Over a hundred people from fifty five local groups, as well as members of the day-to-day organising group, met for the first national meeting of Left Unity in London on Saturday, May 12.
The first session, chaired by Bianca Todd from Northampton and Jake Whitby from the Manchester Youth Group, was opened by Kate Hudson from the organising group. Kate set out the fantastic response that there has been to the call for a discussion for a new party of the left since Ken Loach launched his appeal in the middle of March. She situated the response – with more than 8000 signatures and more than 90 local groups beginning to be set up – in the context of similar processes taking place in other parts of Europe: a point that was further underlined by the warm message of support the meeting received from the two MEPs of the Portuguese Left Bloc.
The first session was planned as feedback from local groups as to what they had been doing to get the word out about Left Unity in their communities; local views on the appeal for a new party; the issues they have been campaigning about and the questions that they wanted answered by the national meeting. A number of speakers in this session and the early part of the afternoon gave valuable reports of what was happening, from Brighton to Bristol, from Leeds to West London and many other places.
At the same time, a number of other contributions in these sessions also added, or in some cases exclusively focused on, making more general political points about how Left Unity needed to be constituted. It was no surprise that many sisters and brothers who had been through the experiences of the Socialist Alliance, Respect, the Campaign for a New Workers Party and/or TUSC, wanted to draw out what they saw as the lessons of those discussions.
The conclusions varied. Dave Church from Walsall, for example, made a powerful contribution as to why Left Unity needed to be based on individual membership, avoiding the power that federations handed over to larger organisations of the left and that allowed them to manipulate a broad party in their own sectarian interests. Pete McLaren from Rugby, on the other hand, while arguing against affiliates having the right of veto, argued that it was nevertheless important to allow other organisations to affiliate, suggesting that this way we could draw in community groups and trade unions, not just left groups.
Some comrades commented on what they had experienced as the negative role of left organisations – particularly, though not exclusively, the larger ones.
All of this is, of course, completely legitimate territory for an exchange, but it was frustrating that in some cases there was no sense of whether the person was speaking as a result of a collective discussion, or merely expressing their personal opinion. Further, it wasn’t clear to me whether aspects of this thread would have been comprehensible to those Left Unity representatives who hadn’t been through any of these previous attempts to create an organisation to the left of Labour.
What was clear from the discussion – and further underlined by several proposals the meeting went on to vote on later in the day – was that the majority was in favour of an organisation based, at least at this stage, on individual membership. Members of far left groups should be individually welcomed, but ways had to be found to protect the organisation and its members from the manipulation that has happened on previous occasions.
In my view, Left Unity can best do this by building itself in an outgoing way, reaching far beyond the members of existing radical left groups. It needs to adopt structures based on individual membership, rather than affiliations. At the same time we need, as Doug Thorpe from Haringey pointed out, to create a culture where we appear on the streets primarily as Left Unity, rather than as a plethora of different paper sellers.
After the conclusion of that discussion in the first part of the afternoon, Chris Hurley and Adam Roden in the chair turned out to have the hardest jobs of the day. This session had been planned to take procedure on electing the national co-ordinating group, plus a number of resolutions from local groups, on topics from the People’s Assembly to council housing (there were 11 motions and amendments tabled for the session).
In fact, late the night before the meeting, a procedural motion was submitted by Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network and Simon Hardy of the Anticapitalist Initiative, which proposed the following:
“This meeting resolves not to take any votes on any of the statements, resolutions or amendments except for those, or those parts, which deal with: (1) the election of the new national coordinating group; (2) the process of debate and discussion; (3) the dates of the next national meeting and the founding conference.”
The motion was accompanied by a longer motivation which essentially said that the material before the conference had been inadequately discussed by the groups and therefore any decisions would be open to challenge.
In moving the motion, which was rightly the first – and in the end almost the only – matter voted on in the session, Nick Wrack made forceful reference to the fact that many present were shuffling through their pieces of paper, to see what they were being asked to decide on and that much of this had not been discussed by any local groups – and all of it by no groups.
