Left Unity: 'Moderate' party takes shape
The new formation has adopted its first policies. Peter Manson reports on the LU conference
The March 29 Left Unity policy conference in Manchester confirmed that the project is afflicted by all the weaknesses of previous (lower-case) ‘left unity’ initiatives, despite the impressive number of people who have asked to join. Kate Hudson, newly elected national secretary, reported that on March 22 there were 1,520 signed-up members - and in the few days since then more than 200 had joined. She declared that LU was also based on a “sound financial footing”, now employing a part-time admin worker, plus a bookkeeper once a month.
However, the obsession with political ‘broadness’, with anti-democratic constitutionalism, risks disabling the project from the start. While this event was far more political than the November 30 2013 founding conference (it could hardly be otherwise), the same weaknesses were on display.
Somewhere between 200 and 250 comrades attended - around half the number that came to the November meeting in London. Former members of various left groups, plus those from the right-moving detritus of recent splits from the Socialist Workers Party and Workers Power, not to mention established rightwing Trotskyists like those from Socialist Resistance, made up a large bulk of those present. As far as I could see, Workers Power had around half a dozen people there, while there was one lone comrade from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales did not even bother to set up a stall, leaflet or send a reporter, as far as I know.
Clearly it was the Communist Platform bloc that provided the only coherent opposition. Salman Shaheen, one of the four LU “principal speakers” just elected, had on the eve of conference referred to the CP as the “extreme left” within LU in his interview with Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Daily Politics show. He himself was part of the “moderate wing”. In that interview comrade Shaheen stated that the “majority” of LU members were “disaffected Labour supporters”, but that was not my impression of the conference itself.
We were told that 478 members (35%) took part in the elections. But there were insufficient candidates in several categories - nobody at all stood in several regions. All the main officer posts were unopposed, and the other three “principal speakers” are Felicity Dowling, Pete Green and Bianca Todd. The membership and communications officer is Terry Conway, while the treasurer is Andrew Burgin and the media officer is Tom Walker. All these are very much from the right of the LU, as are most of the successful candidates from the directly elected and regional sections of the new national council. However, in the directly elected section, Yassamine Mather of the Communist Platform, Pete McLaren of the Independent Socialist Network and Toby Abse, who writes for the Weekly Worker on Italy, all won a seat.
Incorporated among all the motions from branches and individuals were the reports from the policy commissions, which had originally been scheduled for debate on November 30. But, of course, that day was a nightmare and that part of the agenda was not reached. But at least several of these documents have been improved, compared to their original incarnation.
Nevertheless, the economics policy commission, which made up the first real business of the day, remains a mishmash of lofty aspirations and minimalist reforms. It starts by describing the effects of the global financial crisis, yet does not go on to call for the party to be committed to a campaign for an alternative society. It states: “Radical measures are necessary to ensure a transformation in the economic structure and a reversal of the damage inflicted over the last 30 years of attacks …” It calls for “an expansion of public spending in pursuit of a policy of full employment”.
The document goes on to pay lip service to a “strategic vision” of “a different society”, based on the “principle of ‘From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs’”. It correctly declares: “… we cannot put an end to capitalism in one country alone nor abolish Britain’s reliance on exchange and trade with both Europe and the rest of the world.” But then it goes on to call for “a national plan for regeneration of the economy” and “in the longer term” for “realigning the British tax system into a progressive framework that substantially reduces inequality, protects the poor and ensures the rich pay a much higher share”. Is that what is meant by “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs”?
But, incredibly, no debate was allowed on this monstrosity of a document. After several amendments had been moved and debated, the chair, Jim Hollinshead, allowed a procedural motion calling for a vote on the substantive document to be taken immediately and this was carried. So there was no opportunity even to call for the commission motion to be referred back.
In presenting the document, Pete Green had claimed that some unnamed people did not understand the difference between “basic principles and minimum demands”. Apparently we say that “anything less than socialism is not enough”. No, this “isn’t a full socialist programme,” he said, but “Right now we need to focus on what unites workers”. Obviously comrade Green does not understand the purpose of minimum demands. They are intended to lay out what workers need in the here and now - whether or not capitalism can afford them. In this way they point in themselves to the society of the future.
