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The Communist Party of Britain and Left Unity

Kenny Coyle

MARTIN SULLIVAN’S Comment piece on the Morning Star strike in the last issue of What Next? ("The Crisis at the Morning Star) raises a number of points about the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and its relationship with the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the broader labour movement which are seriously misleading. The political aspects of the dispute, as Martin Sullivan says, are indeed interesting.

Comrade Sullivan argues that the removal – he later uses the word "sacking" – of the former general secretary Mike Hicks and his replacement by Rob Griffiths represented a "sectarian shift by the party leadership away from the traditional orientation towards the Labour Party". The "Rosser-Hicks element" apparently favour a broader approach. Indeed, Sullivan maintains that the CPB’s political committee decided to open discussions with the SLP.

For readers of What Next? No.6 this will be quite puzzling. In that issue an interview I gave to the German left paper Junge Welt ("Why Britain’s Communists Backed Blair") was translated and reprinted, where our party’s fundamental disagreements with the SLP, and the Socialist Party (SP) for that matter, were spelt out. Talking about the characterisation of the Labour Party by the SLP and the SP, I made the point that: "Both parties say that there is no longer any difference between Labour and the Tories. That is false historically and it is false at the present time. We welcome a Labour government as a first step." Later, referring to a struggle within the Labour Party, I said: "The problem with the SLP and SP is that they have abandoned the struggle before it has been fought. That is a damaging position, because the struggle inside the Labour Party has to be conducted with great skill by the left wing."

Now, many What Next? readers will disagree with some of the points I made. No doubt many will go further in disagreeing with our party’s strategy, but to assert without a shred of proof that the CPB has done a 180 degree turn is simply untrue.

What our party’s leadership agreed to do (and for Martin Sullivan’s information it was at our party’s executive committee meeting in October 1997) was to recognise that the election of a New Labour government was changing the political situation and that our party should, without altering our own strategy of identifying the Labour left as the key focus for left unity, discuss with some other groups on the left issues of common concern and, if possible, seek common activity, for example in the trade union movement, international solidarity etc. It would have been ridiculous to have excluded the SLP from that process, but for the record we expressed ourselves in favour of discussions with a number of other left groups, such as the Communist Party of Scotland, the New Communist Party and the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Not merger talks, not fusion talks, not regroupment, not even electoral pacts, but exchanges of views estimating areas of common agreement and of course identifying areas of disagreement. There was no particular timetable, and it was to be an open-ended process.

Such an approach was unanimously agreed by our party’s leadership, including the "Rosser-Hicks element" – in fact Mike Hicks was still general secretary at that period.

What Next? has concerned itself with the broader questions of regroupment, focusing especially on the fallout from the SLP. Rumours about a CPB-SLP "lash-up" are I’m afraid part of a disinformation campaign. I notice that the editorial in Socialist Democracy No.2 likewise raises this spectre. Our leadership’s meeting with Arthur Scargill earlier this year is not a secret, not from our members in any case – we had no need to keep it secret since it had already been agreed.

However, what was kept secret from CPB members, Morning Star readers and, I presume, SLP members, was that on more than one occasion in the past two years, Arthur Scargill met with the "Rosser-Hicks element".

I could go on at tedious length about the ridiculous trumped-up charges against Morning Star editor John Haylett, or a more positive assessment of left unity – the strategy of the British Road to Socialism.

Nevertheless, it is disappointing that our party’s non-sectarian approach in seeking wider contacts should be used as a stick by Martin Sullivan to beat us bad old sectarians who recognise that the CPB should talk, and where possible act, with other members of the left.

The current period is one in which most of the old orthodoxies look rather worn. The British left whether in its "Stalinist" or "Trotskyist" incarnations has been in a process of decomposition rather than recomposition for the past decade or so. Yet, cliché that it is, there are new opportunities opening up. Genuine debate is necessary, harsh polemic inevitable, but please leave the "Schools of Falsification" out of it, eh Martin?

• Copies of the CPB’s statement on the proposed formation of the SLP made in April 1996, which develop our arguments in greater detail, can be made available to any What Next? reader who sends me an SAE, at the CPB, 3 Ardleigh Road, London N1 4HS.

Kenny Coyle was writing in a personal capacity.