Friday, 27 September 1991


Tribune leader, 27 September 1991

There is an air of unreality about the Labour Party's deliberations on electoral reform, which looks set to be the most controversial policy topic at the party's annual conference in Brighton next week.

Everyone knows that Labour's prime task is to win the next election under the existing first-past-the-post system; and everyone knows that it is unlikely that supporters of change will convince conference to back anything more specific, at least for the House of Commons, than keeping all options open, except for ruling out the multi-member constituency, single transferable vote system favoured by the Liberal Democrats.

That, in a nutshell, is the position taken in July by the interim report of the Labour Party's commission on electoral reform chaired by Raymond Plant, and it is the only one that will preserve party unity. This does not mean, however, that Labour Party members need not bother to work out what they think. Keeping options open is a temporary measure: soon after the election, however Britain votes, Labour will be forced to make up its mind.

Plant laid down a series of criteria for judging electoral systems, the most important of which were whether a system would yield parliaments in which the number of seats held by a party is proportional to the votes cast for it, whether a system would maintain a close link between MPs and their constituents, and whether a system would produce stable and effective governments.

In the past couple of months, three options have emerged with significant support: no change, the Alterna­tive Vote, and the Additional Member System. On ba­lance, the system that satisfies most of Plant's criteria is AMS, in which MPs elected in single-member constituen­cies are topped up from regional lists. Crucially, neither no change nor AV, in which single-member constituen­cies are maintained but voters list their preferences among candidates, adequately satisfy the criterion of proportionality.

Critics of AMS argue that it would hand disproportionate influence to centre or fringe parties, would create two classes of MP and would allow party machines too much influence in determining candidates for the regional top-up seats.

The last of these objections is the least serious: a democratic regional party selection process would ensure that parly members and not party bureaucrats would determine the party list. The "two classes of MP" argu­ment is stronger, though hardly decisive: it would be easy enough to organise a system whereby regional list MPs were allocated constituency-type duties in areas of their region where no single-member constituency MP had been elected.

The most important argument against AMS is that it gives Centre or fringe parties too much influence, inevit­ably yielding coalition governments which emerge after secret wheeling and dealing behind closed doors in the immediate aftermath of an election. Against this, it is rightly said that political parties are themselves coali­tions, that no system, even FPTP, rules out coalition government, and that AMS would not rule out creation of a single party forming a government if it really had majority support among the electorate.

Nevertheless, the issue of disproportionate centre or fringe party influence - which also applies to AV - cannot be ducked. The choice in the end is between a system in which the centre or the political fringe might have greater influence than their support warrants and one which has given the Tories 12 years of massive parliamen­tary majorities on a minority vote. On balance, the former has to be the lesser evil.

Friday, 20 September 1991


Tribune leader, 20 September 1991

Will John Major go for a November election? It is unlikely that he has finally made up his mind, but it is  quite likely that he will opt for the autumn rather than hanging on until spring. The Tories are ahead in most opinion polls, and they believe that the economic tide has turned in their favour. With the strong possibility that any upturn will be temporary and with the danger that the Tories will be badly split over Europe by the end of the year, Mr Major will almost certainly go for November if his party is leading clearly in the polls after the Tory conference.

With this in mind, the Tories are mounting a political offensive. Perhaps it will work – but it is difficult to see how. The Conservative strategy seems to consist of little more than accusing Labour of incompetence, claiming one day that Labour has a hidden radical agenda and the next that it has given up its principles. The Tories have little in the way of a positive programme to offer the voters. Their Citizens' Charter is a damp squib; their remaining major privatisation plans are unpopular; and their "council tax" replacement for the poll tax is at best uninspiring. They are incoherent on Europe and outdated on defence. Add their appalling record on economic policy, the health service, education, training, transport and the environment, and it is clear that they are going to have serious problems winning support.

