Going nowhere fast
Despite Corbyn’s victory and a dramatic loss of members, Left Unity intends to continue as if nothing has changed. Peter Manson reports on last weekend’s conference
Business as usual
More than 150 comrades attended the first day of Left Unity’s 2015 conference on Saturday November 21 - although there were around half that number on the Sunday. But the first day’s attendance was slightly more than this writer was expecting, given the sizable contingent that has left to join the Labour Party.
Unfortunately, however, the (rather diminished) faction around national secretary Kate Hudson and treasurer Andrew Burgin managed to win conference to its totally inadequate, ‘business as usual’ approach to Left Unity in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. Conference voted down motions, including the one from the Communist Platform, which called for a serious attitude to Labour - not least the aim of transforming it into a force capable of advancing the working class cause: as a permanent united front, to which LU itself could affiliate.
A tiny minority of comrades - including, however, principal speakers Salman Shaheen and Pete Green, and media officer Tom Walker - wanted to dissolve LU into a “network”. But the motion to this effect won precisely 10 votes, provoking the resignation from Left Unity of comrade Shaheen. He was subsequently joined by national council member Edmund Potts and two leading Independent Socialist Network comrades, Nick Wrack and Nick Rogers.
In her report as national secretary, Kate Hudson’s paid lip service to the need to “change the context in which we work” as a result of Corbyn’s victory. But, apart from defending him against the right and cooperating with the movement to support him, particularly Momentum, it seemed it was a case of carrying on as before and building Left Unity on virtually identical politics to those of Corbyn.
She reminded us that the Tories are responsible for a lot of very bad things, but LU has “played a part” in many exciting and successful conferences, day schools and demonstrations, while internationally we have “observer status” in the European Left Party. So obviously we are doing very well indeed, despite losing several hundred members to Labour. It is as though those like comrade Hudson really believe that, when the Labour right eventually reasserts its control, people will turn to us and LU will become a real force. Just be patient and wait for the inevitable …
After we heard a short speech from a representative of - yes - the European Left Party, who said that a “broad socialist left is needed everywhere” and praised “our sister party” in Portugal for helping to form a government (resistance to austerity is taking place, “be it in government or on the streets”), the conference proper began with the consideration of all the motions and amendments on “The future of Left Unity”.
But first John Pearson challenged the standing orders committee because it had allowed the ‘network’ motion from comrades Green, Shaheen and Walker onto the agenda. He said the motion was advocating an “unconstitutional way to dissolve the party”. Instead there should be “agreement with all members” (no doubt to be obtained through an internet vote) before such a change could take place “in accordance with the rules”. Thankfully his challenge was overwhelmingly defeated - it was essential to hear and fully debate all the alternatives.
The leadership’s motion, ‘The future of Left Unity’, was then presented by comrade Burgin. He emphasised that LU shared “many of the policies” of Corbyn - his victory was “part of a new mass struggle across Europe”, which he said was taking place largely through formations like the ELP. In Britain, however, things are different and the broad left is weaker, partly because of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system and partly because of the existence of the Labour Party and its connection with the trade unions.
However, he asked, “what can be achieved by Labour”, which is dominated by the right? “Even if the Labour Party returns to social democracy”, it will have many “differences with the radical left” (which he did not specify). So LU is “a vital part of the political spectrum” - part of a “radical political wave across Europe”.
Doug Thorpe from Haringey proposed another motion welcoming Corbyn’s election, but proposing that LU “explore ... the possibility for Left Unity to affiliate with the Labour Party”. He expected the “main flow of the anti-austerity movement” to pass through Labour, not LU. However, while LU was “not perfect” it was “so much better than anything I’ve been involved in for the last 30 years”. So it needed to continue as a party, while using the call to become an affiliate as a tactical shield when faced with Labour members asking why we are not taking part in the real battle.
After this Salman Shaheen proposed the motion that comrade Pearson had wanted to stop us discussing. This called for LU to “dissolve itself as a political party which contests elections” and for those present to “reconstitute ourselves as a Left Unity Network”, open to those inside and outside Labour.
