Left Unity: Freedom to criticise must be defended

Laurie McCauley reports on his suspension from Manchester branch

No to censorship and silencing

Left Unity was supposed to be different. A pluralist party, we were told, which could accommodate varied views within its ranks. The mistakes of the ‘old left’, of enforcing a false ideological unity that only led to splits, would be avoided. Openness and transparency were to be the order of the day.

Regular readers will know how quickly this has fallen apart in LU’s Manchester branch, where the email discussion list was shut down amidst the unedifying spectacle of one comrade - former deputy leader of Respect Dawud Islam - being demonised for the heinous crime of not coming to a snap judgement on the guilt or innocence of Steve Hedley.1 Hedley had been accused of domestic violence by a former partner, but was found to have no case to answer by the RMT union and is not under investigation by the police. Comrade Islam declined to immediately sign an e-petition calling on the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to withdraw comrade Hedley’s candidacy for the May 22 local elections. He explained, reasonably enough, that he did not know enough about the specific case, and also expressed his view that candidates’ politics are the most important thing.

This triggered an avalanche of outrage, accusing him of at best not taking violence against women seriously, and at worst of defending those men who perpetrate such violence. Dawud refused to be hounded into signing, however, and restated his position. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a two-line email from myself suggesting that “innocent until proven guilty” was a pretty progressive principle. This prompted Ian Parker of Socialist Resistance, who had initially posted the petition, to declare the topic “no longer suitable for discussion on this list” - an ad-hoc committee put the list under moderation tout court: all “political” and “personal” postings are blocked, with only banal organisational stuff slipping through the net.

Comrade Parker actually submitted a motion at the next meeting to censure Dawud for his comments - which were not even public statements, existing only on the branch’s internal discussion list - and refer him to LU’s disputes committee. At the most farcical point in this meeting, Ian proposed that comrade Islam actually put his own name to the motion! In the end, comrade Parker backed down after a pseudo-apology from the ‘accused’.

Feel the fear

Preceding that incident, tensions had been building up in the branch over more prosaic issues. Repeated suggestions from myself and Steve Wallis to hold a public meeting had been rebuffed, in a bizarrely defensive way, and shot down on the basis that the branch could not possibly build such an event. Yet 15 people attended the branch meeting immediately following LU’s conference in the city, and we were also informed that there were now 72 paid-up members of LU in the greater Manchester area. The majority of whom would have become members using the online form, and not actually attended any LU events; nonetheless they had made the effort to join, and committed to a regular donation.

I suggested that we divvy up the contact details of these people between us, and make a personal approach to them about getting involved in LU. This seemingly innocuous proposal evoked a horrified response from Bev Keenan. If we got talking to other members, we might “put our own views forward”. I wondered aloud how on earth we could trust each other to run a stall, or leaflet a demonstration where - these things happen! - we might just talk about politics with people? And I had to laugh when the very next day an independent who had not been present suggested on the email list, in all innocence, that we should divide up the membership list and start contacting people.

The repeated hostility faced by the two of us making proposals for such basic branch-building initiatives eventually got too much for comrade Wallis to take. He posted a lengthy attack on the email list on the opposition of Ian and Bev, which, while somewhat bitter, was factually correct. I waded in with my own analysis; I would have rather waited for a meeting, but comrade Wallis was effectively being gas-lighted, his own version of events dismissed as entirely made up. I felt a duty to defend the comrade, and to give other members, who perhaps could not regularly attend meetings, some idea of quite how dysfunctional the branch was; that a culture of fear was preventing any healthy growth or the development of a truly open, democratic culture.

Very quickly we were both accused of ‘bullying’ because we had made criticisms of individuals on the list. Certainly, it would not surprise me if those comrades were embarrassed about their antics being revealed to the branch’s periphery: but then they should be. They have consistently let their own fear of debate put the brakes on any and all attempts to involve more people, have decent branch discussions and so on.

Given the appalling treatment meted out to Dawud, and my growing conviction that the Ian-Bev axis was leading the branch precisely nowhere, I blew the lid open on the whole sorry story in a short report for the May 22 issue of the Weekly Worker. In that report, I noted that behind the lurid claims of offensive and bullying behaviour actually lay a profound political ­- not emotional - brittleness. The fear of having to openly defend one’s views - or even acknowledge any differences existed within this ‘pluralist’ organisation - was not only stifling any healthy development of the branch, but actually causing it to turn on itself.

Public reporting

Incidentally, the dispute involving Dawud was resolved shortly after publication. But having the branch’s dirty laundry given a good airing in the pages of the Weekly Worker was clearly too much for comrades Parker and Keenan. Their appetite for cracking the bureaucratic whip was evidently only whetted by Dawud’s dressing down, as on June 8 two motions were circulated on the email list calling for myself to be referred to the disputes committee. The first motion claimed that comrades’ interventions in meetings and on email lists should be treated confidentially - hardly the model of transparency LU is supposedly committed to. The second called for my suspension from the branch, until the disputes committee had reached a decision on the case being brought against me. Both motions were unsigned, as if comrades had taken my description of Dawud’s experience as “Kafkaesque” as an encouragement.

