1. The founding process is painstaking because we are building something different
We have to go through a more difficult phase after the initial euphoria of thousands signing up precisely because we are not repeating the model used by the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the Socialist Alliance or Respect. We are building a broad class struggle party based on individual members. We are not a cartel of political organisations primarily formed to fight elections. A cartel is much easier to set up – you just need a room where the ‘leaders’ can get together and decide what to do around a basic set of agreed action points for elections. You don’t need a debate about what sort of party you are building, you don’t need to define where you place yourselves day to day in relation to the Labour Party (LP), to the LP left, to the existing radical left groups or to ecology or feminism. You don’t need to work out a constitution on how to organise yourselves democratically to limit the chances of ending up with a Galloway-style problem. You don’t need to work out measures which prevent the worst aspects of the certain Leninist groups re-asserting themselves behind the scenes.
So yes, the platform debate can appear time-consuming and even a bit alienating to LU supporters but it is unavoidable if we are going to build a party from the bottom up and with the existing political forces engaged in its construction. I also don’t agree that the platform debate is arcane or completely unclear. Yes we can always explain our positions more concretely but the choice for the party is emerging. We have had enough clear presentations from each platform already. The discussion is by and large between those who want to have a genuinely broad party that is habitable for anyone to the left of Miliband, who want to fight now against austerity or other oppressions and for generally anti-capitalist/ecological policies and those who are more cautious about being so open and are more concerned about the problems of becoming reformist or a pressure group if we are less programmatically defined. At the end of the day at the conference I am confident a significant majority will opt for the first alternative. Most people turning to LU want to work with people to the right of themselves otherwise they might as well join one of the existing left groups and/or work for their regroupment. I do not think most LU activists want to erect a protective programmatic wall.
True, the first position, the Left party platform, is a bit paradoxical because undoubtedly if you had a vote on the personal political opinions of the current active membership of LU there would be a majority for supporting most of the programmatic positions on paper of the Socialist or Class Struggle platforms but the platform debate is not about a poll of the current activists’ politics, it is about where we position LU in order to build a party that will make a difference in British politics. That is the paradox, we are asking a fair number of socialists, revolutionaries even, to keep hold of their beliefs but to build something whose entry criteria or threshold is less than their beliefs. Why? Because in the longer run having that type of class struggle approach which is less well defined on a whole series of strategic questions (such as exactly how we get socialism or how it will function), will provide us with the best basis for accumulating the forces which might give us a chance of truly challenging the rule of capital. So yes, the platform debate is difficult at times but this discussion is not happening anywhere else much on the left and it touches on the biggest question of political strategy for the serious left in this country. We should not be ashamed of it.
2. We are not just a sign up list on Facebook
Another reason to be cheerful is the fact that LU is not just an internet list or a talk shop. Around the country we have more than 50 functioning groups of various size. Everyone accepts that all the 10,000 signatories are not going to fortnightly meetings and eagerly building LU, as we like to say, on the streets, in the workplace and in the communities. Anyone who thinks sign-ups on Facebook or by email equals bums on seats in meetings or boots on the ground hasn’t been around politics since social media started to become a useful new communications tool. But after nearly a year we are having regular national organising meetings, policy commissions getting into gear and a founding conference in two months. LU members are active in the People’s Assembly in their trade unions and community campaigns. Our website has regular information, articles and reflections on action LU members are involved in. True, the fact that we are in the founding process means that leadership and direction of the group is limited and this makes it difficult to focus and steer those interventions more effectively. It is not easy or possible for the interim steering group to knock out a leaflet for a big demonstration on issues of the moment like Syria which would start to give us a better profile. Thankfully, in hindsight, we did decide to go with the ambitious November date for the founding conference because we cannot stay for too long in this limbo state. The conference will produce some sort of democratic leadership and structures that will allow us to have a clearer political profile and intervene more productively than at present.
3. Political space to the left of Miliband is not getting smaller but potentially bigger
The next encouraging reality is the continuing crisis in perspectives of the Miliband team encapsulated emphatically in the Falkirk mess. The political space identified by Ken Loach in his appeal has not gone away. Neither have there been breakthroughs by forces who support the ‘reclaim the LP or push it to the left’ line like the Morning Star, Unite or Owen Jones that would prevent us attracting activists who reject Miliband. That could change if those currents actually organised seriously in the LP or elsewhere to really confront Miliband. But time and time again people like Len McCluskey, despite playing a broadly positive role in the People’s Assembly and on other issues, are tied into a framework which thinks the main struggle is with the Blairites and that Miliband can be pulled to a more militant electoral programme. At the end of the day this current is constrained by electoralism, illusions about Miliband’s political position and a misunderstanding of the political significance of trade union affiliation to the LP. So their energies are consumed in the end by getting the vote out for Labour, getting left candidates selected and continuing to argue for trade unionists to fund a party that has not defended their interests even in the limited reformist way it may have done before Blair. In fact the unions are funding a party that never really opposed the anti-trade union laws or the pro-boss flexible working contracts like zero hours contracts that now exist. Obviously we do not approach the trade union affiliation issue in the same way as the Tories or the rightwing media. We recognise trade unionists should be active in politics but we, like Bob Crow from the RMT, question whether this is best done through affiliation to a party which takes your subs but does not defend your interests.
