Opening up to the left

The Peoples Press Printing Society, the cooperative which owns the Morning Star, holds its annual general meeting this weekend. Ivan Beavis, circulation manager (and Communist Party of Britain parliamentary candidate for Hackney South and Shoreditch), spoke to Stan Keable about the Morning Star?s prospects

You were appointed circulation manager in the aftermath of the Morning Star journalists? strike of early 1998. Before the strike, circulation was said to be down to 7,000. The Star shareholders? newsletter has just reported that ?circulation exceeded 5,000 daily sales in April - a level above any month of the past three years?. Can the paper survive at such a level?

My first objective as circulation manager was to get the paper solvent in the sense that it could pay its bills on the revenue from sales and advertising, so that the special appeals could be used for investment or development - extra pages, new technology, more journalists. We?re nearly solvent now. I think we will be trading at a profit by the end of the year. So the paper can survive, but the real question from the Star?s point of view is what kind of political impact we can have with such a small circulation.

My second objective was to make the paper as easily available as possible to people on the left or anyone who wants to buy it. It is already much more widely available in shops, as well as through special sales at conferences and events. The biggest impediment to circulation was people saying, ?I didn?t know that was still published? or ?I haven?t seen a copy for months? or ?My newsagent won?t get me a copy?.

My third objective is to make the Star far more influential, and the only way to achieve this is by winning a wider readership.

The Star calls itself ?the daily paper of the left?, but it does not back the Socialist Alliance, which The Guardian has recognised as the main left force in the general election. Shouldn?t the Star open its columns to all political trends on the left? Will you be supporting the PPPS AGM motion 3, which calls for this?

I don?t see anything particularly wrong with motion 3. The Morning Star, as you know, editorially has always followed the British road to socialism, which is the programme of the Communist Party of Britain, and I don?t foresee that changing. But that doesn?t mean to say the paper shouldn?t be open to contributions from all shades of the left. The difference we?ve got with the Socialist Alliance, and indeed with the Socialist Labour Party, is that we don?t believe we should walk away from the Labour Party. We believe it is still the mass party of the working class, and we shouldn?t allow New Labour to hijack it.

However, we recognise that many on the left have taken the decision to go into the SA, or to be a member of no party, or be in the SLP, or in Scotland to be in the Scottish Socialist Party. These are comrades for whom we have the utmost respect, and whose feelings should be reflected in the columns of the Morning Star. So Tony Benn, who is for the Labour Party, has a column; and Ken Livingstone, who is in no party - and is not a supporter of the BRS - has a regular column. We?ve had contributions from Tommy Sheridan of the SSP, from George Galloway on the left of the Labour Party, and so on. So I don?t see a problem with motion 3.

For the Star to be the daily paper of the left it has to reflect the debate about whether to support the SA or whether to stay and fight in the LP.

It has to reflect what the readers want?

Yes, that?s it. As we get more readers - and this is happening - so people are contributing different positions. Look what happened in the elections for London mayor. The Star began by supporting Labour, in line with the BRS, but then it had to respond to the massive pressure from readers to back Livingstone against the Labour candidate.

Whether the editorial commitment to the BRS changes in the future is a decision for the PPPS - for the AGM and the management committee. Our perception is, though, that the Star?s core support has historically been the Communist Party. Not just the CPB: the Communist Party of Scotland are also great supporters of the paper. Lots of people in the Socialist Alliance, on the other hand, have never been friends of the Morning Star, and I doubt very much if they will become so. For the editorial line to change, for that historic link to be altered, I think, some considerable commitment would have to be demonstrated over a long period of time by other elements. But things are fluid. I think there is a need for the left to work together to gain victories for working people.

Motion 4 at the AGM complains that the Star promotes ?the tiny Communist Party of Britain, to the almost total exclusion of other much larger socialist, communist and left parties?. But when I read the Star, I rarely see a mention of the CPB or indeed any left organisation. But it does seem to be promoting the Labour Party.

Yes. We try to reflect the aspirations of the trade union and labour movement, because that?s where we get our mass support from. Our readership is overwhelmingly shop stewards and trade union activists. We try to promote the policies of the labour movement. Sometimes these coincide with the Labour Party. While we are critical of New Labour, we welcome the advances made in trade union legislation - although our position is that the anti-trade union laws should be scrapped in their entirety. We?ve given a platform to the campaign to repeal anti-union laws. Similarly, we welcome advances in certain health and safety legislation. But we give a platform to the construction safety campaign. Many Labour Party people in struggle increasingly want to see their news reported in the Morning Star, mainly because the capitalist press won?t report it.

About differences of opinion. The SLP, like the Socialist Party in England and Wales (Militant, of old, that is), have written off the Labour Party as a purely bourgeois party. But that is not the view of the majority in the Socialist Alliance. But our view at the Weekly Worker is that the SA should organise all socialists and communists, both those inside the LP and outside it.

We don?t see disagreement as a problem. We?ve worked with people in the CPGB, we?ve worked with people in Militant. We?ve got a great deal of respect for Dave Nellist, for example. Even though we disagree with them, we?ve worked with them in several campaigns - against the poll tax, against the bombing of Yugoslavia, and so on. Working together in specific broad-based campaigns with people who don?t agree with our perspective has never been a problem for us. But we do have a problem with the question of organisation. There are elements in the SA that we think could implode it - not least the Socialist Workers Party. Because the whole history of their organisation has been to undergo sea changes. The line suddenly changes overnight, and there is no rhyme nor reason to it. Our criticism of the SWP is that they put their own self-interest above the ability to campaign widely. That?s been the difficulty of working with them.

