by Rob Marchant
While the latest controversy surrounding the Socialist Workers Party shows that we all still have an odd, vicarious interest in the goings-on of a fringe, far-left party – or as blogger Laurie Penny put it in an unintentional comedy moment, a party which contains “many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers” - we might just miss something less obviously scandalous but closer to home.
Three weeks ago, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, was appointed as trade union liaison manager to the leader’s office. A backroom role, it is there to manage the relationship between trade unions and the party and has the ear of the party’s leader and deputy.
While the Mail and the Standard, not really newspapers which understand the running of the Labour party, ran their predictable “Red Ed” headlines and tried to use the appointment, laughably, to attack Miliband for being a Trot in disguise, in the process they made one legitimate point which should concern us on the mainstream left. It relates to the so-called Socialist Action group.
Although most Labourites believe they know Livingstone, it is surprising how many of his supporters are still unaware of Socialist Action. For those requiring a brief refresher, the Trotskyite clique that spawned most of Livingstone’s advisers during his mayoral tenure is documented in an extract from his biography:
“[it is] so discreet and secretive that it does not even admit its own existence and its members will not confirm they have ever belonged to the group.”
The only member of Ken’s coterie listed on the group’s website appears to be Redmond O’Neill – who died in 2009 – although Fletcher’s and others’ associations with it have been documented by other sources, including said biography and former members. With Socialist Action, the emphasis, as the above quote indicates, is on plausible deniability, an old tactic of the far left frequently wielded by the former mayor himself (although, in his case, the word “plausible” may have often been stretched to breaking point).
Now this is not, as Livingstone usually tries to claim about uncomfortable facts, some terrible smear by the nasty right-wing British media; respected left-leaning journalists such as Martin Bright and Nick Cohen have written critically about this same phenomenon. In fact Bright, when he started making his critical Dispatches documentary on Livingstone’s administration, said he “still believed Livingstone was an essentially benign figure”. Tellingly, he changed his mind during the course of the filming.
Unusually,a backroom function is now led by a “name”: a person who in 2007 featured in the Evening Standard’s top 25 influential people in London, not to mention one who has, in the past, reportedly commanded a six-figure salary, somewhat unusually for the public sector. That, plus a severance pay which, as chief of staff, we can reasonably assume to have been in excess of the average of £200,000 paid to the eight Livingstone advisers discharged by the GLA in 2008.
And, as far as I know, this is the first time that someone coming ostensibly from the far left has been appointed to a national staff role since the long years of near-obsessive caution during Labour’s period in government.
Now, let us also be fair to Mr Fletcher: he may sometimes have been a restraining influence on Livingstone – for example, he was rightly concerned about his boss’ alienation of London’s Jewish community, which is more, frankly, than can be said for the man himself. People on the right of the party such as Luke Akehurst have praised his talent as a campaigner. I have no personal beef with Fletcher: he is doing what he believes in, and may well be very good at his job as a political coordinator.
But it is just that: a political role, not a merely administrative one. And it’s the politics, and the fact that those politics derive from a mindset, and a clique around Livingstone, which is so markedly different from mainstream Labour, not noticeably loyal to the party and decidedly entryist, which should be of concern to Labour.
“Socialist Action is into deep entryism”, a former member told me this week, “so there is a real possibility that most key people are still members.” Indeed, you might have thought it reasonable, at the very least, for the hiring panel to have fired an interview question at Fletcher, to ascertain whether he currently belonged to the group; to try to satisfy itself that there was no question of entryist tactics. One wonders.
No, it is much less Fletcher himself, much more the other players in this game: the leadership and the triumvirate of union leaders who have a big say in such matters: the leaders of Unite, Unison and the GMB. And the question is this: why might anyone, in full possession of their senses, think that introducing the politics of Livingstone’s inner circle to this key union liaison role, at a time when union leaders are becoming ever more restive and radical, might be a good thing for a left party courting the mainstream vote?
It is even more inexplicable when you consider that that very political viewpoint has recently been comprehensively rejected at the polls. And by Londoners, an electorate already historically to the left of the British public at large. Twice.
There is of course an argument which goes: ah, but if the party eschewed all those who were ever on the hard left, it’d be a pretty small party, wouldn’t it? But the argument’s disingenuous, and here’s why.
The reality is that a large number of politicians who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s had a dalliance at some point with communist or other far-left groups. Many then went on a long journey, to arrive at grown-up, mainstream, left or centre-left politics ten or twenty years later. A respectable phenomenon, and welcome; rejoicing over a sinner that repents, and all that. Good luck to these people.
But Socialist Action is not the same; its members have not seemingly been on any kind of a journey. Members who were, as Bright notes, “still planning a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ for London when Livingstone first came to power in 2000. They believed they could set up a city state, independent from the rest of the country.” The politics have not noticeably changed since.
After Livingstone’s ejection from office, Fletcher was appointed to a regional role as London Campaign and Research Director in 2009, presumably as part of Livingstone’s advance guard. But that hire was surely, de facto, down to Livingstone’s presence: so why would you do that now, if he is no longer in the picture?
There are two possibilities here: the first is that Miliband recognises that there is a problem, but has simply decided not to try and fight the will of his union colleagues.
The far left’s strong presence in the smaller, non-affiliated unions such as PCS and UCU is well-known; but neither was Livingstone the only example of a powerful figure with an office run by one of its small cliques. Unite’s Len McCluskey employs a chief of staff, Andrew Murray, who is not only not Labour, but one of the few remaining members of the Communist Party of Britain.
The second possibility is that the Labour leadership is merely suffering from a breath-taking naiveté about the risk of embracing the likes of Socialist Action, and simply believes it is part of “Labour’s broad church”. It is not.
Whatever the thinking, the end result is a clear danger for Labour. Although it remains likely that the unions are more fertile ground for far-left activists, that does not mean that we in the party should thoughtlessly close our eyes to a problem we thought we’d put a stop to twenty-odd years ago.
As the excellent Lucy Lips of Harry’s Place – a blog attracting, some Uncut readers may be surprised to learn, a significant number of left-wing writers – wrote back in 2009:
“I talk to people in Labour. I understand that the Socialist Action clique has embedded deep within the London Labour party. I know how demoralised many genuine Labour people are at the antics of these cuckoos.
But if Labour doesn’t stand up to the Trotskyite entryists now, how can we hope to pull our party together in the future?”Four years have passed. Livingstone may or may not still be an active force in Labour, but the signs are that that same Socialist Action clique is now closer to the levers of power in the national party than it was then.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at the Centre Left