Micro-debates, fatal decisions
Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports on an AGM that roundly voted to place itself in the rotten tradition of Millerandism. Fittingly John McDonnell was given star billing
A couple of weeks ago I was told that there had been a “falling out” between the Labour Representation Committee and its president, John McDonnell. Although this was not surprising, given his “sickening political decay”,1 I was at a loss to find any evidence of it. Indeed, the conference arrangements committee (CAC) gave McDonnell pride of place as the first panel speaker at the LRC’s delayed online AGM/conference on September 5.
However, instead of apologising for his complicity in the witch-hunt and for pushing the Labour Party into adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance misdefinition of anti-Semitism, he used his speech to tarnish the word “solidarity”, attempting to cover his present treachery with hypocritical talk of the 1976-78 Grunwick strike (Jayaben Desai will be turning in her grave to be misused in this way). Shamefully, the meeting went on to re-elect him, unopposed, as president of the organisation for another year.
Of course, those not ‘in the know’ have to speculate about divisions in the LRC leadership - what else can they do when the comrades hide their political differences? ‘Cabinet responsibility’, concealing political differences, should have no place in the workers’ movement. Unhappily, however, transparency is not in the DNA of the LRC, nor of its Labour Briefing journal - nor of the other, ‘original’ Labour Briefing. When the ‘original’ was created after losing the vote at the 2012 Briefing AGM, both journals vowed never again to mention the other, ensuring that the political differences will fester in the dark until they appear in crisis form.
Nonetheless, readers will remember that the LRC joined with Labour Against the Witchhunt in the summer of 2019 to launch the Labour Left Alliance, but got cold feet and withdrew in October, as the December general election approached. It is hard to imagine that McDonnell had not applied pressure. Then came the April 15 2020 launch of the ‘broad’, respectable alternative to LLA - ‘Don’t Leave, Organise’ (DLO) - from the LRC, together with Jewish Voice for Labour and Red Labour.
The AGM, which would normally be held early in the year, was put on hold because of the pandemic lockdown, but in April the LRC announced June 27 as the date for an online AGM. However, only 10 days later the ‘Diane Abbott/Bell Ribeiro-Addy incident’, at DLO’s first Zoom event, produced a retreat. After the two black ‘left’ MPs demonstrated their total lack of solidarity, promising never again to be seen in the company of witch-hunt victims Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein, the May 16 LRC executive meeting retreated and postponed its online AGM. How was president John McDonnell to avoid expulsion for being in the same meeting as Jackie, Tony, me and a host of other witch-hunted LRC members? And, yes, at the September 5 AGM all three of us were present!
As the meeting was online, members could participate at home without the time and expense of travelling to London. So attendance was slightly up on previous AGMs, 138 officially registered - I noted 129 for the NEC political statement and only slightly less at other times. Apart from a few observers and 25 trade union delegates - 17 from the Fire Brigades Union and eight from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union - most of those present were there as individual members. There were motions from only two local LRC groups: Oxfordshire and Leeds. So, while Labour Party membership rose from 150,000 or so under Blair to over half a million under Corbyn, the LRC - like the rest of the left, both inside and outside the party - has largely stagnated.
After John McDonnell had given his ‘solidarity’ speech, we heard short presentations from a series of invited speakers. We learned that Labour national executive candidate Nadia Jama is a docker’s daughter, and also believes in solidarity. Jo Bird, who is on the ballot in the councillors section for the NEC elections, was the only panel speaker to risk uttering the word “witch-hunt” (thank you, Jo), and recklessly awarded Jeremy Corbyn (who sent apologies) the title of “honorary Jew” for the vilification he has suffered. Jo called for support in the NEC elections for Nadia Jama, Laura Pidcock and Yasmine Dar. FBU delegate Andrew Scattergood, now chair of Momentum’s national coordinating group following the victory of the Forward Momentum slate, spoke of “mistakes” (where “treachery” seems more appropriate), and urged us to trust the new Momentum and participate in the “refounding process” over the next couple of years. The LRC should affiliate to Momentum, he said.
