Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 February 2001

Nearly ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its shadow continues to hang over left politics in Britain. Last week, Tribune carried a feature by Jimmy Reid accusing the outfit the Communist Party became, Democratic Left, of running a KGB-style operation to stitch up a Labour MEP at the behest of “New” Labour. The paper then devoted nearly half its diary to the funding of the CP with “Moscow gold” and the supposedly shady activities of the outfit DL became – are you paying attention at the back? – the New Politics Network.

Now, I’m as fascinated as anyone by the relationship between the British left and the Soviet Union – indeed, I’m writing a book about it – and I think I’m as critical as anyone of the disastrous political practices of every variety of Leninism. But last week’s Tribune coverage was wide of the mark.

It is true that DL inherited the assets of the old CP, and that “Moscow gold” played an important role in building up those assets. I’m writing this piece in an office I rent from the New Politics Network in a building in Islington that was once the CP’s headquarters and is now home to the New Politics Network (among others). The building, which I guess must be worth around £3 million today, was bought with the proceeds of selling the CP’s previous HQ, which in turn was bought with the proceeds of selling its first HQ – and that first HQ, in Covent Garden, was purchased with cash sent from Moscow in 1921.

It is also true that ownership of the assets of the old CP makes the New Politics Network rather better off than most left-wing organisations – particularly when you consider that the Network has only 300 members (compared with the CP’s membership of 4,600 at the time of its demise in 1991).

There is, moreover, a real argument to be had about whether the Network is using its riches effectively. My own view is that it isn’t, though that might be coloured by the fact that I was deputy editor of its magazine, New Times, which it decided to close down last year on grounds of cost.

But I don’t think that anyone can fairly claim that the Network acts in a conspiratorial or Stalinist manner, or indeed that DL did so. The whole point of turning the CP into DL was to emphasise the organisation’s abandonment of Leninism; the Network was created to show it had ditched even the aspiration to be a traditional political party. More important, the whole thrust of the activities of both DL and the Network has been to encourage “progressive coalition-building” on various single-issue campaigns — for electoral reform, for trade union rights, for constructive engagement with Europe and so on.

None of this is uncontroversial. Even though I’m very much in favour of most of what the Network stands for, its jargon turns me off — when I hear the word “progressive” I reach for my sick bag. I also think that DL and the Network have been far too uncritical of “New” Labour, which in turn is a major reason for their failure to attract new members or retain existing ones.

The idea that DL or the Network have acted as New Labour’s Stalinist secret police is, however, ludicrous. What Jimmy Reid describes as DL’s New-Labour-inspired stitch-up of Ken Coates was at most an example of an individual journalist deciding to make a splash of a juicy off-the-record quote – Coates called Tony Blair a shit while the tape recorder was running – and it might not even have been that. (The principals disagree even now about whether it was off the record.) Whatever, it was only one small incident in the chain of events that led to Coates’s exit from the Labour Party.

Similarly, contrary to the opinion of Tribune’s diarist, there was nothing sinister in DL’s involvement either in the creation of what is now Unions 21, the trade union activists’ discussion forum, or in setting up Make Votes Count, the pressure group campaigning for proportional representation. In both cases, the group behaved wholly unlike the old CP, making no attempt to take over either organisation and working happily with everyone else involved as a junior partner. Nor is there anything “mysterious” about the workings of either Make Votes Count or Unions 21 today. Certainly neither receives subventions from the New Politics Network.

“Once a Stalinist, always a Stalinist” has always been a specious argument. But it’s doubly rich coming from someone who was once a senior CPer — or indeed from a paper set up to campaign for unity between the CP and the Labour Party, as Tribune was. The people who inherited the Moscow gold might be small in number, ineffectual and barking up the wrong tree, but unreconstructed they ain’t.

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