Left Unity: What ‘safe spaces’ lead to

The Manchester branch of Left Unity has seen a clampdown on debate amidst claims and counter-claims of 'bullying'

Dawud Islam: caused a storm

I approach this short report with a certain amount of trepidation. Not because of concerns about ‘exposing’ Left Unity’s right wing here in Manchester, but because the levels of dishonesty and sheer lack of vision on show are simply embarrassing. Nevertheless it is important, as a service to the movement - and in the hope of rescuing the branch - that recent goings-on, culminating in the shutting down of the branch’s email discussion list and attempted censure of one member for comments thereon, are documented.

When I joined the branch earlier this year, Bev Keenan and Ian Parker, who are members of the International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance respectively, were acting secretaries for Manchester Central and Manchester South - though the latter had ceased to function. Initially though, the Manchester branch seemed welcoming and open enough to ideas. I myself have given two political introductions - on ‘Europe and the left’ and ‘What is LU for?’ - though in retrospect it was telling that no-one else volunteered to do either of them.

Pretty soon, though, odd things started to happen. Despite the usual banter about a broad, mass party and reaching out to new layers, there existed a marked reluctance to actually build Left Unity in any serious way. Pretty inoffensive, or so one would think, suggestions of holding a public meeting from myself and Steve Wallis, another member of the branch, were constantly rejected. There was “other stuff going on” (when isn’t there?) and an LU meeting could not possibly gain any traction right now. This was quickly disproved at the following meeting, shortly after the LU conference in Manchester, when several new comrades turned up, making it by far the biggest meeting I had attended, with about 15 people.

And indeed at this meeting acting branch secretary comrade Keenan appeared to have had a change of heart: “I’m not interested in the people in this room,” she declared, but in “the people out there”. Once again, however, suggestions of a public meeting were shot down. We were informed that the publicity around the LU conference (including the appearance of Salman Shaheen on the Daily politics) had resulted in a surge in membership applications, and there were now 72 paid-up members in the Greater Manchester area. I suggested that we divvy up the contact details of members who were not attending meetings, so comrades could make a personal approach to them about how they could get involved. The look of horror on Bev Keenan’s face had to be seen to be comprehended adequately. We might “put our own views forward”!

The irony that comrade Keenan is a member of the ISN - born of a factional struggle in the Socialist Workers Party, which included the expulsion of the ‘Facebook Four’ for the crime of horizontal communication between members - and an organisation ostensibly committed to ‘bottom-up’ organisational methods, was entirely lost on the comrade. In the absence of a hard-edged analysis of SWP ‘bureaucratic centralism’, old methods come to the surface. Given that practically the first thing one would be asked to do upon joining the Labour Party, Greens - or the SWP, for that matter - would be to help draw closer new recruits, this proprietorial attitude to members’ contact details is truly laughable. I pointed out that I was hardly going to send them the CPGB’s Draft programme: I would merely encourage them to attend a meeting. But it was clear that the fear of ideas - and of the branch’s left - would make even basic branch-building initiatives an actual battle.

It was at the next meeting that the reasons underlying this reluctance to promote LU really crystallised in my mind. Numbers had dropped back to the usual, but in light of the previous meeting the two of us who had been pushing for a public event were confident that any doubts about our ability to build one would have been thoroughly quashed. Au contraire - we met with a bizarrely hostile response. Bev, you see, was simply too busy - she was organising a strike, don’t you know - and LU would do better to push the local trades council’s meeting on Europe (a debate between a pro-EU Labour Party bod and a No2EU speaker). In this way, any suggestion that LU actually do something could be construed as a personal attack on comrade Keenan. Hardly a healthy way to conduct branch business.

Leaving aside the fact that the branch secretary is not the branch, it was now obvious that the LU right, of which Bev Keenan and Ian Parker are the core here, were actually mortally afraid of Left Unity going anywhere. I can only surmise that they fear that, as soon as this fragile lash-up begins to move, the wheels will fall off. Given the furore over contacting members, and the refusal to countenance debate lasting more than 10 minutes, there is probably also a fear that, should any ‘ordinary people’ turn up, they might be exposed to leftwing ideas, which would, naturally, make them run a mile; or simply to the fact that political differences exist within LU (those ordinary people, of course, get awfully confused when presented with conflicting analyses). With myself present, it was going to be impossible to put forward the ‘broad party somewhere just to the left of Labour’ line without it being subject to critique and - horror of horrors - debate.

