The far left has gained entry at the top of the Labour party

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


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34 Responses to “The far left has gained entry at the top of the Labour party”

  1. Felix says:

    “that very political viewpoint has recently been comprehensively rejected at the polls”

    “Comprehensively”? Load of hogwash. It went down to the wire. Marchant making it up as per usual.

  2. Felix says:

    This iq quite hilarious, actually, bringing to mind the right’s obsessive paranoia with reds under the bed.

    Mind you, Marchant is a right-winger, so no surprises really. Get a life.

  3. Byron Taylor, National TULO Officer says:

    So, Rob Marchant.. I don’t recall you either.

    I’m Byron Taylor, National TULO Officer, and have been since 2002. In that time I’ve been responsible for Warwick One, Warwick Two, the Agency Workers Campaign, the Statutory Redundancy Campaign, the current Rights at Work campaign and currently working on the Working Class candidates project.

    If you are going to write illiterate (yes, try re-reading it before you post it) stories on the internet I suggest you at least get the basic facts right.

    Very poor.

  4. Hmm; Interesting post, but not by any means a left bias to it. As a 69 year old throwback from an era when the Labour Party could claim to be some sort of a socialist party, without recieving huge outbursts of hilarity, and an ex C.P.G.B. member and an inveterate,implacable foe of Trotskyism/ites and their entryist tactics, which always rebounded ,ala Hatton etc, I must say that this article is so reminiscent of the old Gaitskellite clique, and their New Labour offspring for any reasonable middle of the road, never mind left leaning observer to take this piece seriously; in effect a classic piece of rightwing Labour hatchet job on anythiing left that moves. For me personally I was taking it semi seriously until I came across the paragraph that describes Nick Cohen as a journalist, never mind a left leaning one. If the authur of this post wants to be taken seriously after using that description of Cohen,then can I sincerely suggest he goes back to school/college and start to relearn something about politics. Nick Cohen is one of the best examples, along with Aaronovich of someone who came from a left/marxist background, and then to further their journalistic/political careers, did complete somersaults, Sadam Hussein/Iraq war in their cases as the excuse for their abondonment of their former positions/beliefs. As a new visitor /contributor to this blog/website I had expected a higher standard of articles than tat provided by Rob Marchant.

  5. John Reid says:

    This is hyperbole, Yes Ken and his cronies are keen to let Luftur and co. rein filtrate,Tom Watson, Ed and Len mckluskey are keen to use union power to re infiltrate the party, But after ED loses the election either Yvette or Chuka Ummura will take over and get decent TULO’s like Byran Taylor or Cruddas back, also most parties in the East end if London aren’t full of trots , frankly after the smearing of blue labour or progress magazine died down the only hard leftie is Ken , look what he did his vote at the GLA was down 100,000 from last time and his vote for the nec fell by 10,000 too.

  6. All, we have changed the article to account for an error in the job title in the original version. It should, however, be noted that the change has identified that the role is actually at a much higher level than previously thought. In other words, it strengthens, rather than weakens, the argument.

    @Byron: well, thanks for telling us all your CV. Ever so impressive, and all those campaigns! Gosh.

    @JohnReid: I didn’t say all local parties are full of Trots, in fact, such groups are very small in number (Socialist Action is tiny, for example). The point is, if you keep them out at national level, they have no power, precisely because of that miniscule membership. But that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to allow their members onto the full-time staff.

  7. e says:

    God this post is depressing. Being of a certain age, though a member of nothing other than my local community, I too remember a period when those “of the left” gave the grown-ups of the “centre left” a hard time. But, thank god, that’s how I felt at the time, new labour was born and the art of the possible was to rule….great. However, like many I began to feel new labour had disconnected, I would say from their base rather than the “restive and radical”, and consequently what might be possible was sacrificed to what was comfortable.

    Fortunately I don’t particularly understand the machinations you talk of, and care still less (fault is always with the grownups, they after all hold the reins) but I recognise when someone is trading with anachronisms and misinformation: A “communist” you say, gosh that is disturbing, they might over run the place…and “comprehensively rejected” a poll that warranted a recount…

  8. @e: wellm, it’s all relative. The word “communist” is used entirely correctly, in this case by the way, I invite you to Google him.

