Vladimir Derer, 1919-2014: a tribute by Jon Lansman
Vladimir Derer who was the leading figure in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) for forty years after its foundation in 1973 died on 10 June 2014 at the age of 94. Although almost unknown other than amongst Labour activists, he was the Labour Left's leading strategist at the height of its influence in the 1970s and 1980s. The organisation he created and his strategic vision made CLPD, the most effective organisation on the Labour Left not only in that period but through the New Labour years to the present.
Tony Benn, who died only three months ago, was rightly regarded as the Labour Left's outstanding leader and communicator of the period but he was often wrongly credited with being the architect of the movement for democratic reform within the party. That role was performed by Vladimir Derer. As Frances Morrell put it in The Struggle for Labour's Soul: "He was a strategist and tactician of outstanding ability…. if any single individual was responsible for the changes to the party's constitution that were agreed in the period after the party left office, then it was undoubtedly Vladimir Derer".
Without Vladimir, there would have been no mandatory reselection of MPs, no electoral college in which Tony Benn could come within a whisker of winning the deputy leadership of the party and in which Ed Miliband was to win the leadership. Those two reforms together with the unrealised objective of Labour's manifesto being determined by its elected executive were CLPD's core objectives through the 1970s .
Nor is it only the victories of the early 1980s for which Vladimir should be remembered. Immediately after the victories on mandatory reselection and the wider franchise for the election of the leader the 1980s, CLPD was, at Vladimir and his wife Vera's instigation, the first organisation on the Labour Left to take up the issue of the representation of women and BAME communities within the party, and amongst its candidates for public office. This was vigorously opposed initially, but without this initiative, it is hard to see how Labour could by 2010 have had 81 women and 16 black MPs, compared with ten and zero respectively in 1983.
Together with Vera, Vladimir created the organisation which resisted the rolling back of all those democratic reforms for the following thirty years. Vladimir and Vera's home in Golders Green, North London, was its headquarters. The Gestetner duplicators, typewriters, card index systems, stencils and ink of the late 1970s were eventually replaced with computers, photocopiers, laser printers and toner. Books, files, archived newsletters, bulletins, magazines penetrated every room in the house. They possessed what was probably a more comprehensive collection of national and regional Labour Party agendas, annual reports, conference arrangements reports, national executive minutes even than that of the Labour Party itself.
In the long period from 1981 until 2010 in which the gains of the Labour Left were gradually reversed, in which internal party elections and selections gradually (and with the help of cheating and manipulation of the rulebook) replaced socialists with careerists, it was Vladimir's tenacity and strategic leadership which kept CLPD going, when many on the Left were leaving the party or dropping out of activity. Although the left was in a depleted state by the end of Blair's premiership, demoralised and driven into opposition to the disastrous Iraq war, to privatisation and to neo-liberalism, it was not nearly as weak as it would otherwise have been. In 2010, it helped Ed Miliband to victory over his brother.
Although Vladimir's leadership of CLPD was never disputed, that is not to say that his views went unchallenged or without debate – a process that Vladimir would always encourage. Encouraging debate, however, did not mean that he accepted criticism easily. He was a great one for producing lengthy responses to every criticism, drafts of which would undergo umpteen revisions before eventual publication in the CLPD Bulletin or in letters to other publications and Left organisations.
One of Vladimir's most consistent themes related to the need for the Labour Left to focus upon and win the support of Labour's centre ground — the support of Labour loyalists who often held contradictory positions, supporting left policies whilst also being loyal, deferential even, to Labour's leadership. He criticised other Left groupings because, he said (in the CLPD Bulletin of January 1986), they:
"do not attempt to win the support of the majority, or if they believe that is what they are doing, the methods they choose to adopt to pursue their basic aims ensure they are not realised."
A related argument remains a valid rejection of the arguments of those who argue against working within the Labour Party today. Two years later:
"The basic problem of the Left [is] …. its unwillingness and therefore inability to come to terms with the political environment of bourgeois democratic institutions which constitute the framework for activity… [and have] displayed a degree of stability quite unexpected by those who prophesied their inevitable collapse.
"….[Their survival] cannot be put down just to the the 'betrayal' of the leaders of mass working class parties … the fact that the great majority of members of these parties chose to follow reformist leaders rather than 'revolutionary' critics was not accidental".