It was not an inaccurate point to make and it was not surprising that, despite valiant attempts by IS Network’s Tom Walker and others to explain why passing this motion would create at least as many problems as it would solve, the meeting voted to support it, albeit with an amendment that we should also discuss the question of one member, one vote.
What soured the discussion a little was the very partial account, given by the supporters of the procedural motion, of why the statement circulated by the day-to-day organising group 8 days prior to the national meeting had not been discussed and therefore wasn’t endorsed the group. Worse, some commentators since have suggested that the supporters of the statement had sought to hide this non-endorsement from the meeting.
In fact the reality is much more complicated. The day-to-day organising group on April 18 had decided that such a statement should be drafted and delegated this to the conference organising group. Kate Hudson and Nick Wrack were asked by that group to write something up together following a political discussion. Wrack did not participate. The content of the draft statement was not discussed because the meeting spent all its time discussing procedure and Kate Hudson was subject to an unacceptable and inaccurate personal attack. The information that went to local groups asking them to discuss and amend the statement did not imply it had been endorsed by the day-to-day organising group. No one can know whether the group would have endorsed the statement if it had prioritised making that time.
I voted against the procedural motion at the national meeting, because I think that both local groups and the national co-ordinating group would be in a stronger position to move forward and build Left Unity with a political framework agreed by this meeting. For all its imperfections, the Nay 11th meeting reflected wider discussions and wider democracy than anything we had previously.
I would have supported a further motion from East London Left Unity, which argued that any decisions on any statement agreed would be provisional and that local groups then be asked to have further discussions on this. This, I think, would have best reflected where we are in this complex process of building a political alternative to the left of New Labour.
The national meeting didn’t agree with me, which is fair enough, but I think it’s important to continue discussions amongst Left Unity supporters about both politics and process.
The afternoon session ended with an address by Ken Loach who had joined the meeting after lunch, having made it clear to the conference organisers that he wanted to listen to some of the discussion before he spoke.
Ken argued that:
“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 for 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.”
Other than agreeing with whichever sister who shouted ‘what about women’ when he made the point about being his brother’s keeper, I agree with what Ken Loach said. I don’t think social democracy has ever been committed to making a fundamental challenge to the system based on profit under which we live – and I certainly don’t think that, given the depths of the economic crisis, there are going to be any crumbs falling off any tables.
But at the same time, I think that for Left Unity to blossom into its full potential it has to include people who may not agree with Ken or me, or those who may not have thought through their approach to these questions. People have signed up who have not had any involvement in organised politics before, while others, with decades of Labour Party membership, have joined Left Unity because we are standing firm against austerity.
I want to be in a political organisation with them, as well as with people who became politically active through Occupy; with those whose primary identification is as environmentalists, as feminists, as campaigners for civil liberties, as well as those who have a more far left analysis and practice. I want this because I think that, only by gathering together the energy and the experience of all of us, do we have the chance to really begin to win at least some small victories in the class struggle, after being battered by these decades of defeats.
I also think that by creating a party which has such political breadth, so long as it is one that not only fights elections but appears in community and trade union campaigns and has a vibrant internal life, that people will learn from each other. Certainly, I don’t go into the process thinking I have all the answers: I am sure that I have things to learn from other comrades in Left Unity. This is always my expectation and has often been my experience in the past, in previous attempts to build alternatives to the left of Labour, but also in trade union discussions, in the women’s liberation and LGBTQ movements, in single issue campaigns and within Socialist Resistance.
The statement circulated by the organising committee read as follows:
“Europe is plunging deeper and deeper into crisis. Its governments are continuing with their failed austerity policies which are destroying the social and economic gains working people have made over many decades. The economic crisis has increasingly become a social and political crisis as people face poverty, hunger and even death, as a result of the catastrophic and government-imposed failure of health systems and social services.
“A further manifestation of this crisis is the rapid development of fascism in Greece, in the shape of Golden Dawn.
