Marxist Bulletin Home Page

Political Clarity and the NEC Elections

For some time now supporters of the Marxist Bulletin have been involved with a number of other comrades in a campaign to democratise the SLP based on gathering support for the ‘Statement to the NEC and SLP Members on the Question of Party Democracy.’

As the Congress approached the majority of comrades involved in this bloc decided to stand a slate for the NEC elections based on another (very similar to the original) statement calling for a more democratic SLP. A number of supporters of the Marxist Bulletin are standing for the NEC as a slate based on ‘A Marxist Programme for the SLP’. Therefore we declined to participate in this broader slate concentrating only on the issue of democracy. We were then effectively excluded from all future discussions of the bloc – not only those to do with the question of the slate.

Below we print a letter to the comrades involved in setting up the ‘democracy slate’ explaining our position, followed by a reply from one grouping within the democracy slate, the SLP Republicans, and our response to that reply.

To supporters of the ‘Statement on to the NEC and SLP members on the question of party democracy’

27 October 1997

Dear Comrade,

At the last bloc meeting there was a dispute over the question of a joint slate for the NEC elections. The comrades associated with the Marxist Bulletin felt that it might be useful to write down our understanding of the dispute, as there seemed to be a large degree of unclarity at that meeting about our position.

Firstly we would like to reiterate our commitment to the struggle to democratise the SLP and to the united front bloc around this question based on the ‘Statement to the NEC and SLP members on the question of Party democracy’ and the democracy motions put to the conference. We look forward to doing further joint work as part of the united front around a mutually agreed basis.

The dispute within the united front arises over a difference over whether this united front should be extended to include a joint slate with joint propaganda for the NEC election. For most of you this seems to be a natural extension and you are bemused and even outraged by our refusal to be party to it. However for us it is not a natural progression – as we have argued when the question has come up at previous meetings.

We believe that the production of lowest common denominator joint propaganda for the NEC elections, even with the right to produce our own separate propaganda, would be detrimental to the necessary struggle for political clarity at the Congress. We believe such a slate implies a much higher level of political agreement than in fact exists.

We realise that the majority disagrees with the degree of emphasis that we give to political clarity but it is central to our perspective and the joint slate is not something we can go along with. We do not consider that we are in any way breaking the existing united front, we are merely refusing to be part of something else – as is surely our right, whatever you may think of our reasons for doing so.

Some of the comments made in the heat of the moment following the last meeting implied that the majority may well decide that our refusal to be directly involved in a joint slate places us outside the boundaries of the previous united front. If so you will have to accept the political responsibility that it is you, not us, who would be breaking the formerly agreed bloc. As this would weaken the fight to democratise the party, we are confident that you will not take this path.

As an alternative to a joint slate we propose a voting arrangement. We agree that it would be useful if there were only 6 ‘democratic’ candidates standing for the CSLP positions on the NEC, based (for lack of a better measure) on the candidate having signed the ‘Statement’. We propose negotiations towards working out such an arrangement.

At the last meeting the Marxist Bulletin comrades suggested that we stand 1 comrade for the CSLPs, with the ‘democracy slate’ standing 5 comrades. However at the end of the meeting it appeared that the majority of those present were in favour of putting forward a 6-person slate in opposition to, among others, any Marxist Bulletin comrades who might stand for the CSLP positions. We understood that you were asking us not to stand anyone against this slate.

We find it odd, given the importance you put on getting ‘democrats’ elected to the NEC, that your position amounts to saying that Barbara Duke, one of the more likely ‘democrats’ to get elected, should not stand. Unless of course your position is that Barbara and the other Marxist Bulletin comrades have suddenly become non-democrats as a result of our unwillingness to be part of the ‘democracy slate’....

At the conference we will be producing an election statement for those candidates standing on the basis of the ‘Marxist Programme’. This statement will also call for critical support to other candidates on the basis of their having signed the ‘Statement’ and what we know of their political views. We would hope that the proposed ‘democracy slate’ would call for a vote to our candidates as comrades who have consistently fought for democracy in the party – but our support will not be conditional on this.

We encourage all comrades standing for the NEC to do so on their complete programme for social change. The lack of democracy in the SLP is only important in that it hinders the political discussion and debate necessary for building an organisation based on a political programme capable of leading to socialist revolution. The Congress is the highest body of the SLP and to have argued for more democracy and discussion, as our united front has done, and yet then not to take full advantage of those opportunities that do exist seems more than a little contradictory.

It is not enough to simply argue for our right to hold political views – we must also exercise these rights.

Comradely regards

Alan Gibson
For the Marxist Bulletin collective

To Marxist Bulletin
From SLP Republicans

Dear comrades,

Thank you for your letter of 27th October 1997 which gives us an opportunity to clarify the issues.

SLP Republicans are in favour of full democratic rights for all SLP members. We are in favour of a united front of all SLP members who share this aim and have specific proposals to extend democracy in the SLP. Marxist Bulletin, SLP Republicans, some Trotskyists and some independent democrats share this aim. There may be others.

The SLP conference will be an important opportunity to test support for these aims and policies. For this purpose, we need to unite our forces around a United Platform and joint slate, with the full freedom for comrades to put forward their own separate platforms as well. We think this establishes most clearly our points of agreement, as well as giving full expression to any distinctive political positions we may hold.

Marxist Bulletin has consistently refused to support a United Platform. This is not because you have any disagreement with the content of a United Platform. But rather because you do not wish to sign up to it, on the grounds that this ‘would be detrimental to the necessary struggle for political clarity at the Congress.’

Your position, at first sight, appears to be one of principle – political clarity is most important and this would be compromised by being seen to support a United Platform. Hence you say ‘we realise that the majority disagrees with the degree of emphasis that we give to political clarity, but it is central to our perspective and the joint slate is not something we can go along with’.

