Little choice

CPGB aggregate: Left strategy and election tactics

Jim Moody reports on discussions at the April 27 aggregate of CPGB members

The two questions considered by the April aggregate concerned our involvement in the Left Unity project and important decisions on voting at the local and Euro elections that are to be held across Britain on May 22.

Left Unity

Mike Macnair opened on Left Unity by outlining our stance on its internal elections. We had not stood candidates just in order to fill a vacancy, but to put forward principled communist politics. If they were elected it would be on the basis of clear support for LU’s Communist Platform, within which the CPGB is the major force. It was similar to our attitude to political work in branches, where our focus is on politics, not merely branch-building.

Comrade Macnair compared our work in LU with what we did in the Socialist Alliance, though without direct involvement in organisational matters; but it was radically different to how it had been in Respect, where we actively tried to split its base from the leadership. However, our orientation to LU recognises that it is yet another of the left’s halfway-house projects with poor expectations.

Since the late 1970s European politics, especially in larger countries, has become more and more dominated by bourgeois and reactionary forces, as ever more right-moving governments succeed one another. Demoralisation encourages this spiral. David Cameron’s coalition government is well to the right of Margaret Thatcher’s, François Hollande’s is to the right of the previous Socialist Party administration, Angela Merkel’s is to the right of previous Christian Democrat governments.

But the left is dominated by the bureaucratic model, in the trade unions as it is in social democratic parties, with its previous connection to the masses considerably reduced and the bourgeois media acting as a substitute.

So to what extent, comrade Macnair asked, does the LU break with the bureaucratic model? LU’s founders, in rejecting the SWP model of internal organisation, believing it to be democratic centralism, have instead adopted the Labour Party model - leading to bureaucratic control and no real discussion. It was a ‘rule of law’ model rather than a democratic orientation.

LU’s leadership - the likes of Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin and Socialist Resistance - saw Labour’s move to the right opening up a space that could be filled by a new left party “undelineated between reform and revolution”, said comrade Macnair. They look to the example of ‘new’ parties in Europe that are not new at all: Die Linke was a rebranded ex-‘official communist’ party; the Parti de Gauche included the French Communist Party and an SP split; the Red-Green or Unity List (Denmark) came from the ‘official’ Eurocomunists in the 1980s; Left Bloc (Portugal) was a Trotskyist-Maoist lash-up; and Syriza had the Eurocommunist KKE (Interior) at its core. Votes from these ‘new’ formations had been declining measured against what communist parties achieved in the 1970s.

During the whole post-war period there had always been space to the left of social democracy. So LU was in danger of writing off older working class parties, even though they could not be changed in any major way.

The timing for LU’s establishment was poor, concluded comrade Macnair: thanks to urban working class mobilisation, media-backed plans to drive Labour into third place in the 2010 general election failed. And, while Ed Miliband gestures to the right, he also gestures to the left on zero hours contracts. All this meant that under the Tory-led coalition LU is unlikely to gain purchase. It had no spinal core and lacked clarity; its individual leaders and participating groups had meagre forces. Meetings of LU’s transitional national council have been chaotic, its officers’ group is weak. Branch’s tasks were unclear and chances of a successful 2015 election campaign poor.

Conference success

In discussion, Jack Conrad thought that more examination of LU’s conference was required. It seemed that the left was determined to continue to make mistakes time and again, usually condemning the latest left experiment as ‘too leftwing’. Redefining its own name, Socialist Resistance resists socialism as LU’s most coherent rightwing element. We continually tried to raise left projects above sub-political levels. Glad to be labelled the “extreme left” of LU by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics, we were the rational, real left and must strengthen and build the Communist Platform into an effective force.

In her contribution, Yassamine Mather reminded comrades that the CP democracy motion had failed at LU conference and others had not been debated at all. But LU was more incompetence than conspiracy - which on occasion had worked to our benefit. However, the LU national council was largely irrelevant, more of an advisory body. Prioritising political arguments, particularly in the branches, was the only way forward.

At conference the CP made a good impact, Sarah McDonald noted. The Communist Platform and Crouch End’s motions on the European Union, passed at the LU policy conference, recognised the need for the working class to act on a European level. And she was surprised at the majority for our EU motion. Seeing how narrowly the motion on Scotland was defeated and looking at SR’s Scottish Socialist Party-style, naive sentimentality on the question, tackling SR in the branches should be easy.

Moshé Machover, a guest at the aggregate, saw Syriza’s prestige behind the passing of the EU motion. At his LU branch, members were always looking for local campaigns to join, neglecting politics. We should not alienate potential allies in LU unnecessarily, aiming to emerge from LU stronger if it collapsed.

Peter Manson also thought the CP made a good impression at conference. Even CP motions that did not pass had achieved reasonably good minority votes and comrade Mather had been elected to the NC. But he warned against “going native” in LU. We had to put forward politics on all occasions, including on internal democracy. Paul Demarty wanted candidates for still-empty positions following LU conference to be asked difficult questions, but were hustings even being proposed?

