Controversy at CPGB aggregate

Last weekend’s aggregate meeting of the Communist Party of Great Britain saw heated debate around two controversial items.

The first major difference arose after comrade John Bridge’s opening on the Irish peace process. Emphasising the importance of placing the latest ‘deadlock’ within the wider context of Blair’s constitutional revolution from above, comrade Bridge underlined the necessity of developing a fully rounded analysis. Approaching Ireland as an issue in effect separate from other constitutional and class developments, as though it was somehow not an integral part of remaking the way we are ruled, is to indulge in vulgar empiricism. Yet that is precisely what most of the left does.

In Ireland, there is at present no significant proletarian force. Nonetheless it remains the main weak link in the United Kingdom. Likewise for Blair, Ireland and the peace process is the main weak link in New Labour’s overall programme - not the minimum wage, the NHS or trade union laws, as so many on the economistic left believe.

It is in this context that the Tories are desperately trying to revive themselves as some sort of credible opposition. In effect, the bipartisanship of the main bourgeois parties throughout ‘the troubles’ has been broken by Hague. The current deal, initially brokered by Major and being fast-tracked through parliament by Blair in the shape of the Northern Ireland Bill, is now opposed by the Tories. The devil, at the end of bipartisanship, is in the detail.

The establishment and survival of a power-sharing executive remains in doubt. Sinn Féin is insisting that it wants to keep to the letter of the agreement, and demands other parties do the same. Yet clearly it is positioning itself to take advantage of new opportunities it hopes will arise from the continuing ‘neither war nor peace’ impasse. Gerry Adams has ambitions - not to be a Northern Ireland minister, but on an all-Ireland level. Meanwhile, the Tories have forged an anti-Blair alliance with the besieged Ulster Unionists, in effect recreating the Conservative and Unionist Party of old.

Blair’s pledge to ban fox-hunting adds another dimension to what could emerge as a constitutional crisis. The Daily Telegraph is urging an “ermine revolt” and for the Lords to block all government legislation. As the hereditary peers face extinction and the Tories the loss of their massive inbuilt majority, Hague may turn to more radical methods. The Countryside Alliance and the Ulster Unionists will enable Hague to fight back in and outside parliament. For the Tories to take such a road is a high-risk strategy … but from the point of view of Smith Square the Tories face at least one more term in opposition.

Unfortunately, the old left approaches Blair’s programme in a piecemeal and disconnected fashion. It fails to see, or ignores or belittles, the connections between devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the remaking of the House of Lords, the London mayor and New Labour’s strategy towards the EU and the euro. Only a revolutionary democratic minimum programme can provide a coherent working class alternative. Our slogans for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales; a united Ireland, and an all-Ireland constitutional assembly; and a European Union constituent assembly are more relevant than ever.

In discussion of these perspectives, comrades raised questions specifically about the Jack Conrad article, ‘Neither peace nor war’ (Weekly Worker July 1). Some comrades noted what they called a shift of emphasis, particularly concerning the issue of democratic rights for Protestants in a united Ireland. Others claimed that this was a complete about-turn and a capitulation to Tory-Ulster unionism. One comrade, John Pearson, supported the content of the letter printed in the Weekly Worker from Jim Baxter (Weekly Worker July 8) which attacked Conrad’s ‘new’ position supposedly because it supports the protestant veto.

The relevant passage in the Conrad article was quoted:

“As to Ireland, we are for unity, independence and democracy. There must be a freely elected all-Ireland constitutional assembly whereby the Irish people can decide their own future without Blair and Clinton setting the agenda. We advocate and fight for the fullest democracy. That means in Ireland the protestant - British-Irish - minority having self-government autonomy up to and including the right to separate”.

Comrade Anne Murphy denied that this was a new position and argued passionately that if we do not have an answer for the protestant population, we in effect condemn them all. Any revolutionary strategy must aim to split our opponents and win sections of the working class with reactionary ideas to our side. This is also the case in Ireland. Our demand for democratic rights for Protestants is in the context of our minimum demand of a united Ireland. We are not about demanding rights for Orangemen and unionists to oppress the republican minority in the Northern Ireland statelet. It is about providing a general programmatic answer.