He contended that, while previously “the need for a party to the left of Labour was clear”, now the “central priority” was to “ensure Jeremy Corbyn is the next prime minister”. Rather disingenuously, he claimed that this was “not a liquidationist motion” - the “only change” would be that we would no longer stand in elections. In that case, as comrade Thorpe later commented, why did the motion not simply state that, instead of calling for LU’s dissolution into a network? Contradicting himself, comrade Shaheen said that the new network would become a Labour Party “pressure group like Compass or Progress”.
He concluded by saying that if his motion was not adopted LU will “continue to fragment”. Therefore, “far from dissolving Left Unity, this motion is about saving it”.
Presenting the Communist Platform motion, which called for a campaign to transform Labour into an “an instrument for working class advance and international socialism”, Jack Conrad spoke in support of the call for Labour to become an “umbrella organisation for all trade unions, socialist groups and pro-working class partisans”. LU should “seek to affiliate” to Labour.
Comrade Conrad said that Lenin was right in his description of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party - but today it is a “bourgeois workers’ party of a special kind”, in that it has a mass working class membership but with Corbyn and John McDonnell at the very top. No longer can it be said that Labour is led by “reactionaries of the worse type”. However, the Labour machine and Parliamentary Labour Party are still dominated by reactionaries and it is our job to defend Corbyn against both the right and the likes of the unnamed general who has talked about a coup if Labour is elected in 2020.
However, our aim should not be a Labour government. Corbyn’s advisors are Keynesian, who want to “save capitalism from itself”, whereas we are for the rule of the working class. Comrade Conrad pointed to the lessons of the Mitterand government in France in 1981 and more recently of the Tsipras government in Greece: “Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen” to Corbyn and McDonnell?
Socialism is international, continued comrade Conrad - the working class needs to capture “the commanding heights of the global economy” and, to start with, we need to aim for “working class power across Europe”. As part of that aim Labour must be transformed - not by ‘reclaiming’ it along the lines of the 1945 pro-imperialist, pro-war, pro-capitalist administration, but into a “permanent united front of the working class”.
Fred Carpenter moved the motion proposed by himself and Fred Leplat (both are supporters of the soft-left Socialist Resistance), which basically called for uncritical support for comrade Corbyn. Comrade Carpenter urged LU to be “not just spectators, but actors” in a mass movement to defend the new Labour leader. He was followed by Steve McSweeney, who described himself as “a member of the organisation formerly known as Workers Power” (WP has announced its dissolution and is working within the Labour Party). Speaking for Waltham Forest and Lambeth, comrade McSweeney said that LU “ought to seek affiliation to the organisation that proclaims itself [sic] a working class party”. Norwich’s motion also called for Labour to be democratised, so that LU could affiliate.
Next we had Steve Freeman, proposing his motion to remodel LU along the lines of the left-nationalist Rise in Scotland. He began by saying that he had received “a letter from the national secretary begging me to resign” - he had stood against the LU-backed candidate in Bermondsey in the general election - “but I’m still here”. (The reason no action could be taken against him was that LU’s hopeless constitution renders it impotent in such matters.) According to comrade Freeman, LU was set up to take us back to the ‘spirit of 45’, but instead we need to “reclaim the spirit of 1649” and follow in the footsteps of the Diggers and Levellers. A central part of this is, in his eccentric opinion, the demand to break up the British state - to be replaced by separate English, Welsh and Scottish capitalist states.
The motion from Lambeth, moved by Stuart King, called for all unions to affiliate, while saying nothing about political organisations like LU, but demanded that affiliates be allowed to “support other workers’ parties in elections as well as the LP”. However, comrade King said that LU “shouldn’t stand in elections or we would be out” - it would “kill the idea of affiliation stone dead”.
The final motion on LU after Corbyn’s victory was proposed by Nick Rogers on behalf of Glasgow South, which, while not calling for affiliation, was for LU to constitute itself as part of a “Marxist current” within the Corbyn movement. Comrade Rogers said it could be argued that Labour was already a united front of the working class in “deformed form”. He warned that, while Corbyn was Labour’s most leftwing leader, “programmatically he is not particularly leftwing” - which is why we need to “organise as Marxists” to defend him.
After all the motions had been proposed, it was the turn of amendments, and comrade Pearson was first up to speak in support of LU continuing to stand candidates against pro-cuts Labour right-wingers, which he said was an example of putting “principle above tactics”. Apparently it is a “principle” to oppose Labour right-wingers in elections, irrespective of the concrete circumstances. Sounds more like dogma to me.
