Combating the right on two fronts
Daniel Harvey reports on the main line of the arguments
On November 29 comrades from the CPGB met to discuss our perspectives in the light of Left Unity’s conference the previous weekend, as well as changes in the Labour Party. The two items were taken in turn, and they were followed by a short discussion about the possible venue for next year’s Communist University, our annual summer school.
Yassamine Mather introduced the LU discussion by saying that we had no illusions that the motions of the Communist Platform would be passed at this year’s conference. Despite this, she said that she found national secretary Kate Hudson’s cynical approach to the debate over the agenda and the constitution quite striking. She had made use of “bureaucratic manoeuvring” and “emergency motions which weren’t really emergencies” in order to avoid having a proper debate on the constitution, which is widely seen as not fit for purpose. It was designed with an organisation far bigger than the small (and shrinking) LU in mind. Comrade Mather continued by saying that the right in LU do not have any answers to the political challenges facing us. For them it is “business as usual”.
She said that LU was now obviously much smaller than it had been, as hundreds of members have left to join Labour after the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The exodus has been so big that only one of the four principal speakers, Felicity Dowling, remains. At the same time, she thought that Socialist Resistance had become more “coherent” in its manoeuvring than it had been in the past, while the Independent Socialist Network was now “all over the place”. Members of the ISN had only attended national council meetings “irregularly at best”, and had until very recently been generally taking a line that was very hostile to involvement in Labour. But now Nick Wrack, Ed Potts and Nick Rogers have left LU to join Labour. The overall effect of the departure for Labour has been that LU has shifted to the right, she said, with a much more centralised leadership.
Despite this, comrade Mather still thought it was important for the Communist Platform not to give up on the fight in LU, as it remained an arena for us to raise the case for the kind of party that we need. However, she expressed doubts about the role of the CP on the national council and argued that we need to discuss again our tactics in relation to the internal elections.
In the debate that followed there was a broad consensus in favour of staying in LU for now. Amongst those most doubtful about maintaining that commitment was Maciej Piatkowski. He stated that he was unsure how our intervention in LU was compatible with the CPGB’s strategy of directing its efforts at the “advanced section of the left”, when the composition of LU could be fairly described as a “rightwing rump”. He later said that the more advanced sections of the left had clearly decamped to, or just joined, Momentum, the Labour Party group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn.
Sarah McDonald said that she had not gone into LU enthusiastically in the first place, but despite this she thought we had managed to pull off some good moments in our intervention, particularly in the first conferences. She said that it was one of the easiest interventions in a unity project the CPGB had been involved with, as the leadership was much more incompetent than the projects led by, say, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party in the past. She also felt that the overall political level of those involved was lower and she did not enjoy going to the NC as a representative from the London region.
Jack Conrad disagreed that the grass would be greener elsewhere. He emphasised that LU had always been a rightist unity project, so nothing had changed dramatically in that sense. We are in LU, he said, in order to talk to the left and in order to promote not just unity of the left, but the need for Marxist politics and a Marxist party. He continued that it was our motion calling for LU to fight for affiliation to the Labour Party that the bourgeois media had picked up on, with Simon Hardy being challenged about this in a debate with Alan Johnson on the Daily Politics show. As far as the rest of LU previously had a position on Labour, for the most part it had been to imply that Corbyn was ruining LU’s ‘old Labour’-style pitch. Now they are just confused, he said.
Comrade Tina Becker agreed that the response of the LU leadership to the Corbyn phenomenon had been extremely passive so far, and could be summed up as just “sitting it out” and “waiting for him to fail”. She said that the bourgeois media could not work out what the left was up to, mainly because they had not yet worked out that the left is too stupid to have a coherent strategy. Even so, she thought our intervention at conference had been good and had “put forward our most difficult positions up front”. We had not attempted to win popularity by toning down our principled politics.
In his intervention, Mike Macnair was also in favour of continuing to work in LU. He thought that Left Unity was fundamentally a Eurocommunist project, with the assistance of SR. He said that Kate Hudson had probably been doing the same politics since she was a member of the ‘official’ CPGB and then the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Despite what has happened with Syriza, the idea of a left party along the lines of Die Linke, Podemos and the Front de Gauche was still seen as positive.
There was a challenge from comrade Steve Cooke, who thought we needed to be more careful about how we oppose the numerous “motherhood and apple pie” motions that were put forward at the LU conference. Coming out strongly against the amendment in favour of “accessibility” in Labour branches had made us look uncaring, he said. But comrade Macnair said this had been tacked onto a motion on Labour and the way it was worded meant that LU would be saying that accessibility at meetings would be the primary struggle of the left in Labour. That did not make any sense, especially as accessibility is already enshrined in the Labour constitution. The motion fell in any case.
