Up for grabs: £3.5m of Stalin's gold

You may think the Communist Party and its heirs of no importance. But their wealth could still have

I doubt if one person in 100,000 has heard of the New Politics Network. The all but unrecognisable remnant of the once militant Communist Party of Great Britain has been rebranded and repackaged like a flagging line of groceries, until every distinctive principle its members once held has been liquidised into a consensual mush. Its active membership could fit into the snug bar of a country pub. Its propaganda is banal and unread. Outside London, it scarcely exists.

And yet in Labour circles the network is eyed with envy and fascination. New Labour movers and shakers take breaks from their busy lives to write position papers for a minute readership. Old Labour mutters that a huddle of middle-class activists might yet give the loathed cause of proportional representation a fighting fund worth having.

The network matters because it has money - £3.5m, to be precise - the residue of the Moscow gold smuggled from the Kremlin to the British Communist Party. To socialists, £3.5m is a fantastic sum. Outside the trade union movement, no organisation on the left can match the network's wealth. "We're different from just about every other leftie I meet," said one disillusioned insider. "We're friendless and visionless, but we have a bulging wallet, so we have to be taken seriously." The disappointed ghost of Karl Marx can at last relax and relish a pleasing irony: his materialist conception of history has been vindicated.

The contradictions, as Marxists used to say, are built in to the network's very office. It is the heir of the victors of the ferocious fight between "tankie" communist traditionalists and "trendy" reformers in the dying years of the Communist Party. The trendies weren't too upset by the mass unemployment of the 1980s and came close to celebrating Thatcherism in the pages of Marxism Today (which enjoyed a brief period of praise from the "bourgeois press", for understandable reasons). Their chief concern during the worst decade for the British working class since the 1930s was to take control of the party from the old guard.

In 1991 they found a useful weapon. The Sunday Times revealed that the Communist Party had survived for decades on secret Soviet subsidies worth up to £100,000 a year. To Nina Temple, the "reforming" general secretary, and her allies, the story symbolised everything that was rotten with British communism. As Francis Beckett writes in Enemy Within, his history of the CP, it was proof that they had to "throw out most of what the party stood for". Temple won and turned the communists who backed her into a new party, Democratic Left. She and those supporters who have stayed with her through the manic convulsions that followed have a headquarters and working capital only because they secured control of assets paid for with the Moscow gold she so loudly deplored.

The portfolio is considerable. The New Politics Network owns an attractive four-storey office block in one of the better side streets of Islington, north London, a property company called Rodell, and - a reminder that communism was once a national force - a party office in the Midlands, which has been converted into a sandwich bar.

"Every now and again, we agonise about living on the interest of Stalinism," said one networker. "Should we wind ourselves up or use the money to fight for what we believe in?"

As anyone who has watched the perverse trajectories of faith among new Labour leaders will agree, the simple task of stating your beliefs can become hellishly difficult once the ideological moorings have slipped. The common insult that new Labour is Stalinist should not be deployed because the party is a masterful controller of events - Blairites make pretty hopeless control freaks, as the recent histories of Labour London and of Wales show - but because so many of its ideologues are Temple's comrades, refugees from the wreckage of Marxism. Read Geoff Mulgan, the former Militant Tendency member and former adviser in the Downing Street Policy Unit (now the head of a Cabinet Office specialist unit) or Charles Leadbeater, once a communist and now an independent adviser, and you hear a familiar, hectoring tone. "We know the future," a brash voice shouts. "Resistance is futile and moral argument an infantile diversion."

The vanguard of historical inevitability may be global capitalism or the internet or whatever was puffed on the front page of that morning's Financial Times, rather than the proletariat. The lyrics have changed, but the hammering rhythm remains the same.

At least Leadbeater, Mulgan and the rest have an ideology. What is striking about the tone adopted by their fellow asylum-seekers is that it betrays a fear of believing in anything at all and opposition to anyone who does. I can understand their timidity. It was perhaps excusable to remain in the Communist Party after the first reports of Stalin's purges, but to hang around through the Nazi-Soviet pact, the invasion of Hungary, the suppression of the Prague Spring and then carry on until the bitter end required a level of credulity that could, when disillusion and self-knowledge finally hit, render all conviction suspect.

For a while, the retreat to vacuity wasn't obvious. Democratic Left rejected communism but believed, admirably enough, in a pluralist and socialist society "incompatible with the structures and values of capitalism". Many took the ex-communists at their word. Last year, a group of Midlands lefties who marched with a group called Socialist Alliance tried to join in bulk. All talk of tolerance disappeared, as Temple and her associates hired expensive lawyers to block them. The inheritors of the Communist Party could not be contaminated with socialist notions.

Democratic Left would stop being a party "stuck in the swamp of sectarian politics", Temple ruled when the struggle was over. It would become the New Times Network - an umbrella group that no longer "endorsed socialism".

The network published a magazine, New Times, which wasn't half bad, by the standards of such journals. It was wound up in the summer and the group's mercurial name changed yet again - this time to the New Politics Network. "These people," explained a disgruntled contributor, "don't want to take positions. They are infected by the battles of the Eighties and see commitment as a sign of a hard-left mentality."

Conformity to the prevailing political culture has not pulled the punters through the doors. Insiders put the network's membership at between 200 and 250. "In the past year we've spent about £70,000 and gone to all the party conferences," said one. "If we signed up more than a dozen recruits I would be amazed."

The network refused to return my calls. But a few weeks ago, I got a taste of its style when I shared a train journey with Hannah Lynes, one of its executives. Her comrades aimed to provide a space where people could connect and promote best practice, she explained.

"Connect to do what?" I asked. She looked at me blankly. "Well," I said, "what I mean is, where's your line in the sand? Your last ditch? The position you will defend to the death?" There wasn't one.

My travelling companion was charming. The train rocked, the language of inclusivity, connectivity, participation and non-judgemental interventions flowed, and I fell into a welcome snooze.

The constitutional conservatives of the Labour movement are more alert. They note that such few meetings as the network organises promote inclusivity by endorsing proportional representation and constitutional reform. They fear that it may soon deliver more substantial help to their enemies.

Temple and her associates have inserted a peculiar clause into the network's constitution. It can dissolve itself at any time and pass Stalin's expense account to good causes of the membership's choosing. "Say we've got 200 members," explained a networker. "Only a 100 or so will bother to vote on which causes should get our money. The list will be drawn up by the tiny group at the top, which is pretty certain to get its way. The system is easy to manipulate, a child could do it."

No one has any doubt that the bulk of the money will go to promote PR in the event of dissolution, probably to the Make Votes Count campaign, which has already received funds from the network's kitty; and Charter 88, whose leaders have discussed merging with the network.

Ironies will then multiply as the campaigners for a more representative democracy happily take receipt of the secret donations of the Soviet ancien regime to the fighters for a British proletarian dictatorship. If good manners prevailed, conferences on the relative attractions of STV and AV-plus would have to open with a toast to Lenin for giving British communists the money to form a party in 1920, and for establishing the secret bank accounts that were meant to support a revolutionary underground.

For some, the irony is not even remotely diverting. The loot that the network is sitting on did not come solely from the USSR. The Communist Party militants were expected to abandon their careers and give what spare money they had to the cause. They will not be consulted on the final destination of their contributions.

Lefties who support proportional representation may bark that no one gives a damn for dinosaurs of that sort these days. But insouciance could well be misplaced. The tale of the degeneration of the Communist Party into comfortable isolation is a cautionary one for constitutional reformers. It raises a question which is asked too rarely: what is constitutional reform for?

You could reply, as I would reply, that the only way to get a vaguely red or green party anywhere near influence in Britain is to change an electoral system that forces a choice between the lesser of two establishment evils. But, alas, such thoughts lead you back into "the swamp of sectarian politics", which Temple has ruled to be out of bounds. Charter 88 and Make Votes Count are not keen on sectarianism and partisanship either.

All want reform for reform's sake. The party faithful believe they can win support for radical change without telling the public who will benefit and who will lose. We are meant to support elaborate voting systems which can be exercised in local, mayoral, regional, national and Euro elections, on citizens' juries, in supermarket polling booths, and by clicking away in internet polls without ever knowing what we are voting for or against.

If communists could be excoriated for believing that the ends justified the means, many in the constitution reform movement are transfixed by the appeal of means without an end, elections without a result.

The futile history of the heir to the Communist Party of Great Britain suggests that such a programme can inspire a maximum of 250 people.