Return of Star wars?
Dave Lynch examines recent tussles between traditionalists and reformers in the Morning Star's CPB
The Morning Star’s online offering became free for the first time this month, foreshadowing a revamp of the print edition in the spring that will see an increase in pagination from 12 to 16 daily and 16 to 20 for the Saturday edition.
This has been funded by a ‘consortium’ around Anita Halpin, chair of the Communist Party of Britain and a member of the Star management committee. Halpin, it will be remembered, became a multi-millionaire after selling an expressionist painting for £20.5 million in late 2006.1
There have also been some moves in the editorial department. John Haylett has stepped down as editor to take up the role of political editor. Former deputy editor and head of production Bill Benfield (now a CPB member, but previously of the New Communist Party) has stepped up to the post of editor. So, what does all this mean for the internal politics of the CPB? After all, changes in the Star pretty much reflect the state of this organisation, the peculiarity being that the CPB was set up to serve the Star - formerly the paper of the ‘official’ CPGB - which presents itself as a ‘broad’ paper for the labour movement, rather than as a specific communist daily. And despite clear moves under Haylett to reflect a wider diversity of left opinion (albeit the soft, or softening, lefts that the CPB feels comfortable with), the CPB enjoys a ‘special relationship’ with the Star that ensures it is treated as the ‘official communist’ organisation in Britain by other ‘official communists’ abroad.
We can expect that Benfield’s appointment will ensure a degree of continuity in political terms, given that, like Haylett, he is associated with the clique around CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths, which is pursuing a tentative push away from the organisation’s traditional politics, as expressed in the party’s programme, the British road to socialism (where a left-Labour government introduces national socialism under the comradely advice of ‘official communists’), toward exploring ideas of the trade union movement launching a new reformist workers’ party, which would replace Labour as the deliverer of socialism. Anita Halpin, however, is a supporter of the CPB’s more traditional Labourite project.
Benfield was at the centre of a controversy at the CPB’s last congress in May 2008. Griffiths was determined to secure the removal from the CPB’s executive committee of Kevin Halpin (Anita’s husband and a comrade with whom Griffiths has clashed over his unwillingness to countenance a shift toward the ‘new workers’ party’ stance).2
It is claimed by the ‘traditionalist’ wing that congress election officials deliberately gerrymandered the vote for the EC. In the first place they apparently stipulated that only the names of successful candidates would be read out. When it became apparent that Halpin was not among them, some members insisted that the complete record of voting be revealed. When this was done, it was found that Halpin had more votes than Griffiths’ chosen candidate, new Star editor Bill Benfield. Halpin was eventually restored to the EC and Benfield was knocked off.
It is also alleged by the Halpins and their supporters that in the run-up to congress Griffiths instructed some of his supporters to leak compromising information about the Halpins to The Independent, specifically relating to their (then) failure to donate much of their fortune to the CPB, in order to queer Kevin’s pitch in the EC election and engender hostility to the Halpins in general.3 It is impossible to say whether this is true, although the appearance of The Independent’s story on the Monday of the CPB’s congress looks a tad suspicious.
However, the fact that this story is being circulated inside the organisation at all is an indicator of distrust and strained relations.
Kevin Halpin was previously the CPB’s industrial organiser - although increasingly assisted at the end of his tenure by comrades such as Graham Stevenson, national organiser (transport) for the TGWU. The CPB’s industrial work is now effectively overseen by a trade union coordinating committee, chaired by Carolyn Jones, director of the Institute of Employment Rights. However, Kevin has apparently kept his place on the CPB’s political committee, alongside his membership of the EC.
To reiterate an earlier point, the reason for these manoeuvres is political. The two main factions of the CPB reached an uneasy truce at the 2008 congress, agreeing a twin-track policy that has not entirely written off the Labour Party as a vehicle for achieving socialism by parliamentary means, alongside a commitment to a new “mass party of labour” (ie, a Labour Party mark two). As we have noted before, this merely threatens to dissipate the influence of the CPB, as traditionalists such as the Halpins emphasise the Labour Party ‘track’, while Griffiths veers more toward a ‘new workers’ party’ orientation.
To that end the ‘twin tracks’ are not really a strategy at all: rather they are sticking plaster meant to avoid a bloody factional war. This situation is obviously untenable; hence the current jockeying for position. Having Anita Halpin’s cash shoring up the future of the Morning Star is really a mixed blessing for Griffiths, his big fear being that the money will become a factional bludgeon to the detriment of his leadership. Thus he has done all he can to undermine the Halpins in advance of their money coming centre stage.
