Left unity is the motherhood-and-apple-pie of socialists. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption is that if only the left could crack the unity problem – the Rubik's Cube of political intervention – then anything is possible, up to and including the relevance that has long eluded most of the left for many years.- 12. Building new parties of the left / Britain, New parties of the left, Debate section
Meetings around Britain in advance of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity have been huge. Nottingham People’s Assembly had over 400 people attending; a 200 strong rally for the Assembly in Newcastle, 400 packing out Sheffield Hallam Uni, a monster 700-strong meeting for the Assembly at Manchester’s Central Hall and 400 in Bristol. Fred Leplat reports on the context of the event and the prospects for resistance against austerity.
The People’s Assembly Against Austerity has the potential to re-launch the movement against the government’s programme of austerity and cuts. Three weeks before the Assembly is to be held, there is a huge response with over 2,500 people having registered and paid to attend the event. This indicates that tens of thousands of community and trade-union activists are desperate to hear the alternative to neoliberalism and to plan for action to stop the devastation of the welfare state and the lives of people.
The initiative for the People’s Assembly came from the Coalition of Resistance after the October 2012 TUC demonstration as there was no further national event planned. The fight against the government’s national programme of austerity has to be met with a national programme of action. Local actions against local closures and cuts are essential, but have to come together at a national level so that the whole weight of the movement can strike blows that will force the government to retreat. Local actions are taking place in particular against the break-up and cut-back of the NHS such as the 30,000 strong demonstration to defend services at Stafford hospital.
Actions are also being taken in different sectors of public services. The NUT and NASUWT teaching unions are preparing for action to protect teachers pay and conditions and to defend education. Mass rallies at a local level are taking place, such as the one in Birmingham with 800 teachers, in preparation for industrial action which will start on the 27th June in the North West, followed by other areas and then a national strike in the autumn. Other unions such as the PCS are now taking action over pay, while UNISON is planning for action in local government in the autumn.
The People’s Assembly has got the backing of most major unions and national campaigns such as Keep Our NHS Public and UK Uncut. It therefore carries a huge responsibility not just to issue a declaration against austerity and in defence of the welfare state, but to put out a call for actions which will be supported and built by all sections of the movement. The proposal in front of the Assembly will include regional demonstrations and a national demonstration in November. It will also call for local People’s Assemblies to re-energize local anti-cuts campaigns and build for the demonstrations. A reconvened People’s Assembly in 2014 could be the basis of a broader and more united national campaign against austerity, building a mass movement of resistance to defend public services and help to defeat the Tory LibDem Coalition.
The action to defend the welfare state cannot wait two years until the next general election as cuts and closures are taking place now. Nor can the anti-austerity movement place its hopes in Miliband and New Labour, as they are committed to austerity, albeit the “lite” version, just as much as PASOK in Greece and the Socialist Party in France. The Tory LibDem Coalition is weak and vulnerable and could be thrown into crisis by the rise of UKIP on the right with its nationalist and low tax/small state model. But the Coalition could also be thrown into crisis by a movement from the left which captures “the Spirit of 45” of nationalisation and public services to eradicate poverty by redistributing wealth and stopping austerity. Six years into the economic crisis, austerity is no longer seen as a credible solution. A mass movement to stop cuts and closures is vital but not sufficient. We also need to give hope that our efforts in the struggle to defend the welfare state are not wasted by leaving the political stage empty by the absence of a party which opposes austerity. That’s why we need urgently a new broad party of the left. Left Unity offers our best hope for such party which would represent faithfully the interests of the working class, not those of the bankers and big business.
The killing of a soldier in Woolwich on May 22nd was horrific. The indiscriminate murders of thousands of unnamed civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan by armed drones have been replicating this horror on a much larger scale for years. However no progressive political purpose is served by killings of this sort. We have seen how the event has been used to reanimate the discussion around the further erosion of civil liberties. The neo-fascist right has taken to the streets. British imperialism’s armed organisations have benefitted from a wave of sympathy and popular support which makes it harder for those of us who oppose their actions to have our voices heard.
