Straight-talking left

There is nothing to fear from openly and honestly reporting our meetings, writes Sarah McDonald

It’s a funny old world. You attend a meeting, you make a few political points, then some bastard with a pencil goes and reports what you’ve said! Who’d have heard the like? Next thing, you’ll have political activists writing in newspapers, making speeches, commenting on political issues ... It makes one wonder why they got into politics in the first place, if they wanted a quiet life and not let anyone know what they were thinking.

I refer, of course, to Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current director of strategy, who made a “surprise appearance” at the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s annual general meeting on March 19. Milne made some innocuous remarks about isolating the Labour hard right on social media. The comment was made in reference to those in the party who would like to see Labour do badly in the local elections and in Scotland (where it almost certainly will, due to the popularity of the Scottish National Party and Labour’s role in the Better Together campaign) in order to undermine the Corbyn leadership and mount a challenge. Not least the likes of Labour backbencher John Woodcock, who wrote a Mirror article calling for Corbyn to be removed (March 24 2016).

What is especially odd about the fallout from this is that the issue of contention is not around the Labour right’s relationship to the press or the tactics available to ‘team Corbyn’ to defeat it, but rather Labour Party Marxists member Stan Keable and his mighty pencil. Comrade Keable attended the CLPD AGM as one of about 80 members. It must be emphasised at this point that those attending could sign up on the day, as could observers, the only condition being that they must be Labour members. There was no stipulation to check your phones in at the door, like some exclusive fetish party, never mind pens, notepads and digital voice recorders. And comrade Keable’s great offence was to report the utterances of comrade Milne on the Labour Party Marxists website (not to mention in the Weekly Worker).

At the risk of overstating the obvious, a politician, who is the director of strategy for the leader of the Labour Party, attends a political meeting that is open to all Labour members who sign up to attend and vote on the day, makes a political statement - and then, bizarrely, we have some censorious comrades going onto this or that semi-public e-list protesting that his remarks were reported! What spurred our Seumas into politics in the first place? The bloke has some experience, after all. A quick Google search of him will throw up the fact that he stood as a Maoist candidate in a mock student election and, more seriously, that he was business manager for the Straight Left group in the ‘official’ CPGB, a pro-Soviet opposition faction formed around Fergus Nicholson, aka Harry Steel (Harry from Pollitt and Steel from Stalin, the man of steel), and others still prominent in today’s Communist Party of Britain, such as John Foster and Andrew Murray. Presumably, he got into politics to fight for his ideas, however dubious, not to keep quiet. If the comrade did not want people to hear his political opinions, why speak? Why attend the meeting in the first place? Presumably the fear that the media and Labour right, about whom he made the offending comments (in case you’d forgotten the actual content of the story) would use his statements to discredit Corbyn. Well, I am afraid they did and were always going to. But, following that logic, Corbyn supporters should surely say nothing at all, ever, to anyone.

The Corbyn camp will be derided by the right and the media for the political positions it actually takes on war, imperialism, Keynesianism - not to mention those almost entirely unfounded claims of anti-Semitism that the media has been rife with of late. There will be smears and ridiculing of greater or lesser importance and that was always to be expected as soon as Corbyn won the leadership. Comrades will have their political pasts brought into the limelight and must be able to explain or defend past positions. Seumas Milne might reasonably have been more worried that his association with Straight Left would be used as a way of tainting Corbyn with the politics of Stalinism than he would about comments regarding the Labour right.

Nonetheless, the Mirror did pick up the story (March 29 2016). Its piece quotes various outraged backbenchers who are opposed to Corbyn, including the aforementioned John Woodcock, who tweeted: “Tawdry ... explains a lot. Tactics hallmark of ultra-left apparatchiks, should have no place in British Labour Party.” Quite a statement from the man who had just called for the democratically elected leader of the Labour Party to be ousted. Surely it is Woodcock, not Milne, whose position in the Labour Party should be in question. And, it seems the Mirror’s readership are also of the view that rightwing, self-serving backbenchers like Woodcock should be isolated. At the bottom of the page on its website there is a poll asking, “Should Labour’s internal critics be isolated on social media?”1 The answer over 60% of those clicking have given is “Yes”. Not that this is a scientifically accurate measure of popular sentiment, but it is indicative of the fact that, far from alienating people by taking on the Labour right, Corbyn could garner support by doing so. Ironically, however, Milne is distancing himself from his own comments. According to the Mirror,

A source close to the leadership said Mr Milne “did not recognise” the quote and it had come from a “small, hyper-sectarian group”.

Asked about the ‘isolated’ claim, the source told the Mirror: “I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. “It was a closed meeting and a little sectarian group of one and a half, so I wouldn’t be taking their account of it too literally. The broad point is that the number of Labour MPs who are so hostile that they are saying they want Labour to do badly in the local elections are a small minority.”

Yes, a few control freaks on the left seem to think that Milne’s comments should not have been reported;, the rationale being that it aids the right wing. This leads to the absurd situation in which the right are given carte blanche in attempting to oust the man who won the leadership of the party outright. Criticism of the right should not be reported publicly because it will give them ammunition to attack the left, who presumably should just shut up and take it! Meanwhile, readers of the Mirror appear to support the statement from which Seumas Milne and the like are making every effort to distance themselves, ironically, for fear of making Corbyn and his supporters unpopular. You just couldn’t make it up.

The notion that what is said in a meeting ought to be the private property of those in attendance is worrying. This paper has often been accused of assisting the right - or the state - simply by reporting, which is nonsense. If people are in politics, then they ought to be political and held accountable for their positions. No-one is out to humiliate the naive or vulnerable - Seumas Milne is a seasoned politician, who ought to be able to defend his views publicly.

Of course, the media will attack the left, whether through The Daily Telegraph or the Mirror, The Times or The Guardian. That is why it is crucial that the left’s own publications, websites, podcasts etc take politics seriously, develop arguments and advocate open and honest debate.