And the case against me? The second motion condemned the “personal attacks” and “reports in public of our internal branch discussions” in my Weekly Worker article. The first point can be usefully translated as ‘criticising what someone actually said’. My report did not focus on a critique of comrades’ hairstyles or fashion sense, or anything else that could be remotely construed as a ‘personal attack’. Rather it was the politics - or lack thereof - that I had targeted. As for the second allegation, I have already made the point about transparency.

The second motion also contained nebulous and entirely unsubstantiated claims of “persistent oppressive conduct towards other members” and “persistent disruption of LU internal meetings”. No examples of this “oppressive conduct” or “disruption” have been given - nor had anyone previously pulled me up for such alleged misdemeanours. Anyone present at the meetings I have attended - or who has more than a passing acquaintance with me frankly - can only find these claims risible. I have volunteered to lead off two branch discussions, with no-one complaining. In fact the one time we had a genuine political newbie along was at one of these meetings, and we later learnt that she had decided to join her London branch of LU following our meeting.

Wisely, revised motions were revealed a few days later, with these outlandish claims removed and focusing purely on the publication of the article itself. They also came with names attached. Both were proposed by Ian Parker, who played the role of good cop consummately, as he had during the trial of Dawud. They were seconded by Will Selden, a genial but clearly confused independent, who argued that this was purely an organisational matter of democracy and accountability, and not political in the slightest.

Keep on purging

The hour of my judgement came at 7pm on June 11. Comrade Bev Keenan - who had rallied others around her with claims of being persecuted and bullied - got very irate (although comrade Parker tried to appear very reasonable). But it was obviously faux outrage and hurt feelings: even some of those supporting the motion could not actually take it seriously. When someone mentioned my comparison in the Weekly Worker article of Chris Strafford with a certain marine invertebrate as an example of my “personal attacks”, he could barely suppress his laughter.

More than one comrade commented that the article itself was not political - which, ironically, has a certain truth to it, but only in the sense that the subject of my report was precisely a fear of politics, which had already led to one member’s name being dragged through the mud, and the seemingly bizarre refusal to countenance basic initiatives.

No-one present could point to a single factual inaccuracy in the article - neither has any comrade attacking it on social media. They focused instead on the issue of privacy and the fact that comrades’ real names had been used. This not only avoids the issue, but is a particularly lame-duck argument when a quick Google search for most comrades’ names (plus ‘socialist’) will produce a wide-brimmed hatful of results. We have covered both Left Unity conferences, using comrades’ names in both; how else are readers supposed to know who said what? But if comrades have genuine security concerns, LU is intensely relaxed about the use of cadre names within the organisation - comrades are free to adopt one.

While allegations of uncomradely behaviour had wisely been dropped from the motions - publishing the facts is “oppressive” enough by itself, it seems - the irony is that the ‘safe spacers’ end up being the most outrageous. Comrade Wallis and myself have repeatedly faced hostile, passive-aggressive responses to our inoffensive suggestions of holding a public meeting. And, as a member of the CPGB, I pointed out, I was pretty much constantly on the receiving end of jibes about ultra-leftism, etc. But did I complain of bullying and demand comrades be suspended from the organisation? Er, no. I had consistently tried, on the email list and at meetings, to raise the level of discussion above ad hominem attacks and left in-jokes and up to the level of politics,but found this increasingly difficult to do, because others wanted to avoid precisely that, at any cost.

Chris ‘Jellyfish’ Strafford, who became interim branch secretary after Bev Keenan resigned in the wake of the spat on the list, deserves a special mention. Once a member of the CPGB, he is currently being propelled by unseen currents away from the wreck of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and into the apparently calmer waters around Nick Wrack and the Independent Socialist Network. Comrade Strafford enthusiastically endorsed the motions, and seems to have played a leading role in getting together this particular lynch mob.

When challenged on Facebook about his support for a suspension based on a critical report in the Weekly Worker - a paper he used to sing the praises of for its open and honest reporting of the left’s activities - comrade Strafford suddenly reverted to the claim that the dispute was all about “bullying” behaviour, not the publication of an article. But, once again, he could not produce a single example of such alleged behaviour when challenged. The comrade has even refused to confirm or deny his support for my suspension, preferring to hide behind his role as interim branch secretary and claim to be ‘only following orders’.

Both motions passed overwhelmingly. But like the shutting down of the branch’s email list, it was an action against democracy, against openness and transparency, and really for the exclusion of certain ideas from LU. Ian Parker demanded I leave immediately ... so, yes, I beat a tactical retreat.

Needless to say, myself and others will be fighting to overturn my suspension, which threatens to set a very bad precedent in Left Unity. All members of LU - whether or not they are factionally affiliated - should ask themselves what sort of culture they want to build. One that is opaque, which bans reporting of meetings and censures comrades for expressing a different view, or reporting on things some would rather keep quiet? One that seeks to establish a mask of ideological unity through removing awkward individuals using utterly false claims of bullying and harassment whenever disagreements occur? No, Left Unity must embody openness and the freedom to criticise. Without that we will get nowhere.

Notes

1. See ‘What “safe spaces” lead to’ Weekly Worker May 15.