“However the people of Europe are fighting back. In Greece, France, Germany and elsewhere, new political formations have emerged, drawing together a range of left forces, posing political, social and economic alternatives, and challenging the capitulation of social democracy to neo-liberalism.
“Here in Britain we face the savage onslaught of the coalition government, destroying our hard-won gains, but Labour is failing to pose a viable economic alternative. It embraces neo-liberalism and does not represent the interests and needs of ordinary people. A successful response to the rightwards move of Labour has not yet taken place, yet we have equal need of a new political formation which rejects austerity and war, advocates a greater democratisation of our society and institutions and transforms our economy in the interests of the majority.
“The strong support for Ken Loach’s appeal to discuss the need for a new left party shows that many share this view. Discussions are ongoing but there is a strong desire for a new party of the left which will present an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. Its politics and policies would stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism and fascism. Its urgent tasks would be to oppose austerity, defend the welfare state, fight to restore workers’ rights and advance alternative social and economic policies, redistributing wealth to the working class.
“Its political practice would be democratic, diverse and inclusive, committed to open dialogue and new ways of working; the mutual respect and tolerance of differences of analysis; the rejection of the corruption of conventional political structures and their frequent reproduction of the gender domination of capitalist society.
“International solidarity is fundamental to the success of any resistance and the achievement of any political progress; such a new party will work with other left organisations and movements in Europe and internationally, to build coordination, strategic links and common actions.
“From this meeting today, we call on the national coordinating group to organise a conference of Left Unity groups and members this autumn to discuss the founding of a new Left Party, to facilitate commissions to outline the principles and policies of such a Left Party, and to outline a timetable for a Founding Conference in 2014.”
Looking at the different alternative statements, amendments and the individual resolutions which related to the general political approach Left Unity should take, they fall into two different categories (and sometimes an approach from one individual or group covers both). There were a series of discussions people wanted to raise about language: should we talk about “working class” or “working people”, should we name capitalism and so on. I don’t think we should shrink from using the term “working class”, though I would also defend a broad definition of what this means. It should encompass all those who have to sell their labour power to survive, rather than a narrow version, that only seems to include those in manual jobs. On the other hand, I think we need to be sensitive to the fact that people from different political traditions (and none) relate to language in a different way. I certainly don’t think that using the term “working people” is a sign of capitulation to social democracy!
Then there is a more fundamental discussion which I think is best crystallised around Nick Wrack’s and Will McMahon’s resolution, which read as follows:
“The working class in Britain and internationally is facing an immense economic crisis. It is a crisis of the profits system – capitalism. The capitalist class and its political representatives are intent on making the working class pay for this crisis. No party in Britain represents the interests of the working class. We agree to proceed to a founding conference of a new party in 2014, preceded by a period of discussion and debate involving all those who want to join the process.
“The fundamental principles underpinning this project are:
“1. The new party will be socialist. It aims to replace capitalism with a new society, based on the democratic, common ownership of the wealth, natural resources and means of production, with production for need not profit.
“2. It will fight tooth and nail to defend the gains we have won in the past and to extend these reforms.
“3. It will be internationalist.
“4. It will be democratic. A fuller party programme will be elaborated through the discussion and debate and agreed at the founding conference.”
There are two fundamental problems with this motion. I personally agree with the fundamental principle of the first bullet point. I have defined myself as a revolutionary socialist for almost four decades. But Left Unity can’t succeed if it only involves the revolutionary left. We can’t do this on our own and we haven’t made such a good job so far, neither of getting rid of capitalism nor even of preventing the devastating defeats the ruling class in Britain, in Europe and internationally, have inflicted on working people.
Further, their statement of principles does not mention that 52% of the population of the planet, and of the working class, are women, or that women suffer disproportionately from all blows of austerity and often spearhead resistance. This makes it a very narrow vision and one not likely to win support from those we need to involve to make another world possible. A statement of principle that ignores the existence of racism, in the weeks after UKIP’s successes in the local elections across Britain, is not likely to persuade black people that they are welcome in Left Unity. A statement that makes no reference to the fact that the left itself has often not been welcoming to LGBTQ people, to disabled people as well as to women and black people, is not one that tries to develop a vision of socialism for the 21st century. Finally, a statement that ignores the reality of climate change, and the challenge that poses for building a society built on need not greed, won’t be likely to involve the thousands who have come into political activity because they have understood that a real defence of the environment is incompatible with a society so wedded to the profits of the energy corporations and the governments who kowtow to them.
