Several hundred members joining in a week after a Ken Loach Guardian article and a Salman Shaheen appearance on the Daily Politics show… new branches opening up every week and a well-attended national policy conference in Manchester… a dozen or more candidates baptising our electoral intervention in the May local elections.
This is Left Unity (LU) only six months after its founding conference. Who would have thought a new broad party of the left launched by an internet appeal and sustained through a Ken Loach cinema documentary would still be around a year later with nearly 2000 members and over 50 branches? Occasionally on the left we need to acknowledge that we have done something right. Even in a very difficult period where we have suffered a series of defeats it is possible in a small way to build something to the left of Labour that has the potential to draw in wider layers than the revolutionary left normally engages with.
At the same time we can already begin to draw a positive balance sheet of the overall line adopted at the founding conference and re-asserted at the recent policy conference. A line Socialist Resistance (SR) had fully supported which is to build LU as a broad class struggle party which is membership based, transparent and democratic which brings together anyone winning to fight now against Miliband’s capitulation along anti-capitalist lines. This means people who might or might not label themselves reformists, revolutionaries, Marxists, independent, feminist, libertarian or green can find a home in LU. We are not building another Leninist group like the SWP or the Socialist Party. Neither is LU being built as a left reformist party as some of its critics claim. Its future dynamic cannot be defined so neatly now. What is absolutely clear is that spokespeople like Salman or Bianca Todd present a credible socialist profile – if they were constrained by the sort of maximalist programme the minority platforms were pushing at the founding conference then we would not be growing in the way we are. A couple of new members in Hackney specifically name checked Salman’s appearance. Our small radical currents are in contact with a much wider audience as a result of that correct framework.
LU policies represent a perfectly adequate tool for raising transitional demands that relate to the current level of struggles and consciousness but move them step by step to challenge the power of capital. Politics is the art of knowing what the next right move is not just holding beautiful blueprints for taking power or establishing socialism.
Does it mean we have all the answers and we are certain LU will continue to develop in a positive way? Of course not. We have some humility after the Socialist Alliance and Respect experiences, we have discussed that a lot. It is early days, there is a very uneven participation that needs managing, our electoral intervention has to be built up carefully. Branches are often still quite fragile, people have come and gone. We have to turn more outwards after the necessary phase of defining our identity and developing radical but credible policies. As a radical Marxist current we have to learn how to work effectively in such a party. It is no good expecting all the members to be active in the ways an SWP member is. Different levels of participation are perfectly acceptable if we want to aim to be a small mass party.
Wary of “Leninists”
We are not carrying out entry work like many of us did before in the Labour party. Socialist Resistance believes we have to build LU as a whole, our job is not to build up a revolutionary faction inside it. We are not intervening in it with a prediction of an inevitable split or on a fishing expedition, where we can pick up some recruits. We don’t see our task at the present time of fighting a reformist current or leadership in the party. We want to work side by side with those independent forces like Andrew Burgin, Kate Hudson, Bianca, Salman and others. That’s why you don’t see SR comrades all sitting in a little bloc at the different conferences or having caucuses or producing detailed line by line instructions in our press on how to vote. We do not impose strict discipline on comrades in LU in their day to day work – just as Lenin’s early Bolsheviks often operated. Comrades are not expected to speak or vote against what they believe. Party lines and discipline in that way miseducates people and results in smash ups like Respect. Many independents inside LU are very wary of Leninist groups trying to manipulate things and they are right about the past history of this
Most of us debating how to work with LU agree with the analysis that there is a political space to the left of labour opened up by its progressive shift to managing capitalist austerity in a period when even some reforms are impossible. At the same time all mainstream political parties are seen as part of the democratic deficit by more and more voters. The expenses scandals and lack of working class representation in Labour reinforces this. The LU project flows from that analysis – you don’t have to be in the Labour Party to begin to build a serious political alternative to Labour. But some of the differences between ourselves and groups wanting a more leftist profile to LU today revolve around how you analyse that space and how people are affected politically by it. Clearly many people are coming to LU from the Labour Party, usually from left labourism – we see examples on the LU website on a regular basis. At the same time the sort of people who in the past would have been drawn into Labour – trade unionists, young people, feminists, anti-racists – are repulsed and find themselves in that space. These people do not come from a labourist background and even less a Leninist one and many of them do not have labour movement experience – they are active in campaigns or just angry and want to do something more political. Finally we have ex members of left groups – splits from SWP who are organised in currents, other individual SWP members who left on their own or who want to get involved again but don’t see the Leninist party form à la SWP or SP as the best way forward today.
