John Harris: Watson’s useful idiot

August 12, 2016 at 4:58 pm (Galloway, Guardian, Jim D, labour party, plonker, reformism, Respect, Stop The War, trotskyism)

There are journalists and commentators whose views I don’t agree with (and in some cases, hate), who are nonetheless interesting, intelligent and worth reading. John Harris of the Guardian is not one of them.

I first came across Mr Harris in 2001 or early 2002, when he first started writing for The Guardian. He was, then (like many other Guardian coumnists), an uncritical supporter of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), and keen to defend it against any suggestion that it was led, or politically dominated by the SWP.

This was shortly after the STWC’s first conference in October 2001, when the SWP and its allies like George Galloway and Andrew Murray had ensured the defeat of calls to reject ‘Muslim fundamentalism’ as well as US imperialism. The slogan “No to fundamentalism” indicated that opposition to war did not mean support for the 9/11 attacks or the Taliban reactionaries: but the SWP, Murray, Galloway & co were determined not to alienate Islamists and cared nothing for the anti-fundamentalist views of Iranian and Afghani socialists in Britain, or the only Iraqi socialist organisation (the WCPI) active in Britain, all of whom were horrified by STWC’s alliance with Islamists.

In fact the leading members of the STWC were, and remain, soft on political Islam. This is clear from a footnote in Andrew Murray’s history of the STWC which says: “Political Islam… has expressed, in however warped a fashion, some of the anti-imperialist demands which were once the preserve of Communist and nationalist movements of the region.”

Harris wrote a column in the Guardian at the time defending STWC and denying that the SWP, etc, ran the campaign. I sent a comment to CiF calling Harris a “useful idiot” which apparently upset him at the time. Unfortunately, Harris’s 2001 (or 2002 ?) column does not seem to be available anywhere on the web, but this 2008 article gives a taste:

Since then, I haven’t spent much time reading the banal outpourings of this rather stupid ex-New Musical Express journalist, but I have noted that he claims to have been in the Labour Party Young Socialists in the 1980’s, before being driven “to despair” by the Militant Tendency and subsequently leaving the Labour Party for fifteen years.

Now, it’s a matter of record and straight fact, that those of us around in the 1970s and ’80s, can vouch for, that the Militant Tendency were a bunch of thugs, bullies, homophobes and sexists. But they’ve been out of the Labour Party since 1991 when they abandoned entryism and decided to establish themselves as a separate party. Ted Grant, the group’s founder and leading theoretician, was expelled, and his breakaway minority, now known as Socialist Appeal, continued in the Labour Party. The majority changed its name to Militant Labour, and then in 1997 to the Socialist Party. Their leader, Peter Taafe, is now making ridiculous noises to the bourgeois media, suggesting that his group now expects to be readmitted to Labour – having spent more than twenty years denouncing the Party as irreformable and the past eleven months trying to stop his members leaving to join Labour.

The idea that the hundreds of thousands of new (and, in some cases, re-joining) members of the Labour Party who’ve signed up since Corbyn’s victory last year, are doing so under the influence of the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), or any other ‘Trotskyist’ organisation, is a preposterous conspiracy theory put about by Tom Watson in a desperate attempt to undermine Corbyn and boost the hapless nonentity Owen Smith. But the wretched Harris asks Guardian readers to believe this nonsense in a truly ridiculous article entitled If Trotsky is back at the centre of things, there’s chaos ahead. This idiot’s ignorance and stupidity knows no bounds: and while there’s no requirement upon Guardian columnists to have any knowledge of (let alone sympathy with) Trotskyism, someone writing about it might be expected to have at least an elementary grasp: Harris clearly hasn’t.

To give one simple example, Harris describes Trotskyist transitional demands thus:

The practice of Trotskyist politics has long been built around the idea of the “transitional demand”, a rather cynical manoeuvre whereby you encourage people to agitate for this or that – a hugely increased minimum wage, perhaps, or the end of all immigration controls – knowing full well it is unattainable within the current order of things, but that when the impossibility becomes apparent, the workers will belatedly wake up. In other words, the herd gets whipped up into a frenzy about something you know it won’t get, while you smugly sit things out, hoping that if everything aligns correctly, another crack will appear in the great bourgeois edifice.

