Did we have a Mitty on the Committee?
Or was Keith's name really "Bond - Basildon Bond"?
IT must be over a dozen years ago that I met Keith Standring, taking part in a march, I think it was in south London, though I forget exactly where or what it was about. He was with the Workers' Revolutionary Party (Workers Press) contingent, at a time when it was good to see a new face.
But Keith was obviously not some youth coming fresh to radical campaigning and ideas, nor was he the kind of trade union or community activist who had spent some time working with us before deciding to join. Nor do I recall him having any story to tell of bitter struggle in the Communist Party or other corner of the left before deciding to throw in his lot with the Trotskyists.
He was introduced to me as a member of the General Municipal and Boilermakers (GMB) trade union, and it turned out he was a full-time official, who before that had served in the Grenadier Guards. The military background did not bother me. It might prove handy in some situations, but that aside, I'd known good comrades who were ex-soldiers, even guardsmen, such as Dave Longley and Fred Green, both alas no longer around. One of the best and nicest people I'd known in the movement was an ex-marine commando with a soft Edinburgh accent called Bill Dow, who didn't let threats and beatings from Rachmanite thugs and corrupt coppers deter him from fighting for west London tenants, till he was finally laid low by a dose of malaria he'd picked up in wartime Burma.
But recruiting someone who had moved up in the trade union bureaucracy was unusual. We are more used to seeing people move the opposite way, from left to right, as their careers take off in the movement. Still, that was no reason to be suspicious.
Anyway, Keith seemed affable enough, willing to help, and generous. He had held responsibility for the chemical industry in the GMB union. It seems he had approached Cliff Slaughter, a leading WRP member and Yorkshire academic who remembered him from the Young Communist League, for political discussion. As a result Cliff introduced him to the late Geoff Pilling, who was editing Workers Press, and Dot Gibson, who among other things was responsible for much of the international trade union connexions.
The International Trade Union Solidarity Campaign(ITUSC), set up following the same Budapest conference that launched the Workers International for Reconstruction of the Fourth International (WIRFI) (as difficult a concept as it was a mouthful), had three pillars; trade union independence of the state and employers; democracy inside the unions; workers internationalism. But despite this simple broad approach, ITUSC was in the doldrums. Having trades unionists think it was a great idea was not the same as them providing it with leadership, nor vice versa. WRP members argued whether it should be a campaign, or just a committee, assuming they would decide, even if they did not know what to do with it. Enthusiastic letters from sisters and brothers abroad brought with them the embarrassing thought that we could not mobilise anything like the kind of solidarity they were looking for. Some of them, with scant resources beyond their determination, were leading many thousands of workers in struggles such as few of us had experienced. Our own comrades in southern Africa were also attracting support, and with it, facing big responsibilities and sometimes physical dangers, while we in Britain had been through retreats and splits, and strayed into the confusing babble of the sects and talking-shops.
Once Keith Standring had been introduced it was easy to see him as the confident, experienced trade unionist whose drive and organising ability could get ITUSC moving again. With the ITUSC's lack of independence from the WRP it was not hard to simply replace the comrade who was ITUSC secretary, a Ford worker whose initials were also, incidentally KS. Keith Standring was even willing to take early retirement from his union job so that he could become full-time, unpaid, secretary of ITUSC. So dedicated, he later claimed that he had invested his own money in a computer and stationery so that he could work from home, in Surrey.
In those days you must understand, home PCs were not that common, nor was e-mail, let alone left-wing websites and blogs. What's more the ITUSC as yet had no resources of its own, as I found when asked to edit its Bulletin. We brought out a few issues, with a small committee anxiously vetting content, and Dot Gibson seeing to the technical side. Then I needed to produce an issue before an important conference on Bosnia in Manchester. Dot was in Bosnia where she had been leading an aid convoy, the small committee was not to be found, the photocopier in the office was not working, and when I asked about using facilities at "our" printers the cold, imperious reply was "whose paying for this?" I'd already laid out money for layout but I had not realised when agreeing to take responsibility for the ITUSC Bulletin that it would thenceforth be treated by some "comrades" as my affair, if not meshugas. Thus privatisation, the Thatcherite environment, had seeped into our comradely relations.
This was a couple of years before Keith Standring arrived on the scene, and was by the way. What has stirred the other KS, and he has brought it to my attention, is where Brother Standring is now -Councillor Standring (Conservative), Rother District Council, East Sussex. Keith Standring was a regular soldier in the Grenadier Guards before working for over thirty years in British Intelligence. He is a member of the Conservative Party, The Freedom Association and a supporter of The Bruges Group.
