Friday, September 07, 2012

Daft and Spiteful

A STRANGE MISSAL reaches me, entitled "Press release from the Labour Briefing Co-operative". This informs me that
'On Saturday, 7th July, members of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – aided by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which produces the Weekly Worker – attended the AGM of Labour Briefing and forced through a vote to close down Labour Briefing after 32 years of publication. The LRC is now producing its own “house journal”, using the same name – Labour Briefing'.

I was not at this meeting on July 7. I am a member of the Labour Representation Committee, and like many trades union activists, appreciate and support its chairman John McDonnell MP's efforts to put workers' rights and socialism back on the agenda of the Labour Party. I recognised the significance of its choice of name, the first Labour Representation Committee having been formed in 1909 to advance workers' interests politically, and becoming the Labour Party. Having been delegated by my trades union council in Brent to attend LRC conferences, I liked what I saw, in different backgrounds and generations uniting, free constructive discussion, and the warm welcome I received.

I cannot claim any connection to Labour Briefing, which has been around a lot longer, other than buying it monthly, usually because I am collared by Pete Firmin at our trades council meetings (he happens to be our president) or Mike Phipps, or other LB supporters, all of whom are also in the LRC. I have also occasionally participated in the LLB online discussion list, though sometimes I feared getting out of my depth, this being one of them. "What is the difference between the LRC and Briefing?", many of us would have asked, other than that, as someone else said, one was an organisation without its own publication, and the other a journal without an organisation to back it.

So it seemed hardly a matter for deep thought let alone controversy when the Labour Representation Committee decided to adopt Labour Briefing as its magazine. But it has aroused a bitter controversy, to the extent that at least two editorial board members, Christine Shawcroft and Jenny Fisher, have apparently formed the "Labour Briefing Co-operative" and are clinging to the title for their own magazine. The press release I have quoted uses identical phases as Christine Shawcroft's blog.

Yet to my limited mind, their account of things does not make sense. Why should Christine Shawcroft, who is a former vice chair of LRC and was re-elected last year to its executive, see anything wrong in LRC members - several of whom are also on the editorial board - coming along to the AGM of the magazine which they have been promoting? Why would these people put a motion to "close down" a magazine in which they were already prominent, in order to start another with the same name, when all they needed to do was take over the existing magazine?

And how did they "force a vote"? Poke people in the back with rolled-up magazines?

Or does Christine - sorry, the "co-operative" - simply mean that the people from LRC insisted the meeting should take a vote, rather than letting the recalcitrant editorial board members just nix the change, or waiting till there was unanimity? I think it's called democracy.

As for the red herring (or red-baiting) mention of Communist Party of Great Britain help, I assume this refers to the Weekly Worker supporters who have set up within the Labour Party as "Labour Party Marxists" and are also in the Labour Representation Committee, though not very influential in it. I hear there were four of them at the Briefing AGM, and they probably voted for the merger. I don't see why they shouldn't have the right to do so, and their participation could hardly have been decisive.

I don't see why they are being pointed at in this way unless it is to appeal to ignorant anti-communist elements. But this is after all a press release, and one would not want to give the media a headache explaining the subtle distinctions between left wing groups. Just say "Communist" and that should do the trick.

Incidentally, though the Weekly Worker appears to support the merger, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) was apparently against. I hope the "co-operative" finds this encouraging. I must say I found the Labour Party Marxists contribution to the last LRC conference dull and uninspiring, whereas the AWL are always amusing. At the first conference I attended their Martin Thomas was urging the LRC to quit the Labour Party if it was serious about wanting socialism. A year or two later the AWL had decided to join the Labour Party and Martin was back on his feet urging everyone present to do the same.

This year he has been complaining that LRC is not active enough and that this is why it should not be running a magazine. I see the LRC is organising local groups, it has set up a youth wing, and it's holding a fringe meeting next week at the TUC, so maybe having backed the losing side in the Briefing row Martin may have to change his tune again.

Having two publications competing with the same name is not new of course, though it may seem a daft idea. After the old Workers Revolutionary Party split in 1985 when Gerry Healy was thrown out, Paul Jennings asked me to come in and help on News Line after work, while the people who had left with Healy continued bringing out their own daily News Line, and still do somehow. But the issues which split the WRP were obvious, and even when there was a WRP (News Line) and a WRP (Workers Press) it was not hard to see the differences. Besides I would not have thought the "Labour Briefing Co-op", who probably like to think of themselves as sensible, down to earth, left-wing Labourites, would take the Healyites, however dogged, for a model.

In fact the hardest thing to understand is just what they do think they are doing. Their press release says "The Labour Briefing, as a magazine, does not have members and its meetings have always been open to all readers, including those who are members of other groups on the left. Labour Briefing has always relied on goodwill from other groups, .... This mutual trust, which had lasted for 32 years, was broken by the LRC, in a hostile takeover which is tantamount to political asset-stripping".

If LB was just a magazine, which did not have members, why refer to "other groups"? Surely that implies that LB was itself a group, and that the self-styled Labour Briefing Co-op still are, even if they are not clearly defined or open about it, but prefer expressions like "non-aligned"?They proclaim " – the tradition of being the magazine of the grassroots of the Labour Party, in all our diversity (not the magazine of yet another left group); of covering the activities and ideas of its readers (not just telling them what self-appointed leaders want them to do and think); of being genuinely non-aligned (rather than promoting a single left group or would-be party)".

Who are they kidding? Labour Briefing was never "the magaine of the grassroots -in all our diversity", it was started by a small entrist group. It waxed and waned over the years with the struggles of the Labour Left as was. Only more recently has its coverage and ideas become more diverse, - much to the evident chagrin of leaders like Christine Shawcroft who seemed to disapprove of some of the ideas contributed by people in the LRC.

As for being victim of a "hostile takeover", or being expected to promote "a single left group", this seems to be an inexplicably harsh way of taking your distance from a group whose leadership included yourself and was virtually co-extensive with your editorial board. I also dislike the sneering reference to a "house journal" -which I find belittling to the LRC and insulting to the membership, as though we have no ideas and nothing of any interest to say. But then as I think Lenin once said, spite is generally the worst of all motives in politics. And deciding to launch a spoiler when you could have stayed with the magazine is both daft and spiteful.

In their own blog on this, Christine Shawcroft and Jenny Fisher say: "Speaking during the debate at the Briefing AGM, John McDonnell MP, founder and Chair of the LRC, said “Whatever happens in this room, whatever the decision, we leave here as comrades.” Christine Shawcroft, Chair of Labour Briefing, commented, “Comrades are people who don’t stab you in the back."

Quite. But I don't see that anyone has stabbed her in the back, or front, whereas...

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