by Nick Wright
If the classic definition of political sectarianism is putting the narrow interest of one’s own group, tendency or party before that of the working class as a whole then today’s sectarian of the year is someone whose existence I had almost forgotten – Peter Taaffe, the leader-for-life of the Socialist Party and of its predecessor, the Revolutionary Socialist League, aka the Militant Tendency.
Taaffe is almost the last Trotskyite standing. Even in his own much-diminished organisation his hectoring style and sectarian impulses are symptomatic of a passing era. A large part of the SP has already departed to the Labour Party and of those remaining – many of them hard-working and effective trade union activists – the discipline and reality of trade union work has shaped them into something rather distinguished from the traditional trotskyite.
Fortunately, Taaffe is not allowed out much in public. The last time I heard him speak was several years ago at a memorial meeting for a very notable and accomplished trade union leader, John McCready, of the civil and public service union whose resolute realism was married to a formidable work ethic. There, Taaffe’s contribution was unyieldingly formulaic, uncharitable and unsympathetic to the wide spectrum of people and opinion gathered to honour John. I thought he had been put out to grass so it was something of a surprise to see him wheeled out for today’s BBC Radio 4 World at One.
The occasion was a highly contrived discussion about Tom Watson’s most recent provocation, a highly specious letter to Jeremy Corbyn alleging ‘trotskyite infiltration’ of the Labour Party.
This followed an editorial in the Socialist Party’s paper The Socialist, given unprecedented prominence in the Guardian – now the house journal of the Anyone-but-Corbyn campaign.
Anyone with an eye to the tactics of the right wing in this battle for the leadership of the Labour Party will see that great caution needs to be exercised so that no loose talk or precipitate action can give credibility to the media discourse – of a Labour Party riven by sectarian faction and penetrated by alien forces bent on subverting idealistic youth – that Watson’s profoundly dishonest tactic is designed to support.
Taaffe, firstly by his very appearance on the programme and, secondly, with his casual acceptance that Labour could be reduced to a parliamentary rump, that splits and division are desirable, that the sometimes clumsy tactics and maneuverers of his organisation are an example to be followed did his level best to add credibility to this media trope.
The whole narrative is a piece of nonsense. There have always been trotskyites of one stripe or another in the Labour Party. Tony Blair’s Cabinet was adorned with several former trots. Brown’s cabinet including as his chancellor. a former trot. The media is stuffed with them.
Indeed, unless the politics and personal relations of those involved have undergone a change at least one of the hopefuls who wanted to challenge Corbyn’s leadership is married to a longtime supporter of a proscribed trotskyite organisation. Who cares?
Two or three of the most poisonous trotskyite groups – those whose tactics and policy positions most easily dovetail with the right wing narrative have formally abandoned their party status in order to join Labour as individuals. To almost no discernible effect. The rest are compelled to junk their long standing disdain for Labour’s potential to be transformed and find a new and unaccustomed accommodation with political reality.
On what one might describe as the extra-parliamentary left only the Communist Party has any credible claim to consistency. Criticised for decades from those who suppose themselves to be to its left for its firm belief that, by virtue of its distinctive history and character as the federal party of the labour movement that Labour, in distinction to traditional social democratic parties on the continental model, could be transformed by mass working class action, the communists are now vindicated.
But the communists are not going to abandon their principled position that deciding Labour’s leadership and policy is the exclusive privilege of its members, registered supporters and trade union supporters. Membership of the Communist Party is incompatible with membership of the Labour Party by decision of both party leaderships.
This, of course is the present position. Until the defeat of the 1926 General Strike put the left on the back foot communists stood and were elected as Labour Party MPs and councillors, they held office in local Labour Parties and represented their unions at Labour conferences.
In the special conditions at the end of the Second World War a proposal by the Amalgamated Engineering Union that the Communist Party be reaffiliated to the Labour Party on the same basis as other working class parties and socialist societies was narrowly defeated. The Cold War put an end to that idea for the time being.
This principled approach, that political positions must be openly stated, that unity has a political and organisational character but that unity in action is more important than organisational formulae is the approach taken by communists.
The transformation of Labour from a party of alternative capitalist continuity in government to a party of government opposed to austerity, privatisation and war is a work-in-progress. The nature of its leadership is one very important aspect which is why the reelection of Jeremy Corbyn is so important and why so much effort is underway to subvert the will of Labour’s renewed membership. But equally critical is the role of the many hundreds of thousands of people newly mobilised and allied to a new dynamism in the trade union movement, in the anti war movement and in the Peoples Assembly Against Austerity.
Unless one is to believe that a handful of obscure sectarians – already distinguished by their inability to stay united for a political nano-second or to find common cause with any living thing – are the ideological equivalent of homeopathy – able to effect miraculous changes despite being diluted to a half millionth part – then Watson’s narrative has a purpose other than to protect Labour’s supposedly innocent new members.
It is to smear Jeremy Corbyn.
It may have some effect on the completely innocent or those anxious to find a reason not to support the renewal of Labour but it won’t work.
Corbyn is very far from being a trotskyite. Like his friend and mentor Tony Benn he works hard to avoid making enemies. He combines a certain stubbornness with a strikingly consistent and principled politics of human solidarity and socialism so that even his right wing opponents now profess to admire him and mimic his policies.
He deserves to be re-elected and he deserves the loyalty of all who desire a Labour government.