Where are we now? – Left Unity
When the Conservative-led government took power in 2010 it was met by thousands of angry and active youth on the streets. There was a sense that the struggle against austerity was about to take off. Even when the movement subsided we were met with the prospect of unified industrial action against the assault on pensions which gave hope that our side was finally prepared to hit back. The reality was a bitter pill to swallow as the unions failed to lead and, beyond a couple of small examples, struggles from below are frighteningly absent. In this space the left has withered and split further, no political body has be found to articulate and pursue a clear alternative. Many are scratching around for a popular alternative, only to find that Keynesianism and social democracy are not the great motivators they had hoped. Left Unity has stepped into this void but whether it can provide the alternative, the organisation and the vision to help turn around our fortunes will only become clear over the next couple of years.
Since the first appeal went out in March this year Left Unity has managed to attract around 10,000 supporters with around 1200 of them becoming founding members of the new party. Branches have been established in most parts of the country and it has managed to attract some of the hardest working activists on the left. No mean feat under current conditions where the capitalist offensive has been met with sporadic and fleeting resistance. Terry Eagleton’s observation that those who entered the movement in 60s and 70s but dropped out had no “illusions about the new capitalism, but disillusion about the possibility of changing it”1 is important in recognising that the neoliberal offensive removed from the mainstream debate any alternative to capitalism. In that space the left withered, Labour moved further to the right and those groups outside went into long decline with numerous unity initiatives coming to naught. So when Left Unity emerged there was enthusiasm but also apprehension and a little mistrust.
On Saturday 30 November 495 activists gathered in central London for the founding conference of Left Unity. The vast majority were old-hands who have gone through different left groups and past unity initiatives. Of the youth present, most were organised in one of the different revolutionary groups that support Left Unity. The conference came almost a year after we, in the Anticapitalist Initiative, along with friends in the New Left Project, Ceasefire and others held a vibrant and participatory conference called ‘Up the Anti‘ with over 300 attendees from across the movement. It struck me that Left Unity has not yet been able to engage the generation of activists that came out of the student and anti-war movements. We need to assess why the kind of politics and methods used by Left Unity do not resonate with these activists and whether we can begin to bridge the gap through common work and open debate.
There were plenty of positives to take from the day with the most obvious being that we now have established ourselves as a new party, we have decided on a name and put together a constitution that was overwhelmingly supported on the conference floor. The organisation to get to this point was the result of hard work of activists in working groups and branches preparing and debating out numerous questions, motions and amendments in, for the most part, a comradely and open spirit. For those beyond the left such a thing might not look like a triumph but the ever decreasing and fractious left in Britain is hardly known for being able to get simple things right. There was also a refreshing uncertainty about how votes would go and who would win what on the day, unlike Respect, Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Labour Party we did not have to contend with a conference where decisions were made in fraction meetings and backroom deals and not on the conference floor.
A safe space?
In the run-up to conference some supporters had formed a working group to establish a Safe Spaces policy document that would become an addendum to the party constitution. Some of the debate around this document has been unfair to say the least but many supporters in branches have raised criticisms of certain aspects which to the working group’s credit were seriously looked at and used as the basis to refine the policy. The impetus behind this document is the abusive actions by Martin Smith and the subsequent attempted cover up by leading members of the Socialist Workers Party. The document recognised that within any organisation uneven power relationships can develop because of age, experience etc. It attempted to frame the document in a way that Left Unity could mitigate the dangers within the movement and wider society. Unfortunately no time was on the agenda to discuss the issues and the conference decided to remit the document back to the next National Coordinating Group meeting. It was not a vote against having such document, no doubt an overwhelming majority believed we would need an amended version sooner rather than later.
The key debate on the political basis of our new party didn’t really happen. The Standing Orders Committee (SOC) only allocated 49 minutes to discuss the platforms but on the day the chair, Liz Davies, cut even more time from the debate as previous items ran over. This was one of the most disappointing aspects of the conference, the SOC clearly worked hard but failed to prepare an agenda that could fit into the time of the conference and didn’t really have a grip on the day’s events. Such things happen and we can certainly learn from that and get it right next time.
