Debating London tactics

The last CPGB aggregate of 1999 took place in London on December 19. Those present included comrades from Scotland and Wales as well as England. Besides members a number of supporters of the CPGB attended along with a comrade from the Revolutionary Democratic Group. Unfortunately quite a few CPGB members were unable to attend, Christmas and family duties taking their toll.

The first item on the agenda was a report by comrade Mark Fischer on the work of the London Socialist Alliance and the participation of the CPGB in it. The LSA is talking positive steps preparing for May's Greater London Assembly elections. Comrade Fischer reminded the meeting that last May the LSA failed to take part in the European election because of the capitulation of the SWP to Scargill and his moribund Socialist Labour Party. Once the SWP withdraw other groups flaked off leaving the CPGB to stand alone. The role of the SWP remains pivotal. The LSA meeting on December 15, it was reported, was conducted in a positive and cooperative spirit, with the SWP taking a full part, including donating £1000 and nominating a leading member to work on the election subcommittee. The Socialist Party in England and Wales, in contrast, has made only a tentative commitment to the LSA. Their representatives were annoyed when the LSA voted on December 15 to oppose all immigration controls. The SP advocated a formula of opposition only to racist immigration controls, on the grounds that the public would not accept the more principled formulation. The question can be fruitfully debated - let the SP publically defend its dishonesty. It should also be stressed that the CPGB has - as the extreme left of the LSA - has many differences with the majorities' manifesto. We will openly criticise what we disagree with while tirelessly working for the common interest.

The LSA is pressing ahead with preparations to stand its own candidates in the GLA elections, but is also willing to cooperate with other left forces, including the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, which has committed itself to standing a full slate of PR candidates. As comrade Fischer wrote in the Weekly Worker (December 16), the CATP has, under the influence of Fisc, displayed a contemptuous attitude to the LSA. It is hostile to what it calls small left sectarian groups. But there has been some contact and negotiation between the CATP and the LSA. The situation remains fluid. The LSA has also declared itself open to the possibility of cooperation with a potential Livingstone-backed slate of GLA candidates, if Livingstone does break from the Labour Party and forms his own independent organisation.

Comrade Marcus Larsen supplemented comrade Fischer's report. He emphasised the importance of the SWP as the center of gravity of the LSA, and welcomed its recent shift from the conservative to the activist wing of the organisation. He also mentioned the problem of localism, in the form of Nick Long - who was till his resignation in January LSA chair. He wants us to stand only in boroughs where "we can build real socialist alliances." Long was criticised at the December 15 LSA meeting for attacking the AWL in the Observer. Comrades were reminded that it was Nick Long who participated in the anti-communist witch hunt in Scargill's SLP and who effectively attempted to exclude the CPGB from participation in the reestablishment of the LSA by arranging for things to happen during the CPGB's Communist University 99. In the discussion of comrade Fischer's report, the view was put forward that Long is a rightwing sectarian and should be exposed as such.

Answering questions, comrade Fischer stated that although the make up of the LSA slate has not yet been decided, the CPGB intends to take a full part, including by putting forward and paying for a candidate. Regarding the SWP, he said the rank and file has now been informed of their leadership's participation in the LSA and new willingness to stand in elections, although the lack of openness makes it difficult to judge to what extent they support the new line. Summing up, comrade Fischer said that events have forced the SWP, and other former auto-labourites such as Workers Power, to act in advance of their theory. They can no longer advocate voting New Labour, but have not yet theorised an alternative.

The main business of the day was a debate on the draft theses on the Labour Party and Livingstone written by comrade Jack Conrad and published in Weekly Worker November 18. Comrade Conrad spoke on his theses, and there was a full debate (there were 29 contributions with supporters taking a full part in the discussion). Comrades were all given ample time to expand upon their attitude towards this important subject. Debate lasted over four hours. CPGB members then voted overwhelmingly to accept the theses, with no votes against and only one abstention.

Introducing his theses, comrade Conrad described the way the selection of a mayoral candidate has caused a crisis in both the Tory and Labour parties. The selection panel set up by the Labour Party with the specific purpose of excluding Livingstone was forced to keep him on the list, because of mass pressure from below and the knowledge that if he stood as an independent Livingstone would defeat any official Labour candidate. Livings-tone's inclusion on the Labour short-list is not a manifestation of Labour Party democracy. It is a consequence of the left mood of the masses in London, and their idealised memories of the days of Livingstone's Greater London Council. If Livingstone is not selected as official Labour candidate, he could stand independently with his own slate of GLA candidates. He would be expelled from Labour under those circumstances and the real opposition to Blair would come not from the Tories, who are in total disarray, but from the new assembly across the other side of the Thames. Our job as communists is to intervene actively in this fluid political situation, and to do this we must sympathetically relate to those in Livingstone's campaign, and try to influence it in a direction which sees a mass split from Blairism.

