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Left Unity conference: one step back, two steps forward

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On 30 November, a new political organisation was founded; one which will champion a radical alternative to austerity, unemployment and war. Organisers announced that more than 1200 people had registered as founder members.

Six months in the making, Left Unity’s founding conference saw 500 people agree a common political platform, constitution and aims. This in itself was a major achievement for which both the national organisers and the local branches deserve congratulations.

One important strength of the conference was the relatively high participation of women and disabled activists. However, the near-total absence of Black and ethnic minority people, and the low number of young people, underlines the need for a real attempt to remedy this before the policy conference that is due in the Spring.

Another plus was the generally positive and comradely atmosphere in which the debates were conducted.

First business saw a Lambeth branch motion to have the draft ‘Safe Spaces’ policy referred back for further discussion and amendment by the membership. Creating a healthy internal culture on the principles of permanent struggle against oppressive behaviour is one of the most important tasks we face. It was a measure of the seriousness with which conference viewed this that it insisted on the members’ right to a full and rigorous debate before adopting the policy.

Although criticism of the over-running of debates and the unrealistic agenda is legitimate, this should not detract from recognition of the very welcome ability to make amendments and criticise the drafts. This was in sharp contrast to what has become normal practice at conferences of left parties, campaigns or recently the People’s Assembly. The absence of the usual celebrity speakers allowed the “rank and file” of the conference to be heard much of the time.

One negative feature, to which a disabled comrade drew attention at the end, was the lack of reasonable breaks during sessions. In future, if space were timetabled for meetings of participants from socially oppressed groups (caucuses) either before conference starts or during scheduled breaks, this would allow these comrades to enhance their participation in debates and to deal with disputed issues in ways that do not exclude them.

Another serious drawback of conference was that working through the large number of amendments to the draft constitution took so long that the planned session on campaigning priorities had to be abandoned altogether. To a large extent, this was unavoidable because the draft was unnecessarily long, complex and cumbersome and included some positively dangerous proposals (like requiring a two thirds majority to amend it in future). These had to be opposed and most were removed, but this all took a long time.

The platforms

The failure to adopt campaigning priorities and policies means that Left Unity has no immediate strategy to guide its intervention in the coming months. At a time when the People’s Assemblies could become the focus for campaigning against increasing state racism, restrictions for immigrants and Cameron’s latest attacks on the unions, this is a serious weakness. It might be objected that policies on these things are obvious and all of us could agree to them. Good, then why not say so? Why not embody them in a short action programme as the Class Struggle Platform proposed?

In fact, the way the debate on platforms was conducted was the most serious shortcoming of the entire conference.

The whole process, initiated by the drafters of the Left Party Platform (LPP) at the first national LU meeting in May, was aimed at ensuring Left Unity adopted the model of the European Left Party (with the Greek Syriza and the German Die Linke being the commonly cited models).

These comrades, supported by Socialist Resistance (British section of the Fourth International) have waged a six month campaign in support of their “broad party model” without revealing the actual programme Left Unity should adopt from its models, in particular, how it proposes to win power and what measures it would carry out.

Free from the restraints of political clarity, “broad” is left to mean a programme which is radical, but without the explicit concentration on class struggle, let alone revolutionary, demands which are supposed to be off-putting to the rainbow coalition of reformist and campaigning organisations who we are told occupy the “space” to the left of Labour.

Naturally, most of the proponents of this approach (especially SR) insist that they are still revolutionaries but that “now is not the time” for revolutionary politics and that to argue for them would be “sectarian”.

The conference debate on the competing platforms, like that online over the previous six months, was marred by crude demagogy. For example, the “sectarians” were accused of wanting to impose a “socialist entrance exam” on the organisation. Such rhetorical tactics are absurd, cringeworthy and embarrassing, especially coming from self-professed revolutionaries, but clearly went down well with a sizeable proportion of the conference.

Worse, and indefensible, was the chair’s outright rejection of a “balanced debate” between supporters of the platforms. Using the pretext of positive discrimination for the oppressed, this led to the result that no floor speakers were taken from the Socialist Platform, although it had the second highest number of signatories. This, doubtless entirely coincidental, democratic deficit hangs over the victory of the LPP and proponents like Tom Walker and Richard Seymour of the ISN should be a little more circumspect in their victorious online crowing.

Such refusal of balanced debate must be opposed at the next conference. Ensuring balance on the major contested issues is the essential life blood of democracy and does not preclude prioritising women, disabled or Black speakers from both or all sides of the debate.

Despite the structure of the debate, a number of votes went against the proposals of the Left Party Platform. A procedural motion from Lambeth branch was moved to ensure the Platform was adopted as a separate document, rather than integrated into the constitution, and amendments from Camden, motivated by Ken Loach, significantly moved the LPP draft towards the SP positions on nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

A further amendment, from Manchester, to point seven of the Left Party Platform said: “Going on strike (including mass/general strikes), occupying workplaces, solidarity between workers (in different unions and/or workplaces) can be effective tactics in winning individual disputes and changing society”, was adopted by 164 votes to 116. Whatever the reasons for voting against this amendment, it is worrying that so many delegates seemed opposed to Left Unity adopting a class struggle orientation. The best way to overcome this opposition is to show in practice the positive contribution we can make by involving ourselves in campaigns to defend services, to support strikes and – where our members are taking part in strikes – to oppose sellouts, compromises and betrayals.

