Left Unity is billed by its key organisers as filling a gap in the political market for Left politics; the thousands of people who signed the appeal for a new party billed as an expression of the widespread yearning for anti-austerity politics in Britain.
Unfortunately, defined politics noticeably took the back seat at Left Unity's first delegate meeting on 11 May, attended by almost 100 people.
The debates started with an incredibly long discussion on a procedural motion by Nick Wrack and Simon Hardy not to take decisions on the statements and key political motions. The argument was that this would enable discussion in groups. Most motions had not been distributed prior to the delegate conference and there would be no democratic mandate on them.
The procedural motion was carried, and so the conference did not debate the statement put out by Kate Hudson, the amendments to it, or the more left-wing statement of principles submitted by Nick Wrack.
The key theme of the day was the suspicion of the existing organisations of the left. The need to enact "safeguards" and "policing" against left groups dominated the first session of the day which was nominally report backs from local groups on the progress of Left Unity across the country.
The debate came to a head in the proposal by the Weekly Worker that existing organisations of the left who support Left Unity should be allowed to send observers to the National Co-ordinating Group. Some suspicion of SWP and SP is understandable given what they've done in the anti-cuts movement and in the Socialist Alliance, but the discussion did not focus on honestly assessing previous attempts at left unity and learning from our past. The speeches against the Weekly Worker proposal, loudly and enthusiastically supported by the majority of the meeting, smacked of Stalinism and paranoia.
"The sects will use the information gained [in observing the Co-ordinating group meetings] to try and destroy us" - nobody elaborated on what secrets are discussed in the co-ordinating group which cannot be gained by intervening in a local Left Unity group and why those secrets exist. "You can't have one foot in and one foot out... You have to give you heart and your soul". This is a new initiative yet to develop its politics or form of organisation. and you want my heart and my soul before I can engage in it?
The suspicion and blocking of existing left groups is not consistently applied by the key players in Left Unity. Socialist Resistance, who seem to have made a decision to wholly subsume their own politics to the bland, reformist politics of "against austerity and war", have been welcomed with open arms into the project.
There was a lot of bigging up Syriza and the parties of the Eurpean left in a vague and apolitical way – and with no recognition was made that Syriza's structure, explicitly guaranteeing democratic rights to left-wing minority trends like DEA and Kokkino, is somewhat at odds with Left Unity's policy on the involvement of existing socialist groups. No assessment was made of where Syriza came from and of the difficulty of wishing a party of the Syriza type into existence. The "European left" was celebrated with no critical assessment of who the European left are and what they have done.
The meeting was incredibly chaotic. At various points it had to be clarified four or five times what was being voted on. Often that clarification came from various delegates from the floor rather than the chair or standing orders. Amendments were put which weren't amendments to anything in particular, points of order were made which were in fact speeches for or against, in any given vote a substantial section of the room had no idea what was being voted on.
This was in part due to Left Unity's cult of inexperience. One of the chairs of the debate on the procedural motion was described as never having been to a political meeting before. This is not a copy error – although he seemed to be 40-ish, it was said not that he'd never chaired a political meeting before, but that he'd never even been to one.
So his first experience of a political meeting was chairing a procedural debate between veteran manoeuvrers of the left, with two amendments made from the floor. This was clearly not a good idea. Yet many of the local organisers are celebrated as having been inactive for 15 years or never having done anything before.
It is a good thing to revive older comrades who have dropped away, and even better to bring new people into the left. That does not mean that we should sneer at those who have been active (being active even when things are bleak is a good thing) or that we should dismiss the usefulness of skills and experience. You want a chair for a key debate? Get someone who has chaired a meeting before. You want to set up local meetings? Ask people who have organised meetings before to help set them up, or tell people what it involves.
By far the most political intervention of the day was when Ken Loach was brought in to address the conference as a guest speaker. His speech cut through the double speak of people trying to hide their politics and intentions behind a veneer of broadness and not scaring people off.
He spoke against the idea we should abandon the old language of the left - words like "socialism" and "working class". We should be careful to be understandable, but that the language we use to describe the world we live in and its horrors has been developed over hundreds of years to allow us to discuss ideas. He said the party must explicitly not be one of social democracy. It must be a party which looks to end the horror of capitalism and replace it with a new society, based on the democratic common ownership of the wealth and the means of production. It's a shame that this debate was not had out on the floor of the conference.
Some of the lines of difference in Left Unity are already clear. Is the problem just neo-liberalism or capitalism? What does socialism mean? Does a new party need to be more than an electoral project? Reform and revolution. What is a democratic way of organising?
If Left Unity is to become anything other than another failed attempt it will take time and effort. It will take a honest and reasoned argument. In local groups people must start having that argument.
Below is a longer report, compiled by Pete McLaren for the ISN (the TUSC ISN, rather than the ex-SWP ISN), and emailed out for general circulation.
The first national Left Unity meeting had been organised by an ad-hoc Organising Committee for up to two representatives of each of the 80+ local Left Unity (LU) groups. It followed the call for people to sign up to discussing the need for a new Left Party, supported by, amongst others, film producer Ken Loach. Around 60 local LU groups were represented. It was quite a mixed audience – a handful of ISN/TUSC supporters, a few members of Workers Power, the CPGB, SR, the SP, SA, the former SWP ISN and other socialist activists, a few former SWP members and many relatively new campaigners with a healthy ratio of women delegates.