The problem with what I would define as an ultra-leftist approach inside LU is that it misunderstands the nature of this space. Of course there are always some people who will move directly from campaigning or trade union action to revolutionary involvement but this is a minority of the people active now in this milieu. The majority of the people coming into it do not identify with Leninist talk of maximal programmes, workers militia and the like. They want to do something to fight Miliband’s capitulation, they are broadly anti-capitalist but they do not necessarily share our notion of the state, revolutionary crisis and socialist democracy.
There are two ways of approaching this group of activists:
1) You more or less immediately discuss reform or revolution and say that any partial reforms like taking over the energy companies are traps to recreate illusions in reformism or that 35 hours is too moderate, you need to have a demand for 21 hours to really get people moving.
2) Or you meet them where they are, you get them involved in Peoples Assembly and LU work, you discuss our economic policy which is not a full revolutionary programme but is not acceptable to capital and will mobilise people. You provide a forum within which all other questions can be discussed but you do not try and ram a revolutionary position down their throats.
More reformists, please
To me the second option is the correct one, it is the one which will enable us to build a party which can begin to have some mass roots. We have to learn how to work effectively with people coming to LU from our right. The influence of radicals and Marxists is inevitably disproportionate at the moment since we are at the beginning but it will be perfectly normal for the revolutionary current to be a much smaller proportion if LU becomes a small mass party. As Tom Walker said in a recent meeting, we need a lot more reformists inside LU as well as plenty of revolutionaries.
Some comrades like Workers Power accuse SR of having a ‘stagist’ approach with our championing of broad left parties. They say first we want a broad party, maybe eventually a left reformist government and then later you talk of revolution. They say we end up building illusions in a reformist approach.
Of course we in SR are not dissolving ourselves. We argue for revolutionary regroupment and the need for a revolutionary current but we do not think LU should become the revolutionary current. Where are the reformist forces leading LU astray at the moment? Are we realistically talking of being in a left reformist government? In any case the way a revolutionary crisis will develop here in an advanced capitalist country with a century of parliamentary democracy will probably be a combination of left governments and mass extra-parliamentary struggle with some forms of workplace or community self-organisation. Does LU have a programme that blocks that independent mass struggle?
We do plead guilty to stagism in one sense. We have a political grasp of the current period. We say it is unlikely we will see the emergence of a mass revolutionary party in the immediate future. Our experience has taught us a little understanding of how working people become radical and develop political class consciousness. We do not agree with the comrade from Workers Power who in a recent meeting suggested that the working class is naturally socialistic. Some individuals might be immediately drawn to a revolutionary current. Good, but most working people radicalise normally in stages – very few do it spontaneously in one go. Relating to those stages in today’s reality is what we should be all about. The united front approach and transitional demands are all about addressing that process of stages in radicalisation. LU fits within that framework. Those radicals that are always hammering on about reform and revolution and how the bureaucracy is holding back the masses who are raring overthrow capitalism remind me of people who has to fast forward the video all the time because they want to skip what they see as the boring bits and get to the action.
Given the nature of the period and its difficulties it is even more important to adopt an approach that relates to where we are now not in some ideal type revolutionary situation where reform and revolution are posed really concretely as life or death choices, for example in the period following the ousting of Batista in Cuba after the successful revolutionary war.
The growth of LU gives it the opportunity to be a player in any future re-composition on the left. How do we relate to ongoing developments being discussed by Unite, Counterfire, Peoples Assembly, some on the Labour left, the SWP and TUSC. Some comrades around the Communist Party of Britain think the People’s Assembly is the most important political movement in the country and counterpose it to Left Unity. Counterfire expresses a left version of this line. People are speculating about future moves by Len McCluskie. In the event of a Labour victory or defeat or a Scottish vote for independence – things could move quickly and we want to be at the centre of any future recomposition. We need to be open and flexible on this and not be too gung ho about our own success, thinking we have all the answers and can be unconcerned about such developments.
Today the task of every radical should be to get stuck into building Left Unity, we may just have the chance of building something that could begin to have a real political impact.