But Labour cannot afford to rest on its laurels and hope that a well-behaved conference and slick party political broadcasts will make up the gap in the opinion polls, so that Labour wins a November election or, if the surge comes sooner, forces Mr Major to put off the election. Labour is better prepared for an election than ever before, and the confidence exuded by the party leader­ship is not just for the television cameras. But the whole party will have to work hard to win. The task is not merely to persuade the voters that Neil Kinnock is a fine fellow with a competent team behind him but to convince them that Labour has a cogent and attractive vision of a future Britain. If Labour comes across as being the same as the Tories, with a few slight differences on education and the health service, the party will not win, nor will it deserve to.

Friday, 13 September 1991


Tribune leader, 13 September 1991

The cash crisis at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has prompted several premature obituaries in the right-wing press. They are premature not just because CND members have responded generously to its appeal for money (although more is needed) but because the campaign still has a crucially important role to play.

Despite the end of the cold war and the collapse of Soviet communism, despite the seemingly rosy prospects for far-reaching arms control agreements, the political and military establishments of the nuclear powers (with the apparent exception of what was the Soviet Union) remain as committed as ever to the insane idea that threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction is essential to maintain credible defences.

Even as the Soviet Union ceases to be capable of threatening the security of Western Europe and the United States, the Western military and its political friends raise the spectre of nuclear-armed Third World dictatorships as the justification for maintaining their nuclear arsenals. Even as obsolete weapons systems are negotiated away, new weapons systems are being de­veloped. The American and French nuclear weapons programmes are still racing ahead.

All this is absurd and obscene. Yet without CND there would be barely a squeak of criticism in British political life. Labour in particular has spent most of the past four years running away from a critical stance on nuclear weapons. Unilateral nuclear disarmament was jettisoned in 1989. In the past few months Labour's leaders have gone further. Instead of remaining vague about how they propose to negotiate away British nuclear arms, first Gerald Kaufman (ambiguously) and now Neil Kinnock (unambiguously) have promised that a Labour govern­ment would keep British nuclear weapons for as long as anyone else was nuclear-armed. Meanwhile a Labour government would do its best to get British nuclear arms included in the second round of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, and would press hard for rapid prog­ress towards massive cuts in the world's nuclear arsenals.

Looking on the bright side, this position is still better than the Tories', which remains unambiguously pro-deterrence, opposed even to British involvement in START 2. So far, Labour's leadership has not gone so far as to embrace the notion that nuclear arms really do constitute a deterrent: they remain, at least in the small print of party policy, merely bargaining chips to secure reductions all round. A Labour Prime Minister would not, one can safely surmise, press the button.

But by promising to keep British nuclear arms as long as anyone else has them, the Labour leadership has come perilously close to making a mockery of its criticisms of deterrence and, in the process, has made any future Labour government a hostage to the willingness of the other nuclear powers to negotiate total elimination of nuclear weapons.

A nuclear-weapons-free world is cer­tainly desirable, and a Labour government should attempt to facilitate it in any way it can. But it is easy to construct scenarios in which British insistence on retain­ing nuclear weapons as long as anyone else has them scuppers a far-reaching nuclear disarmament deal which nevertheless falls short of total elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world – for example, an agreement to eliminate all submarine-launched ballistic nuclear mis­siles. It will be essential to put pressure on a Labour government, from inside and outside parliament, on nuclear arms. Without CND, that task will be infinitely more difficult. The campaign deserves our support in its hour of need.

Friday, 6 September 1991


Tribune, 6 September 1991

Has the Communist Party of Great Britain got a future after the collapse of the Soviet Union?  Paul Anderson talks to its general secretary, Nina Temple

Strange as it might seem to anyone unfamiliar with the recent history of the Com­munist Party of Great Britain, its leadership is rather pleased at the way things have turned out in the Soviet Union.

The CP condemned the August 20 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, welcomed its collapse and even backed the suspension of the Com­munist Party of the Soviet Union, for so many years its political master.

"I think it is essential that the party's monopoly of power is broken," says Nina Temple, the CP's general secretary. "When you're talking about the Soviet Communist Party you're talking about a cross between a political party as we know it and something like the Freemasons. The top level of the party was so involved in the coup that it is impossible complete­ly to distinguish the party from the coup organisers, and the coup orga­nisers have to be brought to justice. We will be moved to protest if there isn't the development of a climate of tolerance and pluralism in which legitimate left voices can be heard."

