A test of seriousness
Paul Demarty examines responses to the seven questions posed by the Communist Platform to Left Unity candidates, and wonders why many are so reluctant to respond in good faith
Whatever else one might say about Left Unity’s constitution, we can surely all agree that there is an awful lot of it. We would like to begin by quoting from article 14, point d (our emphasis):
All candidates [in internal elections] will be expected to provide contact details so that members may ask them questions prior to voting. The nominating officer (or members delegated by him/her as appropriate) will organise hustings opportunities, whether online or in person.1
Given that we are stuck, for now, with the dubious process of online ballots (which, apart from the political problems, have been victim this time around to what we assume are hordes of technical gremlins), this strikes us as a very good idea. Members should, indeed, have the right and opportunity to request further information from those who would represent them on the leadership.
So we in the Communist Platform decided to ask some questions - directed, to be sure, in the first instance at the amorphous Independent Socialist Network, but touching on what we view as the key strategic dividing lines in Left Unity, and thus worth posing to everyone.
Which turned out - it is worth noting - to be a bit more of an ordeal than clause 14d made it sound. A request to the responsible parties to aid in the distribution of the questions led, after some delays, to the minimum acceptable action being taken - the questions were placed on the LU website. This is plainly no kind of conspiracy: it is clear that the complexity of these elections have our valiant election managers working themselves half to death keeping the whole show on the road.
They could at least, however, have provided us with contact details: we understand that not all comrades want every Tom, Dick and Harry to have access to their private email address, but it is in the constitution; as it was, every CP member was left rifling through the old rolodex to see what contact details we could come up with.
Anyway, we have reaped a fair crop of responses, which is a good thing not only for us, but for Left Unity as a whole. We are, after all, pioneering this practice within LU - we would call it a brave experiment in democracy, except that it is, after all, standard procedure in bourgeois politics for people to be able to contact their MPs and councillors, sitting or prospective, and ask them for their thoughts (even if it is not often worth the bother). However, the quality of responses has, to put it charitably, been somewhat variable.
To start with the good news: some comrades have actually taken the questions in good faith. Phil Pope, who is a founder-member of LU’s Libertarian Socialist Tendency and made some positive interventions at the last conference, gave us full and honest answers. So did Salman Shaheen, standing for re-election as a principal speaker (see opposite).
Needless to say, given the actual content of his answers, we cannot recommend a vote for him (a fact he will no doubt greet with a feeling of relief, given Andrew Neil’s use of Communist Platform policy in a televised grilling of comrade Shaheen last year). Yet, compared to many others, his response suggests that he is actually a serious politician, driven by his political objectives rather than grudges.
The same cannot be said for many others. Matthew Caygill, a Leeds-based left veteran and academic, takes the opportunity to give us a piece of his mind. It is, alas, a rather scattergun diatribe:
Where [the CPGB] have any strength of numbers life for others in Left Unity is miserable. They drive people away, and they don’t care. Look at Sheffield for confirmation of this. They aren’t in the business of building Left Unity. They wouldn’t particularly care if Left Unity failed - they would relish it as evidence that only their nostrums work.2
This is really rather paranoid stuff. What happened in Sheffield is simple: CPGB members and other individuals on the left of LU had a political majority on many questions, which led to - despite a great deal of bending over backwards on the part of our comrades - an effective boycott and then walkout on the part of the branch’s rightwingers.
Only these comrades know if their lives were made miserable as a result of losing some votes. If so, they are simply not mature enough to be members of any political organisation, and would just as much make comrade Caygill’s life a misery if they washed up in Leeds.
Pete Green, also running for re-election as a principal speaker, offers a fairly straightforward list of answers, prefaced with another rather wild Caygillesque rant. He objects to Jack Conrad’s use of the word “cowardly” to describe comrade Shaheen’s undue haste in rejecting the people’s militia (conflated, here, by comrade Green with “arming the workers”, as opposed to the political aim of overthrowing the British armed forces).