    “Comprehensively rejected” is at least debatable in the sense you describe, but my point here would simply be that Livingstone polled much less than the rest of the GLA members. If that’s not telling, I don’t know what is. The point is, we would have won if Ken had polled as well as them. He was a drag on the campaign.

  9. Next Generation Labour is also a front for Socialist Action’s activities within Young Labour and Labour Students, it recruits well meaning young socialists who are popular and pushes them into the spotlight, although they have no say in how the organisation is run with the majority of the power being in the hands of Cat Smith and Ben Folley.

  10. Student Broad-Left is also an SA operation, it isn’t exactly a Trot group, it is a populist left group. Aaron Kiely for example, NUS Black Students Officer, is a councillor in Thurrock, claims to be anti-cuts, voted them through himself.

  11. Robert says:

    I am in the centre of the Labour Party, so I have an equally low opinion of the far left and Blairites.

  12. Danny says:

    McCarthyism comes to Labour Uncut! No surprises who it stems from, Right Rob (a reference to his political leanings and anything but a suggestion that he is ever correct about anything).

    The party is correctly shifting leftwards. A look at the PPCs being selected for some of the targeted marginals reassuringly shows this. In my constituency and its neighbours the candidates are either people with CVs as impressive and commendable as Byron Taylor’s appears to be or even people who proudly and openly describe themselves as socialist. Fletcher’s appointment is just a continuation of this trend.

    I doubt it will be publicised because the noble red tops fronted by the pleasant Mr Murdoch would latch on to the red scare ignorance perpetuated by articles like this and turn the electorate against them.

    However, a subtle and covert move leftwards will be great for the Labour Party and even better for those currently paying the price for the millionaire-caused financial crisis, the working-classes our once great party was born to represent.

  13. Henrik says:

    Hurrah, comrades, here we go. Enjoy your factional fight, get all that bad stuff aired, sort out the despicable New Labour neocons/vile Trot entryists (or choose your own bete noire) – and then will you, please, for the love of Lev Davidovich, please settle down and articulate some reason other than “um, we’re not the Tories and we hate the Lib Dems” why anyone in their right mind would ever want to vote for you?

    It doesn’t have to be a full policy architecture, just, you know, a snapshot of what good might look like in 2015 if you guys win.

    Alternatively, stop messing around and split the party and have the vanguard party mobilise and guide the masses towards the inevitable proletarian revolution. What’s that you say, it’s been done and it didn’t work? Who knew?

  14. Mike says:

    Labour Party Chairman Harold Laski wrote a forward to a special anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto, and even Kier Hardie was a supporter of Marxist theory
    Difference is as we all know is that the Labour Party is no longer a socialist party it is a social democratic party and is growing closer to the agenda of the Democratic party that say European socialist Parties.

    Oh and by the way Mandelson was a Young Communist League member (at the heart of Government but then again so way Healey.

    The only organised grouping in Labour are Progress and LRC – you takes your pick – Marchant obviously has

  15. @Whistleblower: Thanks very much for those comments. They’re very interesting. What I’ve learned from the last 24 hours, and not just from yourself, is that these groups have a lot more penetration into the youth wing of the Labour Party than I’d thought.

    The evidence has been both comments from young members who have been intimidated or merely annoyed by them, and a small but tenacious knot of young people, mostly with clear links to these groups, trolling my Twitter timeline.

    @Danny: “However, a subtle and covert move leftwards will be great for the Labour Party” – yes, it’s clear the public is crying out for a more left-wing Labour Party. That’s why they voted for right-wing parties at the last election, and why the left is out of government across almost all of Europe. Yes, that makes sense.

  16. Ex-Labour says:

    Based on comments from the loony left on the above post I’m now reminded of why I stopped voting Labour.

  17. Renie Anjeh says:

    The reason why Simon Fletcher got his job is because he was good at his job. The thing is that Len McCluskey hates the current trajectory of the party. It would be stupid to appoint a Blairite. So why not appoint someone who is on the far left but can work constructively with the leadership to manage the unions.

  18. paul barker says:

    An excellent article but not many people read this blog & a lot of those that do will dismiss it as Blairite whinging. None of this will come to the attention of most Labour supporters till your poll ratings fall, in the run-up to the General Election & people look for someone to blame.