Although this appears to be a random and macabre act, the response by Cameron was immediately to treat it as an organised terrorist attack.
The government’s reaction fails to deal with the political causes underlying such attacks. There were no such cases before the “war on terror” was launched in the wake of 9/11, which led to the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The description of this war by US President Bush as a “clash of civilisation” and a “crusade” has provided the context in which the killing in Woolwich occurred. This is understood not just by the left, but also by others such as former head of MI5, Stella Rimington, who said in 2008 that the war on terror in Iraq had influenced young British men to turn to terrorism.
The war on terror has been a failure in its own terms. It has not prevented terrorism but has caused it to spread. Civil war appears to be spreading in parts of Iraq, while in Afghanistan the Taliban is undefeated. In both countries, democracy and civil rights are wanting.
The failure of those supporting the “war on terror”, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has had damaging consequences: the spread of racism and islamophobia. There were 38 islamophobic incidents, including three attacks on mosques, reported on the night following the killing. In Woolwich, over 100 English Defence League thugs went on the rampage. British Muslim leaders are expected to condemn the killing in a manner which is not expected of leaders of others faiths when atrocities are committed by white gun men, in Norway and the USA for example, often politically motivated. These killers are rarely described as terrorists, but as “fanatics” or “madmen”. The “war on terror” has also been used to restrict civil rights and instigate extensive and intrusive surveillance, in particular those with a Muslim faith.
In the wake of the events in Woolwich, the immediate issue for the left is to resist the racist backlash, to continue fighting against the “war on terror”, and to defend civil rights.
May 24 2013
The worst possible response to the local council elections at the beginning of May in which UKIP won 25% of the vote would be complacency. For this result is shameful for both Labour and for the left-of-Labour left. While it's true that the mainly rural areas and small town being polled are the heartland of sections of the petty bourgeoisie and not at all representative of the electorate in general, for all that the result is dispiriting and frustrating.- IV460 - May 2013 / Britain, Far Right
The Labour Party sensationally lost a council by-election to the UK Independence Party in one of its heartlands of Rotherham this week. Harry Blackwell examines the background and its consequences.
Labour lost 24% of their vote in the previously ‘safe’ Rawmarsh ward of Rotherham Borough Council in South Yorkshire. Labour came 104 votes behind the victorious UKIP candidate, with a swing of +35% from Labour to UKIP (full result below). The ward is in the parliamentary constituency of Wentworth and Dearne, held by Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary John Healey.
There were important local reasons behind such a dramatic swing in one of Labour’s ‘rotten boroughs’, where tradition has it that even a donkey with a red rosette gets elected (an all too familiar occurrence).
The by-election was caused by the resignation of Labour’s Shaun Wright following his election to an £85,000 salary as Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for South Yorkshire back in November of last year. He hung on to his £12,000pa allowance as a councillor for Rawmarsh ward as long as possible, but eventually stood down after being challenged about how much time he was putting in to his role as PCC – it was revealed he had only made 6 decisions since November, one of the lowest by a PCC in the country, and all PCCs were summoned to Whitehall for a dressing down about their expenses and hospitality which must now be declared publicly.
A number of candidates were put forward within the Rotherham Labour Party but the Party agreed an all-women shortlist and the outcome was that Lisa Wright, Shaun Wright’s wife, was selected as candidate for the by-election. As well as aiming to succeed her husband as councillor, Lisa Wright’s mother is also a member of the Council and other members of her family have previously served as councillors, in what came to be seen locally as a ‘dynastic’ issue. This provided fertile territory for UKIP to get a significant protest vote, as they did in the neighbouring Rotherham parliamentary constituency last November, when they came second in the by-election following the disgrace and resignation of Labour’s Dennis Macshane over an expenses’ scandal.
Rotherham Council has also been immersed in a scandal over child protection following the imprisonment of five men of Asian origin in 2010, convicted of sexual grooming of young girls. The Rotherham Council and the Labour Party that has controlled it since it was created in 1974 have been widely accused of failing to protect children. The scandal associated with this had provided both UKIP and the BNP with fertile territory for an anti-Asian anti-Labour campaign. But this accelerated in the Rotherham parliamentary by-election last year when it came to light that the Labour Council had ham-fistedly removed foster children from a couple who were members of UKIP.