Some useful amendments were carried: the nationalisation of “other essential services” (apart from those privatised over the last three decades) and of “companies that attempt to destabilise a Left Unity government”; the raising of the state pension to “100% median earnings”; for further reductions in the working week (from the 35 hours contained in the main document) without loss of pay; and - to the chagrin of the leadership - the replacement of “Immediately cut VAT to the EU minimum of 15% …” with “Immediately eliminate VAT on all goods and services”. This last amendment was carried by 92 votes to 87. In arguing against this, comrade Shaheen commended the document as “radical, pragmatic and sellable”. Yes, he said, “VAT is regressive”, but “you can’t abolish it overnight”. Besides, what about the VAT on “luxury goods for the rich”?
When it came to the procedural motion to move to the vote on the document (as amended), this was narrowly carried, by 85 votes to 70 with nine abstentions. Had the chair pointed out that no-one at all had spoken on the substantive document apart from the mover, he would surely have prevailed upon the majority to hear what the objections might be. But no, he viewed this simply as a way of saving time and getting through more of the agenda.
The question of time weighed over the proceedings, producing this unsatisfactory, apolitical desire to get through the business, irrespective of the need to bring out the underlying differences. The standing orders committee had aimed for 45 of the 58 motions submitted to be heard (there was clearly no way they could all be debated in one day), but in the event only 37 came before conference (of these, three had been removed through compositing and three were withdrawn).
Added to the problem was the confusion of comrade Hollishead. His co-chair, Sheila Mosley, was less perplexed, but was completely inexperienced as a chair. Neither comrade inspired confidence as to the correctness of their rulings - and they knew it.
In one of a number of unfortunate decisions, comrade Hollishead asked all the movers of motions in the ‘Economy and austerity’ section to propose them formally - yes, you guessed it: to save time. He said he would then “give priority” to those same people when he opened up the debate from the floor. How exactly was that supposed to save time? And when people demonstrated their disapproval he made remarks such as: “It seems conference wants to waste as much time as possible.” In the event those comrades who agreed to forego their opening speech were left at a disadvantage, as speakers were called more or less randomly from the floor. (At least the absurdity of selecting speakers on the basis of their gender or skin coloration was dropped this time around.)
Southwark had moved a motion calling for a campaign for a 21-hour week “as a goal”. But this was too extreme for the leadership, the comrade who was selected to oppose it claiming that such a campaign “would isolate us”. We want to “push people forward, but not too far forward” was his reasoning. We will “marginalise ourselves” if we adopt policies that are “too narrow, too extreme”. Another comrade said that some proposals before conference were “totally uncosted”.
Speakers from the CP were able to intervene in this debate. Mike Macnair said that the Southwark motion should be supported - not as something that was for immediate implementation, but as a campaign. Ben Lewis - having been prevented from speaking against the economics policy commission, put forward some of the points he would have made in his speech against another motion calling for, amongst other things, support for Owen Jones’s left-Keynesian Agenda for Hope. Like the economics document which had already been voted through, the motion imagined that the “UK on its own could break with the international capitalist order”, said comrade Lewis. Instead, we ought to develop policies that would represent a complete break with a “tried and failed method”.
The same difference over method surfaced again in the debate on housing. All the various motions and amendments on this subject had been usefully composited (despite the resulting flaws) - except for the amendment from the CP’s Lee Rock and Laurie McCauley, which called for rents to be set at a “token” rather than “affordable” level. “Who decides what’s affordable?” asked comrade Rock. Everyone should have the right to a decent home, irrespective of their income or lack of it.
But another comrade said it was a question once again of whether we were talking about “campaigning now”, or how things would be “under socialism”. We have to face facts: if rents are “token” under capitalism, then “housing won’t get built”. The amendment was defeated.
Migrants and race
And this difference over method also emerged in the debate on open borders - only this time the motion on migration from the anti-racism policy group was on the right side. This motion made many good and principled points, although it was slightly marred by its contention that “there can be no ‘fair’ or ‘non-racist’ immigration controls”. It is perfectly possible for such controls to be non-racist, but the point is, they will always be anti-working class. Nevertheless, the fact that the policy group called for open borders was extremely positive.
