Vetoes and three-minute decision-making
Domination by trade union bureaucrats, no time to debate or discuss politics, and the attempt to cover up social democratic politics with Marxist excuses. Peter Manson reports
A little more of the thinking of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition leadership - in particular over its decision to exclude the CPGB from Tusc’s general election campaign - was revealed at the March 6 meeting of the Left Unity Liaison Committee.
Clive Heemskerk, the representative of the Socialist Party in England and Wales on the Tusc steering committee, reported on its last two meetings. There were, he said, “problems with attendance”, particularly for union executive members. As a consequence meetings have been relatively brief and some discussions curtailed. Decisions are not usually arrived at - as you might imagine from Weekly Worker articles, said comrade Heemskerk - after hours of careful consideration. This lack of time has resulted in the steering committee’s main role being reduced recently to approving (or not) election candidates proposed by local activists and other groups.
Comrade Heemskerk reported that 38 candidates had been endorsed so far - although, as I write, the Tusc website carries the details of only 25, as it has for several weeks. It is expected a further half-dozen or so will be agreed. Included among them are 10 candidates in Scotland - enough for a party political broadcast. Unfortunately there will be a clash with the Scottish Socialist Party, which is also standing 10 candidates, in one or two seats.
The comrade was at great pains to stress the trade union credentials of most of the candidates - so many branch secretaries and other officers of various unions, for example. In addition he stressed the number and variety of political affiliations which other candidates represented. As well as four former Labour councillors, there are representatives not only of SPEW, the Socialist Workers Party and Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, but of Socialist Resistance, the Independent Socialists of Wellingborough and the Lanarkshire Socialist Alliance.
In his initial report comrade Heemskerk talked of two candidates who had not been endorsed. In one case there had been disagreement among local RMT activists, although this now seems to have been resolved. In the other case the request by Workers Power for its candidate in Vauxhall, Jeremy Drinkall, to be accepted under the Tusc umbrella was declined.
Comrade Heemskerk told the meeting that the proposal had been “vetoed” on the Tusc steering committee by RMT executive member Craig Johnson on the grounds that the Labour candidate in Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, should be given a clear run by the left. She is, after all, a member of the RMT’s parliamentary group as well as of the Trade Union Coordinating Group. The right of any Tusc steering committee comrade to “veto” any proposal had been agreed right from the start, said Heemskerk.
He himself was, of course, disappointed that a rightwinger such as Hoey cannot be opposed and he said he would be “keen to hear comrades’ advice” on what principled non-sectarians such as himself ought to do when faced with such a situation. However, he did point out that there was “an issue relating to Workers Power” in any case - it had denounced the first Lindsey strikes in 2009, something that union leaders at every level could not understand.
My own advice to comrade Heemskerk was that SPEW’s willingness to accept this veto - to be wielded by individual union executive members - was disastrous. It did not even augur well for the type of organisation SPEW hoped would eventually emerge from Tusc: a more democratic, more leftwing Labour-type party. If union left bureaucrats cannot bring themselves to oppose the likes of Hoey at this stage, imagine how would they use their veto against ‘Marxist revolutionaries’ such as SPEW in the unlikely event of this Labour Party mark two ever seeing the light of day.
I also pointed out that comrade Heemskerk had omitted to mention the application of the CPGB to stand its own candidates as part of the coalition. What factors had the steering committee taken into account during its deliberations on the question and who had vetoed this application?
In this case, said comrade Heemskerk, there was no veto. In fact there had only been a “three-minute discussion” on the CPGB letter, which ended in someone suggesting, “Why don’t we just note it?” The reason for the lack of time given over to this subject, comrade Heemskerk repeated, was that the union EC members were very busy people. Bob Crow could only stay for 20 minutes at one of the two recent meetings, while the PCS union executive members on the steering committee also had to absent themselves because of the impending national strike. This, said the comrade as an aside, disproves the CPGB contention that such comrades are not mass leaders.
Well, actually, comrade Heemskerk, all it proves is that they are first and foremost trade union leaders, not politicians striving to create a new organisation of the class. None of them are able to rally thousands behind a political banner.
Comrade Heemskerk gave several spurious reasons why our application was not properly discussed by the steering committee. First of all, he said, we had not specified which seats we wished to contest - an omission which seemed to indicate to the committee that we were “not serious”. I put it to him that we had undertaken to finance and run a campaign in three constituencies to be decided through consultation and negotiation. I myself had indicated verbally at the previous LULC meeting where these were likely to be. What was “not serious” about this? Surely someone from Tusc could have picked up the phone or emailed us to find out more about our intentions. For our part we did not want to cut across anyone else’s plans by unilaterally ‘claiming’ a constituency.
All comrade Heemskerk could say in reply to this was that if we did not specify where we wanted to contest it proved we had “not done the work on the ground”. Presumably then, every other Tusc candidate or contesting local group will be instantly recognised by thousands of voters. In reality, the “work on the ground” done by a newly created coalition - whether in advance or during the election campaign - will have an extremely marginal effect on the result. Surely the point is to use the campaign itself to fight for working class organisation?
If, however, the steering committee had now decided that organisations wishing to stand candidates as part of Tusc had to nominate specific constituencies, the CPGB would be prepared to do so, I said. If we came back with such concrete proposals, did comrade Heemskerk think the steering committee would spend more than three minutes considering our application?
Comrade Heemskerk did not answer either way, but now indicated that the hoary old question of ‘social weight’ was the real stumbling block. It was “legitimate to ask” about our membership figures and what support we had in the unions, he said, but we had “refused to answer”.