Labour stokes anti-immigrant racism
However, Labour only has itself to blame for stoking the flames of racism. During its period of government, it set up the now disbanded UK Borders Agency and the Points Based System to bring in draconian controls on non-EU immigration. Their Immigration Minister in the final days was Phil Woolas, who ran a disgraceful racist campaign in his Oldham constituency and was subsequently convicted of electoral offences and removed as MP. Labour’s response to the campaign by UKIP and the Tories against immigrants is to say that it failed to control it sufficiently when in office and should have done more to keep migrants from the new EU states of Bulgaria and Romania out of the UK. In replying to the Tories call for tighter immigration controls, Labour has enthusiastically backed them and in a scandalous development last week promised support to the Tory’s new Immigration Bill in Parliament. Even Liberal Democrat MP, Vince Cable, had to complain in parliament last week:
“a couple of days ago I was on the radio on the “Jeremy Vine” programme. I was following a female voice that was ranting on about millions of illegal immigrants and the negligence of the Government in letting them all in and not deporting enough people. I thought at the time that it was some fringe party that regarded Mr Nigel Farage as a sort of soggy, left-wing liberal, but I then realised it was the Labour shadow Home Secretary (Yvette Cooper), and I tried to understand where she was coming from. It says quite a lot about the Labour party’s current values that it feels it necessary to apologise for letting in foreigners, but is still reluctant to apologise for wrecking the economy.”
(Hansard, 10th May 2013)
Cable’s complaints are undoubtedly hypocritical, as he sits in the Coalition Cabinet where his own Liberal Democrat party backs the Tories fully on immigration and austerity (and they were rewarded with just 28 votes in the Rawmarsh by-election, one fortieth of the votes of UKIP).
But it is an indication of the depths that Labour has sunk that its message on immigration is virtually indistinguishable from the most right wing Tories. All that the current language of all three main parties will achieve is to create cynicism and stoke the fires of UKIP, pushing up their vote.
Labour’s general reaction to the UKIP results in the local elections two weeks ago was to delight in the apparent Tory discomfort, but UKIP’s results in the South Shields by-election and in Rotherham indicates that it can take votes from Labour as well as the Tories, especially given the ‘anti-establishment’ rhetoric coming from UKIP and Labour’s 13 years of ineffective government.
The Labour leadership seem to believe that they will coast to victory in the 2015 general election on the back of disillusion with the Coalition parties. This is a dangerous strategy as can be seen by the result earlier this week in the general election in the Canadian Province of British Columbia. The social democratic New Democracy Party (NDP – Labour’s sister party, though a little more to the left) went into the election with a 20% lead in opinion polls and confident of victory. Their leader tacked to the right in order to try to win over the ‘middle ground’, despite strong polling evidence of support for more radical policies from young people in particular. The result was that the ‘Liberal Party’ (in reality a conservative party) gained seats at the expense of the NDP and won the election. Undoubtedly the NDP were hamstrung by both their rightward moving campaign, their previous record of government in the province (1991-2001), and their close identification with the more right wing federal NDP. As the Canadian ‘Socialist Worker’ has pointed out (www.socialist.ca), turnout dropped dramatically and there is no mandate for the Liberals’ austerity and anti-environment agenda.
The shock result in British Columbia stands as a stark reminder to Labour that embracing the same message as the pro-austerity parties will not guarantee electoral success. Elsewhere, in Europe we can see that the social democratic PASOK party in Greece continues to collapse, while the French Socialist Party’s presidency of Hollande in France is on the rocks within a year of taking office, and the German Social Democratic looks to be struggling to win the General Election in September.
A recent YouGov opinion poll for the London Evening Standard (http://bit.ly/156CIxQ) indicated that 49% of people saying they would vote Labour at the next General Election would support a General Strike against the Coalition Government’s policies. This is a million miles away from the current trajectory of the Labour leadership. While Labour’s leadership are moving even further to the right, a huge space has opened up for a left wing alternative including from many erstwhile Labour voters.
