Missing the bigger picture
Sarah McDonald reports on Left Unity's National Council meeting
Conceived in the image of Greece’s Syriza
Saturday January 30 saw what should have been the final meeting of Left Unity’s currently constituted national council before the internal elections open in March. Around 20 comrades attended the meeting in central London - a similar number to the last NC, but this represents a considerable depletion from those originally elected last year. The reason, of course, is blindingly obvious: to misquote Harold Macmillan, ‘Events, dear readers, events’ - particularly certain events relating to the Labour Party.
And, of course, those events have taken their toll on the LU membership, with scores resigning to join Labour. They were joined soon after the NC meeting by two more members of the LU leadership - membership organiser Simon Hardy and media officer Tom Walker.
After a brief financial report from national treasurer Andrew Burgin, we heard from comrade Hardy - his final act before quitting. LU is continuing to haemorrhage members, he said - most, like him, are joining Labour and/or Momentum. It is thought, however, that LU still has between 1,260 and 1,300 paying members. But branches are collapsing and merging across bigger and bigger geographical areas, with a few exceptions. Some comrades put this down to organisational matters - not enough contact work, etc - but, as Tom Walker (also attending his final LU meeting) correctly pointed out, this is clearly a political issue, not an organisational one. Jack Conrad from the Communist Platform agreed, commenting that, because of its nature, LU was always likely to suffer from an internal crisis triggered by external events, simply because there is very little agreement beyond the basics on most questions: Jeremy Corbyn’s election had hastened and intensified the current crisis.
There was then a brief discussion on campaigning priorities led by national secretary Kate Hudson, where there was some contention over prioritising anti-Trident work. The usual list of worthy causes was reeled off: housing; austerity; migration, etc.
Next up, we had a motion from comrades Hardy and Burgin on Momentum and elections. This was contentious, mostly for the wrong reasons. Points one through six amounted essentially to ‘Keep Momentum open; support the left within it against the right’ - where the assumption is that the left consists of groups like the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Additionally it implied uncritical and unconditional support for Corbyn. Point seven also committed LU not to stand against Labour while Corbyn remains leader. This was a problem for our comrades in Wigan, who were planning to stand in local elections and the debate brought out the confused (or, in the words of comrade Hudson, “fudged”) nature of the conference decision on this question. As comrades may remember, conference voted to “suspend our national electoral work” for the time being in view of Corbyn’s victory. This could be interpreted as applying to all electoral work nationally or only to national elections, depending on your preferred stance.
Comrade Conrad suggested that the nature and trajectory of Momentum will be decided next weekend at the first meeting of its national committee on February 6. Accepted wisdom is that it is pretty much a done deal and the meeting will agree that only Labour members can vote on Labour issues or stand for positions and that Momentum will seek to affiliate to the Labour Party. The comrade continued that, although unfortunately it seems that supporters of non-Labour groups will be barred from distributing their material at all Momentum meetings, the correct orientation was to join the fight within Labour, not ‘turn outwards’ towards ‘the movements’ - as many on the left, including within LU, advocate. This is not about cheerleading Corbyn, but about transforming the Labour Party into a vehicle to promote the interests of the working class - as Trotsky said, to transform it into a “united front of a special kind”.
Jon Duveen said he did not understand this idea of transforming Labour into a united front, so we should just forget it (if that is comrade Duveen’s general approach to politics, we will probably be forgetting quite a lot of things). Susan Pashkoff felt that Momentum had been “lost” and that we need to focus on campaigns and campaigning groups, while comrade Hudson asked whether the intention of the motion was to help win a Corbyn victory in 2020 or to avoid jeopardising our relationship with Momentum. Comrade Walker felt that to stand against Labour was the most absurd sectarianism, which would prevent LU from engaging with the huge movement that had developed around the Corbyn campaign.
For my part, I argued that Corbynism outside the Labour Party did not make sense. However, we should encourage people to join the Labour Party in order to equip it with Marxist principles and a Marxist programme. Others, including Anna Bluston, thought that was mistaken - if people want to leave and join the Labour Party, then they should just go ahead, but she for one was staying in LU. One argument justifying not participating in Momentum was that comrades felt they would not be able to pursue existing campaigning work, such as against Trident, etc, if they took part. It seems odd that the campaigns mentioned were of the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ variety - who on the left is going to argue against them? The whole debate seemed to be missing the point.
In the end, points one to six were passed - but amended to tone down the unconditional support for Corbyn. Point seven was referred to the next NC, which has been brought forward to February 20 - the thinking being that by this time we will know to what degree Momentum will be open to those outside the Labour Party.
After lunch there was a debate around a motion presented by Tom Walker on the European Union referendum. The comrade wanted LU to support the campaign for a progressive ‘in’ vote, Another Europe is Possible. He said that, while he did not have any illusions in the EU, there are progressive elements worth defending within it, such as the free movement of people, employment rights and so on. There was also the concern as to what would happen to non-British nationals living in the UK following a ‘no’ vote. To be honest, the general tone was of ‘lesser evilism’.
Dave Landau spoke against the motion and called for an “abstention” in the referendum campaign. He compared this approach to the 2002 French presidential election, where much of the left urged supporters to “hold their noses and vote Jacques Chirac” rather than let Jean-Marie Le Pen potentially win. Comrade Landau and others made the point that, while there may be free(ish) movement of people within the EU, there is still ‘fortress Europe’ - one only need look at those risking their lives to flee Syria to see the effects of European anti-immigration policies. I argued that, while I could see the motivation for such a motion - in stark contrast to the protectionist and xenophobic position of much of the left - it should not be supported. We should not be taking sides with David Cameron and whatever unpleasant negotiated deal he wangles: we should take an independent working class position - which means calling not for “abstention”, but for a boycott.
Kate Hudson thought the Another Europe is Possible campaign was broadly in line with the position adopted at conference and so, in the absence of anything better, we were duty-bound to accept the motion. Comrade Conrad argued against the motion and stated that, while the EU is reformable, it is not reformable into socialism. The motion was passed with 12 in favour, three against and three abstentions.
The last part of the meeting agreed to re-establish a working party on LU’s constitution and on ‘safe spaces’/code of conduct. We then went though a list of motions carried over from conference to be debated at future NCs. Those where the movers are either individuals who are no longer, members,or branches that no longer exist will fall by default. I do not envy the next batch of comrades elected to the NC.