How could he say that? Our email of February 10, after calling into question the whole approach of applying implicit quantitative conditions on groups wishing to take part, stated: “Full membership of the CPGB is not counted in the thousands or even the hundreds.” But our membership is active and committed and we are confident of being able to run an impressive election campaign in (at least) three constituencies. Our email continued: “Nor do we boast of trade union general secretaries or national executive committee members.” So we answered that question too.
It was not as if SPEW was not already aware of those answers, of course. Clive Heemskerk et al are not so unfamiliar with the rest of the left that they need to be informed as to the approximate size and influence of the various groups. And we do wield a certain influence, obviously - the Weekly Worker is currently read by an average of 15,000 people each week. But perhaps for SPEW that is part of the problem.
I have already mentioned groups which apparently do have the necessary “social weight”. Clearly the Independent Socialists of Wellingborough and the Lanarkshire Socialist Alliance fulfil this criterion. Or perhaps, since Paul Crofts, the candidate in Wellingborough and Rushden, is a councillor who defected from Labour, it has been waived in his case. I am unable to name the Lanarkshire SA candidate, in view of the lack of updating of the Tusc website, but I do know that Socialist Resistance’s single candidate, Dave Hill (Brighton Kemptown), is actually more of a lone maverick than a disciplined member of a left organisation. But I forgot - “social weight” conditions apply to (awkward) groups only, not to individuals.
The final reason comrade Heemskerk gave why the Tusc steering committee decided merely to “note” the CPGB application was that, the best part of a year ago, I had had the temerity to ask SPEW’s Dave Nellist - then a candidate for ‘No to the European Union, Yes to Democracy’ - if he favoured the right to bear arms during an interview.
As comrade Nellist told the Tusc steering committee this was a question I had posed to lead No2EU candidates before the June 4 2009 European Union election. I was trying to get them to flesh out what they thought the ‘Yes to Democracy’ part of the name ought to be about and, in Dave Nellist’s case, it was my fourth question on the subject. I asked him his view on “the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by a popular militia and the right to bear arms”.
Comrade Nellist’s response was: “Come and see me on June 5!” He noted: “Whether I have views or not on other socialist issues are things to debate over a pint in the pub after June 4.” He wondered out loud whether he should have asked me to put my questions in writing, so he could have evaded this particular one more easily (see Weekly Worker May 21 2009).
Well, I am sorry for having embarrassed comrade Nellist, but surely the problem is one of his own making. Comrade Nellist, along with other leading SPEW comrades, will tell you “over a pint in a pub” that this right may well have to be raised one day. But for the moment it is best not to talk about it (except perhaps if it is hidden away in the small print, buried in a theoretical article on an obscure website). In the meantime the monopoly of the bourgeoisie over the preparation for and use of violence remains unchallenged - even as they cause the death of millions around the world.
I had not, of course, been suggesting to comrade Nellist that he should undertake the organisation of a militia as an immediate task. I had been hoping that he would recognise the centrality of this question for establishing and maintaining republican democracy. While comrades like Nellist were quite prepared to call for a “workers’ Europe” during the EU campaign, without exception they preferred to shy away from any discussion about how it would be defended.
Because none of the No2EU lead candidates would accept - in an interview with the Weekly Worker, not necessarily in their election manifestos - our two conditions in their entirety (no to ‘Fortress Britain’, yes to republican democracy), we decided not to recommend a vote for any No2EU list. The acceptance of these two conditions would for us have overridden the appalling Europhobic nationalism of the platform (drafted not by SPEW, but by Brian Denny of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain). In its absence, and in circumstances where the furore over MPs’ expenses had led to the popularisation of a ‘non-political’, non-party politics, we called for a Labour vote in order to defend the idea of a working class party - something No2EU most certainly did not promote, despite SPEW claims to the contrary.
The recommendations communists make in relation to elections is a tactical question. Because we placed particular conditions on No2EU does not mean we must place the same conditions on other groups and in other elections. Our support for Tusc, for example, is unconditional (although not, of course, uncritical) - even though the CPGB has been excluded, its platform, despite profound weaknesses, is clearly pro-working class and contains none of No2EU’s vile Europhobic chauvinism.
Comrade Heemskerk claimed that our opposition to the standing army and support for a militia was “abstract”. SPEW’s forerunner, the Militant Tendency, had raised the question of a workers’ militia concretely in relation to Ireland in the 1970s, he said, implying that it would do so again in parallel circumstances in the future. In that case, why were comrade Nellist et al unable to subscribe publicly to the principle? Comrade Heemskerk also stated that certain Bolshevik and early CPGB documents made no programmatic reference to this question. I do not know which documents he meant, but we know that the perspective of forming a popular militia was axiomatic for Lenin and the Bolsheviks - and they insisted that the commitment of all affiliates to the Communist International to “propagating communist ideas includes the special obligation of forceful and systematic propaganda in the army”. Even bourgeois revolutionaries considered arming the people a central principle. Arguing in favour of the second amendment to the US constitution, Thomas Jefferson forcefully stated: “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
It is an indication of the dire state in which the left finds itself that comrade Heemskerk’s ridiculing of the CPGB as crazy ultra-leftists for its adherence to democratic and Marxist principle appeared to be accepted by other comrades at the LULC meeting. So we can expect this question to be raised in the same philistine way whenever we challenge our exclusion from Tusc over the coming period.
It will, after all, serve as a cover for SPEW’s sectarianism and readiness to submit to the demands of left trade union bureaucrats.