For most of the party's 70-year existence, such a response would have been unthinkable. Until 1968, when the CP condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the par­ty had loyally .supported every twist and turn of Soviet foreign policy, and it was not until the early eighties that its criticisms of Soviet foreign policy were more than half-hearted. Foreign policy aside, the party's programme identified the "actually existing socialism" of the Soviet bloc as essentially benign until the late eighties.

Yet the position of the CP lead­ership should not really cause sur­prise. The seventies and eighties saw the party drift further and further away from its traditional pro-Soviet position. Last year, prompted by the collapse of "actual­ly existing socialism" in Eastern Europe, a special party congress abandoned Leninism, opting to "transform" the CP into a non-vanguardist organisation with a new name – Democratic   Left"  if the leadership gets its way at a party conference this November. One reason for the party leadership's enthusiasm for the failure of the coup and collapse of the Soviet party is that it will have the effect of reducing to impotence the resist­ance to the change of name.

Whether the CP will get through to November without itself being reduced to impotence is a moot point, however. The party was at its weakest ever even before the coup and is unlikely to have been done any favours by the Soviet crisis. An obituary might be premature, but it is certainly difficult to credit that for its first 50 years the CP domin­ated political life to the left of Labour.

It was never an effective electoral force, winning only three par­liamentary seats in all that time, and it never really achieved a mass membership. Before the second world war, at no time did it have more than 18,000 members. After peaking at 64,000 m 1942, at the height of popular enthusiasm for the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, its membership de­clined inexorably, hitting 45,000 in 1945 and 30,000 ten years later.

More than 10,000 members, in­cluding most of the party's leading intellectuals, left after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian re­volution in 1956. By the early seventies, membership was 15,000 and still falling, and the CP had yielded its dominance of the far-left to the 57 varieties of Trotskyism.

But the influence of the CP was never primarily a matter of size or electoral success. Its strengths were its ability to set the left's political agenda and its strong organisation in trade unions.

In the twenties, the arrival of the CP, singing the praises of a "suc­cessful" socialist revolution in the Soviet Union, transformed British socialism, effectively eclipsing the participatory democratic socialism, with workers' control at its core, that had made the running among British socialists in the first two decades of the century.

As John Callaghan put it in his recent history of the left, Socialism in Britain, "Leninism changed the radical socialist catechism. Hence­forward the focus of Marxist activ­ity was party-building for the pur­pose of smashing the bourgeois state, crudely understood as 'bodies of armed men'. Meanwhile, social­ism rapidly came to mean the sys­tem of power in the Soviet Union which, it was noted, was perfectly compatible with the most barbarous practices developed in capitalist in­dustry."

The CP rapidly established a power base in the trade unions despite the opposition of the right. By the late thirties, with the econo­mies of the capitalist world in crisis, social democracy seemingly ineffec­tual and the Soviet Union apparent­ly the only bulwark against fasc­ism, the CP's identification of the Soviet Union as a beacon of socialist hope had become almost hegemonic on the British left.

Uncritical pro-Soviet feeling on the non-communist left dwindled after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. It was revived by the wartime alliance, and then underwent a long post-war decline with the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe after 1945, the suppression of the Berlin workers' revolt in 1953, Hungary 1956, the building of the Berlin Wall and the invasion of Czechoslo­vakia in 1968.

Yet, even as late as the sixties, many, if not most, British socialists still saw the Soviet Union as a model for a successful socialist eco­nomy, however much they dis­agreed with its lack of democracy or its foreign policy. The CP retained a degree of intellectual credibility.

The party's economists were among the main proponents of the Alternative Economic Strategy which became Labour policy in the early seventies. Communist indust­rial organisation remained potent, though hardly as influential as was claimed by politicians and the popu­lar press right up to the beginning of the eighties.