So behind all the ‘onwards and upwards’ rhetoric currently emanating from the Star camp lies the likelihood of the paper becoming a battleground of the factional struggle in the CPB. This would not be the first time, of course. Haylett was sacked as editor by Mary Rosser in 1998 for his role in deposing Mike Hicks as CPB general secretary - Haylett’s dismissal led to a strike of journalists on the paper and Haylett’s reinstatement. There certainly cannot be much love lost between new editor Benfield and the paper’s main financial benefactor.
An obvious future flashpoint will be the draft results of the rewriting of the BRS currently being undertaken by Griffiths and EC members Mary Davis and Gawain Little. CPB comrades from the ‘traditionalist’ wing expect that the draft will be skewed towards the preference of the Griffiths faction for a new workers’ party based on the trade unions as a strategic goal for the British labour movement.
However, recent governmental shifts toward Keynesian interventionism mean that the Labour government is doing some of what the ‘traditionalist’ CPB faction expects of it (although there is no sign yet of a shift toward a working class constituency or any revival in the fortunes of the Labour left). Allied to a probable Tory resurgence on the electoral front and Anita Halpin’s position of strength, this could all help tip the scales against Griffiths in the CPB very quickly.
Lawrence Parker has written of the autumn charm offensive undertaken by comrade Griffiths, as he successfully wowed other sections of the soft left at the Convention of the Left and the Respect conference.4 The likes of Respect must have been hoping that this back-slapping might have heralded an era of practical cooperation in forthcoming elections. In fact, it looks as if the CPB is set on ploughing its own sectarian furrow for the June 2009 European poll.
A communication emanating from the CPB office in December stated: “The party’s executive committee meeting in September held an initial discussion to consider the political case and basis for contesting the European parliamentary elections in June 2009, and the financial and organisational implications that this would entail. The EC has considered the possibility of contesting between three and five regions and has requested that all identified districts and nations hold aggregate meetings of party members and invited representatives from domiciled parties, in time to feed back into the January EC meeting, where a final decision as to the scale of intervention will be taken.”
The statement notes in relation to London (an area where the CPB is looking to stand in some form and where it has canvassed the opinion of members): “Respect will almost certainly run in London and it is a possibility that the Socialist Party and the SWP will also run a slate, so the difficulty will be, as with the GLA elections, that every major force on the left will be running a slate in London.” However, this is not seen as a bar to standing even in the capital, given that the “ability is there to project the party on a significant scale, more so across Britain as a whole than any other party or formation on the left (unless we count the Greens)”. To amplify this point, the statement reads on: “It is fair to say that we alone have the ability to project a leftwing, anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, anti-monopoly, anti-racist and anti-EU campaign in the three nations of Britain.”
This is all self-deluding nonsense, of course, particularly given that the CPB’s past electoral interventions in anything other than a few local council elections have generally gained derisory votes that are pathetic even by the low standards of the British left. If the CPB goes head to head with Respect, for example, in the London list, the sensible money would be on more votes for Respect, even in its current diminished state (Galloway and company must have been hoping for some kind of pact, given all the cooing noises they keep making in the CPB’s direction).
The CPB may revive its Unity for Peace and Socialism front for the European elections with its allies in domiciled ‘official communist’ parties. However, its last outing in the London assembly gained a miniscule 6,394 votes (0.26%) and it was comfortably beaten by very modest votes for Respect and the SWP’s Left List.5 The EC may reason that with the likelihood of only paltry votes being at stake, it may as well stand under its own name.
The statement also reads: “Finance will have to play a decisive part in determining our capacity to contest the EU election in London. The scale of finance required to run an effective campaign is beyond our current resources (and has been the main reason why we have not contested this election in the past), and even a special election appeal could not be expected to realise the sums required. Nonetheless, there are indications on the national level that a number of party members and supporters might be willing to make up much of the difference, should it be clear that we have the grassroots enthusiasm and capacity to run a viable campaign, including the willingness and determination to raise a reasonable amount ourselves through a special appeal.”
Reading between the lines, it is clear that Anita Halpin is going to dig into her pocket once more to fund the whole campaign - another mixed blessing for comrade Griffiths, one feels.
As the quote above makes abundantly clear, the CPB can never count on grassroots enthusiasm for specific party work. The EC has been at pains to tell members that the prospective election campaign would be led and coordinated nationally by the CPB’s three full-timers. There is nothing wrong or unprincipled with this, but it does risk unpicking the organisation’s attempt (with mixed success) over recent years to develop its organisational structure across the country. Shifting the financial and organisational dynamic to the centre risks making the CPB’s districts and branches even more unresponsive and sloth-like.
1. ‘Money for old rope’ Weekly Worker November 23 2006.
2. See ‘CPB: worst of both worlds’ Weekly Worker April 17 2008.
3. See www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/pandora/pandora-cherie-is-brought-to-book-834311.html
4. ‘Dead Russians and a Welshman’ Weekly Worker November 13 2008.
5. ‘CPB poll “gains” lies’ Weekly Worker May 8 2008.