Party and paper split

Blairism and the delabourisation of Labour threw much of the revolutionary left into crisis, the CPB is only now belatedly following, writes Alan Rees

By 60% to 40% the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain voted at its January 17 special congress to reject any engagement with the new Respect coalition. So the CPB will stick to auto-Labourism and the sterile verities of its reformist British road to socialism programme.

Narrow though this margin is, the decision comes as a major rebuff for the Robert Griffiths-John Haylett duumvirate, who have recently fallen for the seductive overtures of George Galloway. Doubtless comrade Galloway will be disappointed, as he was hoping that the CPB and Morning Star would act as a kind of counterweight to the Socialist Workers Party in Respect.

However, the CPB's traditionalist wing - composed of the likes of John Foster, the CPB's international secretary and top man in Scotland, industrial organiser Kevin Halpin and Anita Halpin, national chairwoman and leading National Union of Journalists apparatchik - won the day. At least, for the time being. The rift over Respect is, of course, symptomatic of far deeper fault lines that cleave the CPB from top to bottom. And, far from easing the factional stresses, the special congress - particularly given the closeness of the vote - exacerbates the crisis in its ranks and threatens to blow it apart. Between now and the next, regular, biannual congress expect a full-scale factional war.

The innovators around part-time general secretary Griffiths now stand thoroughly discredited in the eyes of many activists. Neither he nor Morning Star editor John Haylett are trusted any longer. Indeed there has been a nasty email campaign conducted against Griffiths: his opponents have dredged up his past associations with the Welsh Republican Socialist Party, his trial for terrorism and his later diatribes against the British road to socialism (see Weekly Worker March 26 1998).

Privately in email whispers, and then openly from the speaker's rostrum at the special congress, both Griffiths and Haylett were not only dubbed naive, but branded revisionists and turncoats. Indeed Andrew Murray, a close ally of the ruling duumvirate, is criticised for having gone completely soft on the Trots - namely the SWP; and that despite his defensive references to JV Stalin, nostalgic fondness for the 1930s purges and undoubted prestige as national chair of the Stop the War Coalition.

Apart from the growing mistrust of those in charge, what gave the traditionalists their majority over the twinned apparatus of Griffiths's Camden Road CPB HQ and Haylett's Beachy Road Star offices were four main factors.

* Firstly, continued loyalty to the British road to socialism programme - with auto-Labourism at its core. The idea of abandoning a tradition going back to at least 1943 (especially given the growing number of 'reclaim Labour' union general secretaries) has no particular appeal for those in the CPB's ranks who have dedicated themselves to achieving promotion in the trade union bureaucracy.

* Secondly, relations in the CPB are highly personalised and parochial. The organisation is a patchwork of petty fiefdoms, overlorded by often warring political 'nobles'. Wales - where comrade Griffiths still insists on living and working as a college lecturer - therefore voted almost as a bloc for the Respect turn. By contrast Scotland, under John Foster, voted against.

* Thirdly, Respect is seen as untested and high-risk: at best "a diversion", if it has a limited shelf life, and at worst positively "dangerous", if it establishes itself as a more permanent feature of the political landscape (Anita Halpin Morning Star January 12).

* Fourthly, there is fear: fear of being slowly absorbed by SWP osmosis; or fear of being ideologically torn apart by carniverous predators such as the Weekly Worker. Comrade Foster, together with the Halpins, skilfully wrought this combination of history, inertia and apprehension into a winning majority.

The Respect crisis will surely increase the confusion, bunker mentality and frustration amongst the CPB's increasingly elderly membership. Not least because here is an organisation characterised by lack of transparency and a congenital aversion to open political struggle. It was established in 1988 on the basis of running away from the political battles in the 'official' CPGB.

Tellingly the special congress rated only the briefest of mentions in the Morning Star (January 19) "¦ and that as an aside in a report of the CPB's executive committee meeting. Looming over that insultingly short item was a generously large photo of George Galloway, pushing a Respect rally in Oxford that evening. Coincidence? Perhaps, but in the murky world of these Stalinites, it is often necessary to interpret nuances of language - or even layout - to get some kind of idea of what is really being said, what they actually think.