I think the statement drafted by Kate Hudson, on the other hand, is much more inclusive. I wasn’t convinced that it should have started from the situation in Europe: although I am a committed internationalist, I think it should have started from the attacks the coalition is meeting out on people in Britain. But I think what it says about the European dimension is important and, in particular, I think the reference to other left parties in other parts of the continent is a welcome break from British isolationism. I think there is lots we can learn, for better and for worse, from the attempts comrades in other parts of Europe have made to build to the left of social democracy.
I would like the draft statement to say more about the environmental crisis and to say more about the position of different oppressed groups. I would certainly have supported including a reference to the rise of UKIP.
But fundamentally I refute the idea which Wrack makes central to his written motivation for his short statement (see http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=2118) that Hudson’s draft ‘ attempts to go further than is necessary at this moment’ while his ‘would cause little controversy’, for the reasons I have argued above
Wrack also characterises the draft statement as ‘a call for the formation of a social democratic party, which seeks to reform capitalism’ which again I think is incorrect. He doesn’t even cite which parts of the statement he believes make such an error. He talks about needing our own Clause 4, but ignores the fact that Hudson’s draft talks about ‘redistributing wealth to the working class’ and ‘transforming our economy in the interests of the majority’.
When it meets, the national co-ordinating group of Left Unity will need to discuss how best to continue these discussions. One of my pleas will be that we concentrate on explaining positively what we think and why we think other formulas are wrong, rather than making generalised characterisations which can fall into caricature, in order to undermine those with whom we disagree.
By the time the final session of the May 11 meeting started, chaired by Tom Walker and myself, the meeting had given itself a very difficult task. Despite deciding not to vote on a whole series of things, we hadn’t agreed not to discuss them. Further, we had decided to discuss and vote on how the national co-ordinating group should be elected, what the timetable should be for future national meetings and on the question of one member, one vote – all in one and a half hours.
First, we addressed the question of the national co-ordinating group. On the table was a 3-part resolution from the day to day organising group, of which the last part, that the seats elected nationally should be at least 50% women, was controversial on that body. Louise from Bristol ably moved the resolution, concentrating on the final clause. In the debate from the floor, Soraya Lawrence from Southwark argued that she found such provision patronising, while Merry Cross from Reading made the contrary argument: that working class women were less likely to put themselves forward without such reserved seats. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to support the clause (10 votes against 11 abstentions?).
In the subsequent elections, the meeting voted for 6 women and 4 men. Some have drawn the conclusion that this meant reserved seats weren’t necessary. I’m not sure this is right. On the one hand, we had a good gender balance in the room, because most local groups had respected the request from the day-to-day organising group, that at least one of two delegates should be women. Second, having the discussion on gender balance just before people completed their ballot papers meant that the issue was at the front of people’s minds. I don’t think redressing discrimination inside our organisations should be left to chance. We need conscious measures to redress the impediments capitalism puts in the way of the most oppressed.
There was then an amendment from Tina Becker of the Communist Party of Great Britain (who also described herself as a ‘volunteer’ from Sheffield Left Unity) which said we should ‘invite political organisations that are interested in building left unity to send one observer each to the newly set up national coordinating committee’. After debate this was overwhelmingly defeated with 17 votes in favour.