In the end the Left Party Platform gained three quarters of the votes – taking 295 votes for 101 against with 12 abstentions. The Socialist Platform was only voted down by 216 votes against 122 in favour. The Communist and Class Struggle Platforms took around 10- 15 per cent of the vote.

Aims

The only significant political debate took place in the context of discussing the ‘aims’ section of the constitution.

While the Left Party Platform was amended to include a stronger commitment to socialism and common ownership and a prohibition on the organisation joining governments with capitalist parties (an unlikely enough temptation in the foreseeable future) the adoption of the Aims section of the constitution unravelled all of this.

The ‘aims’ of Left Unity are now defined as “to win a mandate to govern and introduce… a democratically planned economy… within which all enterprises, whether privately owned, cooperatives or under public ownership operate in ways that promote the needs of the people”.

This explicitly sees winning power in the language of parliamentary elections and sees planning in terms of managing a mixed economy of public and private enterprise. It is worth remembering a point Ken Loach made at the May 11 conference “you can’t plan what you don’t own”.

Even 1950s Labourism with its (evasive) talk of nationalising “the commanding heights of the economy” was clearer than this “mixed” economy of private, public and cooperative sectors. If we want to plan it, we must own it, and to own it, we must expropriate the exploiters.

The implications of all this cannot be fudged. This fundamentally reformist formulation must be removed from our aims however long it takes to do it. This will be made easier in a properly democratic debate where demagogic counterpositions are exposed for what they are, a pandering to prejudice and ignorance.

Though exhausting, and sometimes tedious, the rest of the constitution debate nevertheless reflected genuine democratic impulses (and majorities) and established a broadly democratic framework within which a fuller political programme can be developed during the months ahead.

Unfortunately, an otherwise positive session was marred by an unpleasant descent into pure demagogy during the debate on how to ensure representation of women on Left Unity’s elected bodies.

It is uncontroversial to say that imposing 50 per cent quotas is not a short cut to solving the under-representation of women in left wing organisations, nor do majority women bodies have some intrinsic defence against adopting sexist or undemocratic decisions. Very few organisations in the world, left as well as right, have a 50-50 gender balance. This reflects not just sexism but the effects of women’s oppression, condemnation to housework and childcare etc., within society generally. The lack of a crèche for the conference was a severe defect that reflected this.

Despite this, those who argued against quotas or in favour of 40/40 quotas, including many women, were subjected to demagogic abuse, backed up by the kind of heckling and jeering which would certainly be prohibited by any Safe Spaces policy. These attacks, including the accusation of resorting to “far-right”, even “fascist”, arguments, were utterly disloyal and should have been rebuked by the chair and by those supporting the 50-50 quota.

Most of the people opposing that proposal were pointing out genuine problems and defects and seeking the best way to encourage the participation of women. To slander them as somehow defending male privilege was nasty intimidation. Frankly, the behaviour of many of the majority supporters on this issue was an ugly stain on an otherwise very comradely conference.

The struggle to develop a consciously anti-sexist culture is inseparable from the success of the whole LU project. We should look to the existing use of quotas in the labour movement to draw up an analysis of what works and what doesn’t. We clearly have to address the issue of racial oppression.

Nevertheless, we have a new organisation of the left. We have a democratic constitution and an organisation which enshrines the rights of the socially oppressed to self-organise to challenge oppressive behaviour; an organisation that defends the rights of political minorities to organise to change the political policies and structures. These are welcome departures from the established traditions of Labourism, Stalinism and the distorted forms of Trotskyism that have dominated the left for decades.

What next?

The question that takes centre stage now is what political purpose Left Unity will use these rights, this democratic and inclusive culture, to achieve. In the end, even the best structures will be warped and bent out of shape by certain types of politics, that is, by any and every form of reformism that ends up as top down, leave-it-to-others politics. Why? Because the only political strategy that draws the great mass of people into politics, that enables them through direct action to control and direct their own struggles and to consciously set their own goals, is the road to revolution.

However confused, however accidentally it occurred, Left Unity is an organisation with a reformist programme that aims to win a governing majority in parliament and use its control of a mixed economy as the mechanism for a fundamental transformation of society. We think this perspective is an illusion, the Labour Party could not do it, Die Linke could not do it, and Syriza’s efforts to appear as a respectable, potential party of government have already led to it dumping overboard the political principles which propelled it to the leadership of the resistance. Nor will pluralism on its own avoid the pitfalls of reformism. Anyone who doubts this should do so whilst surveying what passes for the left in Italy in the aftermath of Rifondazione Comunista’s disintegration.

The task now is to sink Left Unity’s foundations deep into the class struggle – every branch must emulate the work of those branches which are initiating campaigns, discussing politics, and providing a positive contribution to their local work. Consistent work to draw the campaigns, unions and activists into united work is the only way to persuade those who aren’t yet convinced that we need a policy and programme distinct from, and opposed to, the current leadership of the labour movement.

We must avoid the fate of so many previous attempts by joining the struggle not just as supporters of existing campaigns or of trade union struggles led by a bureaucracy, but as advocates of a strategy and tactics that can turn the tide against austerity and pose once again a real alternative, a new society, another world, to millions. We must fight for a profile in the media and turn elections into platforms for challenging the consensus that there is no alternative to capitalist exploitation and inequality.

Above all we must return to the policy conference in 2014 prepared to take up the challenge we have barely addressed – what will be the political programme of a new working class party whose goal is nothing less than the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a revolutionary new society?

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