About a hundred people gathered in London on Saturday [7 July] to determine the future of Labour Briefing, whether it should remain an independent magazine or become the house journal of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) of which John McDonnell is the chair.
It decided, by 44 to 37 votes with a few abstentions, to go with the LRC. Although the debate was surprisingly cordial and everyone behaved well on the day, it was an old fashioned faction-fight with people on both sides seething with anger and bitterness.
London Labour Briefing, as it was called at its inception, arose as the mouth piece of the alliance which made Ken Livingstone leader of the Greater London Council in 1981, and saw the left sweep to power in town halls across London the following year. Cuts in council income and spending saw its base narrow amidst recriminations after the collapse of the campaign against rate-capping and bitter divisions between Ken and his then deputy, John McDonnell...
There are different views on why it has disappeared under the wing of the LRC. Some argue that the real cause was a falling out between personalities [in Briefing] which escalated and led to the withdrawal from its editorial board of Graham Bash, who had been a mainstay since its inception...
Some other longstanding supporters believed Briefing could not (or perhaps should not) survive his departure, and argued that it needed to link with the LRC and precipitated the “merger” or “takeover” (depending on your perspective)...
The matter was inevitably contentious within the LRC too... Of the advocates of merger, some wanted to see the LRC hosting a journal which would be genuinely independent, while others wanted the LRC to have a magazine which would promote the LRC as an organisation...
Others... thought that even if the LRC could use a journal rather than just a much better website, the journal it needed wouldn’t look much like Briefing. What was the point of taking over a magazine that needed a hefty subsidy, and which they couldn’t afford to send to all their members, most of whom don’t currently subscribe.
When it came to the vote, there was an unholy alliance between ultra-Lefts like Ted Knight who are, in practice, actively hostile to Labour (even if they are still members of it) and those who believe that Labour Party activity must take absolute priority.
Graham Bash sees it differently. He points to political differences between those within Briefing who look towards CLPD [Campaign for Labour Party Democracy] as the more effective and worthwhile organisation, and those who choose to prioritise the LRC even if they are members of CLPD. The proposed merger reflects the latter perspective. This certainly contains some truth, but may amount to rationalisation after the event rather than an explanation of the motivation of either side.
The structure of a Labour Briefing AGM is open to some abuse. There are no members and any reader is welcome to attend, even if they are a member of some other faction. Those who favour independence point out that members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which produces the Weekly Worker, attended to support the LRC takeover... The CPGB members didn’t help their case by trying to overturn the agenda. They said they had only come for the vote on the future of Briefing and didn’t want to have to sit through the invited speakers first!
After the vote, everyone listened politely to a flawless and impassioned speech from Owen Jones, who’d abstained in the vote. There was applause but not much unity and we must wait to see how much comradeship remains.
* This is an abridged reprint of a report on the Left Futures website. There has indeed been fall-out: Christine Shawcroft, a Labour Party National Executive member and former vice-chair of the LRC and chair of Briefing, has resigned from the LRC.
Briefing was originally a split from Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity, on the issue of whether Labour councils in the early 1980s should confront the Tories or sidestep by raising rates (property taxes). Despite that, over the years supporters of Solidarity have often sought, and sometimes achieved, collaboration with Briefing on issues where that’s possible.
We opposed the merger because we saw it as a “double coup”. On the magazine, it would copper-fasten the hegemony of those who were Labour-loyal but committed to a rather downbeat, “propagandist” course in the Labour Party, rather than the more interventionist, organising course associated with CLPD. In LRC it would — by default of the magazine’s editors deciding the chief public profile of LRC month by month, and even if we assume no illwill or bad faith — establish the hegemony of the same strand, against both the CLPD-minded and those around Ted Knight (whom we do not think “ultra-left”!).
After such a close and acrimonious vote, and one where the majority may have depended on people who have had little to do with LRC or Briefing, there is a clear case for LRC reconsidering the whole thing.
It could consider an alternative proposal put by LRC committee member Vicki Morris: that LRC should ask all papers circulating in the Labour left — Solidarity, Socialist Appeal, Tribune, as well as Briefing — to give it a page each month.