letter caused a row, and Graham Bash withdrew from the editorial board, unable to remain in the same room as Jenny Fisher. But my letter was published and freedom of expression was upheld – despite the objections of those who now claim to be “open to all”.

Protecting ‘ordinary workers’ or ‘ordinary party members’ from real debate in the hope of not scaring them away does not prevent splits. Spoon-feeding readers with pre-digested consensus obstructs the necessary clarification of ideas for both readers and leaders. Ideas remain undeveloped. True, arguments for and against the merger ofBriefing with the Labour Representation Committee were carried in single-page articles twice, in the last two issues of the pre-split journal, in June and July. But this was too little, too late. And, although the merger decision was made by a democratic vote, a two-hour debate cannot substitute for the extensive written polemic required for clarification. To the extent that a culture of freedom of expression is not adopted, the same political frictions will inevitably continue to fester in the dark, not only between the rival journals, but within each camp.

Tyranny, structure and red baiting pluralists

Though merger with the Labour Representation Committee was agreed at the Labour Briefing AGM, ugly accusations have followed. Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports

Not what should be expected of the left

Peter Firmin’s motion to the July 7 Labour Briefing annual general meeting – that Briefing should “become the magazine of the LRC” – was carried, and the alternative motion moved by Jenny Fisher that the magazine should continue to be “run by our readers” was defeated, by 44 votes to 37 with three abstentions, after what comrade Firmin described as “by and large a healthy debate”. By this slim majority, the AGM agreed to “transfer Briefing to the LRC with immediate effect, with the aim of a relaunch at this autumn’s Labour Party conference”.

On the day, the AGM debate was thankfully free of the silly online accusation that the whole purpose of the merger proposal was personal: to exclude Jenny Fisher, Christine Shawcroft and others from Briefing’s editorial board (EB). In fact the June LRC national committee meeting had already agreed (subject to Briefing voting for the merger) to invite all existing EB members to sit on the interim editorial board “with full rights, including voting”, alongside those appointed by the NC. Subsequently, they will have the same right as anyone else to a seat on the EB – six to be elected by the LRC AGM (probably in December), and six by the national committee, to give “a balance of independence from, and accountability to, the NC”. Cooptees will not have a vote, in order “to maintain the supremacy of those elected”. It goes without saying, of course, that this NC plan may be varied by the LRC AGM itself.

This democratic structure will, hopefully, bring transparency and accountability to the editorial board, in place of the present ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ which leaves control in the hands of those in the know, or the most tenacious volunteers. “At present,” said the successful resolution, “Briefing is run by a small group of people … its structures and procedures are not very transparent and accountable.” And in the discussion on the two motions, Andrew Berry pointed to the “accountability deficit in Briefing”. Norette Moore – who, as a recent secretary of Greater London LRC, might reasonably be expected to know – said she had not previously attended a Briefing AGM because this was “the first time I heard that it is open”. I myself was similarly surprised, a few months ago, to discover that AGMs were open to readers, and that anyone at all could attend and vote. A fact not advertised, and presumably unknown to most of the roughly 950 Briefing readers.

Under these circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that personal frictions arise and working together may become intolerable to the individuals concerned – in this case between comrades Jenny Fisher and Graham Bash. It was comrade Bash’s withdrawal from the EB in February, also withdrawing the use of his home as the EB’s office and meeting place, which triggered the revival of the 2008 proposal that Briefing should merge with LRC. But behind personal conflict there are usually political differences, and it was wrong for comrade Shawcroft to ask readers to oppose the merger on the basis of personal loyalty, as she did online, dividing the two EB camps into “carvers and carvees”.

Despite the much proclaimed commitment on both sides of the merger debate to continuing Briefing’s pluralist tradition of carrying articles from different political trends, it is evident that airing differences in public – actually a most healthy thing to do – is regarded by most as an embarrassment. In the online debates prior to the AGM, quite a few comrades bemoaned “wasting time on internal disputes”, while there are real issues “out there”. At the AGM, Simon Clark (for example), while arguing for the merger, said that the LRC “needs a paper, not debate”, and an ex-Islington councillor thought it “sad to dispute amongst ourselves”. But unless ideas are openly expressed and thrashed out in the light of day, they fester in an undeveloped form in the dark, and only burst into public view in the rotten form of a crisis – as on this occasion.

During the four years since the merger proposal was previously raised, the idea was not developed and thrashed out in the pages of the journal itself – the logical thing to have done. If that had happened, readers could have become familiar with the arguments and the issue need not have exploded onto a surprised readership in the form of a personality clash. In the period leading to the AGM, Briefing did not even carry the text of Peter Firmin’s merger motion, though it was submitted to the April EB meeting. Pre-AGM discussion in the journal was limited to a single page for each side in the June issue, and again in the July issue, but there were no readers’ letters on the merger proposal. So the main debate raged on the Facebook pages of Briefing and LRC, where facts and arguments were gradually dragged into the light – but only for those with the time and tenacity to dredge their way through hundreds of messages.

