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The Labour Left at its worst

About a hundred people gathered in London on Saturday to determine the future of Labour Briefing — whether it should remain an independent magazine or become the house journal of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) of which John McDonnell is the chair. It decided, by 44 to 37 votes with a few abstentions, to go with the LRC. Although the debate was surprisingly cordial and everyone behaved well on the day, it was an old fashioned faction-fight with people on both sides seething with anger and bitterness.

London Labour Briefing, as it was called at its inception, arose as the mouth piece of the alliance which made Ken Livingstone leader of the Greater London Council in 1981, and saw the left sweep to power in town halls across London the following year. Cuts in council income nd spending saw its base narrow amidst recriminations after the collapse of the campaign against rate-capping and bitter divisons between Ken and his then, deputy, John McDonnell. Briefing sided with John, then they fell out, but Briefing survived that and a few more ultimately painful encounters with Trotskyite factions. Until now.

There are different views on why it has disappeared under the wing of the LRC. Some argue that the real cause was a falling out between personalities which escalated and led to the withdrawal from its editorial board of Graham Bash, who had been a mainstay since its inception, who had financed it out of his earnings, provided its office in his home, and was, technically, its proprietor through his ownership of the sole share in the company that operates it.

Some other longstanding supporters believed Brieifing could not (or perhaps should not) survive his departure, argued that it needed to link with the LRC and precipitated the “merger” or “takeover” (depending on your perspective). This was the position of longstanding Briefing editorial member, Pete Firmin, who also happens to be joint secretary of the LRC. Those relieved to see the departure of Graham, still believed in the importance of Briefing‘s independence and fought to retain it. Christine Shawcroft, a member of Labour’s national executive as well as current Chair of Briefing and, until two weeks ago, vice chair of the LRC, is one of these.

The matter was inevitably contentious within the LRC too since everyone associated with Briefing was also a member of the LRC (as well as, in most cases, CLPD). Of the advocates of merger, some wanted to see the LRC hosting a journal which would be genuinely independent, while others wanted the LRC to have a magazine which would promote the LRC as an organisation.

Of the opponents of “takeover”, aside from those within Briefing, there are several far Left sects represented on the LRC’s national committee whose hatred of both Briefing factions is rooted in disputes long-forgotten by everyone else, and want nothing to do with it.

Others just thought that even if the LRC could use a journal rather than just a much better website, the journal it needed wouldn’t look much like Briefing. What was the point of taking over a magazine that needed a hefty subsidy, and which they couldn’t afford to send to all their members, most of whom don’t currently subscribe.

When it came to the vote, there were an unholy alliance between ultra-Lefts like Ted Knight who are, in practice, actively hostile to Labour (even if they are still members of it) and those who believe that Labour Party activity must take absolute priority.

Graham Bash sees it differently. He points to political differences between those within Briefing who look towards CLPD as the more effective and worthwhile organisation, and those who choose to prioritise the LRC even if they are members of CLPD. The proposed merger reflects the latter perspective. This certainly contains some truth, but may amount to rationalisation after the event rather than an explanation of the motivation of either side.

The structure of a Labour Briefing AGM is open to some abuse. There are no members and any reader is welcome to attend, even if they are a member of some other faction. Those who favour independence point out that members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which produces the Weekly Worker, attended to support the LRC takeover, and say this represents a breach of trust “in a hostile takeover which is tantamount to political asset-stripping.” The CPGB members didn’t help their case by trying to overturn the agenda. They said they had only come for the vote on the future of Briefing and didn’t want to have to sit through the invited speakers first!

On the whole the debate was passionate but reasonably polite. Christine Shawcroft behaved impeccably in the chair even if she was seething beneath her smile. Veteran Labour CND member Walter Wolfgang referred to Briefing as an essential magazine which could not be replaced and stated “To make it a ‘house journal’ would be to murder it.” , John McDonnell MP, Chair of the LRC and always keen to smoothe over differences within the LRC, said “Whatever happens in this room, whatever the decision, we leave here as comrades.” After the vote, everyone listened politely to a flawless and impassioned speech from Owen Jones, who’d abstained in the vote. There was an applause but not much unity and w must wait to see how much comradeship remains.

