Friday, 30 August 1991


Tribune diary, 30 August 1991

The British politician with most egg on face after the failed coup in the Soviet Union has to be Eric Trevett, general secretary of the tiny ultra-Stalinist New Communist Party. In a letter to the Morning Star on August 22, the day that the coup collapsed, he welcomed the removal of Mikhail Gorbachev as "a setback to US imperialism, whose plans for global domination have been dealt a body blow".

"In the Soviet Union the emergence of a leadership dedicated to communist values deserves our full solidarity and support," he went on. "Nor should we waver in giving this in the face of some social unrest."

The Morning Star itself surprised many readers by refusing to give the coup its backing: "It is difficult to see how democratic economic and political change can be brought about by authoritarian means," it warned on August 20, adding that "what has happened could have the opposite result to that intended". A similar line was taken by the Communist Party of Britain, the small pro-Soviet party that split from the Eurocommunist Communist Party of Great Britain in the mid-eighties. (The NCP split in the late seventies). Its general secretary, Mike Hicks, called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis "fully involving the Soviet people in resolving political and economic difficulties that have been exacerbated by a narrow form of nationalism in some republics".

Less surprisingly, the CPGB unambiguously conde­mned the coup, calling for the immediate release and re-instatement of Gorbachev. "The complex economic and constitutional crises that have developed in the Soviet Union will never be solved by resorting to Stalinist methods", proclaimed a group of leading figures in a letter to the Guardian published on August 21.

After the collapse of the coup, the CPGB, which is almost certain to adopt a new democratic constitution and change its name to "Democratic Left" in Novem­ber, gave a warm welcome to suggestions that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union should dissolve itself into a new democratic left party. But the Morning Star and the CPB were not so sure. Monday's Star leader announced that "the Soviet people will need a reformed democratic Communist Party .. . So­cialism and democracy remain the only way out for the working people in the Soviet Union". If only the working people of the Soviet Union saw it that way ...


Tribune leader, 30 August 1991

The extraordinary events of the past fortnight in Moscow, Leningrad and the other major cities of the Soviet Union have transformed world politics. The Soviet Union, the second super-power, has imploded and might not survive the shock. "Actually existing social­ism" is dead.

The way it happened was simple but bizarre. Key figures in the Soviet Communist Party leadership and the military-industrial complex, the latter for 20 years the only dynamic element of the Soviet economy, decided to take in hand the country's spiralling economic and political crisis, using as their pretext the imminent signing of a new union treaty which would have given more autonomy to the Soviet republics. For 24 hours after the August 19 coup, it seemed that the military-industrial complex had won. The western media were full of predictions of a new cold war. Western politicians talked of doing business with the junta.

Instead, the coup collapsed. Boris Yeltsin came out from the Russian Parliament and talked to a tank crew in front of camera. Soon a few hundred sympathisers were there too. Demonstrations against the coup were organised by informal networks of activists in the major cities. Slowly but surely, it became apparent that the junta had not thought about the international media, had underestimated the people of Russia's cities and had overlooked the depth of resentment against the centre in the non-Russian republics. The people were sick of their lot, but the worst possible alternative was a return to a brutally oppressive yesterday. The demonstrations were not, for the most part, large, but they were an embarrassingly public problem for the military. It became clear early on that the conscript soldiers were unhappy about firing on their countrymen.

The junta panicked and surrendered. Mikhail Gor­bachev came back to Moscow and office (although for how long he will stay there is a moot point). The settling of scores began. Under pressure from Yeltsin, the guilty men – nearly the entire leadership of the Communist Party and of the military and security apparatuses – were named and replaced. As the implications of the coup became clear at the end of last week, republic after republic declared independence from the Soviet Union, The authority of the CPSU simply collapsed. Last weekend, struggling to keep abreast of events, Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the party, recommended dissolution of the its central committee and issued a decree confiscating all its property. Yeltsin issued a string of decrees suspending the party in Russia and several hard-line newspapers and transferring powers from the Kremlin to his own Russian republican Government. Other republics moved against their communist parties as the week went on.

On Tuesday, in what seemed a last-ditch attempt to assert his political authority and prevent a total collapse of the union, Gorbachev threatened to resign unless a new union treaty was signed. Meanwhile Yeltsin came under fire for suggesting that republican borders might be revised to protect Russian minorities in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. As Tribune went to press, the very existence of the Soviet Union hung in the balance.

Apart from Yeltsin's worrying remarks on changing borders and the suspensions of the communist parties and the newspapers, which should be lifted at once, it is difficult for a democratic socialist to be other than pleasantly stunned by most of what has happened so far. The "actually existing socialism" fathered by the CPSU was an economic disaster, corrupt, bureaucratic, mendacious, oppressive and militarist; the union was held together only by brute force. The system's passing is not worth mourning.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to be too optimistic about the prospects for the Soviet Union or whatever collection of independent states takes its place. Every one of the republics is in a state of severe economic crisis and most are riven by ethnic tensions. There is a constant threat of those tensions becoming bloody and, as the economic crisis deepens with the approach of winter, there is a real danger that authoritarian politics will become increasingly attractive not only to those who supported the failed coup but also to the populists and nationalists who joined the liberals and democrats to resist it. It is imperative that the affluent west pre-empts any such lurch into authoritarianism, first by immediate­ly pledging food aid to avert starvation and secondly by formulating something akin to the Marshall Aid programme of the forties to revive the Soviet economy. Hoping for the best is not enough.