Comrade Macnair concluded that LU lacked organisational confidence and questioned its ability to survive through good and bad times. To make a project such as LU live you had to work at it for a long time. So we in the CP must point out the real risks that others in LU were not prepared to look at. We had to focus on the limits of what was possible.

May 22 elections

In the second part of the aggregate, Peter Manson introduced a discussion on the forthcoming local and EU elections, remembering always that voting is a tactical question. Previously the default position of most of the left had been to vote Labour unless there was a working class alternative; now, it had the opposite view. Our position was to ask what would advance the cause of the working class.

Turning first to the local elections in England and Wales, comrade Manson advocated critical support to Labour candidates only if they were against austerity, opposing all cuts. He noted that several councillors had defected leftwards or been suspended by the Labour Party because of their refusal to vote for cuts and it was quite possible that a small minority of the 4,000 Labour candidates on May 22 would share their views. So we advocated giving votes to anti-cuts Labour candidates (if they did not get expelled in the interim), but there should be no blanket Labour vote.

Turning to the candidates to the left of Labour, comrade Manson said that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition had reversed its previous policy of insisting that groups or individuals contesting elections under its umbrella must have “social weight” (it previously excluded the CPGB on this basis) and this time had aimed for as many local election candidates as possible, partly to meet the BBC’s ‘fair coverage’ criterion. It had managed to get 561 candidates. Even though Tusc’s weak platform for the local elections only covered cuts and austerity, we should vote critically for its candidates. Those standing for other left groups, not least LU, should also be supported.

Moving on to the European elections, comrade Manson stated that ‘No to the EU, Yes to Workers’ Rights’ was unsupportable: it was overtly nationalist and now called specifically for Britain to leave the European Union, regarding the free movement of labour as a plot by the EU to undercut wages. In the 2009 EU elections because of the specific circumstances we had called for a blanket vote for Labour, but he did not see any reason for repeating that recommendation in 2014. His personal view was that we should call for voters to spoil their ballots on May 22.

In the discussion, comrade Machover labelled the second part of No2EU’s name - ‘Yes to Workers’ Rights’ - a corrupt and dishonest slogan. It was, after all, precisely the UK that worked within the EU to prevent workers’ rights being advanced. He identified three approaches: “sincere voting”, for the candidate or party closest to you without betraying principles; “tactical voting” (eg, ‘Keep the Tories out’); and “strategic voting” - looking beyond the present (eg, voting for candidates to the left of Labour in order to pull that party to the left).

For comrade Macnair, voting for Tusc and LU was part of our strategic aim of pushing the general shape of politics leftwards. We should consider critically supporting some Labour candidates, even in the EU elections, on the basis of examining their politics. Stan Kelsey reported that the Labour Representation Committee was sticking to voting Labour as the only alternative to the coalition.

Another guest at the aggregate, Ian Donovan, agreed with the idea of supporting selected Labour candidates and those of Tusc - though he pointed out that in a small number of cases Tusc should be preferred over and above a Labour anti-cuts candidate: if such a candidate stood against Dave Nellist in Coventry, for example, we should back comrade Nellist, who might have a chance of being elected. He was also against voting for No2EU in the European poll, but queried the blanket support for Labour candidates last time. Comrade Demarty reminded comrades he had been in a minority opposing a Labour vote in 2009, but he too now wanted to examine which Labour candidates might be worth supporting.

Comrade Mather generally opposed a vote for Labour candidates - Ed Miliband’s opposition to zero hours contracts was no move to the left, she said. And she saw no benefit in searching for unlikely candidates opposing cuts in the local elections. LU might scare Labour that it could not take its voters on the left for granted.

Comrade Conrad reiterated Labour Party Marxists’ demand, presented to the LRC AGM, that those Labour candidates standing on workers’ rights should be supported, for Labour remained a site of struggle. He proposed two motions to clarify our view of elections (see below), emphasising that we were trying to equip the working class with an organisation that could eventually take power. So what we said mattered. We had to break workers from merely choosing between two evils. Forming the working class into a Communist Party was the crucial question. But we recognised that Labour was still a bourgeois workers’ party, so we should look at Labour candidates and question them locally. He refuted the idea that Tusc was qualitatively superior, as it was merely committed to a Labour Party mark two; it had boasted that the Rail Maritime and Transport union was able to veto its decisions.

In his reply comrade Manson agreed that, if it came down to a choice between a Dave Nellist and an anti-cuts Labour candidate, we should call for a vote for the former. But in general it was important to recognise the importance of the fight within Labour by supporting anti-cuts Labour candidates. He reiterated his opposition to supporting Labour across the board l

Two resolutions

Immediately following the discussion of local and EU elections, the aggregate passed the following two resolutions nem con:

1. In the forthcoming local elections, this aggregate of CPGB members urges voters to:

(a) vote for Labour Party anti-cuts candidates;

(b) in their absence, vote Left Unity, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and other such candidates.

2. In the forthcoming EU elections, this aggregate of CPGB members urges voters to:

(a) seek out Labour Party candidates who are prepared to stand on a principled internationalist position on the EU, such as the Left Unity policy agreed at its March 29 conference;

(b) vote Socialist Party of Great Britain and Socialist Equality Party where they are standing.