Chris Hurley then moved another amendment to the Hudson-Burgin motion, supporting Momentum. In this context, and referring to the motion proposed by comrade Shaheen, he said we was “not quite sure why we need two networks”. And Ed Potts moved an amendment trying to “strengthen” the same motion along clearer socialist lines.
Ben Lewis spoke for a CP amendment to the Waltham Forest motion, which, while generally supportable, ended with the absurd call that LU, if accepted as an affiliate, should make it its “first priority” to “ensure that all Labour Party branch meetings are fully accessible” to disabled people. Comrade Lewis argued that the Labour Party is already committed to accessibility, and, anyway, surely our “first priority” ought to be to “transform the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism”. He said that, as it stood, this was a good motion “undermined by a foolish ending”.
Another CP speaker, Tina Becker, sought to strengthen the Glasgow South motion by adding, amongst other things, the call for affiliation. She pointed out that LU was “losing many individuals” to Labour - it would be much better if we aimed “as an organisation” to work inside the party.
After all motions and amendments on Labour and LU had been heard, the debate was opened up to the floor. NC member Eve Turner was typical of those advocating a rather apolitical, movementist approach to supporting Corbyn: she “totally disagreed” with working inside Labour. Instead we should be “building a mass movement outside”.
Tom Walker repeated comrade Shaheen’s assurance that their motion wanting to “dissolve” Left Unity was not about “winding up or destroying” it. They were just trying to point out that it was “strategically wrong to stand against Labour”.
Another CP speaker, Sarah McDonald, said that, while it was correct to reorientate ourselves, there never had been a “golden age” when Labour was a party fighting for the working class. She also stressed that we should oppose the aim of a Labour government until we had “the majority of the people on our side” and there was a strong possibility of building a successful movement of solidarity across Europe.
Nick Wrack said our aim should be a “communist society in the original sense” and our tactics should be subordinated to that objective. As for Left Unity, it may use the word ‘socialism’, but its policies were not distinct from those of Corbyn - “a distinct view is a Marxist view”. Our duty is to support Corbyn from the left against the right - it is “not enough to cheerlead”.
But a comrade from the south coast could not understand all this concern about “party politics” - instead we should be “fighting against cuts”. The comrade said that LU had been campaigning for Caroline Lucas: “In Brighton the Labour Party is rightwing and the Green Party is on the left” - presumably in relation to their attitude to cuts. Stephen Hall from Wigan said we should be able to stand against Labour candidates “if they might as well be bloody Tories”. Another, referring to those who believe Labour can be transformed, said, “We dream!”
Another of LU’s four principal speakers, Felicity Dowling, was, as expected, in support of the ‘as you were’ Hudson-Burgin motion: “Because of the Tory government more and more people will be moving into politics”, she said, which is why LU needed to remain a party, not a “pressure group”. But Simon Hardy took a different view. That motion represented “business as usual” despite the favourable noises towards Corbyn. Comrade Hardy could understand why some people did not want to “go back through the Labour mill”, but that is where the fight is now going on. He quoted The Guardian, which had reported that LU was going to go in and “help transform the Labour Party”. To which comrade Hardy’s answer was: “Yes, we will!”
When it came to the movers’ replies, comrade Freeman was the only one who was not really interested in Labour (despite the nod in the direction of Corbyn’s victory in his own motion). He thought it was paradoxical that everyone in the hall wanted to talk about Labour Party democracy, but no-one was “interested in the democracy of the country”. That’s because the debate was about the Labour Party, Steve! But for him “turning to the Labour Party is a move to the right”, while “politics is moving to the left”. To prove it he talked about not the thousands of working class people who have joined Labour just before and after Corbyn’s victory, but about the “250,000” on the June demonstration called by the People’s Assembly (in fact there were around 60,000 on that demonstration - and very many of them had been inspired by the Corbyn campaign1).
In his own reply, Jack Conrad was scathing about the Hudson-Burgin motion. Many in Left Unity are happy to talk about the “revolution in the workers’ movement” and the “historic opportunity” provided by Corbyn’s victory, but what were our leaders proposing? An online journal, a spring conference and a reassessment of our electoral tactics next year! But we need a strategy towards Labour - and that is what the CP motion provides: a strategy for transforming Labour into a weapon for socialism. Let us actively join those inside the party who are fighting to get rid of the right.
