CPGB aggregate discusses Labour and Brexit
Members of the CPGB, together with comrades from Labour Party Marxists, met in London on October 14 to discuss two main topics: the latest situation in the Labour Party; and the huge contradictions provoked by the Brexit negotiations.
Carla Roberts of LPM opened proceedings. As LPM comrades who handed out a daily bulletin at conference could testify, she reported that the overwhelming majority of delegates and visitors tended to be on the left of the party. In fact LPM’s Red Pages was largely “preaching to the converted”, as comrade Roberts put it. But there is a gap between membership aspirations and how far the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn is prepared to go in practice.
Even though Iain McNicol has been replaced by a Corbynite, Jennie Formby, as Labour general secretary, there has been “no let-up” in the witch-hunt against the left, said comrade Roberts - although a halt has been called to automatic expulsions, lots of comrades remain suspended on highly dubious, if not totally spurious, charges.
When it came to the democracy review, comrade Roberts wondered whether the branch submissions had even been read, let alone discussed. And there was much dissatisfaction amongst the rank and file over the refusal to debate mandatory reselection of MPs at conference. She estimated that 90% of Constituency Labour Party delegates were against the trigger ballot system and were prepared to vote for open selection. But, thanks to the unions - some following the advice of Corbyn himself - this was kept off the agenda and a (slightly more favourable) trigger ballot system was agreed.
Despite all this, many on the left shared an “understanding” of Corbyn’s position - that he must appease the right. Since rightwing MPs totally dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party, most members seem prepared to go along with such appeasement for the time being.
Turning to Momentum, comrade Roberts noted that although its The World Transformed school, which ran in parallel to conference, was this year held in three different venues, Momentum itself was less influential: there had been no regular texting of voting advice to delegates, as in 2017. Although she thought it had lost some credibility over Pete Willsman - members voted to re-elect him to the NEC despite Momentum removing him from its slate - it still has a database with tens of thousands of names. Momentum had organised a petition in favour of open selection just before conference, but then switched back to opposing it again in line with Corbyn’s wishes.
Comrade Roberts reported the differences on the left over who to support for Labour’s national constitutional committee, which deals with disciplinary matters passed on to it by the NEC. Conference voted to increase the NCC’s size, and CLP delegates are about to vote for six new members. But what are the politics of the various candidates? Comrade Roberts noted that Labour Against the Witchhunt had written to all of them with a list of pertinent questions.
She went on to talk about the likely demise of the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance, which had previously been the main vehicle through which opposition to the Blairite right had been mobilised in internal elections. She also thought that the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour Representation Committee were now past their sell-by dates.
Comrade Roberts hoped that respected figures like Chris Williamson MP and Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union could usefully take an initiative to launch a democratic organisation of the Labour left - as opposed to the bureaucratic stitch-up that is Momentum. In the meantime, she thought LPM was well placed and should consider publishing Labour Party Marxists much more regularly - perhaps monthly at this stage.
First to speak in the debate that followed was Vernon Price, who agreed with comrade Roberts about a monthly LPM. He also agreed that a new coordinating body was needed - in particular to lead the campaign for open selection, which he thought was bound to grow.
James Harvey compared Jeremy Corbyn to a “mediaeval monarch”, when it came to the attitude of many members towards him. Not only was it a case of “You can’t move too quickly - be cautious” (for that reason some on the ‘left’ had been prepared to strike their own deals with the right), but there were also those who thought “If only he knew” in relation to what was going on locally, etc.
Bob Paul referred to the “paranoia over anti-Semitism” and went on to discuss Momentum’s equivalent in Wales, Welsh Labour Grassroots. He noted that a certain Owen Smith - yes, that’s right: the MP who opposed Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest - is now actually part of WLG!
Jack Conrad said that, while it was necessary to have a “degree of patience” because of the current fluidity, it was important to ask where things are actually going. He noted that making compromises in order to do deals with the right was “in the left’s DNA”, so it was not just a question of Corbyn himself. The CLGA may be dead, but not the idea of an alliance with the liberal ‘centre’ (ie, a section of the right). There also seemed to be an attitude of “Don’t talk about politics - let’s not embarrass Jeremy”. For instance, the LRC was rather late in joining the campaign against the witch-hunt - it was only when one of its own comrades, Jackie Walker, was targeted that it did so.