So Cllr.Standring, according to his own Tory CV was working for the Intelligence services during his time in the WRP and before that in the GMB union. He presumably continued working for them in the ITUSC after the WRP had disbanded itself to reform as the "Movement for Socialism". Just what he might have achieved for them is hard to say. It seems the Standring story came to attention back at the beginning of this year, and was commented upon in Tribune and by people who knew him in the union, though they recalled how he had seemed to swing from one belief to another, political or religious, with equal enthusiasm, and wondered whether he was a serious agent or Walter Mitty.
Either way, I'm sorry I missed the story when it first came out. In fact when I first saw the name Keith Standring in my informant's subject line I'd forgotten who it was until reading his message brought it back to me. Even then I've had to consult other comrades, and comb through my old diaries in the hope of finding something significant, without much success.
I remember now a story Keith told me when we were on an embassy picket with Iranian comrades, about how as a trade union negotiator dealing with a firm in East Anglia he had taken advantage of the knowledge that Israeli and Egyptian buyers were in nearby hotels to persuade management that the sooner it settled the dispute with its workers the quicker it could proceed with its business, selling military equipment to both sides in the Middle East conflict. I retold the story to a magazine journalist, but what if it was not true?
When ITUSC did find a useful role it was as a meeting place for people like the Iranian exiles, African militants, Turkish trade unionists and others here, some of whom also joined us in the support group for Liverpool dockers. But as the WRP moved towards trying to rebrand and re-invent itself as a broader movement, tensions between members were becoming disproportionately fierce. At one ITUSC meeting the chairman would not let me contribute to a discussion involving Nigerians and Iranians, telling me that people were participating as representatives of organisations. I was flummoxed. Having only intended to make some conciliatory remarks about the question of religion and secularism that had arisen, I could not truthfully say that my trades council had mandated me to take a "line" on the issue. Fortunately nowadays when I meet the African and Iranian comrades we can talk without benefit of clergy or that kind of bureaucratic chair.
What was being brought in to the ITUSC was not workers democracy or international Trotskyism but the manoeuvres and control freakery we know all too well from the union bureaucracy. Where Keith Standring was in this I cannot honestly remember, except my diary includes a comment about him and that chairman I've mentioned as lining up "like Pinky and Perky", and later at another event says "Pinky and Perky were on top table". Not the most scientific Marxist characterisation, but it would seem to indicate we were no longer exactly friends.
To be honest, any personal animosity I experienced or reciprocated at this time was incidental to a more important conflict of aims. When someone had asked at a conference whether dissolving the WRP would mean breaking up the Workers International of which we were part, I argued that no, this was a change of approach in Britain and not to be imposed worldwide. Bob Archer took a similar view. Cliff Slaughter kept his cards close to his chest, saying nothing. But after the MFS was set up, Geoff Pilling was bitterly condemned for producing a Workers International publication, and Dot Gibson denounced because she had dared to proclaim herself a Trotskyist, a member of the Workers International to Reconstruct the Fourth International, when speaking at an international conference organised by the Tuzla miners. Indeed, judging from some people's writings, the WIRFI was not only no longer to be, but treated as though it had never been. (See how it has been erased from history in the otherwise excellent book on Workers Aid for Bosnia, Taking Sides).
One issue confronting the Bosnian and Kosovar miners, as other workers in eastern Europe and Russia, and now being firmly resisted by Iraqi oil workers, is privatisation. It is a struggle in which workers East and West can learn from and strengthen each other. Some of us wanted to make defence of public ownership and services the fourth pillar of the ITUSC stand, but others felt we should not add to what had been agreed at Budapest. I cannot remember or do justice to the arguments here, nor can I say that factions were neatly aligned either side. But if the arguments about the International seem abstract, I think real issues stood behind them.
Quite independently of the union sources, Dot Gibson came up with the name "Walter Mitty" when asked about Keith Standring's role. Having worked closely with him drafting statements and letters to make sure they accorded with the policies, she did not think he had much idea, though he presented them as his own. Later he became more independent, unpredictable and then hostile, before dropping out. But Cliff Slaughter had put Keith Standring on to the Executive committee of the WIRFI. Like liquidators taking over a company to wind up its affairs, Slaughter and his aides used the Executive to discipline those who were trying to keep the International going, and though Keith Standring had ceased attending meetings, he was brought back by Cliff Slaughter just long enough to help outvote Dot. It was to be the laat time they all met.
From the Movement for Socialism, Keith Standring has moved on to feature on a site called "Make socialism history". And such, scant as it is, is the history of Keith Standring. Now, amid dull Tory company, he shines quite brightly writing on civil liberties, the European Union, Labour and ID cards. So was he an Intelligence agent, or Walter Mitty? Or did the two roles go hand in hand? I too have moved on, though not in the same direction, from the little battles of a past decade, and my memory has been otherwise occupied. But I felt it my duty to say something, and perhaps others will have more to add.
For another, earlier, angle on Keith Standring see: