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13 February 2007

Civilised debates at the ICA and the RCP…

A good tempered debate prompts memories of being hijacked by the Revolutionary Communist Party

By Martin Bright

I had the honour of chairing a debate at the ICA last night with the title What’s Left of the New Left. The panel consisted of Nick Cohen, he of What’s Left? fame, Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper and the Transnational Institute, Martin Kettle of the Guardian and Mick Hume of The Times and Spiked, the online magazine.

I was expecting a shouting match, but it was all pretty civilised. The debate turned to Iraq pretty quickly and Mick Hume suggested that his version of left-wing politics was opposed to intervention on principle. Martin Kettle, who opposed the war in Iraq, politely suggested he was talking nonsense, but there was no fisticuffs. Hilary Wainwright was deeply impressive in outlining her belief that the New Left brought a “new kind of humanitarianism” based on “people to people diplomacy”. I expected Nick Cohen to be shouted down, but he is a good public speaker, who praised the gains made by the Left (gay rights, women’s rights, the fight against racism) before outlining his now familiar attacks on the Left for making an accommodation with radical Islam.

Kettle said, for him, the post-68 New Left was about the rejection of Communism, which brings me to the Revolutionary Communist Party of which Mick Hume was/is a member. The RCP has now entered what Marxists used to call the “ideological state apparatus” using various front organisations (Spiked, the Institute of Ideas and the Manifesto Club being the latest). At one point during the debate, I randomly called three people to ask questions and they all came from Spiked. It was weird.

This reminded me of an even weirder encounter with the RCP seven years ago, which is seared in my memory.

In the late 90s I was approached by a group called Curriculum 2000 to speak at Leeds University. I had written a piece in the Observer about the Ridings High School in Calderdale, which had been the subject of a Panorama programme and was generally being written off as the worst school in Britain. I visited the estate in Halifax that served it and was invited into the houses of some of the kids who had been “excluded” . As a result, I discovered the genuinely tragic story of a little boy whose twin had been killed in a road accident and understandably found it a bit difficult to concentrate at school.

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The “Curriculum 2000” people said they wanted me to appear on a panel to discuss the government’s policy on failing schools as a result of my fine expose. They couldn’t offer me a fee, but I think they paid for a train ticket and said they would put me up overnight.

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I should have smelt a rat when one of my fellow panellists turned out to be Claire Fox, a prominent member of the Revolutionary Communist Party but I delivered a little address on “schools of the future” based on a competition we had just run in the Observer. It wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t that bad either.

It was only when questions began that I realised I had been ambushed. The first question was: “What does the panel think about bullying?” I said I thought it was a pretty rum business. This didn’t go down well and I realised the whole room was shaking its collective head. The line was carefully explained to me: school bullying policies were deeply sinister and turning the nation’s children into cowering ninnies. At this stage I wasn’t entirely familiar with the wisdom of Frank Furedi (his campaign against soft surfaces in children’s playgrounds is my favourite piece of insanity), but it soon became obvious that I was talking to an RCP cell.

I went out for dinner with Fox and the Leeds RCP afterwards, but grew more and more angry about being duped by the Curriculum 2000 fraud.

I couldn’t sleep that night (in a room in a student hall of residence). I ended up ringing a taxi at three in the morning and escaping to Leeds station where I waited for the first train back to London.

I have never really trusted the RCP ever since.