WeeklyWorker

13.11.2014
Bianca Todd

Left Unity: Funny goings-on

Some members of Left Unity are too quick to throw in the towel, reckons Paul Demarty

As members of Left Unity congregate in London for the organisation’s third conference, people’s minds will (hopefully) be on the policy on the table, and the decisions in front of us.

We fear, in the light of recent (and, it must be said, somewhat cryptic) events, that some people’s thoughts will be elsewhere, however. LU has seen, in the last few weeks, a clutch of resignations, one or two bizarre disputes, and a lot of doubts arising about the fitness for purpose of the disputes committee itself. Nothing life-threatening, needless to say; but signs that the reality of a new left organisation is starting to sink in with people who may have been too starry-eyed about the whole thing until now.

I quit!

To take the resignations first: our inboxes have been clogged with friendly invitations from central office to volunteer for national committee posts. Laura Cockett, Adele Andrews and Dawud Islam have resigned as regional representatives from the north-west; Ben Lewis (not to be confused with the CPGB comrade of the same name) has disappeared from the south-east; and Melanie Griffiths from Yorkshire and Humberside has also gone. On top of that, we are now short a principal speaker, thanks to Bianca Todd’s resignation; and Tim Nelson, one-half of the trade union officer job-share, has quit.

This is not, as will become clear, a collective walkout. (Indeed, comrade Islam has been out for a while, since the Manchester branch debacle; why his absence has only been responded to now is a bit of a mystery.) We need note only that comrades Todd and Nelson have, in a certain sense, resigned over each other: comrade Todd was unsettled by the enthusiasm some comrades had for getting rid of her, first when she unwittingly incited another bout of anti-Steve Hedley howling; and then when the bourgeois media picked up on a labour dispute at a non-profit company she worked at.

Her resignation has, however, not been enough for her opponents, like Tim Nelson, who somehow believe themselves to have been treated appallingly. In his resignation statement, he writes:

It is my opinion that there has been an unhealthy culture which has developed in sections of the leadership of the party over the last few months. When questions or criticisms were raised concerning Bianca Todd, it seemed that it was the instinct of some of the leadership, both officers and national council members, to rally around her and attack those who raised the issue, which did nothing more than turn what would have been unfortunate or embarrassing incidents into full-blown crises, deepening tensions much more than was necessary.

This seems perfectly reasonable on the face of it: except that it does not seem to occur to the comrade that, when close colleagues are attacked on spurious grounds, people do often “rally around” and close ranks. It is perfectly normal behaviour; for Tim, it seems that the only rational response when presented with a series of direct attacks on Bianca Todd as an individual is to immediately agree and cheer it all on. Of course, had Tim, Simon Hardy and the rest objected to Bianca Todd on serious political grounds, such a response would be illegitimate - but then Todd is a representative of the political majority in LU, and so we suspect it would be a bigger fight than these comrades have the stomach for.

Disputes over disputes

The other significant source of discontent is the poor, beleaguered disputes committee. LU’s disciplinary body has an unenviable role, wading through dozens of complaints, many of which appear to be little more than political arguments that ended with shouting, name-calling and suchlike (as many political arguments do).

It has become the target of much complaining, thanks in part to a bizarre dispute between national secretary Kate Hudson and Mark Antony France, a member of the left-nationalist Republican Socialist Tendency. Comrade France found himself suspended summarily - his crime was to post a photograph of comrade Hudson swimming in a bathing costume on Facebook, and fail to remove it when asked. This seems to have been attached to a list of complaints about an alleged bias against those who, like comrade France, have collapsed headlong into vicarious Scottish nationalism (in his case, from the safety of the West Midlands). He claimed, additionally, that Alan Story - a pro-nationalist member of the disputes committee - had been suspended, although no independent confirmation has been forthcoming.

Exactly what this has to do with Kate Hudson in a bathing costume is beyond your humble correspondent - it looks like a pointless, sexist provocation in aid of grubby left-nationalist shit-stirring. Comrades France and Hudson have now made their peace, but not before ‘the dark side of the internet’ was lit up with LU members decrying the overweening behaviour of the DC. Tony Aldis, for one, has had enough - he has moved that all DC-imposed suspensions be lifted (frankly, a general amnesty outside of genuinely serious allegations would be a good idea), on the basis that the DC does not actually have the right to suspend people under the constitution as it stands.

We notice some - how shall we put this? - unlikely individuals taking up comrade Aldis’s cry. “In the workplace suspension tends to have a paralysing effect on the individual affected: they become demoralised and the assumption of their guilt becomes the norm,” notes one Beverly Keenan. When asked why she then participated in the suspension of comrade Laurie McCauley from Manchester branch, she provided a torrent of excuses: Laurie was only suspended from the branch, he could “join another branch temporarily” (not actually true, according to the constitution), or come back if he promises not to write any “biased reports” of branch goings-on, which is “a breach of privacy”. In short - comrade Keenan’s privacy is more important, on her own account, than comrade McCauley’s mental well-being. Delightful …

Cleaning up the mess

Readers of this article will probably have experienced a lot of involuntary eye-rolling - why should you care who said what to whom on Facebook? Why do people resign posts over such trivialities? Can people not just grow up?

Certainly, my own eyes have rolled many a time, as all this has taken place. It is surely impossible, moreover, in any left organisation (in any organisation, full stop) of significant size to prevent people from treading on each other’s toes, reacting immaturely to disagreements, flouncing out, flaking out and all the rest. Yet the question arises: is LU doing all it can to prevent such behaviour? Is it an organisation in which taking politics seriously is rewarded more than individualism and small-mindedness?

There is certainly room for improvement, unfortunately. The disputes committee is hardly beyond criticism; many disputes have lingered on interminably, leaving comrades in limbo. Yes, we know it is overburdened thanks to political arguments being packaged up as disputes by our pettier members; on the other hand, we only know this because we hear it on the grapevine.

The true mistake of the DC is to have committed itself to confidentiality; there is simply no visibility of the situation with disputes, unless one attends all NC meetings and sees a harried look on the comrades’ faces. We have argued repeatedly in these pages (and argue again this week) that this commitment is deplorable from the point of view of political principle; but here I would like to highlight how bloody impractical it is.

With transparency, trust would not break down so easily; comrades at large would be aware of the workload, that the committee had become a person light. Who knows? - if it was known at large how trivial many of the disputes were, perhaps some people would be shamed into dealing with arguments like grown-ups. If the DC comrades genuinely were untrustworthy, meanwhile, we would be in a position to judge.

More broadly, Left Unity’s constitution is a nightmare: something finally acknowledged by the fact that it has been put back on the table this weekend. It is written, first of all, too defensively; it is less the right of members to fight for their views than the right of members not to be trodden on that is given priority. On top of that, it is hypertrophic: it mandates too many committees (many of which, like the regions, barely function), a leadership body too large to lead (with directly elected officers, always a dangerous point of failure), and so the organisation cannot be as responsive to internal developments as it needs to be. Unfortunately, this attitude is well represented among the membership: many proposals this weekend involve setting up yet more committees, or creating yet more specific jobs for people, rather than the radical streamlining that is required.

Both these problems will be up for discussion this weekend, and it is to be hoped that they are resolved in a helpful manner.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk