At home, breakfast telly has become as an essential part of my morning routine, alongside my cup of tea and bowl of cereal. Usually I tend to go for the BBC or, if I am feeling particularly masochistic, Murdoch's Orwellian channel, Fox 'News'.
Both offer variations on a theme. Fox and the BBC only feature news items that they define as important, such as mainstream party politics, international issues, economic news, etc. Such mouthpieces of the ruling class exist to produce news for themselves; therefore it is pretty uncontroversial to say that Marxists should view the bourgeois media through a critical lens. That is, not only do the media distort what is reported, but also leave a lot of things unsaid. Out of sight, out of mind.
Therefore the comrades responsible for the Labour Start website are to be congratulated for putting together a genuinely useful tool. Whereas most left groups use the internet in a strictly instrumental fashion (ie, just sticking up a website carrying their party's partisan positions and contact details), Labour Start brings together hundreds of stories every week culled from little-circulated union releases, as well as obscure corners of the bourgeois media. It is pretty similar to a cyberspace version of Socialist Worker's 'News and reports' feature, with a bit more detail and the occasional imprimatur of 'respectable' news organisations.
These items occupy the main field under the heading, 'This week's top stories', and link to reports by the media outlets concerned. For example, leaders at the time of writing concern the three-month-old Californian grocery worker's strike (LA Times), more Enron-style disclosures from unions representing Parmalat's workforce (New York Times), and the formation of Bahrain's federation of unions (Gulf News). This is followed by a special section on the Sars virus (which appears to be broken), before a (very large) round-up of today's news from the international frontline of the class struggle. There is no mistaking its impressive scope, but no items from the left press get a look in. Do Labour Start comrades believe such reports to be crude position pieces, or are the left's questionable journalistic standards to blame?
An investigation of the navigation panel turns up a lot of interesting additional material. It is headed with January's 'Job of the month' - an organiser vacancy for Teamsters for a Democratic Union in Detroit, USA. This is followed by the site search engine, which covers recently featured stories plus an archive stretching back five years. Next follows a number of urgent stories asking the viewer to act - usually by sending a standard email of protest helpfully provided by these pages. Following yet another search engine (allowing for a search of the archives for stories particular to individual countries) we have the option to vote for the labour website of 2003. Naturally the Labour Start web team fancy the accolade, but unfortunately the voting link does not work! Still, at least you can take a look at the previous winners.
The option to show appreciation financially is available via its donation pages. This can be done online through PayPal or by snail mail, care of a London address. The jobs page rounds up some union vacancies ranging from regional organiser for the PCSU to a part-time clerical position at Usdaw. As might be expected, the overwhelming majority of vacancies are concentrated in the US-UK-Australia axis. The newswire page is aimed at those with their own websites and contains the techie info needed to set up a Labour Start feed (it was so simple, even I could follow it). The 'About' page offers a quick guide to the project, including links to its network of volunteers, mailing list, and frequently asked questions. The forums link offers a variety of boards of varying degrees of participation on a number of topics. Most seem union-specific (even down to branch level), and therefore strictly on-topic, and appear well behaved. The war on terror forums describe themselves as "a place to exchange news and information - not to shout at each other". It is a pity that too few internet-using socialists take heed of this advice.
There is a lot more to Labour Start that this brief overview has covered, and is well worth exploring in more depth. Comrades visiting the site should take the home page legend seriously. It reads: "Where trade unionists start their day on the net". A pity Labour Start does not do breakfast TV. It would be just the tonic to relieve my BBC-induced indigestion.
Fight for a party
The Convention of the Left promises to found an alternative to New Labour this Sunday at Friends Meeting House in central London. In an attempt to unite those mobilised by the anti-war movement with trade unionists, socialists, environmentalists and "faith communities", it promises to be all things to all left-minded people. Communists will work within it to shape it into something of value to our class. If the Respect coalition can cohere into a socialist organisation, superseding the modest gains of the Socialist Alliance, and sink roots throughout British society, then it can play a central role in the fight for the main political task facing our movement - the formation of a working class party prepared to challenge for political power. To this end, communists critically engage with its formation, coming as it does out of an anti-war movement that produced an upsurge of anti-imperialist sentiment among wide sections of the population.
It is, however, a contradictory development. Highly positive in the attempt to channel the anti-war upsurge into a democratic movement for political change. However, it also reflects the failure of the Socialist Alliance to emerge from the mass protests as the consistent democratic and socialist voice capable of carrying this through. Its birth is a recognition that the SA failed the test of the war.
In order to keep a disparate political alliance together, the Socialist Workers Party, which will surely make up the bulk of the convention, and its allies are junking principle after principle to launch Respect. Open borders and opposition to immigration controls? No thanks. "Too advanced," says Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group, an SWP ally. Our elected representatives taking a worker's wage? Not for us. Might scare Campaign Group MPs away, says Rob Hoveman, the SWP secretary of the Socialist Alliance. Democratic and transparent selection of candidates? Not today, says the SWP. Let's try to get the Muslim Association of Britain on board instead.
The SWP is definitely taking steps backwards, as it gambles on highly risky and unlikely organisational gains for itself. The optimist in me wishes the convention the best of luck, but I fear that if the Respect ship sinks, the small advance that the Socialist Alliance represents may be dashed against the opportunist rocks. As we go to print, there is no agenda available. From what I know there are a handful of 'delete all and insert' motions for the convention declaration. The Revolutionary Democratic Group, backed by the SA Democracy Platform, is moving one: 'Britain at the crossroads' (see p9). Workers Power is moving another. Both are improvements on the draft. I have been told these will be taken first, with the successful substantive motion then open to the amendments received.
I do not know what amendments will emerge on the day. But I do know those being supported by the Democracy Platform (SADP) and they all deserve communist support. On the day, the SWP and its ISG ally will act as political policeman. They will speak left, vote right. We were told at the SA national council that these amendments were acceptable - in the right circumstances, but not this Sunday. Nick Wrack, SA chair and member of the Unity Coalition interim committee, has said that he may support some of these, come the autumn reconvening of the Unity Coalition, but now is not the right time.
Motions supported by the SADP (most of which are drawn directly from People before profit) include: for working class representation on a workers' wage; for open borders and opposition to immigration controls; what we mean by socialism; for democratic selection of candidates; for republicanism. I understand there is also a motion amending opposition to the euro and calling for an active boycott to any referendum on it. The Communist Party will be moving an amendment for the 'r' in Respect to stand for republicanism.
The SA itself is moving three amendments in one to the draft: for a minimum wage of £7.40 an hour, for taxing the rich and freedom for Palestine. While all are supportable, they would not alter the essentially left populist character of the declaration.
Workers Power is also putting forward a motion calling for the formation of a working class party. I see no harm in voting for it, although it is the concrete success or otherwise of the coalition that will place this on the political agenda rather than such a motion at this stage. Its likely defeat could well see WP walk out, as it did from the SA.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales will be attending on Sunday, though I am told it will not move any amendments. Cut out from the initial organisation of the convention, SP representatives were due to attend an 11th-hour meeting with the Unity Coalition interim committee in Coventry on January 23. My soundings suggest that the SP will critically support the Respect coalition from the outside. The Muslim Association of Britain has said it will support the coalition in a similar way. It seems that there may be less organisational support for the coalition than currently exists for the Socialist Alliance - it is certainly a blow to Galloway that the Communist Party of Britain is staying out, along with, less unpredictably, the Green Party. So just who will be in the coalition? How viable is it? Will it just be the SA plus a few more?
The SWP has been very exercised and excited about the size of the 'Britain at the crossroads' meetings held around England and Wales. It is true they have been excellent. But we ought to keep things in perspective. There was much wider interest and enthusiasm around the launch of the Socialist Labour Party than we are now witnessing. The meetings featuring Scargill were generally bigger than what the current road show is attracting.
There are no guarantees in politics. No predetermined outcomes. Those who are adopting an 'I couldn't possibly join Respect' pose are not engaging with reality as it develops. Communists would not have proposed this coalition, but, given its appearance, we will engage with it to continue the fight for the reforged Communist Party our class needs. Respect is obviously not the only site where we carry out that struggle. Those who take their eyes off developments in the trade unions and foolishly dismiss the Labour left as merely an obstacle will be making a big mistake.
Convention of the left
Sunday January 25, 10am, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London
Fight for a party