As regards Militant, we?ve found no difficulty in working with individuals in that organisation. But when it comes to the question of organisational unity, rather than genuine unity across a whole range of demands, we always find ourselves in difficulty because we feel that attempts are being made by these groups to take over campaigns. Therefore we are very hesitant about organisational unity. But I don?t think that will be in the debate about where the left goes after the general election.

The kind of organisation we are trying to create is one where minorities can exist, can continue arguing their case publicly while accepting majority decisions. That way, I think, is a formula for building a mass party easily capable of containing comrades from the CPB and CP of Scotland as well as the rest.

Well, we noticed the warning shot across the bows of the Labour Party at the firefighters? union conference. The FBU will now only sponsor candidates who support FBU policies, rather than blindly giving backing to the LP - like the recent full-page advert in the Morning Star from the GMB. But whatever people like John Edmonds and John Monks are doing sucking up to New Labour, there is still a genuine organic link between the trade unions and the party they formed. That link remains. We should help people organise to reclaim the Labour Party.

As regards those who?ve taken a different judgement, obviously the Morning Star has a lot to lose. As the majority of its support comes from activists in the trade union and labour movement, if we suddenly go off and reject the organisation to which the overwhelming majority are still attached, we would undermine the core base of our readership. So we must be very cautious in approaching that process. Nevertheless, if you?re talking about building a genuine left, I see no problem with uniting in action with all kinds of groups - and not only on the left. In many of the struggles we have, we unite with people on the right. The big obvious one is going to be the anti-euro campaign. We are going to have to make hard choices at some stage over how we play that. We are all against the euro, I think, on the left.

Except that some of us are not in favour of the pound.

Well, the pound exists, and it would be difficult to change that. But what the euro represents is not so much a currency as the transfer of power away from the people. It is the core reason for the wholesale privatisation which Tony Blair has said he will carry through. Gordon Brown keeps talking about the convergence criteria.

There are differences of opinion about how we should handle the Europe question, but rather than trying to resolve it first, or splitting or keeping ourselves apart on this or that issue ?

We?re only talking about organisational separation ?

Precisely. Surely we need all socialists and communists united into one party. There are bound to be differences of opinion, but we have to subordinate ourselves to the whole.

I can?t see the SA doing that. It is actually a broad-based organisation in which many different strands of opinion can coexist.

Yes, it?s an alliance now, but we want it to become a party.

Well, if you want one party - whether or not the decision the CPB took to re-establish itself was correct - you could argue, as we said to people like the CP of Scotland and to those who went with the Democratic Left (now dissolved), and to many non-aligned communists: a party exists. If you believe in a united Communist Party, you should join that organisation and seek to change it through its annual congresses. You don?t need to establish another CP because that will just confuse. We are struggling as it is, and the recent history in Russia and the European communist movement is of splitting, sub-splitting and sub-splitting again on the basis of ?correct? policies. We think it should be the other way.

People can have differences over the BRS, but you?ve got to seek to change it within the organisation through democratic centralism. The BRS is capable of change, but only from within the CPB.

I think you?ve made a judgement in the CPGB that the CPB is a rump of people around the Morning Star. I?ve read this in the Weekly Worker. We read the Weekly Worker because it gives us all the gossip about the left. Our perception is that the CPB is much smaller than it should be because lots of other communists share the same sectarian view of the CPB. What they should do is to come within the organisation and seek to change it. That?s the way to rebuild the communist movement.

But surely what you?ve got in the CPB is not democratic centralism, but bureaucratic centralism, where whatever debates you might have are kept private, internal, and we can?t hear them.

If you want a united CP, you?ve got to be within the organisation and argue that position. But in any case, the Morning Star is not the paper of the CPB.

The PPPS is a democratic cooperative - one shareholder, one vote. As a PPPS shareholder, can I change the editorial policy of the Star so it is not tied to the pro-Labour Party British road to socialism?

I think it was probably a policy established at the inaugural AGM, following the decision of the CPGB that the Daily Worker, as it then was, should be cooperatively owned. You would need to table a motion to a PPPS AGM, and win a majority of shareholders? votes. But I?m sure there would be significant resistance to that, on the basis that the comrades in the CPB and communist movement are the mainstay of the continued existence of the paper. And there is the grave danger that another major division could seriously undermine existing support for the Star.

We are concentrating on building the readership of the paper, not necessarily, as you say, just among Labour Party supporters, and we accept - I know John [Morning Star editor John Haylett] accepts - that in order to attract those readers we?ve got to have genuine debate in the columns of the Star. But the editorial line and the support for the Star are, in our view, inextricably linked. If the SWP sent along 200 people to the AGM and voted to merge the Star with Socialist Worker, we know that would be the death knell of the Morning Star, because they don?t read it every day, they don?t contribute to the monthly fighting fund, they don?t participate in the readers and supporters groups, and so on.

We don?t see people who support the Weekly Worker as the enemy. We respect the fact that you have a different particular point of view. But that won?t stop us working together for our perspective of struggle against the new government.