But it was essential to avoid creating our own “men on white horses” - eg, Chris Williamson or Matt Wrack, who both have their own weaknesses. Right now LPM should concentrate on making propaganda - making the case for the Marxist programme in the Labour Party and society at large. Like other comrades, Jack Conrad stated that LPM’s conference intervention had been very positive - although he thought a specifically LPM fringe meeting should have been organised.
Laurie Wilson pointed out that the left’s problem remained its lack of debate and openness. He thought that it had reached a “new low” in terms of organisation. For his part, William Sarsfield agreed that LPM could be “spruced up”, but what is crucial is winning the battle of ideas.
Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists stated that the “Corbynisation process” was a slow one - the Liverpool conference had seen marginal improvements (for example, in terms of the trigger ballot), but he thought that the left’s “Achilles heel” was its acceptance that “the need to get elected” must come first. Mike Macnair agreed with comrade Conrad on the left’s “conciliationism” - he thought that the method of the CLGA was far older than the organisation itself.
Responding to the debate, comrade Roberts accepted that for LPM to go monthly immediately would be “problematic”. Nevertheless, a campaign for “trigger ballots everywhere”, in which LPM could take part, could be initiated right now. She also stated - rather puzzlingly for this writer - that an LPM fringe meeting at conference was “unrealistic without more people”.
The afternoon session on Brexit was introduced by comrade Conrad, who confessed that, like everyone else, he had no idea about what deal (if any) would be agreed between the UK government and the European Union. The problem was not just agreeing a deal with the EU 27, but getting any such deal through parliament (including, of course, within the Conservative Party itself). He thought it would be “incredible” if Theresa May pulled off a deal.
Comrade Conrad believed that if May resigned and Boris Johnson was one of the two leadership contenders put before the Conservative membership, there was no doubt he would win. However, he could well be a ‘no deal’ PM. A ‘Norway deal’ was regarded as a form of “vassalage” - a gross betrayal of British national interests. The same applied to Brino - ‘Brexit in name only’.
The ‘leave’ movement was, of course, dominated by reactionaries, but it was seen by the ‘Lexiteers’ as a way to “kick the government”. Yes, by voting ‘leave’ we got rid of David Cameron, but how did that advance things for the working class?
As for left ‘remainers’, they could in general be described as “agents of big business and the banks” within the labour movement. They were following the lead of the main sections of the bourgeoisie, who see Brexit as a disaster. For example, Tony Blair’s proposal for a second referendum containing three questions would essentially be a fix, which would only play into the hands of the nationalist right. It was “not clever to play bourgeois politics” in this way, argued comrade Conrad.
He went on to discuss Brexit in the context of the global situation, not least since the election of Donald Trump. While the US was in decline, it was still the world hegemon. And in that sense there was a certain logic in the Trump project, which aims to reassert US interests by extracting increased tribute from the rest of the world. And Brexit actually fits in with this - by “doing in the EU project”, US hegemony could be shored up. The only real challenge to all this comes not from China or Germany, but from a Europe that is “under the rule of the working class”.
The present situation was one of instability, noted comrade Conrad, and therefore working class independence was of vital importance. We need to forcefully put forward our own programme, not make “tinkering” demands over Brexit in relation to either wing of the bourgeoisie.
Comrade Conrad concluded that the real agenda behind the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign was a national government uniting the “sensible” Labour and Tory wings, which would deliver a deal in the interests of British capital. However, a Corbyn government is regarded by the establishment as being even worse than Brexit: it could trigger a “crisis of expectations” and would not be tolerated by the ruling class.
There was a vibrant debate from the floor, but comrades were certainly in agreement with comrade Conrad’s main conclusion. Faced with instability and rightwing nationalism, the working class must take responsibility for changing the agenda. What is more, we will most certainly be forced to defend ourselves - which makes it all the more essential for our movement to unite on a principled basis.