Vladimir rejected both the traditional left reformist faith that radical change was possible through socialist activities within the Labour Party, and the faith of those to the Left of Labour in the transformational potential of:
"mass movements, springing up spontaneously in places of employment and within working class communities. Such movements would create [their] own organs of political power, bypass representative parliamentary institutions, come into conflict with them and ultimately replace them."
Instead, Vladimir believed the Left should take parliamentary democracy seriously but needed to focus on winning the support of the Labour Party membership to a socialist programme by building a rank & file organisation which was:
"opposed to the leadership but built on a programme that at any given time is acceptable to the mass of the party's individual and affiliated membership".
If the Labour Left doesn't do that, then, like the left outside Labour, they are relying on "being rescued from their chronic political impotence by spontaneously arising mass movements." A radical reforming government, however, elected on such a programme, pushing beyond the limits of a capitalist framework, will provoke a crisis which will create the potential for radical change.
Where this disappointed others on the Labour Left was the requirement to put aside campaigning objectives which were not capable of winning a majority. There is no purpose to generalised socialist propaganda. Going beyond what the majority are capable of accepting, given their existing level of consciousness, only serves to alienate people and results in a failure to win that majority.
Many of us who worked with Vladimir came to share this outlook. We may call ourselves Bennites, but in many ways we are really Dererites. The over-riding priority in intra-party campaigning is creating the organisation necessary to win a majority of the party to the required programme. Sometimes this did create some tension between Vladimir and Tony Benn, whose outlook was rather different. It was the conflict between on the one hand a preacher, a prophet, essentially a Christian socialist, who had "lived in the oral tradition, learning from listening and watching rather than from reading, and communicating by speaking rather than writing"; and on the other hand a strategist, an organiser, essentially a Marxist, who was steeped in political theory and the organisational requirements for socialist transformation. But Vladimir was one of a tiny number of people Tony trusted who would also express strong disagreement with him.
One particular example of this was the post-mortem following the deputy-leadership election of 1981. Whilst many on the Left, inside and outside the party, though disappointed by Tony's narrow defeat, were enthused by the narrowness, Vladimir noted the defeats on issues other than Tony's election: the loss of NEC seats and defeat on a number of constitutional issues. He was concerned about the shift away from CLPD of the centre ground in the unions and the constituency parties. He also noted in CLPD's post-conference Bulletin:@@"What is significant is that wherever wider membership was consulted, the majority seemed to support Denis Healey (NUM here seem to have been one exception)."
Vladimir also noted the increasing reluctance among party activists to press for democratic reforms, and the hesitation of trade union delegates to back those already on the agenda. In the same Bulletin he wrote:
"There can be little doubt that the 'presidential' style in which the Deputy Leadership campaign was fought contributed to the willingness to compromise [with the leadership]."
Vladimir said all this at the meeting. Tony immediately responded, explained how the election had been "about policies not personalities" and said "Vladic, you're falling for right-wing propaganda in the media." Vladimir, who often spoke slowly and always in his strong Czech accent, on this occasion responded as quick as a flash: "but Tony, you are falling for your own propaganda".
Vladimir Derer, like Tony Benn, was the son of a cabinet minister. His father, Ivan Dérer, had been a Social Democratic minister in various Czech governments from 1920 until the Munich agreement between Hitler, Chamberlain et al in 1938. He was involved in the anti-fascist resistance in Prague and interned in Theresienstadt as a result but survived to chair the Czechoslovakian Labour Party until the Communist Party consolidated its control in 1948.
Vladimir, himself, a nineteen year-old with Trotskyist sympathies at the time, escaped in 1939 via Poland to Britain. His Jewish girlfriend and other friends with whom he travelled were denied visas, and Vladimir was able to obtain one only because of his father's reputation.
Following military service, working as a translator and as a courier, he didn't settle into a life of political activity, supported by his second wife, Vera, until well into his middle years. Although he was active in Trotskyist politics in the late 1940s, he was politically inactive for many years until he joined the Labour Party in the early 1960s. Thereafter, it became his life's work.
Vladimir Derer, born 6 November 1919, died 10 June 2014