Bringing out our differences
Peter Manson reports on last weekend’s meeting
The main item on the agenda of the June 25 meeting of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists comrades was a discussion on the situation in Britain following the general election. To that end the Provisional Central Committee had put forward a set theses dealing with the general election. However, comrade Catherine Walker had criticised these theses mainly for their length, and had put forward an alternative, much briefer set of propositions.
In presenting the PCC theses, Jack Conrad declared that there is nothing wrong with “lengthy” theses as such - surely what matters is thir content. He wondered if this criticism actually disguised some political difference. In fact, he said, what Catherine Walker had omitted in her version - not just Ukip, the Lib Dems and Tories, but the role of the European Union, support amongst some on the left for a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ and the politicisation of large sections of youth - all these were essential elements in helping us grasp the post-election political situation.
Catherine Walker had also criticised the PCC theses for not being forthright enough in admitting that we, like many others, had got our predictions of the election result wrong. Yes, said comrade Conrad, we thought there would be an increased Tory majority and we were clearly wrong. But the purpose of making such predictions was actually to promote a particular strategic line. By warning of the danger of a bad Labour defeat, we were trying to counter the ensuing demoralisation of those who thought that a Corbyn-led Labour government was the “big prize”. We disagreed: our aim must be the transformation of the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind.
And today the mood on much of the left is based on the belief that such a “big prize” is within our grasp. The fact that the manifesto drawn up by Jeremy Corbyn’s team, For the many, not the few, is not only not socialist, but is actually less radical than, say, Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto, seems to elude them.
We need to emphasise the need for political independence from Corbyn and John McDonnell - after all, a failed Labour government would be likely to make way for a Tory administration that was even more rightwing. Comrade Conrad also criticised the phrase with which Catherine Walker began her theses: “For socialists, the results of the June 8 general election were almost without exception excellent.” While they were excellent for us, what about the likes of the Socialist Workers Party, he wondered. After all, the SWP calls for Scottish independence, yet the Scottish National Party lost a big slice of its support.
Catherine Walker conceded that point when she began her own introduction - “For socialists” should be dropped, but she thought that the PCC version “doesn’t read like theses - they deal with lots of points that have already been covered in the Weekly Worker”. She also thought it would have been useful to attempt to explain why Labour had done so well. But her main criticism, apart from the length, was the fact that the PCC version “doesn’t admit we were wrong” in relation to the likely result. She also thought that we had been wrong in another respect - a ‘left’ programme, of the kind demanded by certain revolutionary groups, had succeeded in winning millions of votes. Finally she thought that a set of theses should “distinguish us from others”, but these were just “not sharp enough”.
In reply to her claim that many of the points in the PCC theses had already been covered in the Weekly Worker, I stated that the same applied to those she had kept in her version. Catherine Walker had reduced the theses to a discussion on the Labour Party - not illegitimate, but the idea was to discuss and bring out disagreements on the current overall political situation, not just on Labour.
Comrade Moshé Machover, a non-CPGB guest at the aggregate, made some general observations about the election result. He pointed out that, just as Margaret Thatcher had managed to shift British politics to the right, Corbyn had shifted it to the left. Labour - now the biggest political party in Europe - had been able to mobilise many, mainly young, canvassers. He also pointed to the failings of opinion polls, based on several invalid assumptions.
However, a Labour government could never be anything but reformist - under Corbyn its basically rightwing policies would be dressed up in ‘old Labour’ clothes. He agreed that intervening in the Labour Party must be the correct strategy, but that would leave Marxists with a “delicate problem” - how can we be support a Labour government that runs capitalism?
For his part, PCC member Mike Macnair agreed with Catherine Walker in one respect - there was “too much fat” on the theses. But he still preferred the PCC version (and proposed a couple of minor amendments). Like others, he pointed out that there was very little that was progressive about For the many. On the anti-trade union laws, for instance, all it proposed was the repeal of the Tories’ latest, 2016, act. In other words, a “complete internalisation” of Thatcher.
Comrade Phil Kent said that he too had thought Labour would “get hammered” on June 8, but, although Corbyn is now more popular than ever, we should eventually expect some kind of backlash against Labour.
Another visitor, Lawrence Parker, started by commenting on the Liberal Democrats’ electoral showing. Unlike comrade Conrad, he had not expected the Lib Dems to benefit much from their position as the only major party still favouring membership of the European Union - people remember only too well the despicable part they played in the coalition government under David Cameron. He also commented on the role of the media, which he thought was to mainly reinforce people’s existing ideas, rather than shape them - and the same applied to social media, he contended.
Vernon Price complained that not enough time had been allocated to the current discussion, especially in view of the length and complexity of the theses. He also said that a “major flaw” was that they did not end in “what we do” - what are our immediate tasks in the post-election situation? Simon Wells also thought the conclusion was “not sharp enough” - he had really wanted the PCC to “go back and rewrite it”.
Replying to these points, comrade Conrad said it was rather unsatisfactory to complain in the way the last two speakers had done, yet fail to propose any amendments. He did accept, however, that the last few paragraphs were far from perfect and should not be regarded as “the last word”. He also accepted comrade Macnair’s amendments, as well as one from Catherine Walker, which stressed our failure to predict the election results. He said that it was wrong to say ‘No to a Labour government’. While we should not support a manifesto like For the many, we should defend any Labour government from attacks from the right. But, of course, our main emphasis was on the aim of transforming the Labour Party.
With Catherine Walker agreeing to withdraw her alternative theses, the PCC version, as amended, was then accepted unanimously1.
1. The final version can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/yayj9zw6.