In close-quarter combat
Peter Manson reports on our assessment of and approach to the reformist Labour left
The September 6 joint aggregate of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists comrades discussed two items: first, the Labour Left Alliance and secondly the prospects for resuming printing the Weekly Worker in the near future.
Clive Dean of LPM opened on the LLA’s August 22 conference. He began by reiterating the key aim of Marxists within the Labour Party: to transform Labour into a permanent united front of the working class. He reminded comrades that, following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, many thousands joined the party. But very many did nothing apart from paying their dues. Meanwhile, Corbyn was opposed by the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as well as the entire state establishment. He and John McDonnell were targeted because of their previous opposition to imperialism.
The two election manifestos drafted under their leadership made no mention of the aim of socialism, but envisaged, instead, a nice, fair, green capitalism. Worse, Corbyn and McDonnell not only appeased the right: they effectively participated in the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. In the end, following Labour’s comprehensive defeat in the December 2019 general election, there was a huge victory for Keir Starmer in the subsequent leadership contest, as the vast majority of Labour activists, including many on the left, believed that the party had to prioritise a future election victory by appealing to the ‘middle ground’.
While Starmer has subsequently consolidated his position, what about the left? For the majority, comrade Dean believed, it was a choice between two options: either give up on the party or “go with the flow”. Yet the right has not exactly been willing to give ground to the left: in fact under Starmer the witch-hunt has been stepped up. Branches are even instructed not to discuss disciplinary cases relating to anti-Semitism, for instance.
This was the situation in which the LLA met and in comrade Dean’s view the conference was “chaotic”. He reminded comrades that LPM had affiliated to the LLA in May and then formed a fraction on the LLA’s organising group, though this seems to have upset some.
At the conference LPM submitted its alternative statement, which had the backing of around one third of those on the LLA’s organising group, as well as a motion and a substantial amendment to the alliance’s constitution. The alternative statement highlighted the economic, political and ecological crisis of capitalism, stressed the necessity of radical democratic demands and the need for working class rule and sought to establish the aim of achieving a future socialist/communist society. I will not go into the details of these here, as comrade Dean explained it all in his report in last week’s paper (‘Sticking to failed politics’, September 3). Suffice to say, they were all defeated, gaining the support of around a third of the delegates.
Comrade Dean concluded by looking at the LLA’s prospects. We are currently in a “hostile environment” for the left, he said, but the LLA remains within the “tried, tested and failed tradition of left reformism”, which means that it is “part of the problem, not part of the solution”. In fact many comrades may now feel more at home inside Momentum.
LPM has an important role to play by continuing to put forward its principled Marxist politics within the LLA, which has organised two relatively open conferences. But the “five-year blip” represented by the Corbyn era has now come to an end and we need to be prepared to intervene in new struggles.
First to intervene in the subsequent debate was Bob Paul, who believed that, compared to other such groups, the LLA was “not so bad” - thanks, to some extent, to the influence of LPM comrades. The alliance has been very proactive in responding to developments in the Labour Party, he said. True, it is very difficult to win majority support for LPM positions, but it is certainly worthwhile engaging with the LLA.
Next up was Jack Conrad, who thought that the role of the LLA should not be overstated. It has around 2,000 signatories (not members, note), compared to, say, Left Unity, which had ten times that before it was formally launched. The conference was made up of ‘delegates’, but this did not count for much and certainly comrades from LPM were speaking on behalf of their own organisation.
He agreed with comrade Paul that the LLA was currently the best on the Labour left, but that was not saying very much. And, yes, there was generally support for LPM positions from about a third of those present, but we “shouldn’t brag” about that.
Looking at developments outside Labour, he pointed to movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, which have no centralised organisational form and therefore cannot but be ephemeral. However, while the LLA does have an organisational structure, he stressed that what matters is its politics - it is Labourite (and “slightly faddish”). It is on the extreme left of Labourism, which means that it could become a vehicle for aspiring bureaucrats. In other words, it is “on the outer fringes of bourgeois politics”.
He also pointed out that at the conference there had been insufficient time to discuss the two rival statements and, worse, many of the speakers called were chosen at random. Any democratic conference would invite the fraction concerned to select those speaking in favour of its proposals - the best way to bring out the arguments.
Comrade Conrad was followed by Mike Macnair, who pointed to the “underlying dynamic” - the decline of the Labour left. He thought that Momentum was most likely to gain from this impasse. He was followed by Stan Keable of LPM, who stressed that the LLA (as well as the Labour Representation Committee) was a “site for struggle”, like the Labour Party itself. You do not have to have illusions in a particular organisation to work within it, said comrade Keable.
James Harvey thought a major question concerned how we should orientate towards the current Labour left with its “nostalgia for Corbynism”. The LRC in particular is refusing to address what went wrong and our role is to revisit what we have previously raised. Many are reluctant to come to terms with the failure of a left-led Labour Party and are looking instead to “spontaneous and disorganised protest”. But it is important not to write off the LLA, he said, where some have indeed moved to the left.
Next was William Sarsfield, who stressed that, even with its small forces, LPM could make an impact. In the past the CPGB set up the Unemployed Workers Charter (UWC), which did just that. But now it is important to “keep up our efforts on the Labour front”. He agreed with comrade Harvey that the LLA was far more open to LPM influence than was the LRC.
After Jim Nelson proudly pointed out that “we have the answers, but others don’t”, comrade Conrad came back in to state that we constantly need to review our approach to left groups and, while we must point to the limitations of BLM, etc, we should not sneer. He returned to the question of the choice of speakers for and against a particular motion and reiterated that the aim should be to “raise the level of debate”. In other words, the chair should prioritise selecting speakers who will put the question most clearly on both sides.
He spoke also about the LRC, which is “much more of an establishment organisation” than the LLA, in that it has organic links with the trade union and labour bureaucracy. This is the organisation that once saw itself as a potential replacement for the Labour Party and now fully stands in the tradition of crass opportunism. By inference its last conference voted for ‘socialists’ to participate in capitalist and shadow capitalist governments. It is important that LPM comrades put forward our politics in such groups.
Replying to the debate, comrade Dean thought the example of the UWC was a good one, However, it was important “not to reinvent the old, but to intervene according to circumstances”. He also agreed with comrade Harvey on the Labour left’s “nostalgia for Corbynism” and “refusal to look at its mistakes”. However, while the LLA “might not always be our priority”, it was important to intervene in it right now.
Unfortunately, the second item discussed has been somewhat overtaken by events. I introduced a discussion on our plans to resume printing the Weekly Worker later this month, but in the few days since the aggregate took place, the number of Covid-19 cases has shot up.
The reason we suspended printing back in March was, of course, precisely because of the pandemic and the physical dangers it posed. But, with the number of daily new cases and particularly deaths continuing to fall since May, we were confident that the risks had been sufficiently reduced to allow our comrades to come together in order to collate and mail out the paper. The plan was for the editing and layout to be done individually and then coordinated online as now, and the risk from our team coming together once a week would be minimised by adopting basic safety measures.
All this was discussed and agreed at the aggregate, but since then the number of infections has soared. While new daily cases had dropped into the hundreds by late June, within a couple of months they edged up slightly, before rocketing back up to just below 3,000 earlier this week.
While everyone who spoke at the aggregate agreed that we should resume printing, we have now had to revisit our decision to do so. Hopefully we are going through a temporary blip and the delay will be very short, but it is possible that we could see this new spike become the feared ‘second wave’.