The working class needs an effective alternative to the message and actions coming from all four of the pro-austerity parties. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition to its credit stood in this by-election but only scored 61 votes (2.5%). It had previously won a parish council by-election in another part of Rotherham Borough, Maltby, in March, and also stood in the Rotherham parliamentary by-election winning 1.3% (though George Galloway’s Respect party ran a more effective campaign and won over 8%). TUSC’s election results in the shire county elections last week were generally very poor, with many in the ‘family and friends’ category of a few dozen votes. There were a few notable encouraging exceptions, but nowhere did TUSC achieve even 10% of the vote. To a certain extent this is inevitable for an organisation that confines itself to appearing only at election times and does not participate as a party in the day-to-day struggles against the government. We need a better alternative, and one that can work in a non-sectarian way with those in Labour (and the Greens) who support left wing aims and in initiatives like the People’s Assembly. The development of Left Unity currently offers the best hope of building that alternative.
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council – Rawmarsh Ward by-election 16th May 2013
|Caven VINES (UK Independence Party) 1,143 (46.5%, +46.5%)|
|Lisa WRIGHT (Labour) 1,039 (42.3%, -24.0%)|
|Martyn PARKER (Conservative) 107 ( 4.4%, -8.5%)|
|George BALDWIN (British National Party) 80 (3.3%, -17.6%)|
|Andrew GRAY (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 61 (2.5%, +2.5%)|
|Mohammed MEHARBAN (Liberal Democrats) 28 (1.1%, +1.1%)|
(Change in vote compared to previous result in May 2012)
Terry Conway assesses the first national meeting of Left Unity, held in London on May 11:
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/
The impact of austerity has thrown politics in Britain into turmoil. Both parties of the ruling coalition government (the Tories and the Liberal Democrats) lost heavily in local elections in England last week to UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) – a right wing, populist, anti-immigration party which is pulling all the main parties to the right. Labour's performance was better but poor; since its answer to austerity is its own brand of austerity and it has pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment.- IV460 - May 2013 / Britain, New parties of the left
Phil Hearse wrote this piece for his site Crisis and Revolt. The worst possible response to the local council elections in which UKIP won 25% of the vote would be complacency. For this result is shameful for both Labour and for the left-of-Labour left. While it’s true that the mainly rural areas and small town being polled are the heartland of sections of the petty bourgeoisie and not at all representative of the electorate in general, for all that the result is dispiriting and frustrating.
Phil Hearse made this submission to the April 2013 Socialist Resistance conference. The position it sets out was accepted by the organisation and we’ll be making more of the conference material available shortly. A number of videos can be found here, including greetings from the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, Green Left, the International Socialist Network and Left Unity.
Comrades, we face major opportunities in the next period to help work towards a new broad left party and a refounded Marxist regroupment in this country. The left – and its far left component in particular – is undergoing a profound shake up, the precise contours of which none of us can yet see. The left that comes out of the next two years in England and Wales will look very different to the way its looks now. Our task is to grab that opportunity with both hands.
On the train out of Clapham Junction station you can see the big PCS building on which hangs a huge banner: “Austerity isn’t working, support out alternative”. When even George Osborne’s old buddy, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde is saying the austerity is going too far in the UK, the need for an alternative is obvious. But Labour promises nothing – not a single pledge about the future will they give. Most people don’t know what the PCS’s alternative is: a radical alternative is all but absent from the national political framework.
Ken Loach didn’t launch ‘an appeal’ for a broad left party, it was just an opinion in an Open Democracy interview that an SR supporter put on their website, and it was picked up by Andrew Burgin for Left Unity in a very intelligent way. It was made ‘an appeal’ by popular acclaim. The fact that now more than 7000 people have signed shows the political space that has been opened and which Left Unity has walked in to, without major national political figures heading it up. That’s a disadvantage but also an advantage – Respect was always too beholden the vagaries of George Galloway. But we can now say we have a much better platform to fight for a broad left party.