The party played a significant role in student politics in the seven­ties and a smaller one in the peace movement in the early eighties. It lost a few members over the 1977 draft of its programme, The British Road of Socialism, with a diehard pro-Soviet faction defecting over some rather mild criticism of "actually existing socialism" to form the New Communist Party (which distinguished itself last month by backing the coup; but at the begin­ning of the eighties, the CP remained a force to be reckoned with in British left politics.

Today, all that seems very dis­tant. The eighties saw the CP riven by feuding – first between pro-Soviet advocates of "class politics", grouped around the Morning Star newspaper, and the rest of the par­ty, and subsequently, after the ex­pulsion of the Morning Star group (some of whom formed another Stalinist breakaway, the Communist Party of Britain), among the va­rious factions that remained in the party.

Membership, long in decline, be­gan to plummet, and the party's trade union base shrank rapidly. Outside Scotland, where the CP retained its influence in the Scot­tish TUC and was instrumental in reviving interest in home rule, just about the only CP success story of the eighties was its monthly maga­zine, Marxism Today, edited by Martin Jacques.

In mid-decade, Marxism Today analysis of "Thatcherism" as a hege­monic project of the Right played an important part in persuading the Labour left that it should support the Labour leadership's attempt to shift Labour towards the centre. Later, its advocacy of the idea that capitalism had entered a new era of "post-Fordism", and that these "New Times" demanded a wholly new response from the left, lent left intellectual credibility to Lab­our's abandonment of the tradition­al socialist programme of nationa­lisation and planning.

Ironically, Marxism Today's suc­cess served to weaken the CP still further: as the magazine moved away from Leninism, pressure grew from within the party to retain the word "communist" in its title, and many in Scotland said they would create an independent Scottish Communist Party if the name-change went ahead. After the momentous events of the last two weeks, such voices have been less in evidence, but even among supporters of "transforma­tion" there are worries that whatev­er emerges from the process will either lie directionless or insuffi­ciently politically distinct to sur­vive.

Temple, who has been general secretary since early 1990, when she look over from Gordon McLennan, brushes aside such criticism. Democratic Left, she says, has a clear purpose. "We're hoping to use our organisation and resources to give a kick-start to a culture of progressive democratic left politics in Britain. Labour suffers from a deep-rooted anti-intellectualism and is too tied to electoral politics; Democratic Left will help to fill the gap.

"We're not trying to do the same thing as the Labour Party," she says, "There's a great need for Labour to win the next general election, and I don't accuse the Labour leadership of betrayal. But as well as a progressive govern­ment, you need people demanding change from below. I see Democra­tic Left as a forum where people try to develop their politics and where they can network together.

"I'm not saying that all move­ments will come from Democra­tic Left but I do see it as facilitating the development of broad, bottom-up campaigning movements."

Even Temple admits that there is plenty still to sort out about the whole project, however. "Whether our objective is the creation of a new left party or whether our role is to facilitate development of co­operation among existing parties is still being discussed."

For the time being, the priority is to seek out partners in other politic­al parties and organisations for discussions. No one left-of-centre is ruled out but it is clear that the main targets are the Labour's "soft left", the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and non-party social movements.

Whether anyone will want to play ball with Democratic Left is as yet unknown, however. There are few signs at present of much interest outside the CP. Another problem is whether the CP's remaining trade union base will adapt to a more amorphous structure. "We still have a lot of members who have positions of re­sponsibility within their unions," says Temple "But that's a resource that hasn't been very effectively used in recent years.

"We've rejected the old way of working in the unions – small groups of people meeting in smoke-filled rooms deciding who they're going to put forward and what the line is – but we've not found a new way. Part of the problem is that the party has been organised on a branch basis. A lot of trade union­ists weren't involved in their local branch so they didn't have input into the party."

Meanwhile, CP membership now stands at 5,000, down 1,700 from the end of last year but up 1,500 from May. The party is smaller than at any time since the twenties and short of cash. If it can gain some solace from the argument that, af­ter the collapse of communist power in the Soviet Union, it would be even worse off if it had not decided to embark on its present course, its future does not seem too rosy.