It is not a matter of moral strength, believes Green, but a “political difference”. Indeed: and ditching the basic democratic commitments of the movement is, precisely, cowardly politics. (Bernstein supported the militia, for crying out loud.) For now, however, we note that one person apparently unruffled by the epithet is, er, comrade Shaheen himself. Perhaps comrade Green was hit somewhat closer to home than he is letting on.
So, also, we suspect is the case with a similar gripe about the word “Bonapartism”: this, says Green, is part of “a language which in the hands of Marx was both fresh and comprehensible, [but] in the Weekly Worker, as elsewhere on the supposedly revolutionary left, has become cliché-ridden and unreadable.”
Of course, the Weekly Worker has many more readers than the CPGB (or, for that matter, LU) has members: they find it readable enough. Our target audience of experienced and/or intellectually curious lefties knows the jargon. Yet the honest LU rightist’s desire to speak to ‘ordinary people’ leads to contempt for an admittedly specialised language meaningful among its speakers - really, the best a language can ever hope for. Pete Green does not want to talk about Bonapartism, not because he does not know what it means, but because he does.
All of which, and more (talk of “dustbins of history”, etc), is rendered somewhat amusing by the fact that comrade Green turns out - almost in spite of himself - to agree at least partially with us on questions one, two, three, five and seven. Five out of seven! You had better watch yourself, Pete: we’ll have you mouthing off about cowardly Bonapartists yet.
Whatever comrade Green thinks about us, we like him better than our next cache of respondents, who neither answer the questions nor provide any rationale for not doing so. Into this category fall most ISN candidates, who tended to offer curt replies, referring us to their election statements - with the exception of Kathrine Brannan’s ham-fisted attempt at hilarity in this issue (see opposite).
There are two interpretations of this particular approach, neither of which is especially complimentary. The first is that these comrades have something to hide, or otherwise an interest in not answering in good faith. We suspect that this is the case with the ISN comrades: this organisation is, after all, a swamp of eclecticism, and any attempt to take positions on minor matters like Europe and cooperation with the Green Party would carve it up like a Christmas turkey.
Our questions on violence in the movement and openness, meanwhile, were explicitly targeted at the disgraceful behaviour of John Pearson and Chris Strafford - the latter being an ISN member, and the former being supported in the internal elections by it (until he withdrew). We draw our own conclusions from ISN members’ silence on these matters - after all, by definition, they give us nothing else to go on.
The second interpretation is that answering our questions is a waste of time: yet more petty intrigues from the old-fashioned left, or some such silliness. This is the motivation we must impute to Tom Walker, who flippantly rattled off seven questions of his own, drawn from the titles and lyrics of pop songs (“Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”, and so on).
Very droll, comrade. Those sniggering at the back, however, might ask what kind of attitude towards LU members at large is implied by this response. ‘I won’t answer questions from you lot,’ Tom Walker says, between the song lines. In practice, however, this means, ‘I will only answer questions I like.’ Comrade Walker is exempting himself from the duty of anyone seeking a leadership role in a democratic organisation - making the detail of his views plain to members, so they might make an informed decision as to whether to elect him. Whether he realises it or not, this is an expression of contempt for all LU members, not just awkward-squad types like us.
It is also, however, an expression of unseriousness. What position is comrade Walker running for? Why, ‘media officer’. If he does not like our questions, he will have a whale of a time dealing with genuinely hostile inquiries from the media. If LU really starts to take off, and people in newsrooms take notice, Walker will have a full inbox. He had better up his game - or at least find a lot more song lyrics.
Those who would be spokespeople for LU - and this includes, at a minimum, all candidates in NC elections, not just for the speaker and media roles - should grow up and take their responsibilities seriously; which means answering questions, not ducking them and hoping for a quiet life. Politics is a contact sport, not a parlour game - if Salman Shaheen can work that out, so can everyone else.
2. ‘Candidates give their answers Weekly Worker March 12.