The appearance and unfortunate endorsement of an Aims section produced by the Internal Democracy and Constitution Commission is a mistake that must be rectified in the spring. Apart from distilling aspects of the other platforms into conservative fudges it managed to commit Left Unity to the bizarre idea that private ownership of the means of production could be used and directed for the benefit of all. Unlike the other platforms these aims were not discussed at length in branches and were not scrutinised by members over several months. Such an approach is not healthy for democracy and ideally should have been thrown out by the SOC.
An amendment from Lambeth to move the platforms out of the aims section of the constitution passed but the motion from Camden to not vote on the platforms at conference and to continue the debate did not pass. In moving the Camden motion Ken Loach rightly noted that many of the issues have not been discussed properly and also said that the lack of reports on finance, trade union work and communication was disappointing. An amendment from Loughborough committing Left Unity to participating in coalition governments was thankfully defeated.
In moving the Left Party Platform (LPP) Felicity Dowling pointed out that austerity is affecting the working class and that we need a party committed to feminism, ecology and socialism to fight back. When moving the Socialist Platform (SP) Nick Wrack commented that there was much agreement on the problems we face. He also argued that “it’s not just a question of fighting the policies we see now, it is a question of fighting against the system that gives rise to those policies” which means we need an alternative vision of replacing capitalism with socialism. Interestingly the LPP has gone on a journey over the last few months, from soft social democratic platitudes towards a clearer socialist policy. The LPP amended their own document prior to conference thanks to the criticisms raised by SP supporters and on the day it was further strengthened thanks to amendments from Ken Loach (Camden), Manchester and Leicester. The LPP was adopted by conference securing the support of around 59% of conference.
The SP received the support of around 25% of conference delegates and did not pass. As someone who helped initiate the SP I am happy that we managed to get such a vote. Our platform drove the debate inside Left Unity onto clear questions of strategy and principles that ensured the LPP document was transformed to incorporate the main points we had raised.
The statement moved by Hackney/Tower Hamlets Left Unity was mostly supportable immediate measures and issues but did not go far enough. In moving the statement Pete Green argued that we shouldn’t lose sight of what unites us and used the example of increasing winter deaths and increasing energy company profits as a tangible issue where Left Unity should be fighting for the nationalisation of energy companies which is supported by 60% of people in Britain, going far beyond what Ed Miliband has offered from the Labour Party. Unfortunately Pete proceeded to say that criticism of understanding socialism as just another value somehow meant not learning the lessons of Stalinism. This statement was endorsed by 44% of conference delegates and was therefore passed.
Workers Power submitted the Class Struggle Platform that tried to put into the discussion how we can link where we are now with the longer term goals of socialist change. It did not receive much support, but I hope that Left Unity will revisit many of the issues they raised as we do need to begin thinking about how Left Unity will organise, aid and initiate struggles and campaigns over the coming period. The only other platform to be voted on was the Communist Platform that was submitted by the Communist Party of Great Britain after losing the key vote at the September SP caucus. It was the SP with some amendments and won little support before or at the conference. Both were overwhelmingly defeated on the day and the remaining platforms were withdrawn despite taking up precious time on the day by being moved.
The limited contributions from the floor during this session were mostly disappointing and some were reminiscent of the kind of demagogy one came to expect at over hyped SWP front conferences. No other SP speaker was called in the session and the majority of speakers came from the LPP. A mistake that we must try to avoid in the future, when we need to have a debate over competing documents we must allocate more time and allow each side respond.
