Friday, 14 December 1990


Tribune, 14 December 1990

The Communist Party of Great Britain decided not to disband last week. But, writes Paul Anderson, it seems merely to have postponed its collapse

The tiny Communist Party of Great Britain last weekend looked death in the face – and then averted its gaze.

A vast majority of the 300 dele­gates at its 42nd Congress at TUC Congress House in London rejected a proposal, put forward by Marxism Today supporters, to dissolve the 70-year-old party into a loose politi­cal association. A rather smaller majority rejected calls for "renewal" of the party on Leninist lines.

Instead, the CP will continue, putting a change of name and rules to next year's congress and encouraging the eventual emerg­ence of a "new political formation". But it is difficult to see how this fudge, backed by the party's executive committee, can possibly stem the CP's decline. It now claims 6,000 members (down from 30,000 in the sixties), some not paying their dues, most of them inactive and many of them retired.

More important, the formal deb­ate and informal discussion at the 42nd Congress showed clearly that the few comrades who remain are terminally disillusioned, with no coherent common political project. The party has survived merely be­cause Britain's communists are afraid of life without it.

Saturday morning's debate was supposed to discuss the general pol­itical situation in which the CP now finds itself, with an executive com­mittee document based on Marxism Today's analysis of "New Times" as its focus.

Instead, after an opening speech from the party's general secretary, Nina Temple, in which she declared that "1990 has seen the Bolshevik era end in disaster", the debate con­centrated on the legacy of 1917.

Delegates heard a string of sting­ing denunciations of the whole Leninist tradition. One speaker told the congress: "The crimes committ­ed in the name of communism can never be explained away." Another, attacking democratic centralist par­ty organisation, announced blithely that "Leninism helped to grease the skids for Stalinism".

Such sweeping dismissals of par­ty tradition were too much for some older delegates, who treated the congress to diatribes on the unchanging nature of imperialism, but resistance was weak. No one was prepared explicitly to defend the "actually existing socialism" that once inspired the CP, and at­tempts to prevent the party from disowning its past were voted down.

That left the afternoon's session to determine the way forward, but here proceedings almost ground to a halt. Everyone agreed that the CP was in crisis, and nearly everyone backed a pluralist politics of “broad progressive alliances", but no two speakers seemed to concur on what should happen next.

One man, supporting the executive commitee's proposal that the party be kept going for the time being, pinned his hopes on a Labour defeat at the next election, which would lead to a "fundamental re­view of left politics" in which Greens and Liberal Democrats would play a key role. Another, also backing temporary continuation, said that the CP could help Labour win.

Yet another thought that a "renewed" CP, the option favoured by (mainly London-based) Leninist hardliners, should throw in its lot with the Socialist Movement and the Labour hard left. A woman advocate of dissolving the party into a political association said that pol­itical parties were a thing of the past; a male colleague saw the pol­itical association as a means of pro­viding strategic thinking for Lab­our.

In the end on Sunday the con­gress supported the executive fudge by a large majority, but there was little enthusiasm among delegates for their own decision. Many among the Marxism Today faction who favoured dissolution voted for the compromise only to defeat the hard­line Leninist faction; many who didn't want change, particularly from the Scottish party, backed the compromise only to defeat the liquidationists.

Far from resolving the crisis, the outcome of the congress ensures that the argument over the CP's future will continue for another year, and many members, particu­larly those who believe that the par­ty should call it a day, have simply had enough. That means that fur­ther resignations are on the cards, which in turn means that the influ­ence of the Leninist hard-line block, which increased its representation on the executive in elections on Sunday, will grow still further.

As the CP's death agonies conti­nue, last weekend will almost certainly look like a missed opportunity for painless suicide.

Friday, 7 December 1990


Tribune, 7 December 1990

John Major's accession to the Tory leadership could make it more difficult for Labour to provide effective opposition, writes Paul Anderson

The Tories' choice of John Major as leader has already had a dramatic effect on Bri­tish politics.