In her summing up, comrade Mather agreed with Paul Demarty, who had said that the leadership had pulled themselves together, to the extent that they now constitute a “negative block” that cannot agree on anything except opposing the Communist Platform. They had done a lot of mobilising to get their people to the conference. She disagreed with comrade McDonald, who had said that LU’s continued viability would be known by next March. While it was experiencing a certain disintegration, it was far from certain that the LU project was finished.
Jack Conrad began the second session by talking around the issue of the Labour Party and what our approach should be towards it. He said that Labour obviously could never be transformed into a Communist Party, because it combined individual membership with the affiliation of trade unions and other groups. The object should be the same as it had been when Trotsky talked about transforming Labour into a “permanent united front” under Marxist leadership. Our approach was not for peaceful coexistence with the right though. Our objective should be the “systematic purge” of Labour’s pro-capitalist right.
In the months since Corbyn had been elected, he continued, the anti-Corbyn group in the Parliamentary Labour Party had begun to ramp up its attacks in alliance with the rightwing media. This will get progressively worse and more intense. That will be especially true in light of the likely result in Oldham, where it is almost inevitable that the vote for Labour will drop significantly. There were some reasons for optimism though, he said. The support for Corbyn amongst the membership has actually increased. He would be returned to the leadership with an even bigger majority than the nearly 60% he got last time around. It is clear that the members are blaming the PLP more than Corbyn for the divisions opening up.
However, comrade Conrad said that the strategy being pursued by Corbyn and those around him is very much lacking. It mainly centres on trying to convince the PLP and the media that they are not a threat. They want to maintain an implicit alliance between the left and centre factions in the PLP by appearing to be reasonable. Despite this, members themselves are starting to assert their democratic rights on the reselection of rightwing MPs. There is a subtle war going on over positions throughout the party. But the hacks that control Labour are extremely bureaucratic and make anything we have to deal with on the radical left look like child’s play. “They know the rulebook back to front” and will deploy it in every situation, as well as using fake accusations of bullying and harassment to shut out the members who challenge them.
But the approach of most of the radical left towards Labour is “worse than useless”, he went on. Both the SWP and SPEW shy away from such important fights, and keep insisting that the real struggle is “out there” on the streets and in building protests. What Momentum needs more than anything, he said, was a political programme, and it must turn its fire inwards, into the Labour Party itself, and do exactly as the right has been saying it is there for: to fight to take over the party. Many of the people flowing into Labour to support Corbyn are quite naive, while the bureaucrats are organised and ruthless. They will bully people in order to keep their grip on power, because they regard the Labour Party as their personal property, he said.
Comrade Mather added to this by saying that the concessions being made by the Corbyn leadership were bad news, and had put them “in the worst position since they have been elected”. The “momentum” would come to a halt if this continued for much longer. She thought we needed more information about Momentum before we considered intervening in it.
There was a challenge to the leadership’s line on Labour from the youngest member of LU’s Communist Platform, comrade Alla, who thought Labour was a thoroughly capitalist party that was a graveyard for leftwing groups that had got involved in it in the past. “Entryism” has never worked, she said, and so we should concentrate on activism not connected to the Labour Party.
Numerous comrades disagreed. Ken Stanley said that Labour was still a mass organisation of the working class, and the bureaucracy that control it had to be challenged, otherwise they would remain in control forever. Not engaging in Labour work at all would also imply not being in involved in bureaucratic trade unions either, yet there was no other way for the working class to become hegemonic without these mass organisations. He said that there was talk by those in the leadership of Momentum that democratic structures were on the way, but there was significant wrangling over the lists of contacts and members from Corbyn’s election campaign.
Ben Klein said that full entryism was a bad idea and would just mean jumping on yet another bandwagon. Even so, he looked forward to the Labour Party Marxists gaining more members and producing its paper more regularly.
Emmy Miller emphasised that the idea, as advocated by comrade Alla, that “grassroots campaigns” were where real politics happens was illusory. She said that she had been involved in them for a long time and found that there was very little politics going on in them and that the focus was always on action. She said that, for better or worse, the working class supports Labour through its votes and trade unions and so we had to have some orientation towards it. But comrade Alla continued that she thought the fundamental objectives of Labour are wrong and that only working class action gains concessions.
Comrade Macnair said that it was not quite right to say that the left should be involved in Labour because it was where the working class was at - that conclusion did not automatically follow. He said that it was struggles which threaten power that win concessions, and that this presupposes organised politics rather than spontaneous demonstrations.
Jack Conrad summed up by saying that he was glad to see the rush of people into Labour, which was in fact a concentration of the class struggle rather than a distraction from it. He asked rhetorically whether the Blairites were at all happy that the Labour Party had more than doubled in size. The answer was clearly not, and there were good reasons for this. He agreed with comrade Alla that the left had given up their political programme in Labour over time, becoming indistinguishable from old Labour-style forms of Bennism. Marxists can act in a principled way inside Labour, but we do not know whether they can win at this stage. It was necessary for them to try, he said.