Weekly Worker 723 Thursday May 29 2008 Subscribe to the Weekly Worker
Flushing out the Labourites
Dave Lynch reports on the May 24-26 congress of Britain’s ‘official communists’
In the run-up to last weekend’s congress of the Communist Party of Britain, general secretary Rob Griffiths had had a good old go at flushing out the auto-Labourites.
First, in the Morning Star of April 16 he wrote: “Georgi Dimitrov described fascism as the ‘open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital’. New Labour in office is the client regime of the most reactionary, most aggressive and most imperialist elements of British state monopoly capitalism.”
This was a reasonably clever piece of leftist (almost ‘third period’) rhetoric, comparing bourgeois politicians to fascists, packaged up with a quote from Dimitrov, almost universally beloved by ‘official’ communists of varying hues. In some ways, this contradiction defines the CPB’s current direction: a left shift that has been patched up with British road to socialism dogma to pacify the traditionalists.
And so it was at the congress, held at the CPB’s base in Croydon. The delegates debated and passed a domestic resolution that laid out a twin-track approach that has not written off ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party to carry out its CPB-anointed role of implementing socialism through parliament. This now exists alongside a commitment to a “mass party of labour” - ie, a Labour Party mark two that can guide us toward the promised land under the ‘comradely’ advice of the CPB.
Griffiths told congress that his preferred strategy did not mean “a front organisation manipulated by a small, ultra-left sect [presumably Unity for Peace and Socialism will not be a model then] or a new party backed by just one or two unions, but a mass party based on large sections of the trade union movement”.1 Both ‘tracks’ are, of course, utopian nonsense.
Griffiths had another go at flushing out the auto-Labourites at congress itself, with an emergency statement placed by the outgoing leadership (introduced by Griffith’s ally, Welsh secretary Rick Newnham) calling on the trade unions to take action to force changes in government policy. This was opposed by a section of the delegates, who believed the statement had been timed to stampede the congress into a more specifically anti-Labour stance. According to the Star report (which made a reasonable effort to reflect the actual debate at congress), “John Haylett [EC member, editor of the Star and another ally of Griffiths] told opponents of the statement that it was not about breaking labour movement unity. It was about demanding a serious response to a critical situation.”
One thing that is not “critical” is a CPB response to the situation. To be blunt, it does not matter whether the organisation issues a statement or not; it will hardly result in anything concrete. So the suspicions of the opponents were correct - the statement was aimed at them. But one does have to worry at the rightist logic of opponents who voice concerns about trade union leaders ‘splitting’ from the current New Labour government and thus damaging “labour movement unity”. At least the Griffiths clique realise that this sort of politics leads nowhere.
But all the twin-track approach leads to in practice is that CPB comrades interpret it according to their own predilections. Thus John Foster (EC, Scottish committee and international secretary) told congress: “We now have the best chance for 20 years to defeat the rightwing grip [on the Labour Party]. The neoliberal approach is in disarray.” From a similar standpoint, Tom Burr (South London) said: “If we’re unsuccessful in changing the Labour Party, we’ll never succeed in building another mass party. Break-up of the Labour Party would be disastrous”. Those more in tune with Griffiths believe that Labour has moved too far rightwards to be saved. The CPB’s ‘twin-track’ approach maintains a fragile ‘party’ truce rather than positioning the organisation to make a decisive political intervention.
Silence on UPS
Congress skirted around the Unity for Peace and Socialism electoral fiasco in the recent London assembly elections - there has still been no public acknowledgement of the result from the CPB (0.26% of the vote), let alone an analysis of the non-campaign. Ivan Beavis (Hackney), writing in Congress Discussion, prefers to duck the issue of the sectarianism of the UPS slate in standing against two very similar ‘left’ slates by going onto the offensive:
“In London, many sections of the left demonstrated that they are incapable of defending a progressive candidate who has actually achieved credible and popular policies, preferring instead to pontificate about the alleged impurities of this or that candidate and insisting that they have to put up only their own candidate. Thus, even before the campaigning started, forces on the left who could have played a key role in keeping Ken Livingstone in power preferred instead to peddle [sic] their own canoe. It is all very well saying that they can use their second preference to back Livingstone, but this is pretty worthless if you spend most of the time slagging off the record of the mayoralty. It just confuses people.”
People in glass houses just love to throw stones. It is actually even more “worthless” to stand against the Left List/Respect Renewal with a similar set of policies in the assembly elections. Mike Squires (South London) at least gains some credit for making a stand against this sectarian posturing: “The [congress domestic resolution] calls for a twin-track approach towards the Labour Party. To try and win it back as a first priority, but at the same time to keep our options open as to this possibility. If the Labour Party is lost forever as a mass party of labour, then we rightly argue that communists should hold ‘open and comradely discussion across the labour movement and the non-sectarian left about how the labour movement can ensure that it has a mass party, including the future option of re-establishing one’…
“Nothing wrong with that strategy, but when it comes to elections it all appears to go out of the window. Instead of holding ‘open and comradely discussion across the labour movement and the non-sectarian left’ about how we can mobilise the left vote, we opt for a go-it-alone approach, based around a united communist front of us and domiciled communist and workers’ parties.”