Speakers from the floor made points consistent with earlier opposition to ‘extreme’ policies: “Open borders opens us up to ridicule,” said one comrade, who asked us to think of the media coverage such a policy would provoke. Therefore it is “not practical politics”. The comrade added that “free movement suits the capitalist agenda”. This point was also made by another speaker, who claimed that mass migration has “caused huge damage”.
These points were answered effectively by another comrade, who stated that it was capital which determines who can move where, not working people: “Yes, it will open us up to ridicule. That’s what happens when you go against the agenda.”
However, the motion was overwhelmingly carried - one of the highlights of the day. As was another, much more contradictory motion from the anti-racism policy group. This saw racism in virtually every aspect of bourgeois politics. Not only are all border controls racist: so too are scare campaigns against Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, ‘war on terror’-type moves against Muslim extremists, and so on. The motion contended: “The fact that it is culture and creed, rather than colour and breed, which is the ideological focus of these measures allows politicians to pretend that they are not racist.”
The problem is not only that some of those politicians are themselves black, Muslim or the children of migrants: they are actually not ‘pretending’ at all. They actually believe that their anti-migrant policies will benefit all Britons of whatever colour or religion. That is because they are British chauvinists, not racists.
This extremely long motion also stated: “… we support the principle of self-organisation, and believe black leadership of the movement is key to defeating racism.” Shouldn’t that be Romanian and Bulgarian leadership? Leaving that aside, however, here the motion was clear that it is not the working class that needs to take leadership - or at least no more so than blacks (and women).
It was fitting that this intersectionalist motion was moved by Richard Seymour. He was urged by comrade Macnair to accept that the motion was “framed in the wrong way” and should be referred back. Comrade Macnair pointed out that its sectionalist/intersectionalist basis was “inconsistent with global opposition to capitalist rule”. Blacks (or women) per se cannot lead such opposition. Secondly, it saw no difference between the racism of old and today’s “nativism”. It accepted the whole multiculturalist agenda, which was driven by the bourgeoisie and sought to divide opposition from ethnic groups by upholding their separation from each other and promoting ‘community leaders’ who claimed to speak for them and helped sideline any united class response to cuts, etc.
In his reply, comrade Seymour dismissed the concern about intersectionality. The various oppressed groups “intersect”. So “what’s the problem?” As for the divisive nature of multiculturalism, that seemed to pass him by. Showing just how all-pervasive are the backward ideas associated with multiculturalist intersectionality, the CP was virtually alone in calling for a referral-back: the motion was carried overwhelmingly.
A distinctly sectarian attitude was on display in relation to the other left groups. Rugby LU had proposed a motion entitled ‘Unity on the left’, which began by quoting LU’s aims from the constitution agreed last November: “to unite the diverse strands of radical and socialist politics in the UK …” This motion went on to call on LU to “develop strategies which, in the long term, help contribute to there being one party of the left … This will include initiating debate across the left …” Rugby’s speaker, Pete McLaren, also moved an amendment to another motion calling on LU to “open discussions with other left groups” to “avoid electoral clashes and move towards electoral pacts”. Surely no-one could object to that? They could and did.
The argument against was, ironically, based on the ‘people out there’ line beloved of the SWP: “Are we going to argue outside the bubble?” asked one comrade. We need to “get rid of the ideological lumber” and orientate towards “millions of people, not tiny little groups”. Of course, this overlooks the small detail that those who say they are Marxists will be best placed to appeal to the “millions” if we actually got our act together by uniting on what we claim to believe in.
Another comrade wanted to prove how out of touch the left was by asking us to look around the hall. There were hardly any black people present and very few of the minority of women were volunteering to speak: “This is a white, male organisation.” That proved that “the existing left won’t connect with real people” and we should therefore not link up with other groups. But hang on a minute. I thought LU was supposed to be different, with its policies on ‘safe spaces’ for women and ethnic minorities. No, I forgot, the original ‘safe spaces’ document was withdrawn and a new version has just been published for consideration at the next policy conference in June. I suppose, if we adopt that, blacks and women will flock in and we will be in an excellent position to appeal to “real people”.
The motion was defeated by 92 votes to 83 - but at least the amendment on electoral cooperation was carried on a show of hands.