‘Historic’ delay

Chairing the AGM, comrade Shawcroft, drawing attention to the day’s agenda, announced somewhat casually and unconvincingly that the merger proposal (or “takeover”, as she called it) made this “a historic meeting”. Nevertheless, the proposed agenda allocated only an hour and twenty minutes out of four hours to this issue – to be preceded by two hours for four guest speakers and discussion. A comrade from Labour Party Marxists proposed that the “historic” merger proposal – “the reason there is such a big turnout today” – be taken seriously and moved to the top of the agenda. Only if time permitted should we hear the guest speakers. But comrade Shawcroft overruled the proposal, and invited the comrade to challenge the chair’s ruling, which would require a two-thirds majority. However, John Stewart asked if more time could be given to the two motions, and the chair agreed to start the item 30 minutes earlier.

Although passions were sometimes high, significant political differences between the two sides were difficult to discern. Both sides were clearly committed to the struggle within the Labour Party, but at least some of the anti-merger wing wanted to keep a certain distance from the LRC – because they want to keep a certain distance from the non-Labour left. The anti-merger comrades did not dispute the description of Briefing in comrade Firmin’s four-page motion: “Briefing has a unique role in providing a broad, non-sectarian voice for the left, which orientates politically towards the Labour Party and fights to channel the demands of the broader movement and campaigns towards the party and a Labour government.” But the motion also emphasised the importance of the class struggle outside the Labour Party and, while comrade Firmin said “the Labour Party is the agency of change”, he added that “class struggle is the agency of change in the Labour Party”. Richard Price, in contrast, exhibited a severe case of Labour Party sectarianism, fulminating against LRC joint secretary Andrew Fisher for resigning from Labour like so many comrades (though he later rejoined), over the Labour government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. And the LRC, he complained, had split the Grass Roots Centre Left slate and allowed Luke Akehurst onto Labour’s NEC. So there are those who consider the LRC ultra left, eg, comrade Stewart, who penned the anti-merger page in the June issue of Briefing, admitted that “the LRC is too left for me”.

Ian Ilett, speaking in favour of the merger, saw the political difference as either “working in the Labour Party, waiting for the class struggle to come in” (anti-merger), or “going out to the class struggle” (pro-merger). Indeed, comrade Jenny Fisher’s emphasis, in moving the anti-merger motion, saw Briefing’s role almost purely within the Labour Party. “Some in the LRC,” she said, “want to build the LRC as an alternative movement.” Briefing “isn’t an organisation: it’s a magazine”. And, pretending that Briefing does not have its own politics, she added: “Don’t tell the Labour left the answers – they have ideas themselves.” Briefing should “give space to the newly elected left on Labour’s NEC and national policy forum”. Its role should be “to make the left visible, not to lead it”.

With all their talk of pluralism, of giving a voice to all strands of the Labour left, the anti-merger wing of Briefing seems satisfied with the left being divided, so that Briefing can carry on its “non-aligned” role of supposedly being everyone’s voice. These comrades do not want organisational unity – which, however, is vital to the task of defeating the pro-capitalist bureaucracy and transforming the party into a pro-working class, socialist party. Reflecting the sad division of much of the left, in or out of Labour, into bureaucratic-centralist sects which forbid public discussion of political differences, they support this backwardness by believing that pluralist organisation, where minorities can express their views, is impossible. Pluralism versus organisation.

Hence, the pejorative term, “house journal”, that was used by a number of anti-merger comrades. Comrade Fisher clearly expressed this view in a Facebook posting: “I still don’t see how the LRC can produce a pluralist and open magazine if it is the magazine of only one organisation – its mouthpiece, aiming to build that organisation (unless one assumes that organisation is the pluralist left, rather than part of it).”

Perhaps the trump card of the anti-merger wing was veteran Labour CND comrade Walter Wolfgang, who told us that Briefing is needed because “Tribune is not always consistent”. But Briefing “must be independent of an organisation … To make it a house journal would be to murder it.” However, the pro-merger trump was John McDonnell, who, after pleading for everyone to accept whatever decision was made and leave the room as comrades, reluctantly admitted that he had been won away from his previous agnostic position by the arguments of Mike Phipps and was now convinced that merger was “beneficial for the movement overall”.