Friday, 23 August 1991


Tribune leader, 23 August 1991

There was a time, about ten years ago, when the Labour left thought that the most important single  issue in British politics was how the Labour Party selected its parliamentary candidates. Compulsory reselection of MPs was at the core of the Bennite left's attempt to exact revenge for the Wilson-Callaghan years: today it stands as just about the only monument to the Bennite moment in Labour Party history.

It is worth defending, of course: there is no reason to deprive local Labour Parties of the right to choose their candidates for parliament once every parliament.

Nevertheless, compulsory reselection has not resulted in any great change in the accountability of Labour MPs to their local parties, let alone the sort of transformation of left political culture that the Bennites believed would follow from the procedural changes. Under current rules, even the most indolent and incompetent MPs find it relatively easy to keep their positions. More important, most of the people selected for winnable seats in the next election are, at best, decent folk skilled in the banal arts of local government, public relations or trade union machine politics. Compulsory reselection has resulted in more of the same rather than a rejuvenation and democratisation of the Labour Party.
But what could rejuvenate and democratise Labour? The leadership put its faith in a membership drive to give the party sufficient numbers to sustain a one-member-one-vote organisation which can do without the tradition­al deal with the unions – block votes in return for cash. Unfortunately, the membership drive has not worked.

Partly because of head office mistakes and partly because Labour's bland centrist image, however essen­tial for winning uncommitted voters, is rather less than inspirational when it comes to membership recruitment, Labour is still as far from being able to get by without union money as it ever was. The party leadership is, moreover, still as reliant as ever on the unions delivering "sensible" candidates for parliament and "moderate" policies at conference.

The upshot is that the leadership faces a serious dilemma. If it goes for one-member-one-vote for selections and key policy decisions, it alienates the unions. They rightly feel that they have kept the show afloat for years and now, with a Labour government at least a strong possibility, do not want to throw away their most impor­tant means of influencing Labour.

If the leadership opts for the status quo, it perpetuates a system which almost invites bureaucratic intervention to stifle democratic decision-making – alienating individual party members and putting off would-be recruits who wonder what point there is in joining Labour if they are to be effectively shut out of important decisions in the party.

In the long term, the only answer is the creation of a democratic party which generates enough income not to need to use the unions as a crutch and in which all members have an equal say. That will not happen overnight, especially if there seems to be little particular­ly exciting or radical in Labour’s programme to attract new members. In the short term, compromises to keep Labour from bankruptcy are essential. The one on offer now on parliamentary selections, for all its potential difficulties, is not as bad as the Labour Co-ordinating Committee has made out. Nevertheless, it is essential that the thrust of these compromises is to advance a model of internal Labour Party democracy clearly based on the simple principle of one-member-one-vote. In the end, there really is no democratic alternative.

Friday, 2 August 1991


Tribune leader, 2 August 1991

Has the tide turned in favour of the Conservatives? The pundits in the quality newspapers certainly think so. It has been difficult to keep count of the number of articles in the past fortnight opining that Labour has run out of steam and that the Tories are making the running in British politics again. How diffe­rent from just after the Monmouth by-election, when the word from precisely the same pundits was that the Tories, riven by dissent over Europe, were on the ropes and that Labour was the odds-on favourite to win the next elec­tion.

Whether there are any particularly good reasons for the pundits' change of heart is arguable. To be sure, there has been a string of opinion polls showing a massive Labour lead turning into a small one. John Major does seem to have emerged stronger from the row over Europe and there is little doubt that the Tories spent the run-up to the parliamentary recess spewing out policy documents and attacks on Labour faster and more furiously than seemed possible in the spring. Labour, meanwhile, has appeared introverted. After a spell of frantic activity when it seemed likely that there would be an election in June, Labour's supply of policy launches almost dried up. For the past few weeks, Labour has come across as being preoccupied with getting rid of Militant.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the dynamism of Mr Major and his party. The big Tory initiatives of the past month, the Citizen's Charter and the Green Papers on trade unions and local government, are dull and uninspiring, and the emerging themes of the Tories' attack on Labour – that Neil Kinnock is unim­pressive and his party profligate, weak on defence and dominated by the hard left and the unions – are tired and unconvincing. The Tory split over Europe will be difficult to camouflage as the autumn wears on, and the Tories remain vulnerable on the economy (still in deep reces­sion) and the welfare state. Mr Major's ministerial team is an electoral liability. Beneath the surface, the Tories remain in deep trouble.

Labour's apparent loss of momentum is a stickier problem. There are good reasons for believing that it does not amount to much. It was always going to be impossible to keep campaigning throughout the summer at the pitch reached in April and May, and the nasty but necessary business of getting rid of Militant should not be diverting the party from more important matters for very much longer. Moreover, the party can take heart from the consistency of its share of the opinion polls. The cut in its lead has been almost completely the result of Liberal Democrat voters turning to the Tories and, during an election campaign, the Liberal Democrats are likely to win many of them back.

But it is not enough simply to sit back and hope for the best or even to keep thumping out the same old tunes, however good some of them might be. Labour must learn from the skirmishes of the past couple of months, which have revealed several areas where Labour needs to hone its policies during the summer. That does not mean emulating Gerald Kaufman's incompetent kite-flying on nuclear arms talks: rather it is a matter of ironing out ambiguities by filling in detail missing from agreed policies. In particular, Labour's proposals for a minimum wage and a defence diversification agency could both be vote-winners with a little extra attention to detail, and a more explicit commitment to European union could reap the party substantial benefits. Labour must use the hiatus of the silly season for a cool assessment of what needs to