Abstention and organisation
The Communist Platform abstained on many motions put to conference. Paul Demarty explains why
As baffling as the agenda sometimes was, the one thing apparently hardest for many attendees at Left Unity conference to comprehend was the Communist Platform’s abstention in a large number of votes.
It has to be said that we did abstain a good deal: from the opening item of business (the policy commission report on the environment) to some of the last reached (on fighting austerity), most chances at unanimity were scuppered by rows of hands going up at the front. If abstentions had not been called for by the chair, Jack Conrad yelled out to make sure they were.
Reactions varied through the weekend: from puzzlement, to mutters of “why are you even here?” When motions about child sexual abuse met the same snub, the atmosphere chilled considerably. By the end of Sunday, with all souls exhausted, conference seemed to settle on a kind of ironic whoop - alternating with amusement whenever we did vote one way or another.
In all reactions - bafflement, anger and grim humour - there is an element of ‘confirmation bias’. The CP did not recommend abstention on anything like all the motions on the agenda, or all those not to come from our own members and allies. Indeed, Mike Macnair provided a three-page guide to our voting intentions last week (November 13) - for this, against that, abstain on the other (and, yes, we changed our minds on one or two things in the heat of the argument).
Mike addressed the abstention issue thus:
Several proposals, particularly those of the policy commissions, display a combination of (1) good general principles which are ‘motherhood and apple pie’ for socialists, followed by (2) concrete proposals for micro-reforms within the framework of the immediately current general regime: ie, that created by Thatcher’s ‘reforms’ …
We do not wish either to lend visible support to proposals constructed on what we think is an unsound basis or to be seen to vote against ‘motherhood and apple pie’ principles, or against the limited gains which would be represented if the concrete reforms proposed were implemented. So in these cases we urge a demonstrative abstention.
Voting for nothing
Our approach is based not on what reforms are ‘realistic’ minimum demands, but what is actually needed for a revolutionary shift in political power. The reasons for this are quite sound: major reforms are not, on all historical evidence, built up from a tissue of small ones, but drilled out of our rulers when they fear for their property or their lives. Being overly modest simply prevents that fear from ever being generated. Voting for a “motherhood and apple pie” resolution with a few tinkering changes tacked on is not a principled compromise, but a vote for gesture politics.
The weekend furnished us with examples enough of this phenomenon, but it is perhaps good enough to cite the one abstention that had your correspondent fearing for his personal safety: Brighton and Hove’s motion on child sexual abuse. “Conference notes the uncovering of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation in the UK as a widespread phenomenon,” it began, and then listed the police failures and so on.
When we get to “conference resolves”, it is thin gruel indeed: “To work nationally with survivors’ groups, women’s groups and other appropriate organisations to come up with a programme of demands for the resources necessary to offer all survivors counselling, therapy and other appropriate support.” There are no such demands in the motion - persons unknown are going to have to come up with them, in collaboration with other (unspecified) groups. How can one vote for nothing except an empty expression of disapproval?
More ironically, the motion also called for “bring[ing] together socialist feminist academics to study the relationship between class, gender and child abuse with a view to publishing an in-depth article - either online or in print”. Ironic because Jim Hollinshead, the comrade who moved this motion, is an academic criminologist (although his main research interest appears to be the conservation of ponds) - we suggest he would have a more productive impact on human knowledge by organising such a conference through his institution, inviting people on the basis that they possess deep expertise within the domain rather than their political convictions.
Not that our stance mattered - the motion passed overwhelmingly. Child abuse is, after all, very bad; and our principal speaker, Felicity Dowling, apparently cannot make a speech on any subject without a jeremiad about violated innocence tacked rudely on. Let us see who Left Unity can rustle up for this conference of theirs.
Even on this issue, perhaps, a scattering of hands around the room in favour of ‘none of the above’ would not have provoked such disapproval. A small, concentrated island of dissenters presents a different countenance to the eye.
The Communist Platform’s abstentions were as vexatious because they were organised as because they were abstentions. And organised they certainly were. When motions were first released for this conference, we were faced with a choice: either we encourage comrades to submit scores of amendments in the hope of restoring some backbone to the policy on offer and getting some actual debate going, or submit a formal written explanation as to why so many motions were not worth voting on. We decided for the latter - on the basis that, with the best amendments in the world, a conference with an agenda so hopelessly overpacked would be unable to seriously discuss more than a small minority of timetabled items anyway.
That having been done, we nominated the long-suffering comrade Macnair to burrow through the eventual 140-page motion pack to come up with final recommendations, reproduced in last week’s paper. We proceeded more or less according to the plan on the day.
Left Unity as an organisation is composed in large part of ‘flotsam and jetsam’ - people who have suffered previously in other left organisations and have no wish to be steamrollered again. Such comrades often entertain a distrust of ‘the sects’, who are always manipulating things to their advantage.
This is a not entirely unfounded attitude - for one, many left groups do behave in a manipulative fashion in the broader movement; but, more importantly, organisations (even small ones) are qualitatively more effective at achieving their aims than individuals. A faction will always have a greater impact than an atomised group of individuals of the same size - organisation is an evolutionary advantage.
The great irony of Left Unity is that it has magnified this advantage considerably. Dear reader, we had to work to abstain last weekend! Without a division of labour, an independent collective decision-making process and all the rest, how on earth could anyone keep on top of 140 pages of motions and amendments, plus points of order, last-minute composites, challenges to the agenda …? We are sure some comrades managed; but many others will have been left bewildered.
Comrade Macnair described this saturation of the agenda, the huge pile of motions at short notice, as a concealed form of plebiscitary politics, which prevents serious deliberation on the issues at hand, playing instead to already formed prejudices. It in fact prevents new disciplined groupings from being formed, rewarding only those that already exist.
The motives of the comrades involved in organising the conference are no doubt impeccable, and their hard work admirable, but the net result is to retard the political development of Left Unity. It also lightens the attachment members have to the decisions made: two months from now, will anyone (save the movers, and maybe Felicity Dowling) remember what was in that child abuse motion? If this academic conference never happens, will anyone complain next year? We doubt it.
A light attachment to decisions serves a certain kind of politics just fine - mainstream bourgeois politics, where presentation is everything and substance is delegated to Whitehall and wonks. Left Unity fancies itself to be “doing politics differently”; but if it really wants to be different, it must become a space where political ideas are taken seriously. Voting banal, unactionable items through on the basis of sentiment is not the way to do it.