9 Comments

  1. Christine Shawcroft says:

    You’re right, Jon, I was seething beneath my smile! You’re wrong about me being relieved to see the back of Graham, though. His behaviour over this takeover has been deplorable, but I was happy to work with him for many years and if the vote had not been fixed and had gone our way I would have been happy to carry on working with him. I was rendered (almost) speechless by John McDonnell’s contribution. As well as saying that we leave the room as comrades (No, John, we don’t, not after that fixed vote) he said that the “old” EB must take part in the merger as equals and must all have votes. He doesn’t appear to know what was passed at his own National Committee. Nor does he seem to have read the “takeover” resolution. I can’t blame him for that, though, it did run to three pages and would make an excellent cure for insomnia.

  2. Jenny Fisher says:

    Jon, I believe there are some factual inaccuracies in your article.

    1. There was not a falling out between personalities. There may have been a falling out between people or by a person, but Briefing did not have personalities. It was not a reality show.

    2. Graham Bash did not finance Briefing in anything other than a capacity as a supporter of the magazine. Many supporters gave monthly donations: the sum Graham gave on a monthly basis was exactly the sum which I gave and was a two-figure sum so it was a modest contribution among many rather than “financing Briefing”. One other comrade gave a higher regular contribution, but Graham and I were in joint second place. Several comrades gave smaller contributions. Comrades in employment are able to make larger contributions than those who are not in employment or who have dependents: £5 from a pensioner may be as substantial as £50 from a businessperson, for example – so absolute size is not the only consideration. The “office” amounted to some storage space and use of Graham’s home for production weekend (for which the cost may have been some extra heating and light). On the other hand, comrades who travelled to the production venue incurred travel costs (and, in at least one case, childcare costs). Graham did pay other people to carry out some of the administrative tasks for which he was responsible, but that was a matter of his personal choice and had he not been in a position to do this other EB members could and would have performed these tasks on a voluntary basis. Other people made financial sacrifices too: I, for example, used half my annual leave each year to work on Briefing production for about a decade; another comrade on a very low income paid his own travel and accommodation to attend Labour Party Conference and help out.

    3. I know of no member of the Briefing EB who was relieved to see the departure of Graham (except, perhaps, for Graham). You specifically state that Christine Shawcroft was relieved to see his departure: in fact she made clear on several occasions, and in writing, that she would welcome his return and was not seeking to exclude him or anyone from Briefing – although clearly that position has probably changed since his success in excluding Christine, myself and others and, in effect, shutting Briefing down.

    4. Not everyone associated with Briefing was a member of the LRC. At least three members of the Briefing Editorial Board who signed the motion that Briefing should remain non-aligned and independent of any one single organisation are not LRC members. Others are members, but critical of the LRC.

    5. Briefing did not “need a hefty subsidy”. Its readers contributed regular donations in order to keep the cover price at £1, which was a conscious decision to introduce an element of sharing the cost of producing the magazine according to the incomes of Briefing supporters rather than having a flat rate “tax” (cover price) on readers. The Treasurer sent a financial report to the Editorial Board a couple of months ago, in which he alleged that Briefing was projected to make a small deficit, 10% of turnover, this financial year, which would eat into reserves made from profits in previous years. The accuracy of this report could not be verified as the Treasurer would not make the books available to other EB members and would not reveal the basis on which he calculated his financial report. Nonetheless, all EB members present at the discussion of the report agreed that this scale of projected deficit was quite manageable and could be turned round with a little effort.

    Finally, a difference of opinion. Your quote of what John McDonnell said at the Briefing AGM is correct. However, other LRC members had made it clear before the AGM that if they had lost the vote, they would have walked away from Briefing and some had added that they would have proposed that the LRC set up a rival journal. To my mind, a comrade is someone who shows you solidarity, not who stabs you in the back. The LRC members who organised this campaign – initially in secret before making their intentions known within Briefing and subsequently with an amount of misinformation – have proved not to be comrades but merely fair weather friends.

  3. Andrew Coates says:

    As a long-standing reader of Labour Briefing,and having contributed to the journal, I find this sad. I did not attend the AGM, but have, in the past been to them. As you rightly observe its open structure is open to abuse.

    Jenny has been a pillar of Briefing and I would be automatically inclined to believe her. Part of the case against this turn seems to be making Briefing the official LRC paper would mean worthy articles by ‘names’ rather than by grass-roots activists. This would not increase its appeal.