Bianca Todd from Northampton chaired the first session, which rather bizarrely began with a debate about whether or not minutes should be taken. Kate Hudson then made an introduction and explained why there was a need for a new Left Party. Reports and general comment were requested from local groups, and there was a clear divide between those of us who wanted to welcome left organisations as part of the project, and those who clearly didn't. Everyone who spoke was positive about the Left Unity project. I was eventually able to explain, as part of my contribution from Rugby LU, that TUSC had approached Ken Loach and was now formally writing to the Organising Committee to call for collaboration, despite having been informed prior to the meeting I could not speak for TUSC! The following were amongst other points made in the discussion:
The SP and SWP were already involved in local Left Unity groups, and we need to find a way of all working together
LU must make sure it is not controlled by left groups – we must avoid being taken over as happened with the Socialist Alliance
We should allow left groups to affiliate, and we must respect their traditions. We need to allow factions or platforms to form
It was vital to offer supporters membership
We must be campaigning and not only work around elections
We must quickly become an individual membership organisation whilst allowing left groups on board.
If we have large numbers of individual members, including individuals from left groups, left groups would not be in a position to take over
Accessible language was important
Our class is being battered, with no real opposition, hence the need for a new left party
Democracy and openness are vital within a new party, which must also be inclusive
We should welcome all on the left as individuals, not as representatives of parties
We need to open up dialogue with all left groups to establish ways of working together whilst encouraging them to become a full part of LU – with safeguards/mechanisms in place to prevent groups dominating or taking over
LU has already moved left organisations to discuss its presence
We must discuss ways of encouraging trade unions, tenants and community groups to become part of LU. We want One Party of the Left
The Organising Committee should be congratulated for the start that has been with over 8,000 supporters and nearly 100 local LU groups in less than 2 months
The afternoon session began with Andrew Burgin describing the process and importance of setting up local LU groups. The following were amongst points made in the discussion which followed:
Our attitude to the SP and SWP is crucial – it must be a positive one
A One Member One Vote (OMOV) organisation would give people the confidence to join
We will need to negotiate with TUSC over elections
We are agreed about the need to set up a new left party: we must differentiate ourselves from the Labour Party and the Green Party
There is lots of student support for LU, but caution about parties
At this point Nick Wrack motivated his Procedural Motion not to take decisions today on most of the Statement sent out by the Organising Committee, any amendments to it, or other resolutions submitted, as they had mostly/entirely not been available to local LU groups.
The only parts of that Statement kept in by the Procedural Motion were the election of a new Organising Committee, the process of debate, and need for another national meeting and a Founding conference for a new Party. In motivation, he outlined how most of the 23 motions and amendments had been seen for the first time that day. Few local LU groups would have had any discussion on them, or on amendments to the Statement sent out by the Committee.
During the debate, it became clear there had been a divide within the Committee. The following were amongst additional points made:
We need a statement of intent – something must come out of this meeting
The danger of rushing is we could undo the achievements so far
Some local LU reps present were unelected local orgainsers with no mandate
The Organising Committee had decided by a two thirds majority to sent out its Statement: it was ‘sour grapes' not to want to put it to the meeting
The Organising Committee did not discuss the content of the statement, let alone take a view on it
An amendment was moved that a commitment to the principle of One Member One Vote within Left Unity be added to the Procedural Motion. Nick Wrack accepted the amendment
In reply to the debate, Simon Hardy confirmed the Organising committee had not endorsed the Statement.
The amended Procedural Motion was put to the vote, and after two counts, was agreed by 51 votes to 36 with 12 abstentions and a few not voting at all. What was agreed was as follows:
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 co-ordinating group [to be dissolved and replaced with a properly elected body at the first conference] 2) the process of debate and discussion 3) the dates of the next national meeting and the founding conference and 4) the principle that the new organisation should be based on ‘One Member, One Vote'.
The session ended with an address by Ken Loach. He joked that it had been good to see democracy in action. It was vital to get our act together to combat UKIP, he continued. We did not need another Social Democratic party. The new Left party must be anti-capitalist, socialist and democratic – adopting OMOV was vital- and it did not want charismatic leaders. We needed to become experts on all social issues such as housing, education and health. We needed words, organisation and agitation, he concluded – it would be a colossal project.
The meeting then proceeded to vote for the national Organising Committee that will organise the next national meeting and plan for the Founding Conference. ISN members Will McMahon, Pete McLaren and Ally Macgregor were amongst those nominated. After some discussion the following proposal on the composition of the new Group was agreed:
Local group reps elected by the local groups, one per group, where the group has at least 5 members and has had at least one minuted meeting. As groups develop they will be added. 10 people elected by the meeting. Those 10 to comprise at least 50% women.
A proposal to delete point 3 was rejected. There were 30 nominations
Those elected were: Andrew Burgin (M), Terry Conway (F), Merry Cross (F), Felicity Dowling (F), Guy Harper (M), Kate Hudson (F), Chris Hurley (F), Salman Shaheen (M), Bianca Todd (F), Tom Walker (M)
Tina Becker, CPGB, proposed that the socialist groups that support the Left Unity project have non-voting observers on the Organising Committee. This was defeated.
In conclusion, I felt the positives outweighed the negatives, but it was hard going at times. There is a real dislike, in some quarters, of left organisations, and it is interesting that only one of the ten elected to the Organising Ctte is a member of a left group as far as I am aware (Tom Walker – ex SWP now ISN). At times, the meeting was more like a convention of youth workers (no disrespect to youth workers – I have been one and my brother still is!) in the sense that it was a little jolly, twee and somewhat bourgeois – one of the chairs referred to all men who spoke as "Sir"! However, what mattered was that a general degree of unity was shown and some positive decisions made. In many ways being there felt like a breath of fresh air. A relatively positive start has been made, but there is a long way to go.
Pete McLaren 12/05/13