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.