Labour remains a site of struggle

Marxists and Labour Party

Peter Manson reports on the online meeting and our responce to the twin plagues of Starmer and coronavirus

The joint aggregate of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists comrades, which took place online on April 5, discussed both the situation within Labour following the election of Keir Starmer as the new party leader and our own practical response to the ongoing pandemic crisis.

Opening the discussion on Labour, Jack Conrad, chair of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, began by recapping the election results, which had been announced the previous day. These, he said, pointed to the underlying weakness of the Labour left, despite the fact that Jeremy Corbyn had previously been elected leader.

Unlike Tony Blair, who, following his election in 1994, had attempted to completely transform Labour into the UK equivalent of the US Democrats, Corbyn had managed just a few “tinkering reforms”. He had appeased the Labour right and, disastrously, gone along with the idea that the party was rife with anti-Semitism. Despite the fact he had bought into the notion that the priority was to get elected rather than take steps to transform Labour in the opposite direction to that of Blair, the party’s 2019 election result under Corbyn’s leadership was the worst since the mid-30s.

Comrade Conrad had no doubt that, despite Starmer’s claimed desire to promote Labour “unity”, the attack on the left would be stepped up - as underlined by the new leader’s pledge to “tear out this poison” of anti-Semitism “by its roots”. In other words, those on the left who opposed Israeli oppression and its Zionist ideology will face a sustained attack. There will be ever more suspensions and expulsions.

In truth, the failure of Corbynism had been “inevitable”, stated the comrade. In the battle to transform Labour into a united front of the whole working class we cannot rely on soft left leaders, whoever they are. After all Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party, in which, because of the “temptation of office”, etc, the soft left will constantly be pulled to the right. And if winning elections is the be all and end all, then it is no surprise that the rank and file will turn to a candidate who is acceptable to the mainstream media and the bourgeosie.

But that does not mean we agree with the likes of the Socialist Workers Party, which opposes the idea that activists should give any priority to work within Labour. We need to take Labour Party work - and, linked to that, trade union work - seriously. However, if the Labour Party and the trade unions are to be transformed into vehicles for socialism, then we need a mass Communist Party.

Before other comrades came in, Farzad Kamangar from the chair wondered to what extent Starmer would now cooperate with the Tories in view of the current crisis. There had, after all, been more talk of an emergency government of ‘national unity’.

At this point fellow PCC member Mike Macnair came in to stress the point that the chief lesson to be learned was not that we should no longer try to intervene in the Labour Party. Following another likely large-scale anti-left purge within the party, would this result in another ‘unity’ initiative? It was more likely that, the way things stood, there would be a further splintering of the left, he thought.

In his intervention Vernon Price emphasised the debacle that was the by-election for three places on Labour’s national executive committee - as with the contests for leader and deputy leader, they were easily won by the right. Here the Labour left had been split and had backed different candidates, so the result was not at all surprising. In fact, said comrade Price, you might say that Jo Bird had done well in the circumstances - despite having been targeted and temporarily suspended over utterly false claims of anti-Semitism - in finishing not too far behind in fourth place. The full NEC elections, to be held within a few months, would be another test for the left. He also wondered if the right’s victory would cause the CPGB to rethink its current position.

Next up was Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists, who reminded comrades that LPM had actually been founded under Ed Miliband’s leadership, so it was hardly a response to Corbynism. In other words, we would not be giving up on the fight within the party as a result of the recent setback. It was not a question of either a Marxist party or Labour’s transformation: it was essential to highlight the struggle within Labour for the revolutionary left.

In response to comrade Price’s point about a possible change in our position, I pointed out the difference between tactics and strategy: Marxists need to fight within Labour to win the kind of transformation that is necessary, but how they do it obviously depends on the actual circumstances.

Next up was James Harvey, who referred to the large number of Labour lefts who are now stating on social media that the party is no longer a “vehicle for socialist advance”. By contrast, others on the so-called Labour left are now prepared to join with the right over, for instance, the ‘scourge’ of anti-Semitism. After all, what we’re about is winning a Labour government, isn’t it? Comrade Harvey thought that in this period of contradictions, those on the left would be exacerbated too.

Replying to the debate, Jack Conrad first of all dismissed the likelihood of a coalition government, but the short-term outlook was bleak, he thought. Nevertheless, groups like LPM must continue with their work, even though they were unlikely to make a great deal of progress in the immediate future. Right now the emphasis within Labour must be on organising the left - contrary to the attitude of both the SWP and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, who will both see Starmer’s victory as providing them with an opportunity - in SPEW’s case to make yet another attempt to create a Labour Party mark two; in the SWP’s to persuade activists to return ‘to the streets’.

However, Marxists must remain patient, even though comrade Conrad did not expect any serious initiative to be taken in the immediate future - either inside or outside Labour.

Our organisation

The second part of the aggregate consisted of a discussion on the practicalities of different forms of organisation during the current crisis. In my opening, I started with the necessity of suspending the print edition of the Weekly Worker - we had no alternative but to go online-only because of obvious risks.

However, I emphasised the fact that the Weekly Worker is at the very centre of CPGB work, so we must very much bear that in mind when considering how to produce it. Contrary to what some have suggested, we must stick to the discipline of producing our paper as a “coherent whole” - as opposed to, say, posting individual articles as and when they are available and not considering the appearance, balance and overall quality of each issue. So far our readers have overwhelmingly been highly supportive. Only one that I know of has cancelled their subscription - these will, of course, be automatically extended after we resume printing.

I went on to talk about the necessity of exclusively online meetings, for CPGB cells as well as, for example, our weekly London Communist Forum. This has, of course, been opened up to comrades outside the capital, but the different attendance has meant we decided to suspend the particular book study the LCF had been engaged in. However, the PCC recommends that those CPGB cells that are not already doing so should take the opportunity to engage in such studies.

I reported that we will also be inviting guest speakers to our forums.

In the following debate, comrade Harvey pointed out that the CPGB’s annual summer school, Communist University, would almost certainly have to be held online, probably with a reduced number of sessions. And we should make more use of social media, he said - “turn a necessity into a virtue”.

Comrade Kamangar pointed to the need to be aware of security matters, even for online meetings. We do not, for instance, want such meetings disrupted and so we should ensure forums, as well as CU, are invitation-only, through the use of passwords, etc. Comrade Price, for his part, agreed that we should make much greater use of social media, while comrade Conrad stressed that our meetings, in whatever form they take, must allow the kind of interaction and expression of differences that have always been part of our culture.

Next was Gaby Rubin, who was interested in the changes that CPGB cells needed to undertake. Comrade Macnair emphasised that every CPGB member must be organised in a cell that meets regularly, including in the current crisis. The PCC should consider a temporary reorganisation, he added, since the present situation meant that groups of members might need to be brought together on a different basis. As comrade Keable said, cells could be organised on the basis of either locality or a particular purpose.

For his part, William Sarsfield noted the flexibility in the PCC’s proposals, but he thought we should also pay more attention to our websites. Maciej Brzozowski gave the example of the difficulty he sometimes encounters when trying to share online articles from the Weekly Worker site.

A number of other useful points were made and comrade Kamangar concluded the meeting by thanking everyone for all their suggestions, which the PCC - as well as the membership via email discussion - would consider and take on board.