We know that Haylett has been bombarded with protests. Not to carry an extensive report of an official congress is surely unprecedented. It smacks less of Joseph Stalin's USSR and more of Kim Jong-Il's North Korea. Of course, Haylett has an interest not only in keeping the truth under wraps (he has, after all, been shamed by the congress defeat), but in goading his factional opponents into a precipitative split.

The Gordian knot for these comrades was in 1988 when they broke from the 'official' CPGB by setting up the Communist Campaign Group and then "re-establishing" the CPB. Loyalty to the CPB - despite its laughable attempts to present itself as the uninterrupted political and organisational continuation of the party founded in July-August 1920 - is tenuous and easily discarded. Like the Maoists before them splitting may become habitual for some of these people.

So with this in mind, where next for the innovators? When he argued for engagement with Respect, John Haylett suggested that his opponents had a totally passive attitude towards political developments. That the CPB had to be pulled - forcibly dragged if necessary - out of the doldrums. Following the huge upsurge against the Iraq war in 2003 the CPB leadership expect growth. They did not get it. Despite Andrew Murray's high profile and the winning of Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, things have, if anything, continued to go downhill.

Respect held out a straw to the drowning man. Haylett's article - tellingly headlined 'We can't just wish and hope' - counterposed the potential of Respect to the traditionalists' "alternative "¦ of soldiering on under a prime minister who "¦ actively glories in spurning all labour movement concepts" (Morning Star December 20).

The duumvirate will therefore hit back and hit back hard. They are driven both by their need to survive as office holders and by political ambition. Having overthrown the original leadership of Mike Hicks and Mary Rosser, they know how to manoeuvre and fight dirty too. Haylett led a successful Morning Star strike against them. After some vicious legal and political battles Hicks, Rosser and their supporters were driven out of the CPB and into the wilderness.

The obvious temptation is to use the Star as a factional bludgeon. This would be to rerun the 'official' CPGB's last years as farce. The leading ranks of today's CPB are composed of those who in the 1980s fought against the Eurocommunists of the Marxism Today clique - people like Martin Jacques, Nina Temple and David Aaronovitch - on the terrain of the formally independent cooperative that owns the Morning Star, the Peoples' Press Printing Society.

Morning Star editor Tony Chater - a right opportunist and utterly grey bureaucrat - became alarmed by the attempts of the Eurocommunists to get their claws into 'his' paper. He rebelled against them and the elected executive committee and turned to the centrists - the pro-Soviet left in the 'official' CPGB - for support and, crucially, votes at PPPS AGMs. The Morning Star was subsequently wielded to great effect. The inner-Party battle was thus fought with the aid of many Morning Star readers, Tony Benn and other Labour Party members included. They too loathed everything the Eurocommunists stood for. Through a double whammy - force of numbers and shameless manipulation of the PPPS rule book - the Eurocommunists were kept at bay. They took their revenge by launching a full-scale purge of oppositionists. Hundreds were expelled.

The Morning Star's cooperative ownership structure allows this or that established factional group to turn it into a bureaucratic fortress. Thus comrade Haylett is in a very powerful position as editor - like Chater before him - and it is clear that, despite defeat at the special congress, he unlikely to resign himself to just 'soldiering on'.

History does not make carbon copies, however. We are not likely to see the SWP playing the role of the 1980s centrists and left Labourites in the PPPS - although it could certainly numerically swamp anything the CPB traditionalists could mobilise. However, the Star has a presence, a history and a reach in the labour movement that dwarfs the influence of the atrophied CPB sect. Haylett has turned the finances of the paper around, making it less dependent than ever on 'outsiders' to keep it afloat. So the temptation of doing another UDI is certainly there.

The post-congress CPB is still more deeply fractured. Contradictions that characterised it throughout its existence are becoming ever more impossible to contain. Blairism and the delabourisation of Labour threw much of the revolutionary left into crisis. It has taken Blairism plus the addition of the anti-war movement, which took to the streets in its millions and which finds some sort of political expression in Respect to achieve a similar effect on the CPB.