Andrew Burgin then motivated the draft statement making some of the points I have outlined above and the session went on to discuss, with the clock ticking rather rapidly, the timetable for a launch conference for Left Unity. The proposal was for a further national meeting in September, which would set up policy groups and move to a launch conference in February. The motivation for what might seem, on the face of it, rather a long timetable was the need to involve the maximum number of people in such a discussion, given the current unevenness of different local groups. The meeting, however, voted to hold a launch conference in November 2013, something which I think poses a real challenge for the incoming national co-ordinating group, but one which I think it will be able to rise to. I think this decision, which I opposed, represented a healthy wish on the part of those present to get on with the job of creating a real living national political alternative: a sentiment which I completely share. My difference is rather one about what we actually need to put in place first, to create the best possible conditions for doing this.
Finally in less than 15 minutes, the meeting attempted to return to the question of one member, one vote.
Huddersfield Left Unity had submitted the following resolution
“Significant decisions regarding the structure and policy of a new party should be made by party members on a one member, one vote basis. This could be through a majority ratifying a particular proposal, or most popular choice from a series of options. In the current situation where, due to the party not yet being established, there are no members, these decisions should be made by signatories to the Left Unity appeal”.
There was a a longer motivation which talked worryingly about what I would describe as plebiscite methods: that is, people voting in the isolation of their own homes.
My longstanding concern about such an approach had been heightened in the days leading up to the meeting by the intervention of Mark Perryman on the national organising group elist. There, he not only argued against the May 11 meeting voting on any statement but even discussing it. His alternative proposal was as follows: ‘The very first stage should be a survey both quantitative (ie demographics, etc) and qualitative (opinions on a number of key issues including political self-definition) of all 8000 signatories. It is on that basis which we should then proceed’.
In my opinion, such an approach would be a disaster. We need collective discussion, within which people can respond to new proposals, to nuances of approach, can listen to each other and learn from a shared discussion.
We need to explore ways of using technology to compliment face-to-face meetings and to offer real inclusiveness for those disabled people who might find the challenge of travelling to a meeting (never mind going through it) too much at this point in their fluctuating condition. The same applies to shift workers starting at 9pm every night, who can’t make a meeting which finishes after that miles from their workplace, or to those with caring responsibilities or people who are the only Left Unity supporter (currently) in their areas. There are probably others who have attendance difficulties for reasons I haven’t thought of.
Thinking about it, perhaps we should set up a virtual branch – or several – where people in these sort of positions can talk to each other. Local groups should think about skyping from their meetings so that those who can’t physically get there can still participate…
I’m absolutely in favour of creativity, but I refuse to give up the principle of collective organising to attain it.
It would have been impossible to make any of these points on May 11, even had I not been in the chair, given the serious lack of time. In the closing minutes of the meeting, Kate Hudson moved an amendment to delete all but the first sentence of the motion. This was accepted by Huddersfield, while Nick Wrack explained that he was still opposed to the motion because of what was implied. The meeting voted in favour, I think because what people wanted to express was the idea that Left Unity should be an organisation of its members. I abstained, both because of the concerns I have expressed above, and because I thought that sentence on its own either didn’t mean anything, without qualifying that this should be through participation in local branches, or was taking us in a dangerous direction.
So. with the clock some minutes past five the meeting had to close, after what had been a chaotic, sometimes contradictory but overwhelmingly positive day. I agree with those who have made their written assessments faster than me that real democracy, especially when put together by people without the experience of working together, is going to be messy. Inchoate but exhilarating.
I think we were wrong to agree the sentence from Huddersfield, to fix the launch conference for November and to decide not to vote on a political statement (and in practice not to even discuss it). I was very enthusiastic that we agreed to a national co-ordinating group where the 10 places elected nationally should be at least 50% women with the rest comprising elected local group reps. I enjoyed listening to Ken Loach, but most of all, I enjoyed hearing from – and getting to meet – so many sisters and brothers from across Britain with so much enthusiasm to build Left Unity.
The task before us is an enormous challenge – together I think we can meet it.
Terry Conway was one of the successful candidates for the new co-ordinating group. She stood as a supporter of Socialist Resistance, as an ecosocialist feminist and activist in the LGBTQ movement (despite the fact that the ISN’s Pete McClaren claims Tom Walker was the only member of a left group elected!) You can see the full results at http://leftunity.org/left-unity-election-results/