The reality (as explained by the AWL) is this:

These are not catchpenny demands designed to capture or mirror back an existing “mood”. In some cases, such as open borders, they are ideas that are positively marginal and currently rejected by most working-class people. Others, such as the demand for a democratic federal republic (rather than secession for Scotland and Wales), or opposition to withdrawal from the EU, are marginal even on the far-left.

But we cannot hope to popularise them or make them less marginal except by raising them consistently, within the context of a programme which starts from the logic of our current struggles. The boldness required is the difference between attempting to create a political “space”, through the hard work of agitation and education in our workplaces and communities, and cynical attempts to manoeuvre into some existing space where people are already imagined to be by mirroring back to them slightly more radical versions of the ideas we presume them to already hold.

These wouldn’t be demands that we’d orient towards the state, necessarily, as if we expect a Tory government to implement them. They are demands that make up part of our own political narrative, our own plan for remaking society, just as the Tory policies of cuts and privatisation make up theirs.

Capital make concessions to labour either when we are strong enough to simply overwhelm it and impose ourselves, or when it is too scared of the consequences of not making concessions. For either condition, a conscious programme – a working-class socialist alternative to austerity – is necessary.

Floppy-haired ex-pop music journalist Harris is, indeed, an idiot (whether “useful” or not): first on behalf of Galloway and the SWP; now on behalf of Tom Watson and Labour witch-hunters.


  1. elaine keep said,

    I completely agree, in fact was just about to write to the Guardian myself to complain. Can anyone confirm that he was in the Young Socialists at age 16?

  2. Jim Denham said,

    An interesting BTL comment over at the Graun:

    I’m guessing the author of this article [ie Harris – JD] isn’t aware that the document Watson put together was direct quotes from a review of a book on Momentum written by Richard Angell. That’s right the so called Trot quotes were written by the director of right wing think tank Progress. You can view them on the Progress website.

    Watson made himself look silly and anyone who takes what he said at face value will do the same.

    The thing the media don’t get about Momentum is that it isn’t left wing radical people, it’s ordinary folk who are fed up with the way things are. No I’m not a member, but I’ll be surprised if they go away any time soon. Sooner the media catch on the better.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      They the Momentum just suddenly arrived! Stop kiddin Jim the Labour Party has been taken over. There will be a split. Doubt I will be around when a Labour government is elected. That will probably include yerself.

  3. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch) said,

    What I find unlikely is that there were Militants in the constituency of Tatton. I know he grew up in posh Wilmslow (that area is the ‘Surrey’ of the NW) and I grew up (partially) a couple of miles away (in another constituency).

    There were certainly no Militants in Tatton when I was there and I find it hard to believe just a couple of years later there were such in Wilmslow or Knutsford (possibly Northwich but unlikely and 15 miles away).

    He must be quite a wuss if a passing Militant scared him so; I was taking on a dozen at a time in Stockport, etc.

  4. Saul Sorrell-Till said,

    As a ridiculously committed NME reader from the age of about 15 to my late-20s, I caught the tail-end of his time there. He was a good deal less interesting than pretty much every single other writer. Even his music taste was pretty MOR.
    I vaguely remember him buggering off in the mid-to-late 90s to work at Q, the Mondeo Man’s magazine choice. He might also have worked at Uncut, there to write endless cover stories along the lines of ‘Bob Dylan’s Fifty Greatest Songs Which Begin With The Letter F’ and ‘Neil Young On His Legendary Luton Little Chef Visit Of ’78’ – Exclusive eighteen-page Q & A!’. Wherever it was he ended up, he was not missed.

  5. christopher john gould said,

    I have love hate feelings towards Oxbridge.Love Rachel Reilly,Dud and Pete,Philip Larkin and Gilbert Ryle.Hate the clanishness and exclusivity,the we hate Corbyn in the posh papers,the claim that Dickens was no good and Shakespeare did not really write those plays,and they discovered and invented eveything which they did not.Serious novel writing,the BBC news and serious journalism and senior civil service management are crap because they are Oxbridge dominated.British pop music is a great success up till now because it is not.So I am dismayed that this Oxbridge guy has got into a high place in pop music journalism.Doubtless he will bring his mates with him and then pop music will be crap too,when its journalism and management are Oxbridge dominated. .

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