Then it was the turn of Pete Green, who said he would be resigning as principal speaker if the ‘network’ motion was unsuccessful. He commented that in one way “it’s still the same old Labour Party” - and then added: “Except that it’s not, is it?” He did not know if the fight to change Labour would be successful, but be did know that “it’s not going to take place in rooms like this!”
The replies were taken in reverse order, which meant that comrade Hudson herself was, very conveniently, last to speak. She opposed the amendment attempting to give her motion some socialist teeth on the grounds that it was “an attempt to destroy its politics”! And she described affiliation as a “red herring” - it is against Labour’s constitution, so “it’s a waste of time voting for it”. And there we were thinking that the idea was to radically rewrite that constitution.
In the end her motion was clearly passed, unamended, on a show of hands, but all motions and amendments advocating the affiliation of political groups were defeated. Apart from Hudson-Burgin, the other successful motions were the Socialist Resistance-inspired call for a Corbyn government, moved by the ‘two Freds’; and - much more narrowly (69 votes to 65) - the Lambeth motion, which, against the wishes of the leadership, agreed to “temporarily suspend our national electoral work” (Hudson-Burgin wanted to “reassess our electoral strategy”, which is not quite the same thing).
After this, and following consultations with the standing orders committee, comrade Hudson announced that, “until the national council has discussed this, we will not stand in any parliamentary elections. But existing local campaigns can continue.”
Commenting on this subsequently, a member of the standing orders committee, Phil Pope, wrote on his Facebook page:
The outcome of the LP debate is that we have suspended standing in parliamentary elections until a review of our electoral strategy can be carried out. As there are no parliamentary elections until 2020 and we have never stood in a by-election, this amounts to doing nothing. If the NC wanted to review our electoral strategy in the light of Corbyn, it could have done so before this conference and got any new strategy approved.
Absolutely right. But the Hudson-Burgin faction do not work like that. Which is why they did not propose any amendments to LU’s absurd and unwieldy constitution, which stretches to some 6,000 words, or to the Communist Platform’s concise alternative, which comes in at under 900.
Comrade Hudson once more began proceedings on day two with her call for a constitution commission, which would drastically reduce the role of conference in determining matters relating to the constitution. She had wanted this motion taken first and voted on before, for instance, the CP’s alternative was heard. Then, according to her interpretation, the CP’s motion would fall, because all constitutional proposals would have to go before the new commission. Fortunately the SOC did not agree with her interpretation and it was accepted that the CP proposal, plus amendments to it, could be put. So comrade Hudson spent most of her speech criticising our alternative - before it had even been moved - rather than actually arguing the case for a commission.
She said that two things were missing from the CP proposal: first, the “principle” of ‘one member, one vote’; secondly, the notion that all members should have the right to elect national leaders and members of national committees. Our alternative constitution does away with internet voting and enshrines the right of conference to decide upon “the numbers and composition of the national council”. It stipulates: “The national council elects its own officers and sub-committees.” For comrade Hudson, this is outrageous. She contends that it should be rank-and-file members who decide who should be, say, LU’s media officer, even though most of them will know nothing, or next to nothing, about the talents and capabilities of the candidates for the job.
Another thing she complained about in the CP alternative was the absence of any “proper process to elect the NC or delegates to conference” - as if the precise procedure for taking a vote at conference or electing branch delegates needs to be laid down in the actual constitution. Comrade Hudson also ridiculed as “crazy” the CP clause that states: “Branches should be kept as small as possible to allow maximum flexibility and maximum efficiency.” She seemed to believe that this meant we were advocating a limit on the overall membership numbers rather than calling for those members to be divided into many small, efficient units.
The CP’s Yassamine Mather replied that, on the contrary, it is the current labyrinthine constitution that is not democratic. It urgently needs replacing and it was a “waste of time” to set up another commission, when there had been “plenty of time to make amendments” to either the current monstrosity or the CP alternative. She stated that the conference has the right to discuss the constitution, but “some comrades have taken a decision” to try and stop that happening.
For her part, Terry Conway of Socialist Resistance declared that, while “no-one would argue the present constitution is perfect”, the members “couldn’t put amendments” because people’s minds had been focussed instead on “what’s happening in British politics”. So we now need to “take the time collectively” - ie, hand the whole discussion over to a commission.