Comrade Roger Harper characterised the protestant population as reactionary. During the debate, this was likened to the ‘one settler, one bullet’ slogan of the Pan-Africanist Congress in South Africa. His approach - what effectively amounts to the denial of rights for Protestants - is an abandonment of a revolutionary democratic strategy for Ireland.

In response to comrade Harper’s suggestion that Conrad’s position amounted to “going soft on the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty”, other comrades responded that our approach was different. We openly side with the violence of the oppressed against the violence of the oppressor and unconditionally support everything that is democratic and progressive in the programmes of Sinn Féin and the IRA. Within an Irish constituent assembly communists would fight for protestant rights, including autonomy and the right for separation, an outcome which, if exercised, would be the least satisfactory for the protestant - British-Irish - community. Unless the working class unites around a revolutionary democratic programme, then there can be no universal solution for the Irish question.

The second controversial item was contained in a motion from Manchester to change the subheading of the Weekly Worker from ‘Towards the Daily Worker’ to ‘Paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain’. Speaking to the motion, comrade Pearson argued that the reasons for this were to “reaffirm” the primacy of our fight to reforge the CPGB - particularly in view of our banning by the registrar of political parties; to “rewin” the “reputation” of the Weekly Worker’s openness “at a qualitatively higher level”; and to assist members and supporters “to keep their eyes on the ball” while we are engaged in broader work in the Socialist Alliances and the rapprochement process. This argument won wide support.

Speaking against the motion, comrade John Bridge argued that all was not as it seemed, that this was not merely a technical motion. What actually lay behind it was a number of different issues which some comrades from Manchester had taken up, including in letters to the Weekly Worker. He urged comrades to argue about these substantive issues rather than focus on a symbolic issue such as the paper’s masthead. The issues he suggested were to be seen in a letter concerning the position in several Weekly Worker articles on ‘institutionalised racism’ and the establishment’s anti-racism; last Communist University’s debate on the nature of the USSR; Manchester comrades’ concern over the PCC giving the Weekly Worker financial autonomy. Far from being innocuous, the motion clearly pointed to concerns that the PCC was tending towards a liquidationist direction vis-à-vis the Socialist Alliances. As to the suggestion that the reputation of the Weekly Worker needed to be “rewon” - it was baseless.

Comrade Bridge argued that all previous changes to the form of our central publication were for concrete political reasons. Going with the Manchester turn would not help our campaign against the registrar of political parties one iota. He said that such a move ought either to be connected with an initiative to take the organisation forward or reflect a change of direction, perhaps after a dispute over strategy.

Some comrades from Manchester insisted that the motion was as it stood and that nothing more lay behind it. Others backed the proposed change, though for different reasons, saying that ‘Towards the Daily Worker’ was no longer as relevant in today’s conditions, while ‘Paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain’ was indeed an accurate description.

This had the effect of clouding the issues behind the motion which needed to come to the light of day. Comrade Marcus Larsen argued that it was not our method to erect a smokescreen, but to fight for political openness.

Comrades urging a vote for the motion suggested that comrades Bridge and Larsen were making a big deal over nothing - creating an opposition when there was no opposition. This was until comrade Harper admitted that for him, at least, there were issues behind the motion. He listed these as: difficulties for the organisation in elections arising from the name ban; the loss of our Scottish committee; the resignation of a ‘key’ Party member; the Conrad analysis of the USSR; and a demand for centralisation against autonomy.

This led many comrades who had supported the motion to state that this was not why they had urged a change to the masthead. Comrade Bridge welcomed the fact that the real politics were at last out in the open. Eventually the motion was withdrawn and national organiser Mark Fischer, who had argued in support of it, said that he would bring up the suggested change on the Provisional Central Committee in the context of a more rounded package of initiatives concerned with taking the organisation forward. Comrade Fischer’s proposal was supported by the Manchester comrades.

It was reported that a total of £14,186 had been received towards the Party’s 1999 Summer Offensive, which had just ended. The final total was expected to be over £16,000 when all monies were in.

Marcus Larsen