Things don’t look good
Peter Manson reports on last weekend’s shambolic London members aggregate
I am afraid to say that the January 16 aggregate meeting for Left Unity’s London members served only to confirm the sense of disarray and disintegration that has been hanging over the organisation since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
Hundreds of members have simply jumped ship, while the leadership seems to be at a loss as to LU’s role, especially since it seems clear that Labour is now much more fertile ground for the kind of left reformism that many of LU’s tops advocate. This uncertainty found reflection in the shambolic organisation of the aggregate - not only in relation to its purpose, but in the way it was called.
While such aggregates are able only to make recommendations rather than take decisions, that is no excuse for the total failure to advise the London membership that a meeting had been called. There was no general email or other form of communication sent out and in fact no-one had even thought to advertise the aggregate on the LU website or in any other way. It was only those who are fortunate enough to be subscribed to the regional email list who learnt about the aggregate first hand - personally I did not even know such a list existed, and there must be many more like me.
When at the meeting I pointed this out to comrades from the regional committee, I was told that it was the job of branches to advise their members. My own branch secretary was obviously not aware of this - he told me earlier that he just assumed everyone was on the regional list and did not email the branch members for that reason. But what about those branches that have folded or all but collapsed? Where does that leave their members?
Towards the end of the aggregate national secretary Kate Hudson told us that there are still 200 members in London, but “probably the majority” have never got involved in any LU activity. In that case, and in view of the failure to give proper notice of the meeting, the attendance of 30-35 was actually pretty good.
But what was the aggregate for? There were three items on the agenda: Corbyn and Labour; campaigning priorities; and branch organisation. It was only when we eventually got to item three that it was revealed that a discussion on reorganising the London branches in view of the drastic fall in membership had originally been the purpose of the meeting.
Before that, however, there were two debates that were both problematic in their different ways. First, Stuart King introduced a discussion on Corbyn and Momentum, in which he claimed that the balance of power within the Labour Party had dramatically shifted in favour of Corbyn since the November 2015 LU conference. Comrade King - previously a member of Workers Power, Permanent Revolution and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (three groups that no longer exist) - declared that the Corbyn leadership is today “much more secure”.
Referring to Labour as “one of the parties of the ruling class”, he said that Labour’s rank and file - “largely through Momentum and Stop the War” - had led an “extremely effective campaign”, which won a majority of Labour MPs to side with the leader over the bombing of Syria. Following this Labour won the Oldham West by-election and Corbyn was able to reshuffle his cabinet, thus strengthening the left. So things have “changed considerably” since November.
Momentum, the campaign set up to support comrade Corbyn within the party, has 30,000-40,000 supporters, he went on, but at the national level things are not so good. The Momentum leadership’s bureaucratic behaviour will drive out a lot of people, he thought. So there is “a struggle to be had”. However, this struggle was not over the battle to win Labour for the working class, but to “turn Momentum outwards”, so as to form an anti-austerity “social movement” in and out of the party.
Comrade King was aware that Left Unity will “not be recruiting people easily” in current circumstances, but he made no recommendation as to what precisely LU members should do. Should we all join Momentum and, if so, should we try to fight within it for a common cause? We were not told.
Several comrades, including national treasurer Andrew Burgin and Roland Rance, made it clear that they too have been active in Momentum, although in his case comrade Rance said it had been “made clear that we’re not welcome”. He too was in favour of “turning Labour towards the campaigns”, towards “activism”.
He was followed by Jack Conrad of the Communist Platform, who disagreed with comrade Rance. Our job is to channel people into the Labour Party, he said, and in this respect it was a big mistake for the November conference to reject fighting for affiliation.
In response to comrade King’s claim that things have changed substantially in Corbyn’s favour since the LU conference, he pointed out that Corbyn has, quite correctly, been making use of the Bonapartist powers enjoyed by the Labour leader. In other words, the present situation had been perfectly foreseeable, but the LU majority had preferred to believe that Corbyn would soon be defeated by the right and the tide would turn in LU’s favour. Comrade Conrad added that the main struggle Corbyn has should be viewed not in terms of winning the 2020 general election, but in terms of the party’s rules. It was a struggle to democratise Labour in order, amongst other things, to completely change the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In fact, Labour can be transformed into a permanent united front of the working class.
Comrade Burgin reported that the Momentum meeting due to be held on the same day as the aggregate had been called off - although it “would have been a stitch-up” in any case, he said. Our aim should not be to dissolve LU so that everyone could join Labour, he continued. We can work in Momentum, but LU is a “very different” organisation, aiming to unite all the left. It was important to grasp that there has been a “shift to the left across Europe”, he said, and that LU is part of that.
LU nominating officer and Socialist Resistance member Terry Conway “agreed strongly” with “virtually everything Stuart said” and “fundamentally disagreed with Jack”. Rather mysteriously she stated that turning people outwards to the campaigns was not an “abstract” question - you “can’t do it just in the Labour Party”.