There is still a long way to go to move towards a real national political party type formation – whether it will call itself a ‘party’ is open for debate and not the crucial issue. The crucial question is how it operates – democratically and not by top down diktat, open to the social movements and mass campaigns and of course standing in local elections. But one thing must be clear from the outset. You must build a national political framework with a name that is known and used in elections. Infinite fronts, committees and local alliances don’t get you that national profile and national recognition.
In any case how does fighting for a broad left party chime in with revolutionary regroupment? Some people will say once you have a broader framework, then why do you need a Marxist organisation? I disagree with that unless you have something like the early SSP experience in which the decisive section of the broad party leadership are the Marxists themselves. The old Militant Labour decided to set up the International Socialist Movement inside the SSP, but it flopped. Everybody asked: why do we have to go to two meetings a week to discuss the same issues? Of course that’s a nice problem to have in some ways, but it wouldn’t work in England and Wales with a really broad party. Then the organisation of a Marxist trend would be an inevitable and vital development.
It is obvious that there is an objective convergence going on with the ACI and the ISN saying a lot of the same things that we are about revolutionary organisation today. But this moment won’t last: organisations that don’t come together soon find reasons for staying apart.
You could say that Socialist Resistance has prefigured the critique of sclerotic archaeotrotskyism for a long while, but that’s only partly true. It’s true that many of the things said by the AI and ISN have been themes in our politics for a long time – internal democracy, feminism, a less sectarian attitude to the rest of the left – in fact going back to the Fourth International documents on women’s liberation and Socialist Democracy at the 1979 world congress. But other comrades, particularly crystallised in the book by Luke Copper and Simon Hardy (1) have deepened this critique and allowed us to see the crisis of the sect formation in a new and more profound way. They have helped develop our thinking on these things as well.
An exciting prospect
I think that we should adopt the algebraic formula ‘for Marxist unity’ or ‘a united democratic revolutionary organisation’, but the arithmetic content we should for the moment advance is a unification of the AI, ISN and SR as a platform within the Left Unity. A united democratic revolutionary tendency would be a major force for opening up the path to a new broad left party and would be a permanent rebuke to the sects. It would have a powerful attraction within the far left and hopefully be much more capable of opening up a dialogue with radical youth. This is an exciting prospect: it would open up the road to a major renewal of left and revolutionary forces.
It’s a big pity that Counterfire for the moment has not evinced any enthusiasm for Left Unity or for the regroupment process. In the longer term their view can change if the regroupment process takes off. And of course we will be continuing to work with them in the Coalition of Resistance and Stop the War. We should also be supportive of the Firebox initiative and publicise Neil Faulkner’s book (2) etc.
But of course there will be subjective problems at a national and local level. Comrades who’ve been in competing organisations often developed less that comradely personal relations, and indeed the snarling, dismissive and cynical factionalism of the sects is a way their leaderships wall of their members from competing groups and ideas. We have to get over this and see the bigger picture. In particular we have to get over any temptation to have a superior or lecturing attitude because we saw some of these problems earlier.
If we did start thinking about some of these things earlier than others, by the way, it was mainly because of our links with the Fourth International. Our discussions were always heavily influenced by international experiences, for example the Left Bloc in Portugal, the PT and then the PSOL in Brazil, the Communist Refoundation and Sinistra Critica, the RMP is the Philippines etc. I think we should also say the some of us, like me in particular, spent too much time in the 80s and early 90s criticising what comrades elsewhere were doing (although on some questions we were obviously right). In any case we need to change our mindset on the Fourth International profoundly. We should stop regarding this treasure trove of experiences, this invaluable network of revolutionary cadres internationally as our personal property as far as Britain is concerned. The experiences of revolutionary militants internationally in the framework of the Fourth International should become of the common patrimony (matrimony?) of all those committed to building a democratic Marxist unity, not a badge of honour through which we divide ourselves off from others and recruit to ourselves.
The youth camp in Greece is a good opportunity to start this process by the way. I know comrades from the ACI are going and I hope people from the ISN will go as well.
1) Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy, Beyond Capitalism?, Zero Books 2012
2) Neil Faulkner, A Marxist History of the World, Pluto Press 2013