    I notice that Left Futures carries posts about the European left. A split on a larger scale happened on the French NPA over the weekend, with, what appears to be even worse rancour.

    http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/nouveau-parti-anticapitaliste-gauche-anticapitaliste-leaves/

  4. Mike Phipps says:

    I refer you to the report on the LRC website for a more balanced assessment. http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/labour-briefing-agm-votes-to-transfer-to-lrc/ There was nothing “fixed” about the Briefing AGM. It was a close vote, but the debate was cordial and well-chaired. The reality is that Briefing has struggled to come out in recent months: three of the last four issues were shorter than usual. The writing base has shrunk, the EB has shrunk and in the long run it looked very precarious. Going in with the LRC will secure its future and nobody associated with the magazine will be turned away. Having worked flat out to ensure the last few issues appeared at all, I’m now looking forward to a more clearly defined/limited role. I’m sorry other comrades don’t see it the same way.

  5. Keith Veness says:

    As one of the “gang of seven” who founded BRIEFING in 1980 / 81, along with Graham Bash and Ken Livingstone (whatever happened to him?), I was genuinely sorry to have the frankly daft proposal thrust on us to become the L.R.C. “House Journal”. This is just another way of burying BRIEFING. This nearly happened two years ago at the 2010 A.G.M. Having listened carefully to both sides of the debate, I eventually decided that this was not any sort of way forward and voted against. The vote was tied 18-18 with a number of abstentions so the motion had to be declared “not carried”. That should have been the end of it but it was resurrected again this year. It’s not very democratic when you constantly keep coming back and try to force through votes that you know will split the organisation down the middle whoever wins. It was clear weeks before that both the EB and AGM was hopelessly split and any vote would be a bit of a joke as people turned up who hadn’t been to Labour Party meeting for years and some who saw BRIEFING as some sort of small sect that they could perform in front of. The inevitable happened and some supporters marched off into the L.R.C. – whose own more sectarian elements don’t want them anyway.

    BRIEFING will keep going as an independent publication – it always has done despite the fury of the Party bureaucracy, takeover bids from ultra-left sects and the great “war weariness” of a lot of us. Whether the L.R.C. will keep it’s mighty organ going for any length of time is more problematic – I suspect that it won’t.

  6. Jackie Walker says:

    What a strange set of comments from Keith. Nobody walked off to the LRC. The vote was carried. A splinter group of 5 decided against joining in with the rest of the EB. Membership of the Labour party was not a prerequisite to being on the Briefing EB and as far as I know has never been. Keith has not been active in Briefing for some time and his stout defence of the dwindling and ageing profile of the EB – that there were lots of old people round these days and there was nothing wrong with ageing, hardly helped win people over to his point if view. The confusion of Keith’s account can be seen in the fact that the overwhelming majority of active members of the EB backed Pete Firmins motion to ensure that Briefing would keep going and have a future, not just a past.

  7. Keith Veness says:

    I’ve only just read the Jackie Walker comment so won’t get into too long a wrangle – but I have been involved in some aspect or the other of BRIEFING since it’s foundation and loyally sold and paid for ten copies each issue since 1981. How long have you been selling and defending it?

    No, there was never any “requirement” to be a Labour Party member – we have occasionally carried articles from Arthur Scargill, Green Party activists, Sinn Feiners, SNP & Plaid members etc but why would anyone who didn’t want to be in the Labour Party become involved in a magazine that has ALWAYS orientated itself to organising in ward Labour Parties and TU branches etc. I was personally rather pissed off with Pete Firmin’s remarks about there being “no activity in the CLPs” – he obviously hasn’t tried to organise any lately. Even worst was a few contributions from LRC supporters still trying to pose as Lenin / Trotsky etc. and use BRIEFING as some sort of “democratic centralist sect” – the very opposite of what is was founded for. Anyway Jackie, enjoy your time wrangling at various LRC committes – I gather the last one was pretty awful – and BRIEFING will keep organising as a Labour journal as it has done for the last 30 years.

  8. Jackie Walker says:

    Oh dear Keith, so unless you’ve been there for years you have no right to speak? It’s just this attitude that saw Briefing on a downward slope. I think what I said was that you had not been involved in the publication or on the EB of Briefing for some time and that is so isn’t it Keith.
    I hear the last issue of the magazine calling itself Original Briefing that has you and (I think) 5 (minority of members) of the old EB working on it had some trouble getting out this month in part because of the very reasons why we had to change the way Briefing was structured.
    And Keith you have not responded to the issue of not accepting the democratic vote to transfer. This action is ironical coming as it does from people who shout about democracy in the Labour party!
    What is laughingly called ‘Original Briefing’ will go on no doubt for a while, heavily subsidised by the private pocket books of those who write for it, as a sort of vanity project. Oh well. Keep writing Keith, enjoy the sea. I’m sure your mass of growing readers will keep you going. Ha!

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