Unison assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, after reminding us that workers will need trade unions in the coming “big depression”, then disappointed us by implicitly advising against holding Corbyn, McDonnell, former Labour general secretary Jennie Formby and co accountable for their failure: “Work with all the left” - which sounds inclusive; but then: “Don’t build a firing squad and turn inwards on each other.” Similar bad advice was given later by bakers’ union leader Ian Hodson, who called for “unity”, whilst telling us not to “take chunks out of each other”. Better advice, after a disaster, would be to learn the lessons, so that it never happens again.
Laura Pidcock, without naming names, spoke of “comrades masquerading as leftwing” and said “we were defeated by some of our own”, but this was “not a defeat for socialism”. The choice is “socialism or barbarism”, she said: “We must replace the capitalist system” and “build a powerful socialist current within the Labour Party”. And finally: “Support the Grassroots six in the NEC ballot.” But that slate is not “grassroots”, Laura. It is called “centre-left” - which translates into plain English as ‘centre’.
These platform speakers took up valuable discussion time in a four-hour meeting, before the real business could finally begin.
Several motions were submitted to conference under the 10-member rule: any 10 paid-up LRC members can submit one. This method speaks for the democratic good intentions of the LRC, ensuring that a minority view can be presented without having to jump the hurdle of first winning a majority locally, as members must do in their Labour branch. The bureaucratic centralist regime practised in the Socialist Workers Party, for comparison, forbids such horizontal political collaboration, and expels perpetrators for factionalism.
During the report of the conference arrangements committee (CAC) at the start of conference, Tony Greenstein had tried to move a procedural motion - a “reference back” of the section of the NEC statement entitled “Learning from the mistakes of the past five years”. Tony argued, in a written submission the day before conference, that the weak position in which Corbyn found himself as leader was “not as weak as is now made out”, and in any case derived, at least in part, “from his pitiful strategy of appeasing those who were determined to slaughter him”. Furthermore, the statement
omits one very salient question. Was the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign and the attacks on Corbyn part of a state-directed attack on Corbyn in conjunction with the Labour right? All the evidence points that way, beginning with the Al Jazeera programme The lobby.2
Contrary to the bad advice of Roger McKenzie and Ian Hodson to forego criticism, Tony called for “a labour movement inquiry into what happened, with figures like Mike Mansfield, Stephen Sedley, Geoffrey Bindman, etc invited to become panel members.” Tony’s text, however, never reached members and was neither moved nor debated, as the procedural motion fell in the first vote of the AGM: 21 for, 57 against, 6 abstentions. (With 84 votes cast and 122 people in the meeting at this point, including half a dozen non-voting observers, the real number of abstentions was much higher, nearer to 38.)
Moving the NEC statement, vice-chair Cathy Augustine stood in for political secretary Mick Brooks, its main author, who was unwell. Cathy talked about “we socialists” being “part of the opposition” within the party, and went on to “Starmer’s broken promises” and the current “escalation of the witch-hunt”. After two 10-member amendments, moved by Pete Firmin and Bisi Williams, were carried unopposed, I was the first to click on my blue hand to speak - and was shocked to hear chair Matt Wrack (FBU general secretary) tell me, “You have one minute”.
I barely had time to register my view that the statement should be rejected, let alone explain my thinking. Corbyn had not merely made “mistakes”. His vain hope of delivering For the many, not the few without winning our class for a democratic programme to overturn the way we are ruled, is a failed strategy which should not be repeated. The stab-in-the-back myth - that Corbyn’s defeat was due entirely to his rightwing enemies - fails to allow the left to criticise its own failure, to ‘learn the lessons’ of defeat.
Tina Werkmann and Mark Lewis both spoke against the statement - and comrade Wrack sensibly allowed them to take a good deal more than one minute, without interruption. Tina objected to the description of Corbyn as “heroic”. Sabotage had come from Corbyn, McDonnell and Formby, she said, and the leaked report shows that Jeremy supported the expulsion of Chris Williamson and Jackie Walker. Mark Lewis described the idea of repeating the same failed strategy over and over as “madness”: “Corbyn objectively connived in this defeat. We need a forensic discussion on what has gone wrong.”
