No to business as usual
We need to take Labour seriously, argues LU national council member Sarah McDonald
Not waving, but drowning (Bob Trotman installation)
Two short years ago, Left Unity was launched with all the familiar promise of a new party of the left. Having quickly signed up about 2,000 members, it would soon climb to the giddy heights, filling the void on the left of British politics and attracting all those ‘ordinary people’ who had been turned off by the sectarian old left.
“Doing politics differently” often feels all too familiar. True, LU was different from the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Scottish Socialist Party and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, in as much as it was not the brainchild of any of the Trot groups (in fact both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales remain outside), but was more inspired by European left parties, such as Syriza (with its origins in the ‘official communist’ movement) and Podemos.
But there is a groundhog element to all these unity projects in terms of their political method. LU has based itself on the same false premise of mythologising a golden age of the Labour Party that it seeks to recreate (in this case, sparked by Ken Loach’s film, Spirit of 45), but unlike the aforementioned unity projects, it gives less prominence to terms such as ‘working class’ or ‘socialism’ within its daily parlance. Left Unity is in many ways more akin politically to the Eurocommunists of the CPGB in the 1980s. The focus is very often on sectional interests: feminism, LGBTQ rights, etc, as opposed to class politics. It is ironic, then, that LU’s existential challenge comes not in the form of an internal split, the ditching of this party project for another, or even the self-righteous tensions between the intersectionalists, but from the Labour Party itself.
So the news that Left Unity has lost 400 members (and as a result its office in Islington) is not entirely unexpected, given developments within Labour. Some of those who are no longer members will simply be people who signed up in 2013 and had not gotten round to cancelling their fiver subs. Many - and, if LU fails to adopt a principled approach to Labour, many more - will leave to join Jeremy Corbyn’s party. Several prominent LU members have already done so and there are reports from branches of more peeling off week by week. And can we blame them? LU is facing a real political crisis. With thousands joining Labour on the basis of the same soft-left, Keynesian politics that the revolutionary left likes to espouse when wanting to appear sensible, what is the point of LU? Some of its less canny members actually articulated their opposition to supporting the Corbyn campaign on the grounds that his victory would make the LU project seem pretty pointless.
What members need to ask themselves is, what is the point of Corbynism outside the Labour Party? What Left Unity needs to do, if it is to have any political credibility, is to take the Labour Party - and, more specifically, the question of affiliation - seriously. We are not saying that this will be easy. We must actively campaign against the bans that prohibit leftwing organisations from affiliating: for example, clause II (5a) of the Labour Party rule book:
Political organisations not affiliated or associated under a national agreement with the party, having their own programme, principles and policy, or distinctive and separate propaganda, or possessing branches in the constituencies, or engaged in the promotion of parliamentary or local government candidates, or having allegiance to any political organisation situated abroad, shall be ineligible for affiliation to the party.
Despite this, we in the Communist Platform advocate that Left Unity adopt a strategy precisely of affiliation - not simply of members signing up to join as individuals. LU also needs to do so with a vision beyond simply supporting Corbyn (which it ought to do, but critically). It needs to attempt to affiliate with a view to transforming the Labour Party from something that seeks to manage capitalism (including through unworkable Keynesian ‘solutions’) into a permanent united front of the working class. A force that can act as an instrument of socialism in Britain and across Europe.
We have already witnessed moves against Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell from the right within the Labour Party, not to mention the onslaught from the media. We have seen a certain accommodation on the part of the new leadership to some of this nonsense. Corbyn’s focus is on the 2020 general election. Ours is not. Between now and then we can expect him to tailor his politics to win over sections of the media, avoid splits in the Parliamentary Labour Party, etc. The job of the left within the Labour Party - hopefully one day including Left Unity - will be to fight for principled politics and the interests of the working class. It is not our job to foster illusions in a left Labour government that could so easily be forced to administer capitalist austerity.
There can be no doubt that politics in this country is changing. If the Corbyn victory, or mass protests in defence of migrants was not enough to convince you, then watching the floundering spasms of Resisting Socialism - oops, Socialist Resistance - ought to do the trick. If there is a populist movement, you can guarantee our comrades in SR are quick to run after it - be it greenism, Syriza or Scottish nationalism, they’ll be there with bells on. So the Corbyn movement flummoxed them (as it did many on the left). In a way, that is understandable, given the lack of any genuine mass movement on the left for 30 years - and any serious attempt to understand the nature of the Labour Party. The current state of affairs threw the left a curveball.
We have moved on from the situation where it was difficult to get a motion in support of Corbyn passed a few months ago in some LU branches - SR comrades were among those opposing such motions. Then, the line was that the Corbyn movement was dangerous because it fosters illusions in the Labour Party and is a distraction from Left Unity. Now SR’s Terry Conway has submitted an amendment to a motion from Haringey branch calling for affiliation and singing the praises of Momentum. The change in policy is welcome, but where is the analysis, the self-criticism?
The left approach of tailing movements simply because they exist is all too familiar. Take the Labour Party. Large sections of the left had, until the Corbyn campaign really got going, considered it a thoroughly bourgeois party that was not worth engaging with - the most notorious example being SPEW, of course. Yet suddenly Labour’s left wing is in the leadership. Likewise there was the notion that Syriza could take office in Greece and implement the manifesto on which it was elected. In the event, it unsurprisingly capitulated to the demands of the institutions. (What was the other option? Military ‘state socialism’?) These are just two very recent examples of unexplained, untheorised about-turns that the cadre of SR, the SWP, SPEW, etc are forced to defend. Surely this can only breed stupidity - or cynicism.
With this in mind, we ask the question, where now for Left Unity? It is vital that we get the politics right. We will argue that if LU is to become a worthwhile project, it must take the Labour Party seriously, in terms of both how we understand it and how we engage with it. Therefore we are proposing that the first day of Left Unity’s November 21-22 conference is dedicated solely to this topic. We will argue that LU needs to take itself seriously.
Currently its constitution is a work of madness. It is crucial that the second day’s agenda should remain devoted to the LU constitution, no matter how much comrades want to pass their worthy motions on other topics. Business as usual will lead to LU’s withering away, and rightly so.
These are different times. Left Unity’s moment of crisis is borne of something positive: not egos, petty splits, TERF wars or a myriad of potential farces, but a left revival within the Labour Party. How we respond will be the acid test.