The constitutional labyrinth
The afternoon session was dominated by discussion over the constitution and amendments that proved labyrinthine for delegates as well as the chair, Tony Mercer, who had the most unenviable job of the day. There were long delays to get points clarified and attention slowly drained from the room. I must admit it was hard to stop my mind wandering off and to focus on the minutiae of constitutional amendments. The session was, however, a relative success with numerous amendments being passed that would give members greater rights to drive the organisation from the bottom up and for members to organise themselves into caucuses as they saw fit.
The most volatile argument during the session was over whether Left Unity should continue with its policy of having the leading body composed of at least 50% women. This is a real debate within the movement and some of the speeches on both sides during the session only helped obscure the issues. It was also unfortunate that a supporter of the 50% rule likened those women who disagreed to the “Tories and the far right”. There can be no excuse for such attacks, the chair failed to correct the speaker and disgustingly a significant minority on the conference floor cheered and clapped at the comment. The real argument rests on whether bureaucratic rules, so commonly used within trade unions and NGO’s, really help overcome the massive inequality that capital maintains between different genders. Women opposing the 50% rule argued that it could be tokenism and that everyone should be elected based on their politics and abilities. Other criticisms that weren’t explored were that the 50% rule reinforces a binary view of gender that has undergone considerable criticism by queer activists. Furthermore, Left Unity has started down the road of representation based on specific oppression but stops at women, ignoring the oppression of others based on ethnicity or sexuality for example. No convincing answer has been given for this. The 50% rule was supported by an overwhelming majority but on that vote I abstained because I think Left Unity has not had a deep enough debate on these issues and they should be re-visited in an open and calm way by our new party.
WTF is to be done?
The next wave of attacks by the Conservative-led government on young workers and the unemployed in particular demand an urgent response by left and working class organisations. Here our new party could play a crucial role in winning the arguments, mobilising for action and providing a home for those moving into struggle. The emergence of Left Unity has been a positive step and has brought together a small but important layer of activists who are involved within the broad movement in one way or another. There are, however, worrying signs that the political development of the new party will be to the right of the majority of those who will be building it.
The project stands in a long line of attempts to forge a new left party in Britain on the tired assumption that because the Labour Party is moving to right a space now awaits to be filled. Another tired assumption is that to fill that space we must limit our radicalism to pious social democratic politics with an increasingly green tint. Yet, clearly we have been here before and clearly any modest reading of our recent history will tell us that such an approach has failed whether you look at the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect or the Green Party, tacking just to the left of Labour in or out of government does not earn you much of an audience. Worse, the collapse of these projects alongside the disintegration of the existing left has ensured that we are often going round in ever smaller circles, which is becoming an exhausting and boring political spectacle. Part of the reason why many new activists are not engaged in the debate for a new party let alone active in building one.
We have the beginning of a party and the struggle by active communists managed to drive its politics to the left of what the social democratic elements would have liked. A lot has been written and said over the last few months and whilst we must continue the debates now is the time for Left Unity to start winning credibility in the movement through playing a part in the limited struggles that are emerging and initiating its own campaigns. We must work to link the immediate struggle with the historical necessity of moving beyond capitalism towards communism. How can we turn the position our class is in now, where it’s debased, atomised, and politically weak and exploited, towards a position of abolishing capitalist relations? The broad party formula can be seen as an attempt to answer this question by some on the left. What they are aiming for is a temporary organisation, a stepping stone, between today’s isolation and tomorrow’s mass revolutionary movement. The promise of unity today is predicated on a guaranteed split in the future as such formations do not aim at revolutionary transformation but at seeking mandates to govern, to capture, an in turn be captured, by the capitalist state. Those groups, like Socialist Resistance, who back building a broad party, are well aware of the split that awaits, and further it is their strategy to eventually split. Those of us who rallied to the Socialist Platform held a different conception about revolutionary politics. We started from what was needed and refused to put aside key principles for short-term political convenience as we had witnessed where that had led in Respect and other unity projects internationally. Communists must organise in key debates were differences exist as we move forward whilst constantly working to make the new party viable along with those who may not yet share our perspective by putting our ideas to the test.