Red-baiting

On July 8, the day after the AGM, instead of accepting the democratic decision of the Briefing AGM, comrades Fisher and Shawcroft issued a press release which, unfortunately, reverted to many of the acrimonious terms and arguments used online before the relatively cordial debate at the AGM. Labour Briefing is to “close down” and the LRC intends to launch “its own house journal, using the same name”. Despite the majority vote by the Briefing AGM on a motion from members of the Briefing editorial board, the press release has it that “members of the LRC – aided by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which produces the Weekly Worker – attended the AGM of Labour Briefing and forced through a vote …” The merger is “a hostile takeover which is tantamount to political asset-stripping”, the press release continues. “Those readers who have been robbed of their magazine are now the human collateral damage in the LRC’s turn to empire building.”

This red-baiting and fingering comrades as Communist Party members, reminiscent of McCarthyism and the worst aspects of the Labour Party in the cold war period, is repeated uncritically by Jon Lansman in his July 9 Left Futures blog, where he presents what appears to be a neutral, journalistic report – failing to mention that he was one of the signatories of the anti-merger motion, or the unmissable fact that comrade McDonnell spoke in favour of the merger.

I have as yet received no reply from comrades Fisher and Shawcroft to my two questions, asked in the light of their hostile press release: Are you planning to launch a rival magazine, as some have suggested? I hope not. Will you write for the coming issues of Briefing? I hope so.

Common sense and left divisions

The proposed merger of Labour Representation Committee and Labour Briefing will be decided at Briefing’s AGM this Saturday. Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reviews the discussion so far, and backs the merger

As the annual general meeting of Labour Briefing is upon us, an online debate is raging around the AGM motion to make LB the journal of the Labour Representation Committee. The idea is not new. A similar motion was moved four years ago by comrade Susan Press, but it only gained minority support. This time the merger motion is supported by a majority of both the LB editorial board (EB) and LRC national committee. At the May national committee meeting which agreed “to take the magazine on” by 17 votes to 7, LRC chair John McDonnell MP emphasised that this is “not a hostile takeover bid”, but the LRC is “waiting in the wings” if the Briefing AGM backs the merger.

The common-sense arguments for merger are sound. Like all leftwing journals, Briefing’s future is at risk; its activists are diminishing and growing older; its financial survival is uncertain. There is an overlapping core of activists and leaders sustaining both LB and LRC. The politics of both are ostensibly very close – for left unity, directing the left to the task of transforming the Labour Party and the trade unions towards socialism. A journal without an organisation should merge with a growing left unity organisation without a journal.

EB member Mike Phipps makes the argument well in the July issue of Briefing (‘Briefing: expand or die’): “Rather than going to more meetings than are necessary wearing different hats, why not put the two together?” The LRC is “committed … to the pluralist traditions and Labour orientation of Briefing. That’s non-negotiable … But as to political disagreements … we already have these in Briefing … And we should welcome them …” Warning that the EB and production team may not “just continue to renew itself”, comrade Phipps reminds us of the sudden disappearance of Voice of the Unions: “… once the number of people falls below a critical mass, publication will simply cease. It may not be long before Briefing reaches that position.”

Although personal conflicts and frustration have evidently played a part in triggering the merger proposal on this occasion, readers and subscribers should reject the silly argument that the purpose of the proposal is personal – to “exclude”, “oust” or “carve out” certain members of the outgoing editorial board, whose term of office expires at the AGM in any case. No individual has a right to a place on the EB. If the merger proposal falls, a new EB will be elected at the AGM. If it succeeds, the composition of the new EB will be decided through the democracy of the LRC.

Instead of personal conflicts, we must examine the political differences, if we can find them, which motivate the reluctant minority who vociferously oppose this common-sense proposal. Ignoring the spurious arguments that an editorial board responsible to LRC could not possibly function effectively, the political concerns of the anti-merger minority seem to be threefold: Briefing’s orientation to the Labour Party, its political pluralism, and its “organisational pluralism” or independence.

Would merging with LRC weaken Briefing’s orientation to the Labour Party?

Not at all. LRC rule 3 states that its aim is to “appeal for support … to all socialists outside the Labour Party, who it will encourage to join or rejoin the Labour Party”. Comrade Jenny Fisher, however, writing against the merger in the July Briefing (‘Not ready for slaughter’), argues that the overlap between the LB and LRC “has probably held Briefing back”, because of the LRC’s “purist approach”. Its ‘no cuts’ campaign “got nowhere and stopped dialogue about the left in local government”. She continues: “The Labour left … needs a forum for debate and organisation: it is that vacuum Briefing should fill.” Here Jenny quite rightly mentions the need for organisation – but this is a need which Briefing does not fill, with its ‘non-aligned’ status. If she thinks the LRC’s tactical approach to the anti-cuts struggle is wrong, that should be argued through the democracy of the LRC – it is not an argument against organisation.

Would merging with the LRC undermine the pluralism of Briefing?

