Threat of witch-hunt averted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left ‘pressure’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

2. Ibid.

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