Other developments are also encouraging for our project. The fact that McCluskie in his John Harris Guardian interview envisages the hypothetical possibility of breaking with Labour is encouraging for us, as too is the expected more open call from Bob Crow for a new Labour party at the TUC conference. Despite the difficulties of a period when defeats are continuing this is not a bad political period for building LU. There is no sign that working people are flocking back to Labour in the expectation that Miliband is going to reverse the decline in their living standards. As a spread in today’s Observer (8/9/13) correctly suggests the mainstream parties are losing support and new parties can pick up support. In fact this is a European wide phenomenon. At best the general election will see an anti-tory vote but no great movement into the LP that the internal left will be able to build into an organised opposition. All this might change if the reclaim the LP current organised its ideological base and won over active sections of the party but we see nothing near what Militant and other entryist groups did decades ago where councils applied policies disowned by the central leadership. Where are there any examples of local LPs refusing to implement cuts? Only a few are refusing to evict over the bedroom tax.
4. The largest radical left groups are not making waves
Radical left groups who reject the LU project like the SWP or the SP are not making great progress. The TUSC, an electoral pact supported by them, is split down the middle over whether to support the Bob Crow/CPB resuscitation of the nationalistic No2EU campaign for the European elections. It remains a cartel without any local groups and so inevitably its electoral intervention does not flow out of an ongoing unified intervention and does not result in anything greater than the sum of its parts afterwards. The brand just exists when there are elections, sometimes its candidates represent a recognised local activist and scores are better but often candidates are variably supported by the TUSC components according to which party they belong to. There is no real space for independents in this sort of set up. Obviously, just as with the Owen Jones influenced current, we work alongside them and work in a united way where we can – for example we can support TUSC candidates as LU. But we are not faced with a dominant political competitor that is already organising those activists who want a political alternative to Miliband. LU branches are not faced with TUSC local groups that are well established or that exist outside the auspices of the two main political groups that compose it.
Apart from this the SWP, the largest and historically the most dynamic left group, is still experiencing a lot of internal tension. Its flagship event, Marxism, in July, was well down on last year and it is not in its usual pole position to recruit activist students since the crisis has hit its student work hard. On the positive side there is evidence that many SWP branches have made a turn to supporting the People’s Assembly project which has grown out of the Coalition of Resistance. In the past it counterposed its front, Unite the Resistance, to the much broader based Coalition’s united front campaign. Indeed the momentum of the People’s assemblies with over 50 being set up should be further encouragement to our project. The People’s Assemblies (PAs) regroup exactly the sort of audience we are interested in. The fact that some of the leading forces in the PA, like Counterfire, do not share our position of building a broad-based political alternative to Miliband now is their contradiction not ours. We should be building PAs wherever we have LU groups.
5. Ken Loach is no George Galloway
Finally be thankful we do not have a leader, charismatic or otherwise, whose ego and capricious political operations would sooner or later kill off any potential for building a democratic fighting party. We have no Galloway figure, his antics have left Respect restricted to one or two local bases which then tend to turn in on themselves because his notion of democratic structures are light years away from ours. Just remember when people complain about some aspects of the platform debate or the antics of some LU activists in national meetings – we could have a Respect situation or something like TUSC where there just is no space for local activists to have their voices heard. Similarly, although we have various political groups inside LU they are all relatively small and no single one of them is dominant enough to mess things up. Of course there is always the possibility that all to them acting together even in disagreement could alienate enough people to destroy LU. However I think that has not happened so far and even if there are risks at the conference I think the weight of the people supporting a broad inclusive party will ensure that after a vigorous debate we can move on.
We should however be extra careful about how we debate the issues and we must frame the options in terms what difference it would make if we adopt this or that platform when we organise what the party does. The different platforms will imply we will talk in different ways to people we will meet, we would set up the website or publications in a different language or we will prioritise areas of work differently. Already it is clear that if the socialist platform is adopted there would be a different framework for work around feminist or ecological issues than if we adopt the Left party platform. We have a responsibility in the discussion to spell these things out. As Jim Jepps correctly suggests we should also be thankful that discussions now and at conference are not just the platform debate. We have a fascinating discussion about how to organise ourselves more democratically than in the past, what sort of admin/political apparatus we need, our electoral intervention or how to limit a London distortion. There are discussions like this that fall outside the platforms and we should welcome that.
Apart from these five reasons we should also celebrate the fact that the recent Guardian letter re-launching the appeal signalled the support of some more respected figures from the labour movement and the recent piece in the New Statesman by Salman has sparked quite a debate. There has even been a positive article about LU from a leading member of Socialist Action on their website. Now is not the time to lose heart or to overreact to the necessary clarification of the platform debate.