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Ian Birchall

The careless party

(October 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 102, October 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DURING the election campaign Kinnock was asked his views on religion; he replied that he wasn’t sure whether he was an agnostic. I have a certain sympathy with this sort of double-strength agnosticism, as I have similar feelings about the current debate as to whether Labour Weekly should be closed down.

I know the arguments. It is the left in the Labour Party which wants to keep Labour Weekly; Kinnock is trying to close it because he wants to stifle any possible criticism from the left. It’s a fairly straightforward question of principle, and if I had a vote on the matter I could be relied on to use it the right way.

But against this I have to balance the powerful argument that if Labour Weekly were shut down I should not have to read it any longer. I have always believed that, alongside the pleasures of belonging to a revolutionary organisation (like selling papers in the snow and reading Internal Bulletins) a true Bolshevik should do one really unpleasant job for the party. For some years now my contribution has been reading Tribune and Labour Weekly every Saturday. Somebody has to do it.

Labour Weekly has, throughout its 16 years, set a consistent standard of journalistic drabness. New Socialist (also for the chop) does from time to time carry intriguing, if obscure, debates on such topics as whether you should let the au pair breast-feed the baby. Labour Weekly keeps its feet firmly on the ground with reports of regional Labour Party Conferences, a view of the world in which all evil is the fault of the Tories, and lots of details about internal organisation.

The front page of the 11 September issue carries not only a large picture of Norman Willis, but also the stirring banner headline: Unions Have Doubts On The College: Opinion Moving Towards OMOV.

Not, you might feel, a good front page to sell in your local shopping centre. But then nobody much sells Labour Weekly. The circulation is around 19,000, while the Labour Party has some 300,000 members.

Some years ago at a CND conference I saw a Labour Weekly seller. One of my comrades, whose style I must admit is sometimes a little abrasive, accosted him, commenting that he was the only Labour Weekly seller he had ever seen. A few weeks later I was on a demonstration in Liverpool and saw someone selling Labour Weekly. So my sectarian comrade had been wrong, I thought. I looked again and realised it was the same man.

But soon even that valiant salesperson will become redundant. If Kinnock has his way, the drab Labour Weekly will be replaced by the vacuous Labour Party News. Labour Party News isn’t sold, so you can’t buy it. It is mailed direct to 110,000 Labour Party members.

Or so they think. In fact the tight security of Walworth Road has been breached, and one copy of Labour Party News is being sent to an SWP member, heavily disguised under an implausible pseudonym.

So we can reveal something of the mind-numbing contents of Labour Party News. There is useful information, ranging from how to plug a 30-watt amplifier into your car cigarette lighter to how to get a bone china “Roses for Socialism” plate for just £25. There are pictures – many in full colour. Issue number three has seven pictures of Kinnock, number four has five. Almost like Pravda in the golden days.

And then there are advertisements. The back page carries full page adverts for the Daily Mirror. These used to appear in New Socialist until that journal carried a mildly impolite interview with Robert Maxwell, whereupon they promptly disappeared. There is little danger that Labour Party News will insult Robert Maxwell – or anyone else with advertising revenue to dispose of.

With all these delights it is surprising to read that “there are still almost 200,000 members who are entitled to a copy, but aren’t getting one. We can’t help unless we know who they are and where they are.” This despite the fact that Labour Party News is free and can be obtained by returning a reply-paid card.

As Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell said: “To lose a parent may be considered as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” It must be a very careless party that loses two-thirds of its membership.

Except for the fact that this is just the sort of party Kinnock wants. For reformist parties are based on passivity, and a membership that is so passive that it can’t be bothered ordering a free magazine won’t give the leadership much trouble.

The bitterest insult in the Labour vocabulary is now “activist”. Of course, one or two people are allowed to be active. Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley can attend 15 meetings a week, alternatively bullying and arselicking to advance their careers. That’s called “dedication”. But if the rest of us prefer to attend meetings instead of watching the television, we become “unrepresentative activists”.

The Labour Party has the press it deserves. And remember, only 24 years ago the Labour Party had its own daily paper. That paper was sold to become the Sun. And now Labour can’t – or daren’t – even produce a weekly. Remember that next time someone tells you the Labour Party is the mass organisation of the working class.

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Last updated: 7.3.2012