Here is Phil Pope again:
The SOC requested that the NC form such a commission back in July, so it could report to this conference, but there was no action taken. Now, although everyone agrees that the constitution needs reform, we have to wait another year before anything is done about it.
I found the manoeuvring of Kate Hudson to ensure that no constitutional reform got debated slightly cynical - she first tried to get a strange interpretation of motion 50 adopted and when this failed suggested that emergency motions (that weren’t really emergencies) were taken instead of constitutional stuff. This despite her being one of the few people to see the agenda in advance of conference.
... If people think the constitution needs changing, then, for goodness sake, suggest changes to it rather than choosing to ignore it when it suits your political objectives.
Anyway, comrade Mather on behalf of the CP was allowed to present the alternative constitution, which she described as “short, precise and practical”. She pointed to just a few of the practical failings of the current version: the fact that the NC - supposedly sovereign between conferences - meets only once every three months and so cannot respond to events; the fact that there were very few officers (and now, following the resignations, there will be fewer), because the NC has no authority to replace them. This means we are “signing off democracy to four people”.
Speaking against our alternative, Richard Farnos said it was “a joke”. Who wanted “tiny, little branches”? He implied that under our constitution anyone could be expelled at the drop of a hat if it is alleged they are “bringing the party into disrepute”. In fact, while our document lists among possible violations of discipline “behaving in a way that brings discredit to the party”, it stipulates that “any member of the party who is subject to disciplinary procedures has the right to appeal to higher bodies of the party, up to and including the conference”. Comrade Farnos said that our constitution was an example of democratic centralism and “I don’t want to be in a democratic centralist party.” Turning to the CP comrades, he asked: “Why don’t you leave and make it?”
Sarah McDonald agreed that our proposed constitution was democratic centralist. In fact the two aspects of the phrase complement each other: more centralisation actually means more democracy. There must be leadership, but there must also be accountability - neither can be achieved without centralism. She also argued that decisions should be taken not by atomised individual members via the internet, but by democratic gatherings following a full discussion.
Replying to the debate on behalf of the CP, Jack Conrad stressed that LU does not have enough centralism and as a result it is often incapable of acting. He emphasised that we are for a mass party divided into small units, which are more capable of involving masses of people than branches with hundreds of members. He pointed out that the existing constitution stipulates that, once the LU membership reaches 2,000, conference must be organised on the basis of delegates. What was that about ‘one member, one vote’ for all decisions?
But in the end the vote on the constitution commission was taken first and, when this was carried, it was ruled that the CP alternative would not be voted on and instead would be referred to said commission.
At the beginning of day 1 comrade Dowling had complained about the exclusion from the agenda of her latest ‘safe spaces’ motion. She admitted that it had been sent to the wrong email address two hours after the deadline, but still described the attempt to “sideline safe spaces” as “a scandal”. However, thanks in part to the amendment from her own Liverpool branch, some of this intersectionalism was inserted into the motion proposing a code of conduct, including a “commitment to safe spaces” and an instruction to the leadership to “facilitate a party-wide discussion on this issue and bring to next year’s conference policy proposals for safe spaces”.
The only other debate of significance was over our attitude to the in/out referendum on the European Union. It was gratifying that nobody in LU is advocating ‘out’, in line with a large part of the left, including the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales. So the debate was between those who want us to vote ‘in’ and those, like ourselves, who advocate an active boycott.
Speaking in favour of the latter, the CP’s James Turley pointed out that the two alternatives on offer in the referendum were equally reactionary and we should “not endorse David Cameron’s political theatre”. We should decline the invitation to “choose the butcher”.
However, two ‘in’ motions were clearly carried, while amendments aiming to commit Left Unity to at least “raise socialist ideas” and “promote its distinctive socialist policy on Europe” were very narrowly defeated.
In conclusion, it was a rather disappointing conference, in that LU hardly looks set to advance. With the departure of the former Workers Power comrades, along with supporters of the ISN, who are also intending to work within Labour, the two organised forces that remain are SR - whose comrades seemed to be all over the place in their voting - and the CP.
LU is sure to continue losing members to the Labour Party, yet our attempts to give it distinctive, Marxist politics and a clear sense of direction were rejected. The CPGB will discuss what conclusions we draw at a members’ aggregate this coming weekend.