An encounter with the shy Bishop Taaffe

Submitted by martin on 5 July, 2011 - 9:09

The pensions demo on 30 June was exciting enough, but I felt an extra thrill at the start in Lincoln’s Inn Fields when I spotted Peter Taaffe. There he was, the General Secretary of the Socialist Party! The "legendary Peter Taaffe", as his friend and disciple Derek Hatton said of him in his memoirs.

Peter Taaffe, the main man responsible for the great victory of the Liverpool labour movement over Thatcher and the Tories in 1985. (The one associated with the name of Derek Hatton and the image of a fleet of council-hired taxis dashing around Liverpool to deliver notices to council workers telling them they were sacked.)

The staunch anti-imperialist who for ten years supported Russia's colonial war against the peoples of Afghanistan.

Taaffe isn't seen out much these days, so spotting him was quite an event. Here was my chance to invite him, face-to-face, to debate with us on Libya. Taaffe has written thousands of words in their press polemicising against us on this question. Some inexplicable shyness stops him accepting our offer to to go head-to-head with him in a debate before supporters of AWL and the SP to explore and thrash out our differences.

I didn't want this shy man to take fright so I tried to put a reassuring smile in my voice. "Hello Peter", I said, in my friendliest manner.

Taaffe responded with a smile and an equally friendly "Hiya". But the smile vanished when he caught sight of Solidarity, which I was selling. Picking up the signal, a big lad wearing an RMT badge stepped in. A bodyguard! To protect him from me? Taaffe is small, but I'm even smaller. Then I saw another big lad moving in. At this point my inner groupie stirred.

I was in the presence of a man important enough to rate bodyguards! Two of them! Wow! In that Kevin Costner film, the mega pop star had only one. The General Secretary had two! For a moment I was awestruck. Then my inner Bolshevik elbowed the over-impressed groupie aside.

What does he need bodyguards for? This is about status and self-importance, not protection. Perhaps the bodyguards are the Socialist Party equivalent of a stretch limousine for the company director? Or were they there to protect his Royal Shyness from people like me? In any case, a debate would do him good. I did what I'd come to do!

"Peter", I said, "I’m offering you an invitation to debate us on Libya. We’ve been calling your office, but we haven’t got very far. We’ve been asking local SP members. Some seem willing, but not sure that you will allow them to. So, how about it?"

"Who are you?" he replied, now spitting his words out. In the same breath, he answered his own question "You're irrelevant, we’ve said what we’ve got to say, you're irrelevant."

"Peter", I said, still trying to put a smile in my voice, "you’ve just spent thousands of words polemicising against our 'irrelevance'. Obviously there are rumblings in your organisation about your position on Libya, and I guess there’s some support for the AWL position: isn’t that why you’ve taken us on on your website?"

While I’m talking Taaffe is rolling his eyes, slowly shaking his head from side to side and repeating the mantra: "You’re irrelevant, you lot are irrelevant". The minders, the big lad from the RMT and a tall passive bloke with a fixed look of love on his face, pleased just to be in the General Secretary’s orbit, roll their eyes and slowly shake their heads, mimicking Taaffe in perfect synchronisation. For a second I think I’ve been teleported to the set of Dr Who.

The big lad speaks excitedly, but I haven’t a clue what he’s trying to say. The General Secretary, in a soothing voice, tells him: "It’s okay, I can speak for myself". When he indicates that he is about to speak, the others instantly fall silent and become reverently attentive.

I make the offer again, and now Taaffe starts to get angry and a little nastier. "AWL — middle class. You're all middle class" , he spits out. "You're all middle class students. Yous lot are irrelevant". Peter is strongest on sociology: he knows that the decisive thing is not its politics, but the class composition of a would-be socialist organisation. Look at the good results that approach helped win in Liverpool. Look at the history of the proletarian-based Communist Parties of Western Europe.

Now he’s waving his hands in poo-pooing motions, as if to brush me off. When I persist, he says: "Do you know Janine Booth in the RMT"?

"Yeah, of course. She’s great, isn’t she"? "No!" says Taaffe angrily, "She’s a disgrace to the working class. We’ll debate you in the RMT".

The General Secretary is now wearing a sly smile, pleased with himself, as if he’s trumped me. I say we’ll be happy to debate the SP in the RMT too. This is my day for surprises: when I persist in urging the need for a wider public debate, he starts to get a bit upset, agitated.

This is an old man who is not used to being contradicted and talked back to. Or debating on an equal footing with his opponent. He repeats, again and again: "Yous lot are irrelevant". Then without any sign that he sees the irony in it, he blasts out an order to me: "Stop repeating yourself, you're irrelevant. Go on - do a runner like Matgamna".

He pauses for a second, his eyes flit back to the distant past, a rheumy old man reliving a triumph of his youth, and then he lets out a theatrical laugh: "You won’t know about that will you? It’s before your time, when Matgamna did a runner".

He likes this; he likes himself: he has reassured himself, remembering when the three people who started what is now AWL walked out of the Militant/Socialist Party National Committee meeting (after they had, in a pre-conference period, been forbidden to circulate internally a wide-ranging criticism of the organisation's politics).

"What? Like you don’t know about the Russian Revolution because it was before your time? Of course I know about our history. Now you're just making a fool of yourself". He really didn’t like that; and neither did his bodyguards. You don't call the Pope a fool to his face! If angry glares and clenched mouths could kill...

When a younger male comrade of mine came over to see what was going on the General Secretary ordered him: "Take her away, she’s hysterical, she keeps repeating herself".

Hysterical? I recalled the stock cartoon image of a flabby-bodied Margaret Thatcher in a "wonder Woman" bathing costume, in Militant and on their placards, and the slogan "Ditch the Bitch!" with which Taaffe tried to "raise the consciousness" of the labour movement in the mid 1980s.

For a moment or two I wondered if I’d mistaken some foolish old man, wandering the streets with a menacing grin and delusions of grandeur, for the General Secretary of the Socialist Party. But I knew I hadn’t. It really was the Bishop Taaffe. And his bodyguards!