Another incident worth mentioning in regard of the fear of politics: in the pub after one meeting, Bev found herself in a minority on the question of no-platforming fascists. Rather than have a debate, the comrade seemed personally offended that anyone could differ on this question - she reminded us that she had been part of Rock Against Racism and walked out!

Unfortunately, tensions from the last meeting boiled over on the email list. The other comrade with whom I had allied on the question of a meeting sent a post which accused Bev Keenan and Ian Parker of holding back the branch. Quickly the comrade came under attack, and I joined the fray, outlining the situation in a frank, albeit frustrated, way. To anyone who had been attending meetings, the reason for this frustration would be obvious; but to have it put so bluntly on the discussion list was more than the comrades of the right could take. Before long we were accused of ‘bullying’ behaviour and told to shut the hell up, if not in so many words. However, comrade Keenan did announce her resignation as acting branch secretary, and promised to bring members’ contact details to the next meeting.

Things really came to a head, though, when the topic of Steve Hedley came up. A leading member of the RMT union and a candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the upcoming elections, Hedley had been accused of domestic violence by a former partner, but was found to have no case to answer by an RMT inquiry. Nor is he under investigation by the police. This did not stop the women’s caucus of the ISN from launching a petition calling on Tusc to withdraw his candidacy.

Rather than identifying the Martin Smith scandal as a symptom of the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism - under which an egoistically inflated leadership feels it can get away with whatever it likes, the problem for these people is sexism, pure and simple. Desperately trying to show that they have ‘learned the lessons’ of the crisis, the various fragments which have broken from the SWP, and others like Socialist Resistance, are now engaged in a game of one-upmanship over who can most thoroughly prostrate themselves before the altar of ‘intersectionality’. This petty bourgeois theory is being used as a shield to give left cover to those who are already moving away from Marxism, and to deny the centrality of class.

It is in this context that the petition was launched, and posted on the Manchester LU discussion list with an encouragement for comrades to sign. Dawud Islam - a long-time working class activist and previously deputy leader of Respect - said that he would not sign and that, even if Hedley was guilty as charged, he would still vote for him, because the politics of the candidate and the party contesting the election was the most important thing. Granted, the comrade took a rather idiosyncratic view when he said it would not matter if the candidate was “the world’s worst sex offender or a mass murderer”, but the thrust of the argument - that it is politics, not personality, which is the most important thing - is valid.

Predictably though, this kicked off a huge shitstorm on the list, with Felicity Dowling - not a member of this branch, incidentally - making a particularly lengthy and outraged contribution. Comrade Islam was also contacted by SR’s Ian Parker, off list, in an attempt to make him withdraw his candidacy for the elections to Left Unity’s national council, as his comments were against the “ethos” of LU. At least one of the comrades who had nominated him also came under pressure to withdraw their support. The Hedley petition became the litmus test of comrades’ commitment to women’s liberation.

I waded into this morass with a two-line email, pointing out that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ was kind of a progressive thing. Literally five minutes later, comrade Parker replied; apparently, the topic was no longer “suitable for discussion on this list”. Shortly afterward, we were informed that the list was now being moderated; anything political, or “comments which imply any form of blame or criticism to any members of the list”, would be blocked. This action was taken by an ‘ad-hoc committee’ formed behind the backs of the membership.

At the following meeting, hastily arranged for a Saturday afternoon and with a very small turnout, the majority of comrades present actually approved this action, and a veteran Manchester activist (a born conciliator with all the backbone of a jellyfish) was approved as interim branch secretary. This farcical meeting saw several comrades, including the ‘accused’, read out statements and make quite pathetic and unbelievable claims about feeling “bullied” and “intimidated”.

Comrade Parker had the bit between his teeth, and was ready to put forward a motion of censure against the dissenting comrade, dissociating the branch from his remarks on the list. The lowest point came when, in a truly Kafkaesque moment, he suggested that this could all be settled if only the accused would sign the motion of censure against himself. In the end, however, the SR comrade dropped this attempt at censure after a pseudo-apology from comrade Islam, and comrade Parker also made noises to the effect that he might drop the complaint he had made to the NC. But Dawud did not help his case by invoking ‘safe spaces’ politics himself - the very concept others were using to try and marginalise and hound him out of Left Unity.

Sadly, reports from elsewhere in the country suggest a similar pattern. Claim and counter-claim being used as a substitute for open political debate, or to clamp down on it altogether. A mindset which will get LU precisely nowhere and, worse, make us a laughing stock.

Laurie McCauley