WeeklyWorker

16.10.2014
Kate Hudson: sober

Modest expectations

Mark Fischer is impressed by a more sober and realistic attitude on the part of leading members

Many readers will have already picked up snippets about the October 11 meeting of Left Unity’s executive committee. I attended as an observer and will make a few general observations.

First, a puff of realism seems to be blowing across the organisation - a very welcome corrective to the inflated initial expectations of quick success, even if it is ruffling a few feathers. Presenting a membership report at the beginning of the agenda, leading Socialist Resistance member Terry Conway generally characterised the state of play as “static” after some small losses. Comrade Mike, a regional rep from the East Midlands, was, however, genuinely “concerned by the implications of the figures” quoted. Concretely, they mean that LU has lost a third of the previous 3,000 members who had been on the books and last year’s aim to expand to a national membership figure of 5,000 had been a clear failure.

In the general debate that followed comrade Conway’s report, there were - unfortunately - far too many technical excuses put forward for the loss of momentum and technical solutions offered. One notable exception was the intervention of comrade Andrew Burgin, who was spot on when he pointed out that the losses had to be set in the more general context of the “wider political discussions we are in” and that, in any consideration of the forward momentum of the project (or lack of it), we had to place “politics at the heart of the discussion”.

Thus, it was hardly surprising that we had seen a large number of “friendly resignations in Scotland” as a result of the changed political atmosphere generated by the campaigns around the independence referendum. (Or, to put it less diplomatically than comrade Burgin, the collapse of large sections of the left into petty Scottish nationalism). Similarly, the Green Party had exerted a pull on some sections of the LU membership - also reflected at a leadership level, with two members of the national committee having now joined. So, while it was correct to discuss organisational matters in this context, the key was a “strategic orientation to building a broad left party”.

Of course, it is not a quibble to suggest that it is the current strategic aim of Left Unity that is wrong-headed and it is this unviability that accounts for the project’s slowdown. It is attempting to build an amorphous “broad left party” in the context of mainstream politics and society moving to the right; where other, organisationally more substantial left groups with far more distinctive profiles are engaged in essentially the same project and - not a small consideration - the Labour Party continues to exist.

Unfortunately, most discussion on this item was of a decidedly non-strategic nature. The pluses and minuses of a proposed membership form were chewed over at (frankly tedious) length; a branch-building meeting - which was cancelled because of the inaccessibility issues of the original venue - had to be rescheduled to avoid losing momentum; someone needed to be employed three days a week to take this membership work forward; people should receive training on how to chair meetings, organise streets stalls, engage with the media; there should be starter packs for branches and a buddy system for new recruits; and Pete Green from Hackney thought an important part of the solution was to seriously “address the regional structures” … a comment that was usefully heckled by the East Midlands rep, Mike: “which don’t exist!” he reminded us.

The EC has a component of elected reps from all the LU regions.1 However, Kate Hudson informed the meeting that we were missing the regional representatives from Eastern, North West, Scotland, South West, South East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside - a rather large percentage of what is supposed to constitute the LU infrastructure, in other words. The recognition that LU has now lost much of its initial forward impetus was a generally recognised fact in the room. Those comrades putting forward techie solutions seemed to have modest expectations. For example, if Tom Walker’s proposal that people should have “training in the basics of how to organise” is adopted, I do not think he would expect the organisation to go stratospheric in terms of membership and influence.

Patient

Kate Hudson articulated the more sober and realistic mood of leading LU members when she used the organisation’s constitution as an example of the patient approach we needed to adopt. This was actually designed for an organisation of “20,000-50,000” members, she argued. Clearly, it is therefore something we need to “grow into” rather than seek to rigidly impose on an organisation of 2,000 people (in truth, well under that figure, of course). These are “early days” and we need to be “flexible”, she said.

It is positive that this recognition seems to be more generalised nowadays. (To be fair, comrade Hudson has expressed a similar idea in the past). Readers will be aware that we do not actually think much of the current constitution, whatever the size of the organisation it is designed for, but this paper did make the basic point that, the moment LU tried to function in the real world, it would constantly find itself in breach of its own agreed rules.

The same holds true for the complex proposals for the resolution of conflicts - and the whole so-called ‘safe spaces’ ethos that informed them. We predicted the disputes committee was going to be the hardest-working collective in the entire party and - sadly - we were right. The October 11 meeting discussed a communication from the DC on the fraught situation in Scotland. This related to some matters with potential legal implications and involving what seems to be the demarcation between the two committees. Space does not allow me to go into the details (whose political value is questionable anyway), but some of the comments from EC members were refreshing, as, again, they hinted at a dawning recognition that sharp political disputes - which is what you would expect in any serious organisation - are finding their way to the disputes committee as complaints about ‘bullying’ and ‘offensive behaviour’.

Thus, Terry Conway commented that there seemed to have been confusion between issues of personal conduct and structures - something that should not have been allowed to happen. Kate Hudson was on the money again when she said we had to separate the issues around “distressed and upset people” and our role in “politics”. Likewise, comrade Burgin when he characterised the split in Scotland: “this is about politics - we have a ‘yes’ branch and a ‘no’ branch” north of the border. This is representative “of Scottish politics as a whole”, not the difficult personalities of the individuals involved, he sensibly pointed out.2

So, in spite of some rather solemn news on the membership front, this was a positive meeting and hopefully indicative of a more patient, mature approach to the long-term task of building LU from its modest beginnings. Other decisions and noteworthy points from the meeting were:

One last point on Left Unity’s organisational culture. Reference was made during the discussion on membership to the burden of work that falls on a very small group of comrades at the core of the organisation (they have “400 things each” to do, one comrade commented). This, of course, is an inevitable product of the overblown expectations for the organisation’s development at the time of its launch - the number of subcommittees alone seems hugely inflated, compared to the hard political ‘product’ the organisation actually puts out day to day.

Time for some radical pruning, perhaps?

mark.fischer@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. According to the LU website, the EC is made up of “the elected national officers, one representative from each region and caucus, and 10 of the nationally elected national council members” (http://leftunity.org/executive-committee).

2. Perhaps LU comrades might care to reflect on how this might relate to comrade Laurie McCauley, a Communist Platform supporter suspended from Manchester branch for what seemed to be little more than having political differences and expressing them openly. For more on this, see ‘What “safe spaces” lead toWeekly Worker May 15 2014 and ‘Transparency is a principle’, September 25 2014.

3. See, for instance, 'No clean hands' Weekly Worker October 2.