Leadership challenge represents opportunity
The CPGB has reaffirmed its position on Labour and Left Unity, reports Daniel Harvey, and set itself an ambitious fundraising target
The June 21 aggregate of CPGB members had three items on the agenda. The first was the new situation in the Labour Party now that Jeremy Corbyn will be on the ballot for the leadership election. The second was the work of the Communist Platform in Left Unity. Finally was the launch the CPGB’s annual Summer Offensive fundraising drive.
Introducing the first item, Jack Conrad started by saying that it had been a genuine surprise that Corbyn had got onto the ballot. It had partly been the result of pressure coming from grassroots Labour supporters in the constituencies lobbying their MPs to nominate him, although the need to ‘widen the debate’ had been given as the excuse by rightwingers like Frank Field, who nominated him without having any intention of supporting him.
Comrade Conrad thought that the audience at the BBC candidates’ debate last week was typical of the kind of varied support that Labour attracts. It was clear, he continued, that Corbyn won the debate because he was so clearly not connected with the former New Labour project. When he spoke it was obvious that he was sincere, and he did not appear to be heavily coached like the others. He joked that if the bookmakers were willing to put the odds against Corbyn at 100-1 (since reduced first to 20-1, and then 12-1), then perhaps the CPGB should bet all the money it had raised on the previous day’s demonstration on him.
The opportunity had arisen, of course, because the college system of voting has been abolished and replaced by ‘One member, one vote’. Previously, MPs and affiliated organisations each had a one-third block of votes (as did individual members), and both MPs and most unions tended to vote for a ‘safe pair of hands’ on the right of the party. Now all members get an equal vote, as well as affiliated supporters in the unions and registered supporters, who can sign up on the internet for £3.
In comrade Conrad’s view those Conservatives who are signing up as registered supporters in order to vote for Corbyn, despite thinking they are being clever by trying to make Labour ‘unelectable’, are unwittingly aiding the fight to transform Labour. Our aim is not about getting an MP who is ‘government-ready’, but about establishing a principled socialist opposition. And it is not inconceivable that Corbyn could win, he said. That would be the equivalent of a political volcano which would almost certainly lead to the right walking out.
Corbyn is obviously much more popular than was anticipated. Labour MPs who nominated him thought he would likely replicate Diane Abbott’s results in 2010. In this sense, they have not really realised what it is that they have unleashed, which is why so many centrist and Blairite commentators are complaining about it now. Comrade Conrad drew a parallel with the 1999 BBC poll that voted for Karl Marx as the “thinker of the millennium”.
Concluding, he thought that it was good that the ball had bounced well for us for once, and that this gave us a golden opportunity to publicise our positions and thinking on the Labour Party, and to challenge those who have written off the party as any kind of working class formation. He thought that the CPGB should give full but critical support to Corbyn, whilst also looking to cohere a Marxist group in the Labour Party within that campaign. This meant “shifting the left to the left”, he said. He thought Labour Party Marxists was in a very good position to be central in that.
The discussion on this began with Maciej Zurowski asking what comrades thought were the motivations of those rightwing MPs who nominated Corbyn. He thought we should be clear that Corbyn winning is not essential for us, as even if he was elected he would have very little ability to do anything substantial. Peter Manson relied that, while a strong showing would be good, that there was a possibility of winning. He thought that, as with Diane Abbott, there had been an attempt to show that Labour was a ‘broad church’ which tolerates the left, while the right remains firmly in control. He agreed there had been a huge miscalculation - several union leaders are urging their members to sign up and support him. But he warned there would be huge pressure from the right.
Paul Demarty added that a crushing defeat for Corbyn would not be good, but we would get by one way or another. A lot of people though are seeing it as a “last chance”, whilst the rest of the party is still unable to comprehend doing politics any differently. He cited Tristram Hunt in The Guardian, who spelled out new ways to manipulate and effectively lie to voters from very different positions in order to once again triangulate towards some sort of win for Labour.
Comrade Chris Gray felt that the only reason that the Blairites in the Labour Party would nominate Corbyn is to kill him off as a viable opponent. Thinking that he would be heavily defeated, this would be a way to finally kill off the left. Another non-CPGB comrade, Moshé Machover, felt, on the other hand, that nominating Corbyn might have been a good idea for the centrists in Labour who support a candidate like Andy Burnham, because it might take the heat out of the rightwing attacks on him as being ‘too leftwing’ or ‘too close to the unions’. Comrade Machover went on to say that he disagrees with the CPGB’s general line on Labour, although he supports its conclusions on the leadership election. He felt that Labour could no longer realistically be described as a bourgeois workers’ party in the traditional Leninist sense - it is a bourgeois party that used to be a workers’ party. However, the aim of a group like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to conjure up a Labour Party mark two was ruled out by the electoral system in the UK that made it almost impossible for new parties to make headway.