The right also won out on the question of our approach to the unions. An amendment from Lambeth urged that LU “orients to the rank and file of the trade unions above privileging any relationship with leftwing officials, because we recognise that union leaders, lefts as well as rightwingers, are prone to compromise and call off action at the decisive moment”. While the phrasing of this could be criticised, the general sentiment is correct. However, Alan Thornett from Socialist Resistance urged opposition: “To have that position on Bob Crow would be disastrous”; while another comrade claimed the motion was the equivalent of saying to trade unionists, “Your leaders are a bunch of scabs.” The clear implication of both contributions was that we should look to “privileging any relationship with leftwing officials”. The amendment was defeated.
And unfortunately conference made big concessions to nationalism within the UK. Glasgow had proposed a motion, which in part read: “Left Unity will not support Scottish or Welsh nationalism, nor will it content itself with the United Kingdom and the quasi-democratic status quo. However, individual members will be free to campaign both for and against Scottish independence in advance of the 2014 referendum.”
The strong anti-nationalism (of both the Scottish/Welsh and British variety) expressed in the first sentence was already offset by the neutrality of the second. But Cardiff’s amendment sought to delete the first sentence altogether.
Speaking in favour of the motion, Sandy McBurney admitted that the second sentence had resulted from a “pragmatic decision” - clearly he would personally have preferred a position that specifically opposed a ‘yes’ vote. There are, he said, “plenty of socialists in Scotland opposing independence on a class-struggle basis”. The British working class has a common history and should not be divided on grounds of nationality. He ended with a powerful call to “oppose British, Scottish and Welsh nationalism”.
However, Teresa Delaney from Cardiff took a diametrically opposite position: “We can’t say we won’t support nationalism,” she declared. In fact, “We shouldn’t have a policy that doesn’t support Welsh nationalism in its entirety”!
Others were less overt in their support for petty nationalism - Terry Conway claiming that a ‘yes’ vote would be the “best way to strengthen the working class and undermine the British state”. This was strongly countered by Sarah McDonald and Mark Lewis of the CP. Comrade McDonald stated that there was no such thing as a “progressive nationalism”. Yes, we support the national rights of the oppressed, but neither the Welsh nor the Scots fit into that category.
Comrade Lewis answered Terry Conway’s claim about a ‘yes’ undermining the British state: “If an asteroid hit the Earth, that would undermine the state too.” But that was hardly a positive solution. He stressed that nationalist politics were those of defeat, of despair, and Plaid Cymru - which had originated as a rightwing party - was tapping into that by claiming that Wales alone would be able to resist the global austerity assault.
But the right was happy to gut the Glasgow motion of its anti-nationalist content and thus implicitly back the appalling line of Teresa Delaney. Both the amendment and the gutted motion were clearly carried.
However, the right was split over whether to back a motion from Steve Freeman in favour of supporting the Radical Independence Conference and its allegedly “internationalist approach to the question of Scotland’s democracy”. His motion was in favour of “making a case for a ‘yes’ vote in the trade union and socialist movements in the rest of the UK”. This, of course, would directly contradict the policy of neutrality just agreed. But comrade Freeman alleged that his motion would be an “answer to the ‘coalition of the willing’”. A ‘yes’ vote would “say that to Cameron” - he raised two fingers.
Once again it was a Glasgow comrade who spoke out against these “illusions in Scottish nationalism”. We should “start from the interests of the working class, not just say the opposite” of what the UK ruling class declares, said Matthew Jones. And once again it was a section of the right that excused nationalism, with one comrade arguing that we should point out “what an independent Scotland could really do for working class people”. We must not “cut ourselves off from the [nationalist] movement”.
But conference decided by the narrowest of margins - 70 votes against the motion, 68 in favour, with 22 abstentions - to stick with neutrality.
So it came as no surprise when the CP motion on the same subject was defeated. This argued that the ultimate solution to the national question was the “merging of nations”. But this could only be achieved by championing “the right of nations to self-determination”, whereby historically constituted peoples could opt to separate - but equally could “elect to come together or stay together”.
Strongly opposing “reactionary British nationalism”, Ben Lewis also exposed the “complete and utter illusion” that an independent Scotland could somehow break with neoliberalism, let alone “build socialism”. The point was to “positively overcome the national question” through proposing a federal republic of Scotland, Wales and England, permanently enshrining the right to self-determination. That would “strike fear into the hearts of the Camerons and the Salmonds”.