But the comrade’s solution, that of a “left-green alliance” that projects a set of reformist policies to the electorate (based on the CPB’s Left Wing Programme) only repeats the modus operandi of other failed left-populist projects.
The CPB’s congress documents show that as of January 1 2008 it had 941 members attached to branches and districts (or ‘nations’ as it refers to Scotland and Wales), with a small number unattached or overseas. So, in paper terms, membership levels have held steady from May 2006, when the CPB had 902 members with stamped-up cards.2 This is only part of the story, however.
The CPB’s official Report of the 49th Congress (2006) noted: “We recognise that many comrades in the party are playing a vital role in the broader labour movement, peace, solidarity, pensioners’ and anti-racist organisations, etc. Many therefore find it difficult to play a role directly in party activities. However, this means that, with a small party membership, our resources are overstretched most of the time. We have reached a critical point in our party’s development and if the problem is left unresolved, then we may see a decline in our work.” The 2006 congress thus initiated a ‘party development plan’ to help invigorate an organisation that was proving unable to integrate new or existing members into what could be recognised as ‘party work’ led by functioning branches and CPB advisories.
It appears that results have been mixed. Certainly, the CPB has carried on recruiting younger members through the Young Communist League and this has helped, for example, to give the organisation a better (and generally more militant) presence on national demonstrations. However, some familiar problems remain.
Nick Wright writes in Congress Discussion: “The main weakness of the Communist Party in this period has been its failure to give an organised expression of all-round political leadership. On the positive side there has been some party growth and the revival of party organisation and more public work. The average age of our membership is dropping quite fast.”
Simon Steel (Glasgow) notes a revival in CPB Scotland’s public work from a situation where it had to “start from scratch”. He adds: “What we have not yet been able to do is reactivate moribund branches or build new ones at anything like the rate we need to secure the long-term future of our party in Scotland, organisationally speaking.” Ivan Beavis says: “The weakness of the London Communist Party and of the party generally is that we are not able to offer effective leadership for those in struggle.”
There is also evidence in other areas that the foundation of new branches has been formally carried out with little regard to their future coherence. Thus at the Northern district’s congress in 2007, the main resolution, after recounting a familiar CPB tale of organisational dysfunction, notes: “Congress welcomes the formation of the Cumbria branch as a step to developing party activity but recognises that Cumbria is the third-largest county in England, with an area of 6,800 square kilometres, and that travelling time between its two main cities, Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness, is two hours by road and over two-and-a-half hours by public transport in each direction. Communication with the west coast towns is even more problematic.”3
All this suggests that the CPB is set to go around in circles for another period, given that the solution to this organisational meltdown can only be a political one. Structures will not be revived while the CPB looks to a set of external crutches (the Morning Star, sections of the Labour Party, the trade unions) to achieve its political goals, with itself as a benevolent cheerleader dispensing friendly advice. In this political context there is not much point in building a vibrant ‘Marxist’ pole of attraction, because there is simply not much of a role for it. This also explains the manner in which the CPB interfaces with its members in that nothing much is asked of them as comrades apart from an odd invitation to a branch meeting. CPB members are much more likely to approach another CPB member and ask them to do something as trade unionists rather than as communists.
Anita Halpin (re-elected to the executive committee, along with her doddering husband, Kevin, who is still what passes for the CPB’s industrial organiser) has been in the news after The Independent reported that she had only donated £9,310 to the CPB from the estimated £20 million she made from the sale of a German expressionist painting in November 2006.4 Electoral commission records show four cash donations from Kevin and “Rita” Halpin totalling £9,310 made in February and March.5
To my mind it is a bit too simplistic to suggest that the Halpins have been ‘stingy’. This is a not insubstantial amount of cash to a small organisation such as the CPB (although a substantial proportion of the donation has been pissed up against the wall on the UPS electoral venture). There are plenty of other legal means (other than simple cash donations) by which the Halpins could use their money to safeguard the future of the CPB.
The organisation is not without financial resources, but it is not exactly flush either. Nick Wright, who, while not on the EC, is party to many of its organisational niceties, says in Congress Discussion: “… fundraising - although stabilised - remains pitifully inadequate for the tasks before us. The present slow incremental membership growth and tightly constrained finances cannot possibly result in the qualitative change necessary.”
The Halpins’ windfall has not increased their popularity in the organisation. Both are viewed by the ‘modernisers’ who support Griffiths as simply being too traditionalist and pro-Labour Party. Kevin is regarded by most members as well past his retirement age and there are moves afoot to replace him as industrial organiser with Graham Stevenson, EC member and national organiser (transport) for the TGWU l
1. Morning Star May 26.