  19. John Reid says:

    Robs pre-empt me but whistleblowers right, Danny , so there is a concern

  20. @Renie: there is certainly some merit in your argument in not being factional. However, as I hope I make clear above, that is not the case: I am not highlighting this as a concern because of Fletcher’s politics – Labour’s broad church and all that, fine. The concern is specifically about Socialist Action. The issue is that they are a known entryist organisation, not that they are on the far left. Do you see the difference?

    @paulbarker: thanks. There is a more subtle point, again, that this is about entryism and not the difference between Socialist Action’s politics and mine. There are people well to the left of me who despise Socialist Action.

  21. @Ex-Labour: that’s nothing, you should see the trolls on Twitter!

  22. Kit says:

    “respected left-leaning journalists such as Martin Bright and Nick Cohen”

    My sides.

    Martin Bright’s hatchet job against Livingstone on Dispatches in 2008 centred around claims that Socialist Action were some dangerous Trot cabal. At that time, Livingstone had been Mayor for 8 years and these Socialist Action entryists had been working for him throughout that time. Evidence of Trotskyite revolution from the Mayor’s office was not forthcoming. Despite almost a decade of secret rule by these evil Marxists, London did not become an independent socialist republic – they didn’t even try to make it one (and I suspect they’d have had a lot of popular support if they had). The phrase “bourgeois democratic revolution” sounds like a bit of self-mockery, and if you actually know what each of those words means it also sounds like what Labour has been about for most of its history.

    Bright shredded his own journalistic credibility in 2008. In addition to scare-mongering about Trots, he accused Livingstone of being an alcoholic and repeated false allegations of corruption against Lee Jasper. His solemn promise to examine BoJo with the same keen eye for scandal was not fulfilled. And Nick Cohen writes for himself alone, dredging over arcane factional lore and trying to get revenge for insults from bygone dinner parties.

    And from the comments:
    “Livingstone polled much less than the rest of the GLA members. If that’s not telling, I don’t know what is. The point is, we would have won if Ken had polled as well as them. He was a drag on the campaign.”

    Livingstone polled 21,000 less in the first round than the GLA list. That’s below 1%, a fraction less not “much less”. Those would not have been enough votes for Livingtone to win the Mayoral contest. If you sincerely believe there’s a member of the Labour Party who could have done better than Livingstone did in that election, I challenge you to name them.

  23. Steven says:

    “It is even more inexplicable … ”

    Goodness, is this a conspiracy? A sinister attempt to discredit Ed Miliband? Is Chavez involved? Or even the General Secretary of the TUC herself, Frances O’ Grady who, as you bravely revealed elsewhere, is now known to harbour dubious priorities?

    Frankly, I rather wish I hadn’t read this so late in evening. However, should I manage a moment’s sleep, I shall subscribe to the Daily Telegraph first thing… and look forward to further updates.

  24. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Rob, on a serious point I’m not a ardent politico but I find it difficult to comprehend the vitriol and bile spewed by the left towards anyone who disagrees with their diktats. Their overly simplistic views on virtually every aspect of society and it functions are as staggering as they are ignorant. Reasoned arguement is met with a mix of blind faith and aggression, hence no Twitter account for me. I correspond with my local councilors and MP (all Labour) pointing out the flaws of some of their policies and the content and depth of knowledge in their responses lead me to despair and finally voting Conservative at the last election for the first time ever.

    I’m old enough to remember Hatton and Miltant and the damage this did and this lurch to the left by Miliband can only lead to trouble for Labour and a boost for the Tories.

  25. Henrik says:

    Oh, this is wonderfully entertaining to watch, as the Left – which, in its quest for ideological purity, seems to have abandoned any idea of electability – bitterly attacks the Right, which, while unrepentant about the appalling mess it made in power, at least appears to understand that – news flash – it’s the voters who matter and actually it’s with them that you should be talking.

    You carry on, comrades, the class enemy* is watching and laughing.

    *Well, I say class enemy – I’m not a lawyer or a teacher or a trades union official, I work for a living and I left school at 16. I suppose that makes me a class traitor.