Teresa Delaney came to the platform once more to oppose this motion, stating that it was “an affront to the history of the people of Wales”, who suffered oppression at the hands of the English. She went so far as to claim that LU would “not be able to campaign in Wales” if it adopted such a position. Another comrade thought we should concentrate our fire on British chauvinism, not Scottish and Welsh separatism. That was the way to promote “proletarian internationalism”, not the “abstract Marxism” of the CP motion.
Once more comrades Mark Lewis and Sarah McDonald represented the genuine voice of proletarian internationalism in Wales and Scotland respectively. Comrade Lewis acknowledged the history of oppression of the Welsh, but its legacy had been overcome through a “voluntary merger from below”. Comrade McDonald stressed once again that the demand for a federal republic “recognises that there is a Scottish and Welsh national question”, but aims to overcome it through such a voluntary merger.
While this argument failed to win over conference, there were better results on the whole when it came to Europe.
Crouch End’s motion called for support for the statement of the European Left Party and its “refoundation of Europe on a socialist basis”. This was carried unanimously. Of course, there are big differences on what exactly is meant by that, and those around Andrew Burgin, Kate Hudson and so on who support it have very different ideas in practice on what is meant by “socialist”. But this convergence around the notion of all-Europe unity - as opposed to left nationalism - was striking.
Simon Hardy moved a motion from Lambeth calling for a “Europe-wide working class response” to the capitalist crisis. It stated that “demanding withdrawal from the EU … is a British nationalist position, which misidentifies the enemy as ‘Europe’ rather than the ruling class”. It called for united struggles, including to “level up wages, services, pensions and workers’ rights to the best across Europe”; to “scrap the EU’s bureaucratic structures; for a European constituent assembly; for the “free movement of workers, refugees and asylum-seekers” and a “European workers’ government”. Finally it resolved to “refuse support from LU as an organisation to all non-working class parties and candidates [in the European elections] supporting cuts, austerity and privatisation of our services.”
This was too specific for the right, however, which wants to keep open the possibility of voting Green ‘against the BNP’ in, say, the North West - and for those who believe that Britain should leave the EU. Alan Thornett, for example, while he was “not for immediate withdrawal”, did not want to rule it out. He disputed the contention in Lambeth’s motion that “we should no more oppose European capitalist integration than we would oppose the merger of two companies”, claiming that in the case of European integration we could not be neutral (he did not explain why). In particular we must reject the euro, since joining it would mean we would “have to accept the entire agenda imposed on us”. Presumably he thinks that, since the UK still has the pound, we are free from that “agenda”. His SR comrade, Fred Leplat, called for the motion to be remitted, since he was “not sure” on its call for an “active abstention” on any referendum on British adoption of the euro.
The chair put this proposal to remit to the conference and this was, unfortunately, carried. However, the motion originating with the CP, proposed by both Milton Keynes and Sarah McDonald, was clearly carried. This opposed both demands for withdrawal and “the EU of commissioners, corruption and capital”. It committed LU to a “united Europe under the rule of the working class”.
CP comrades made a good impression in this debate. Comrade McDonald talked about the “common culture” of the working class across Europe, urging support for a united fight across the continent for “political, economic and democratic demands”. Earlier she had opposed a motion from Southwark calling on LU not to take a position on how to vote in the forthcoming EU elections. It should not vote for any pro-austerity party on the basis that it was “the lesser of two evils” (this was a clear reference to Labour).
Sarah pointed out that we should not be “automatically neutral”. It was perfectly principled, for instance, to offer support for individual Labour candidates, provided they fulfilled certain conditions. It was the “wrong approach” to claim that Labour and the Tories were just the same. Another CP comrade who spoke in this debate was Laurie McCauley, who urged on comrades to adopt an “internationalist vision for Europe”.
Southwark’s motion was defeated, but I suspect that this was also connected to the sentiment expressed by Felicity Dowling that LU should consider voting for the “only candidate who can beat the fascists” in the North West: ie, the Green Party.
The whole day was very tiring, but it was nowhere near as frustrating as the founding conference. But, despite some success for the “extreme left”, March 29 marked another step on the road towards Left Unity becoming a broad, “moderate” party incapable of organising consistent working class opposition to capital. However, there is a lot to play for yet lot to play for yet.