Less than a month ago, it seemed most unlikely that the Conserva­tives could win the next election. The party was running consistently behind Labour in the opinion polls and was split down the middle on Europe. In Margaret Thatcher, the Tories had a leader who was an electoral liability but apparently impossible to replace without a spectacular bout of blood-letting. All Labour needed to do, it seemed, was to sit back and wait.

Today the picture has been com­pletely changed. Thatcher has gone. The Tories have united be­hind Major and leapt ahead in the opinion polls. The poll tax is to be reformed and a more conciliatoryline taken on Europe. The least popular figures of Thatcher's government have been eased out of the limelight. Cabinet government is to be restored.

Of course, public enthusiasm for Major might be just a passing fad. Unemployment is set to rise as the economy enters the deepest recession for a decade, yet it is unlikely that interest rates will come down significantly for several months.

If war breaks out in the Gulf, hea­vy British casualties would harm the government in the short term -and in the long term the effects of a Gulf war on the economy could be disastrous. In the even longer term, the ceasefire on European policy within the Tory party will break down if the rest of Europe forces the pace on monetary and political union.

But even a mere blip in the To­ries' popularity could last long enough to keep them in power for another term. If, in early January, the opinion polls still show a Tory lead, it is highly probable that Major will go to the country some time in the spring, perhaps as early as February - whatever he says now. Labour knows this, and is hurriedly gearing up its campaign­ing for a snap election.

This means that big changes in Labour's basic policy to counter the new-look Tories are virtually impossible: there simply isn't time for anything but minor adjust­ments.

It also means that, despite the speculation in the newspapers, Neil Kinnock's position as Labour leader is secure this side of a general elec­tion. The opinion polls show that Labour would do better with John Smith as leader, but the whole of the Labour leadership recognises that attempting to replace Kinnock involves greater risk than uniting behind him. Apart from anything else, the process of choos­ing a new leader would take longer than the minimum length of a gen­eral election campaign.

In the short term, Labour has no alternative but to force its way back into public view, emphasising the coherence of its package of policies and the competence of its leaders, doing all it can to ensure that Mr Major's honeymoon is over by the new year.

The danger for Labour is that Major's honeymoon will last until the general election, which he will then win by a comfortable margin. Major might be "the boring man with the glasses" to Spitting Image, but he has already persuaded most of Britain's quality newspaper col­umnists that he is a technocratic pro-European social liberal, com­mitted to the market as well as to the welfare state - rather like Da­vid Owen, in fact, and not that far removed from the modern Kinnock.

That is bad enough for Labour. But the party's nightmare is that Major will convince skilled workers who have shifted alleg­iance from Tory to Labour in the past couple of years that he will re­place the poll tax, get interest rates down and spend more money on education, health and transport, all without giving too much power to the unions, raising income tax or leaving the country defenceless.

The root of Labour's problem is that its political strategy over the past seven years has beer to appeal to the self-interest of affluent skill­ed workers while occupying the centre ground ideologically.

In the 1987-89 policy review and subsequently, Labour has adopted policies that have much in common with those of the centre parties and the pro-Europe left of the Con­servatives.

Labour has abandoned the last vestiges of Keynesianism to advoc­ate tight fiscal and monetary poli­cies. It no longer proposes nationalisation and is cautious about any form of intervention in industry. Labour is against high taxation and for home-ownership, and its enthusiasm for the EC and Nato is unrivalled.

This strategy certainly had its critics on the Labour left, but the alternatives on offer were electorally worse (particularly the hard left's "vision" of nationalisation and a siege economy). More importantly, the strategy worked while Thatcher was in office. But the result today is that Labour does not seem to be saying much that the Tories are not saying.

This is not to claim that there are not many policy differences between Labour and the Tories: it's just that the differences suddenly seem not matters of broad principle but questions of detail within a shared framework of assumptions. That makes the big issue of the next election the competence of Bri­tain's would-be rulers. Here the To­ries are vulnerable to Labour's at­tacks, particularly on the economy. Only a fool would dismiss Labour's chances. But it's hardly the election campaign that Kinnock was planning to fight, and it's not going to be easy.