Left Unity: A chaotic yet positive start
On Saturday 11 May, over 100 people attended the first meeting of Left Unity in central London. Delegates and volunteers came from across the country, representing dozens of groups big and small. Participants ranged from those in left organisations, political refugees from long-dead left groups or the Labour Party, and those getting involved in the movement for the first time. There were, of course, lots of problems to overcome but as a first national meeting it was a relative success.
The conference was opened by Kate Hudson, a member of the coordinating group. The first session was dominated by reports of how local groups are developing, as well as the hopes and fears of those present. A common theme from most speakers was avoiding the mistakes of previous attempts at unity (e.g. Socialist Alliance and Respect) and the uses and abuses of power by the different left groups behind those initiatives. Whilst this was mostly healthy, there was a tendency to see existing left groups as a danger to a united project: they are only part of the problem and not part of the solution. This is hardly an unreasonable position when the current left groups have utterly failed to organise effective resistance, are alienating to the majority of people and have an internal culture that is asphyxiating. For me, the most interesting thing about this session was listening to speaker after speaker get up and call for a democratic party, where all voices are heard, that can make a difference in the struggles we face.
The second session was much more fractious and chaotic, with both the audience and chairs feeling confused at different points. The session was supposed to be the opening of discussions on the numerous motions that had been submitted and, principally, the draft statement written by Kate Hudson. However, the session was instead opened with a procedural motion by Nick Wrack (Independent Socialist Network) and Simon Hardy (Anticapitalist Initiative), which called for more debate and returning the motions to local groups so they can have some input. This was a sensible proposal considering the majority of supporters at the meeting had not read the motions until they arrived at the conference. The debate that followed was at times ridiculous; strange accusations were thrown at those who wanted to have a wider debate and sometimes personal attacks were used that thoroughly soured the session. The audience itself did not help the meeting flow: speaking when called by the Chair was seemingly abandoned in favour who could shout the loudest at times. In the end, the meeting did vote 51 votes to 36 (with 12 abstentions) to have the proposals properly debated by all supporters.
The second session was dominated by the procedural motion, behind which there are two political visions for Left Unity. The first is for a broad anti-austerity party similar to Die Linke in Germany, with a political approach that treads ever so slightly to the left of social democracy. In Britain that would mean the politics of labourism without the Labour Party. The arguments for this have been repeated ad nauseum and never got us anywhere. The other side, which I count myself part of, is for a party that gives a more comprehensive and inspirational alternative where capitalism is not just curtailed but replaced by a democratically-planned economy. Whilst we must fight to defend everything we have already won and continue to make as many gains as we can, we must also link that with a systemic change that makes those gains permanent. In short, we need a class struggle party that fights for socialism. It is clear as we go forward that this will be the debate that defines Left Unity.
The conference was then addressed by Ken Loach, whose original appeal received the enthusiastic response of over 8000 people to date. The speech was fantastic not only because of the political content, but because it was so grounded in the reality facing the working class today. The core of the speech focused on our political tasks:
“What brings us together is the opposition to austerity, it’s the mass unemployment, it’s the way every aspect of our civilised society is being stripped out of our world, whether it’s libraries, whether it’s facilities for the disabled, whether it’s council cuts. They’re reversing all the gains that have been made since 1945.
But, and this might be contentious and maybe it’s too early, but there is an important core political idea that sits at the heart of what I hope a new party will stand for. The way things are run now, this system will never provide a dignified life for us, never provide a safe future for our kids and will never take care of the environment. I could call this economic structure capitalism. We’ve talked about language earlier on and it’s a word that some of us might shrink from. But there have been two centuries of people fighting to refine our language so that we can talk precisely about the world we live in. So I hope you find that the word capitalism is acceptable in order to talk about the tasks ahead of us.
The core idea that I hope that sits of the heart of this party is the fact that we need a planned economy to get out of this mess. Of course, you can’t plan what you don’t control, so it needs to be an economy held in common, a democratically controlled economy. And we call that socialism. I hope that is acceptable to everybody here. That is a society where we are our brothers’ keeper, where we do look after each other and where we look after the sick and the old and where we give our kids a good education. That central concept is absolutely crucial.
The corollary of that is that this party is not a version of a social democratic party, this is not a party that thinks we should scramble around the crumbs as they fall off the table and it’s not a version of a party that tries to pull Miliband a little bit to the left. In my mind, we are not here to build a social democratic party.”
As a communist, I think we can evolve the politics of Left Unity much further, but Ken Loach’s appeal to the simple yet powerful idea of socialism replacing capitalism is a fantastic start that could enjoy the wide support we need to break out of the sect-dominated left that has got us nowhere. What is crucial is honesty and patience in these discussions; there must be no rush to proclaim this programme or that platform. And whilst I sympathise with the Workers Power delegates who argued that Left Unity must be ready to carry out united action, I do not think their action programme is the basis of that or much of an action programme at all (see Trotsky’s Action Programme for France).
The final session carried on some of themes of the first two, as well as such practical issues as enshrining Left Unity as an individual member organisation and not a collection of left group cobbled together for elections like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. There was widespread rejection of existing left groups having any special rights in Left Unity and the motion moved by Tina Becker (Communist Party of Great Britain) calling for observer rights for the left groups was massively defeated. I voted for this motion on the basis that the left groups must be transformed; I want the left groups to listen to and learn from those in Left Unity who have been burnt by the maneuvering and sectarianism that is endemic on the left. There is also a pretty obvious error in calling a project Left Unity when only part of the left is engaged with the process. We need a way to undermine the practice of having dozens of socialist groups competing with each other and duplicating work and achieving very little. What I do not agree with is that the existing left groups should have an automatic right to delegates, vetoes and voting rights.
Any project that wants to renew the left must turn the left on its head and build from the bottom up. That means if existing left groups can’t win the political arguments or delegates at a local level, then it is be fair to say that they represent no real political tendency within the project. Such an approach would also make sure that a clique does not direct the project towards an end cooked up behind closed door by those in the know. Everything should be open: minutes of the coordinating group should be published online and circulated to all members, delegates and officers must be instantly recallable, and the local groups must be the driving force behind Left Unity.
The final sessions also elected ten supporters to the new coordinating group and they will be joined by delegates from the local groups. There was a discussion on whether to ensure the meeting elected at least 50% of women to the new committee. There was a good exchange between Soraya Lawrence (Southwark) and Merry Cross (Reading) which only scratched the surface of the debate that is needed on this question. The problems faced by women within the movement must be overcome by a cultural revolution across the left that seeks to eradicate the macho bullshit and makes it practically possible for greater involvement of all women. Simple things such as a creché or absolute rights to caucus can go some way in helping. The quota was passed by an overwhelming majority though it was not needed as six women were elected without any adjustment.
There are things which we must get right next time. Motions and amendments must be available to be digested and debated by local groups in good time before conference. Observers should be welcome from different left groups. It was disappointing that a member of the Danish Red Green Alliance was welcomed as an observer whilst that group is instituting cuts, yet our homegrown left and anti-austerity groups were denied or not invited. This should have been discussed at the meeting and not just waved through. Chairs must be well briefed but also well supported by the audience. If we get this right there will be more time for the important political discussions and time to prepare common action against austerity.
The biggest decision, which Kris Stewart in his report rightly points out as not receiving “the fanfare it deserves”, was the decision to hold the founding congress of a new left party in November. This means we have lots of work to do, lots of debates to be had and thousands of people to engage in the process. From my perspective, revolutionaries must approach this process patiently. We should listen, while being honest and firm that capitalism needs more than a social democratic edit; it needs dumping altogether. In this, I am happy to say that I agree with Ken.