  26. John P Reid says:

    Kit, Boris won in 2012 with 1.020,000 votes, that was the same as what ken got in 2008 (uo from 880,000) in 2000, Ken got 902,000 in 2012 so if he’d done the saemas in 2012 he would have beat boris

  27. @Kit: “as if Socialist Action were some dangerous Trot cabal”. I see. Oh, and poor old Ken, the victim of that terrible Martin Bright’s vicious hatchet. But I challenge you to say what you thought was factually incorrect about the doc.

    So, presumably you think, in contrast to Livingstone’s official biographer among other sources, they are not Trotskyite or entryist.

    What part of the phrase “Trotskyite entryist” do you not understand?

    @Ex-Labour: well, quite.

  28. LesAbbey says:

    Of course if Rob could show that Socialist action is a revolutionary Trotskyist organization trying to use entrist tactics to takeover Labour, then he is correct to call for action to be taken.

    But it seems to be a bit silly to be now worrying about entryism by the revolutionary left when the biggest entryist organization in Labour is actually from the right, backed by a rich ex-SDP supporter who funds his proteges to be parliamentary candidates. Which is the biggest threat to the traditions Britain’s biggest social democratic party, Socialist Action or Progress? I know which I would pick.

  29. @Mike: by the way, you have made precisely the argument whose disingenuity I explain in the piece. There is nothing wrong with the people who you mention, they went on a journey. The members of Socialist Action have not.

  30. @LesAbbey: on your two points.

    1. Oh, don’t take it from me. Take it from Livingstone’s official biographer (a professional journalist from the Today programme, if I remember rightly) and my source, who is a former member. I didn’t make it up, you know.

    2. Whataboutery.

  31. Sorry, just one other point on the ridiculous comparison between Progress and Socialist Action.

    1. Progress is a registered organisation with completely open membership.
    2. It has recently taken steps to increase (not decrease) its transparency, and to make its strategy more accountable to members.
    3. People do not deny their membership of Progress.
    4. People do not ever deny that Progress exists, as Livingstone reportedly initially tried to do with his biographer.
    5. People in Progress do not pretend to have one set of political beliefs when they really have another.
    6. Finally and most importantly, there is no question of entryism from Progress, by definition of the word:

    entryism [??ntr??z?m] n
    (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the policy or practice of members of a particular political group joining an existing political party with the intention of changing its principles and policies, instead of forming a new party.

    This is impossible with Progress, as its members are all members of the Labour Party already. They have to be, according to Progress rules. No-one is entering, they are already in. Progress does not exist except in the context of the Labour Party.

  32. john Reid says:

    Les,the SDP were formed by labour party M.Ps who were deselected and then when labour got rid of undemocratic things like union block votes and the closed shop rejoined,If you think rejoining is entyrist, would you have wanted livingstone or mike honfray not to have rejoined? i’m glad they’re back

  33. Steven says:

    Comrade Rob: “Progress does not exist except in the context of the Labour Party.”

    Indeed, just like Militant when they were in the Labour Party, who, like Progress, also had their own membership and conference.

    If Progress are so wholeheartedly Labour one might wonder why it is that they need their own separate membership and conference. Clearly, the purpose is to change Labour’s “principles and policies, instead of forming a new party.”

  34. A Tescos in Every Town says:

    So that people know. “Socialist Action” (actually the organisation is called “The Socialist League” – “Socialist Action” being merely it’s defunct (?) organ), is the British section of the Fourth International. It’s origins stretch back to the time Ted Grant (of Militant/RSL fame) fell out with the FI. Then the FI set up a new organisation in Britain, like the Militant as an entryist group.
    In the sixties they decided Labour was dead so went public as the “International Marxist Group” (IMG). The IMG later split with pro-entryists becoming the Chartists who themselves split (one faction is now Labour briefing). In 1970 the IMG’s paper famously hoped for a Tory victory to “heighten the contradictions” – the editor was one Tariq Ali – scion of a family of aristocrats in Pakistan. Ali endorsed the Lib Dems in 2010, so his judgement is as good as ever.
    In the late 70s the IMG began to wind down its public face and increase entryism into Labour (they had always maintained a small entryist faction), eventually scrapping the IMG paper – Socialist Challenge – and launching a new one, Socialist Action.

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