For my part, I pointed out to comrade King that it was incorrect to state that Labour was unambiguously “one of the parties of the ruling class”. The Corbyn phenomenon has confirmed Lenin’s analysis that Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party and Corbyn’s victory has proved that the working class pole, previously completely marginalised, is alive and well, in however attenuated a form. The main task within Momentum was not to “turn it outwards”, but to help win the battle in the Labour Party, to transform it into a vehicle for our class. That was why I too thought it was a bad mistake to vote against the idea of affiliation - the aim ought to be for Left Unity to act as a disciplined force within Labour to aid that process.
One of the Corbyn-sceptics was LU national council member Richard Farnos, who said he did not “share the euphoria” over the new leader. As for Momentum, it was “inevitable” it would become a “creature of the Labour Party” and it was essential that LU remained outside Labour to continue with our aim of building “a party of the left”. Nevertheless, like many others he said he would prefer a Labour government to a Tory one and wanted Labour to win in 2020.
Steve Freeman preferred to talk about matters other than the question of Labour. He thought it was more important that our policies on democracy, Scotland and Wales, and the European Union were correct. Despite the fact he had stood against the LU-backed candidate in last year’s general election, I thought the reception he received was strangely polite and receptive.
RMT union executive member Oliver New is one of those who thinks that discussing politics can often mean “not doing anything”. Didn’t we realise that politics was not about “debating endlessly”? Rather it “comes out of the working class struggle”.
Responding to the debate, comrade King emphasised that the “most crucial thing” for Momentum is not changing the Labour Party, but “defeating the Tories by mobilising people”. Our role is to “convince Momentum of that”. As for Left Unity, although our website is “awful” and we “need to get our act together”, we “have the politics - we just need to present it”.
Next, Doug Thorpe briefly outlined the executive committee’s recommended campaigning priorities - even though we are “a smaller organisation than a few months ago”, he said, we should still be getting out there and making our presence felt as Left Unity.
The first priority is the campaign against the renewal of Trident - that takes “pride of place”. He suggested we produce a broadsheet on the question. Other campaigning areas included housing, the environment and, of course, the battle against austerity - so the April 16 People’s Assembly demonstration was very important. In other words, it was very much another case of ‘as you were’ - even comrade King pointed out that the EC had not mentioned Momentum in its list of priorities, for instance.
After that, several members took the opportunity to tell us what they had been doing in their locality or what we ought to be campaigning on in the near future. So Dave Landau of the Independent Socialist Network thought the EU referendum campaign would be “really racist” on both sides and it was vital to focus on that. Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance proposed a “discussion seminar on climate change with others from the green left”, while comrade Rance said that his branch had placed a “strong emphasis on disability rights” and a couple of others mentioned the latest acts of oppression from the Turkish state.
Comrade New agreed with the EC that Trident should be the first priority, as it props up British imperialism’s role in the world. Local branches should hold forums and leaflet on the question, using CND material if necessary. We need to be “seen as people who are cracking on with it”. He also pointed out that lots of campaigns are “dominated by men” and so we should produce a leaflet that “links up with feminism”. Eve Turner, from the chair, called for a “day of action”, when all branches would campaign against Trident.
Comrade Freeman took the opportunity to obliquely refer to his own hobby horse, when he said LU should “build links with the Scottish left”. In response to this, the CP’s Sarah McDonald commented that Steve was actually “trying to get someone from Rise to talk to us about independence”.
In reply to the ‘debate’, comrade Thorpe helpfully concluded that having a list of priorities “doesn’t mean we don’t do anything else”. So just carry on campaigning as before - and don’t worry about political priorities. After this, it was agreed that branches should organise a day of action and call forums on Trident before the February 27 demonstration.
If you have the impression that the above sessions were less than purposeful, then read on. Comrade Turner apologised for not being entirely sure of things, but she pointed out that there is no regional secretary at the moment. “Are there any volunteers?” she asked, adding that perhaps a couple of comrades could job-share? (Whatever happened to elections?)
Since she did not know exactly what the final session was supposed to be about, she suggested that there should be “branch reports” from the floor. What? I thought we had just heard a lot of those. However, in response to other comrades pointing out that there were specific questions that needed to be raised, comrade Turner called on Doug Thorpe once more to explain the thinking of the regional committee. He informed us that the committee had decided that the question of branch organisation was the “main reason” why we needed this aggregate, but he could not “remember exactly why”.
At this point comrade King came in again to point out that several south London branches had agreed to fuse, and comrade Rance reported that Tower Hamlets and Hackney were considering a merger, or at least working together. For his part, comrade Burgin recognised that, while some current branches were “viable”, others were not, but he thought that “pulling together faraway branches” was not a good idea.
He and comrade Hudson both recommended that there should be monthly London-wide members’ meetings (which ought to be properly advertised, they said pointedly). Andrew reported that Lambeth used to have around 20 people at its meetings, but now it has joined forces with three other branches and only around eight people come along.
Finally, comrade Conway undertook to “get a list of the full London membership” and the meeting ended up endorsing a recommendation that the four south London branches should merge - in reality this was a fait accompli, of course. So there had been no general recommendation on branch organisation either from the regional or national leadership. How should LU be organised locally? One branch for each borough or one for whole areas of the capital? Or should we give up on branches altogether and just go for London-wide meetings?
I can only conclude that, if this meeting is anything to go by, things do not look good for Left Unity.