Stan Kelsey felt that Corbyn was entirely supportable despite lacking an explicitly Marxist analysis. He felt that the Labour left is still reliant in a lot of ways on a Labour government and this could be played on by the rightwing press and the Blairites to put pressure on Corbyn. Corbyn himself would not have any room to consolidate his position as leader. Comrade Kelsey said that the election process had exposed the nature of the “MPs’ veto” on candidates through the need for a candidate to win 15% of their nominations. The union-Labour link was still important, but its operation was a problem because of the union bureaucracy.
Michael Copestake thought that the campaign would draw a lot of people into the Labour Party, but might also provoke the right of the party to further preclude any opening for the left. He spoke about Tony Blair’s attitude toward the left, which was far more combative and not charitable in the least. There was the possibility raised in the Blair years of simply abolishing the membership and just having the parliamentary party and ‘supporters’.
In his reply to the debate Jack Conrad said that he thought the Labour right had not acted as the right in nominating Corbyn, there was no conspiracy involved. He repeated his view that the lobbying of members would have made a difference. At the start there had been four rightwing candidates competing to go further to the right, and Corbyn is certainly different in that regard.
In the next session, Left Unity national council member Sarah McDonald updated CPGB comrades on what had happened in LU over the previous couple of weeks. There had two important meetings. The first was the London aggregate, where the general view was that LU should put forward candidates in the GLA and mayoral elections next year. The second was the two-day NC meeting, the first day of which had been open for members to speak, the main subject being the May 7 election and the performance of Left Unity’s candidates.
Comrade McDonald went on to say that she was pleasantly surprised that the Hackney motion ruling out a coalition with Tusc was voted through despite a lot of opposition. Most notably members of the Independent Socialist Network but also Ken Loach, who described it as “madness”. The comrade mentioned rumours that he is getting frustrated with the lack of progress that LU is making. Comrade McDonald commented on the immaturity of the politics on display by some, particularly those who are very anti-Labour.
At the same time there are those from the International Socialist Network who have decamped and joined the Greens. Apparently they are not even putting forward any politics in that forum, but are instead trying to “listen” and “gauge”. Others have said the reason LU has not had a breakthrough is simply because of a lack of women candidates. In reality there was a real lack of centralisation in the general election, and the attitude of leaving the decision-making to branches had led to a very disorganised campaign with a very arbitrary allocation of candidates, mostly in conjunction with Tusc.
She went on to describe the second day of the NC meeting, which considered a range of issues including Europe, where it appeared that there was a majority for an ‘in’ on the upcoming EU referendum. Comrade McDonald noted that Tom Walker made a positive contribution by saying that being against withdrawal was not the same as positively voting ‘yes’ for the EU as presently constituted.
Another issue considered by the NC had been the year-long suspension of Communist Platform member Laurie McCauley. Comrade McDonald said that there was generally an attitude in the meeting that this affair had dragged on for far too long and needed to be dealt with, but at the same time this was leavened with a mood for censorship. One NC member had said that branch discussions should remain the “property of the branch” and so should not be reported openly by anyone. This obviously posed problems, she said, and wondered where it would end - at the moment conference is live-streamed, so such an attitude obviously does not apply there. However, it was good that once again Felicity Dowling’s attempt to saddle LU with a ‘safe spaces’ policy had been stopped, albeit on a 17-17 vote, but she said that it was unlikely that we have seen the last of it.
Several things came out in the discussion. Firstly there was the positive stance that Kate Hudson had taken to the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, which Maciej Zurowski and Paul Demarty both said might partly be a result of their political relationship in the past in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and elsewhere. Others felt it was good that LU as a whole was taking a more guarded approach towards Tusc than individual branches had during the general election - comrade Conrad said it had been a mistake to stand joint candidates. At the same time, a lack of a breakthrough for the party was leading to a mood against standing in elections and towards localism and movementism in some quarters. The Liz Davies motion represented “populist” politics he said, but CP comrades decided to support it to make a stand against the movementist alternative.
The final item on the agenda was the Summer Offensive, which was introduced by national organiser Mark Fischer. He said that the Provisional Central Committee was recommending that the target for this year would be the same as in 2014 - £30,000. So far pledges from individual comrades added up to over £19,000, which was about £5,000 more than before last year’s SO. He was therefore optimistic about reaching the target and emphasised how important it was to contact our periphery and urge their help. We should use the opportunity to build support for Corbyn as well, he suggested.