What you propose instead is an informal Voting Arrangement. This means that we make a deal behind the scenes whereby you vote for candidates of a United Platform and we ‘stand down’ one of our candidates in favour of Barbara Duke, and vote for other Marxist Bulletin candidates. The political basis for this deal is unwritten and unclear. This is proposed by you in the interests of political clarity!

Let me assure you that SLP Republicans are opposed to any behind the scenes deals with Marxist Bulletin. We consider your views on republicanism in Britain and Ireland to be ultra left and therefore downright reactionary. You are opposed to a federal republic and to a united Ireland. In reality, you have accepted the Protestant Veto, which when you cut through the leftist rhetoric, puts you in the same camp as Labour and the Tories. If the SLP adopted your position on Ireland, it would be a major setback for the party, and it would weaken the struggle for democracy in the UK. In the interests of political clarity, the reactionary nature of your policy must be exposed.

We do not rule out in principle making an agreement with you for limited aims, provided those aims are in the interests of the socialist and working class movement. It does however rule out any informal, unwritten, unsigned behind the scenes deals. We rule this out because of the importance we give to political clarity.

A United Platform is clearly formulated, written down and available for inspection by all party members. It is clear exactly what the candidates have agreed with. Equally it is clear what is not agreed (i.e. everything else.) It is also clear who exactly endorses this platform because their names are signed to it. Before we could consider voting for Marxist Bulletin candidates, with such reactionary views on republicanism, exactly what was agreed, would have to be written down, signed in blood, and then published for SLP members to see. Since you are opposed to signing anything, even in biro, then there is no agreement.

You are therefore quite wrong to suggest that Marxist Bulletin alone demands political clarity. On the contrary you are opposed to signing a clear political statement and want to substitute a vague voting arrangement, which leaves the political basis of this unclear. The distinction between what is agreed and what is not, is somewhat blurred. Nothing is formally agreed and nobody signs up for anything.

There is another interpretation of your refusal to join a United Platform. Your preference for a vague informal ‘voting arrangement’ is not the result of some high principle of political clarity. Rather you are motivated by something more down to earth and self interested. You want to maximise the vote for Marxist Bulletin candidates. You want these votes to be seen as votes for your Trotskyist programme.

Therefore you want to secure the votes of the United Platform. It serves your narrow interests to keep the basis of that support as vague as possible. Get the votes, without agreeing to or publishing any joint statement. It would therefore serve your interests to talk much about ‘democracy’ before the conference, and about how many had supported your views on the Protestant veto, on republicanism and your programme, afterwards.

I am sure that neither SLP Republicans nor any United Platform would want to be voting fodder for the Trotskyist programme of the Marxist Bulletin. We could only consider urging SLP members to vote for any of your candidates on the basis of political clarity and openness about where we agree and where we oppose the Marxist Bulletin.

You call on all comrades standing for the NEC to put forward more than limited democratic demands. SLP Republicans are doing precisely that – and this is no way disqualifies us from standing on a United platform with other comrades who do not share a republican perspective.

Whilst we remain open to discuss these matters further, there seems little point unless you are prepared to give more serious consideration to the importance of political clarity.

We hope this clarifies our political position.

Yours in comradeship
SLP Republicans

Marxist Bulletin reply

The SLP Republicans’ argument against us hangs on one main point – that the Marxist Bulletin’s decision not to be part of the ‘democracy slate’ is unprincipled and means we are actually working against our stated aim of political clarity. The most basic reference to the facts is enough to refute this bizarre claim.

The arguments in our letter make it clear that our perspective for the NEC elections is based on ‘critical support’ and explicit opposition to hiding political differences. We put this policy into practice in our election statement, as we did at the time of the elections to the London Regional Committee (see MB 3). The political basis on which we are standing for the NEC is made absolutely clear in ‘A Marxist Programme for the SLP’. We look forward to the promised statement from the SLP Republicans, but note that to date we have only seen a brief paragraph describing their political perspectives.

We would also point to the very existence of the Marxist Bulletin and the wide range of topics it has covered as evidence of our ongoing commitment to political clarity. Socialist Perspectives, the only other journal published by comrades involved in the ‘democracy slate’, has focused almost exclusively on issues of inner party democracy. In reply to the SLP Republicans’ specific comments on programmatic issues such as republicanism, we would refer comrades to articles on Ireland in MB 2 & 3 and on Scotland/Wales in MB 4.

We would also like to draw attention to the implied threat by the SLP Republicans to withhold votes from the Marxist Bulletin because of our refusal to be part of their slate. The basis of the ‘democracy slate’ is merely that the comrades standing on it are for a more democratic SLP. Marxist Bulletin supporters have been active in the campaign to democratise the SLP since day one. We challenge the SLP Republicans to come up with evidence (rather than hollow rhetoric about signing documents in blood) that we have been any less part of this campaign than the comrades standing on the ‘democracy slate’. The outraged protestations of the SLP Republicans aside, our proposed voting arrangement was actually on a completely clear and open political basis – those who signed the ‘Statement to the NEC and SLP Members on the Question of Party Democracy’, as we explain in our letter.

It therefore seems very strange that the SLP Republicans can pose the possibility of not voting for the Marxist Bulletin comrades. Their reasons for doing so are based on political differences they have with us over questions other than democracy. They are only aware of these differences as a result of the political clarity and openness we have brought to all our dealings with them. And yet they are quite happy to call for votes to comrades on their ‘democracy slate’ who they also have important political differences with and who are highly unlikely to produce election material explaining their overall programmes.

This strikes us as having more in common with childish spite over us not being part of the ‘democracy slate’ than with issues of political principle.