EB member John Stewart questioned the pluralism of the LRC in his June Briefing article, ‘Briefing should keep its independence’. He asks: “Would an article advocating support for one of the leading lights of the soft left [like his 2007 backing for Jon Cruddas as Labour deputy leader] be included in a future LRC Briefing?” However, while his version of pluralism reaches out to the right of the LRC, unfortunately it does not extend leftwards or to those outside the Labour Party. In the same article, somewhat naively, he expresses his fears that an LRC Briefing might open its pages to “the New Communist Party and the Morning Star Supporters Group” – both non-Labour affiliates of the LRC. And, he complains, “another affiliate, Labour Party Marxists, repeatedly criticised Briefing chair Christine Shawcroft in print during the Labour Party NEC election campaign”. The criticism “in print” to which comrade Stewart objects was my friendly, but mildly critical, letter published in the February issue of Briefing itself – despite the opposition of comrade Stewart, whose ‘pluralism’ is evidently of the censoring kind.

Comrade Fisher, too, exhibits an unhealthy antipathy to the LRC’s non-Labour left. Instead of recognising the necessity of drawing them into the struggle to transform the party, she accuses the LRC of working with other left groups “on their own terms, without making the Labour Party central – hence its reliance on non-affiliated trade unions”. Of course, LRC could and should do much more to campaign for trade unions to affiliate, and to combat the destructive campaign for disaffiliation led by groups like the Socialist Party in England and Wales. That is an essential part of our struggle to transform Labour. By the same measure, we should not write off or disown those expelled from the party by the bureaucracy for their views, or for standing up for democratic principles – like the RMT union, or individual expellees like Tower Hamlets comrade Stephen Beckett, thrown out of the party for backing Lutfur Rahman and Labour Party democracy, and defying bureaucratic diktat. Paradoxically, comrade Beckett is in the anti-merger camp at present.

“In short,” continues comrade Fisher, “Briefing builds the Labour Party; the LRC builds the LRC so it can be part of forming a new party of labour of which the Labour left may be a part” (my emphasis). This may be a minority view in the LRC, but it is a misrepresentation to present it as LRC policy. As Mike Phipps points out in his ‘expand or die’ article, “The LRC has changed: anti-Labour elements are marginal …” Making LB part of LRC would surely strengthen its orientation to Labour further. Transforming the party is a necessary task for the left, and we need to be as united as possible, including organisationally united, in order to tackle the job. Reaching out to the non-Labour left and non-affiliated unions is an essential part of our orientation to Labour.

Of course, we do not know what the future holds for the Labour Party. If we begin to be successful and the left gets stronger, the right may abandon ship – like the ‘gang of four’ who split from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and later merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems. Better if we had kicked them out. The Blairite project to break the trade union link and transform the party in the wrong direction, into a purely bourgeois liberal party, may one day succeed. But, speculation aside, as things are, we must do everything to build a strong, well organised left and to rid the party of openly pro-capitalism, anti-working class factions like Progress, with its £400,000 per annum income (£260,000 from Lord David Sainsbury alone), which should have no place in the workers’ movement. We must transform Labour so that it stands clearly on the side of working class struggle and for socialism.

Would merging with the LRC curtail Briefing’s political pluralism?

At the June 30 LRC NC meeting, an anti-merger leaflet in the names of Jenny Fisher, Stephen Beckett and Christine Shawcroft made the curious claim: “Labour Briefing’s tradition of pluralism is a political and an organisational one: pluralism in the sense of being non-aligned and working with others. Briefing was often called the ‘in-house journal of the Labour left’. That’s different from the ‘house journal of the LRC’.” So, here we have the invention of the concept “organisational pluralism”, ascribing Briefing’s ability to publish a range of left views to its supposed independence of any particular organisation – as if it were not an organisation in its own right. By contrast, the argument goes, if Briefing belongs to another organisation – the LRC – it loses its independence and its ability to carry a range of views.

I am sure the comrades have not grasped the disastrous implication of this naive idea: it legitimises the splitting disease of the left, and the false idea that a socialist political organisation must neither contain differing views nor be open to outside views. If you disagree, you must split and form your own organisation. That is how the left arrived at its present divided state. Championing “organisational pluralism” simply defends the unfortunate status quo. So it is OK that the left is split into many organisations, some in the Labour Party and some outside it, dispersing our uncoordinated efforts and competing for members and scant resources.

No, it is not OK. We need not merely open discussion, so we can learn from each other, so minority views can be heard and understood, so minorities can become majorities. We also need democratic organisation, so majority views can determine collective, effective action.

Annual general meeting

Saturday July 7, 12 noon, University of London Union, Malet Street, London WC1. Open to Labour Briefing readers.

www.labourbriefing.org.uk

Refound Labour as a real party of labour

Share
Share