Comrade Conrad expected critics to complain that the new position outlined in his theses is a break from the Leninist purity of the past, and to accuse him of objectively supporting New Labour. In fact our real aim is to historically break the hold Labourism - left as well as right - has over our class. We are open about this. Our goal is to organise the advanced part of the working class into a mass Communist Party equipped with a revolutionary programme, and all our tactics are designed to serve that end. If they do that they are legitimate. We need new tactics for the changed situation. Those who tie themselves to old tactics fail to understand revolutionary method, argued the comrade.

Comrade Conrad's most stubborn critic within the CPGB was comrade John Pearson. He denied the charge of failing to understand the relationship between tactics and strategy, and argued that the adoption of particular tactics should not affect the principle that we always tell the working class what is true and what is important. If we are to adopt new tactics, this should not be at the expense of softening what we say about the Labour Party. He contrasted theses two and three with comrade Conrad's description of the Labour Party in his book, In the Enemy Camp, (1993) as "a workers' party of the monopoly bourgeoisie", "a party of counterrevolution" which "loyally served British imperialism in two inter-imperialist world wars and numerous colonial wars, not least in Ireland" and "never organised one strike in its entire history, but it has stabbed many in the back, crucially the miners' Great Strike of 1984-5" (p53). Comrade Pearson said he did not accuse comrade Conrad of supporting Labour, as comrade Conrad pretended, but of softening his criticism of Labour, through a willingness to support Livingstone if he becomes the official candidate.

Comrade Pearson said we should support Livingstone only if he breaks from Labour and stands as a socialist. This was also the position of some supporters who spoke. Comrade Pearson said it is nauseating for the CPGB to enter a new century supporting old Labour against new Labour, which is what support for Livingstone objectively amounts to. He said a better strategy for precipitating a crisis of Labourism and splitting the advanced working class from it would be to campaign for more trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party.

The theses were extensively debated, with several comrades expressing reservations about the wording of individual theses. Some comrades, for example, agreed with theses one to eight but described theses nine to 11 as "weak". The question was raised as to whether support for Livingstone should be conditional on his acceptance of a minimum programme. This has been the CPGB tactic in relation to Labourite politicians in the past, but most comrades agreed that in the current conditions of mass support for Livingstone that an unthinking repetition of these tactics would be hopelessly sectarian.

Despite these reservations and disagreements the decisiveness of the vote to accept the theses indicates that CPGB members believe they contain an accurate analysis of the current situation and that the new tactics provide our organisation with the best chance to intervene positively in the evolving crisis in New Labour.

The final item on the agenda was a review of the CPGB's Perspectives '99 document, as part of the preparation of Perspectives 2000 which is due to be circulated later this month. National organiser Mark Fischer opened the discussion on Perspectives '99, critically comparing developments during the year with our analysis and plans published a year earlier - see Weekly Worker December 17 1998. The comrade concentrated on the section on the politics of the working class. He remarked that we are now entering a phase of change. However, the period of reaction continues, as does the decline of the left. Many left groups are characterised by programmatic incoherence and organisational decay. We do not welcome the disintegration of political rivals. As it states in Perspectives '99, "Without a strong revolutionary pole of attraction, all we see is the dispersal of working class cadre to the winds". We will continue patiently to work to overcome sectarianism and unite the left. However, this goal is not an end in itself. Our central project remains the fight for a reforged Communist Party. As stated in Perspectives '99, this is a class project, not one reliant on the left as currently constituted. The class matters more to us than any array of sects. When there is movement from below, we should concentrate on building links with the masses.

Comrade Fischer discussed developments in a few left groups specifically. He began with the Socialist Party. In Perspectives '99 we noted that the SP was "in a tail-spin to destruction". A year later the SP is now well advanced on the road to liquidation.

As to the SWP, as predicted in Perspectives '99, its electoral turn has continued to create tensions. The leadership will now be faced with the programme question - new tensions will arise. The state of the Scottish Socialist Party was also discussed. The CWI in Scotland looks set to split, while the CPGB is establishing comradely relations with the Republican Communist Network - which is primarily based in Scotland.

Mary Godwin