A “forensic discussion”, however, was not on the agenda, which allowed only enough time for soundbites. Graham Bash opined that “we need to be tougher” and “we gave too much ground on anti-Semitism” - an expression that was sufficient to get Chris Williamson disciplined. For Pete Firmin, however, “saying that Jeremy contributed to his own defeat is topsy-turvy”. The NEC statement was carried by 69 votes to 10, with over 40 not voting.
Next came amendments to the LRC constitution, starting with its own disciplinary procedures. The NEC proposal was to move the entire discipline section out of the constitution - which the NEC cannot amend - into an appendix, where they can. I opposed the amendment, asking what the NEC’s intentions were. Why did they want to change the carefully crafted procedures honed by Gordon Nardell? For the NEC, Andrew Berry assured us that the procedures were “fit for purpose”: they just wanted to “tidy them up”. But we have been here before.
In my report on the LRC’s November 2014 AGM I wrote: “Thankfully, the thoroughly bureaucratic, intolerant and dangerous proposal put before the LRC’s annual conference was pulled at the last minute.” Those proposals had threatened to “suspend or terminate” the membership of individuals, affiliates or local LRC groups that are guilty of “wilfully misrepresenting the views of the LRC, its elected national bodies or officers, whether to other LRC members or the wider public, by any means”.3 After the withdrawal of this threat to freedom of speech, Gordon Nardell was commissioned to draft the present, pretty good, procedures. Now, however, the NEC’s proposal to dump them in an appendix was carried by 51 votes to nine. Keep an eye on this space.
After a short break, the meeting resumed with the only other significant debate (still very time-limited) in the shape of two 10-member motions, both looking to replace the bankrupt Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance, which exists purely for the purpose of drawing up a ‘left’ slate for Labour NEC elections. Tina Werkmann’s motion, for LRC to withdraw from the CLGA, fell by 16 votes to 62, while Graham Bash’s motion to work for change “within and without” was carried overwhelmingly.
My 10-member motion, ‘Against socialist participation in Starmer’s shadow cabinet’, gained 16 votes for and 44 against (106 people were present). As the motion had been disallowed by the CAC for technical reasons, and not displayed online with the other motions, my time as mover was spent simply reading it out. The gist being that genuine socialists should oppose capitalist governments and shadow governments, not sit in them. Our task is not to save capitalism … not even from itself. The one speaker against simply described the motion as “beyond parody”, unsurprising, having never before heard of the French ‘socialist’ Alexandre Millerand and how he joined the government of ‘republican defence’ in 1899 and how Second (Socialist) International condemned the participation of socialists in capitalist governments in 1900 and 1904. But ignorance is bliss … and a defining moment. One must presume that the majority wants more ‘socialists’ in capitalist governments and shadow cabinets. In other words politically the LRC is a Millerandist organisation.
The motion had originally been disallowed, as only nine proposers were deemed fully paid up members. One more was needed, although another five were being processed, but were “still to complete payment”. Although formally in accordance with the rule, the CAC handled this matter in an unthinking, non-political way - as administrators, not as socialists. Likewise the two other 10-member motions which the CAC confessed to having kept off the agenda, one of them for the lack of only one “active member”. Socialists should bend over backwards to ensure that minority views are moved and thoroughly debated, not administratively blocked. That, of course, is difficult to arrange in a four-hour AGM with a “full business agenda”, as Cathy Augustine called it in Briefing.
The defeat of Corbynism has not been fully and properly discussed. Perhaps the LRC executive can be persuaded to arrange a single-issue special conference to facilitate this.
See my article, ‘Run, run, run away’ Weekly Worker May 28.↩︎
‘Threat of witch-hunt averted’ Weekly Worker November 13 2014.↩︎