Doing politics the same
Despite its commitment to ‘safe spaces’, Socialist Resistance’s view on the way we should organise is not ‘different’ at all, comments Mike Macnair
Reporting of Left Unity’s conference has so far been rather limited (apart from the reports in last week’s edition of this paper). Rightists, from neocons to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, have predictably focused attention on John Tummon and Mark Anthony France’s ‘idiot anti-imperialist’ amendment to one of the motions on the Islamic State and Kurdistan, playing up its importance by ignoring the derisory support it received in the vote. Other reports have been brief and uninformative.
It is therefore interesting to read Socialist Resistance’s November 19 report of the conference, by Terry Conway.1 Socialist Resistancewas centrally involved in the Left Party Platform, which won the majority in November 2013 and is closely involved in LU’s leadership. Comrade Conway’s report gives some after-the-fact glimpses into the thinking which produced the conference’s outcomes, as well SR’s own views on those outcomes.
The report has five parts. The first is an introduction, characterised by ‘official optimism’. There follow discussions of ‘Policy discussions’; ‘Internal matters’; ‘Process’ (ie, the overcrowded agenda); and ‘General election’.
That ‘official optimism’ appears instantly in the claim that 400 members attended the conference. This paper’s reporters counted around 250, and votes rarely totalled more than 160. Presumably, 400 is the number who registered either in advance or on the day; implying that significant numbers did so on the basis that they might attend, but did not turn up. LU’s 2,000 members and 70 branches are also mentioned in the report.
Marina Prentoulis’s speech about Syriza’s prospects in Greece, and the high poll rating of Podemos in Spain, are upfront. A Syriza government is possible, and “Left Unity is well aware that, in that event, solidarity from across Europe against the bosses and the bankers will be absolutely necessary - and we are committed to mobilising that solidarity.” The problem is, of course, whether “solidarity” less than the conquest of political power in other countries will be sufficient to overcome the enormous pressures international capital will place on any Syriza government.
Here and elsewhere, the introduction displays SR’s standard far-left concept of a party - as a body which is mainly about support for single-issue campaigns (though, of course, it also has to adopt policies): “Policy commitments are vital for a socialist, feminist and environmental party such as Left Unity - but they need to be matched by activity on the streets, in the communities and in the workplaces. By combining these two approaches, we create a vibrant, sometimes chaotic, internal life.” This slightly odd statement presumably offers an ‘excuse’ for both the violently overcrowded agenda at the conference and the fact that SR and its co-thinkers did not win all the votes.
The discussion of ‘Policy debates’ has a superficial appearance of purely neutral reporting. “Contention” is admitted on Europe. But, like the Socialist Workers’ Party identification of SWP members as merely ‘trade unionists’ and so on, Stuart King is reported as “from Lambeth”, not from the International Socialist Network; Fred Leplat “from Barnet” rather than, as International Viewpoint calls him, “a leading member of Socialist Resistance, British section of the Fourth International”. SR lost the vote on its attempt to shift LU towards the standard British left position of withdrawal from the EU, but it will keep trying on the issue: “While neither amendment was carried, it seems inconceivable that this issue will not be raised again.”
If comrade Conway’s report of ‘Policy debates’ strives to appear neutral, that of ‘Internal matters’ - ie, ‘safe spaces’ and disputes procedures - is polemical to the point of being actively misleading. It may, however, give us some additional insight into the views of ‘safe spaces’ supporters. She tells us:
One of the ways in which we have sought to “do politics differently” has been to make the new party one which is genuinely habitable for women - and well as for black people, disabled people, LGBTQ people and for young people.
Within this context there has been a long discussion on the need to adopt ways of organising, but also procedures which make clear that the fight against prejudice and discrimination within the organisation is central to how we build the party.
This is a complex task, given that no-one wants to put up barriers to recruiting new members or to act in moralistic or judgmental ways. At the same time, without clear rules and procedures we are much less likely to be able to create an organisation in which the most oppressed and exploited are supported; including through being able to take on leadership positions at every level of the organisation.
A sober assessment of where we have actually got to with the pursuit of these aims and with the method pursued so far is that LU is - regrettably - very white, very middle-aged, and pretty male; and that its elaborate procedures favour long-experienced activists who came into politics through the student left many years ago.
Comrade Conway fails to recognise that one of the basic objections to ‘safe spaces’ is that what it proposes are not the “clear rules and procedures” she advocates, but unclear rules buried in a mass of “political understanding”, and procedures which, because of both their bureaucratic structure and their secrecy, can never be clear.
She claims that LU’s Communist Platform “wrote an alternative motion to conference deleting any political understanding and putting forward an ineffective ‘code of conduct’”. It is certainly true that our proposals dispensed with the long recitals about various forms of oppression in present-day society that are contained in the ‘safe spaces’ policy in favour of a very summary statement:
Left Unity aims as far as possible within the deeply unequal society within which we live to combat all forms of oppression and discrimination, to develop all our members as leaders, and to develop a culture of free discussion accessible to all members.
The point is precisely to produce “clear rules”. She gives no reason whatever for the argument that our proposed code of conduct would be “ineffective”.
She tells us:
The Communist Platform motivation on conference floor was extraordinary - arguing, for example, that heckling in meetings was completely acceptable and that people just had to get used to it, while suggesting that any problem rests with the complainant rather than the person who they are complaining about. They referred to the people arguing for the safe spaces approach as “the safe spaces police” and sought to trivialise the issues that were being raised.
From the first statement we are presumably to take it that comrade Conway supports the Labour Party’s ejection of Walter Wolfgang from Labour Party conference in 2005 for heckling Jack Straw about Iraq. There is a difference between a short interjection (which can frequently be useful from the speaker’s point of view) and the disruption of democratic procedures.
The second statement is a straightforward misrepresentation. As Yassamine Mather argued last week2 - and as Tina Becker pointed out in moving the CP-backed motion on the issue - we do not contend that there is no problem to be addressed, nor do we “trivialise the issues”. Rather, we argue that the right way to address this problem is to empower the oppressed, rather than to treat them as children and set up a bureaucratic guardianship over them.
The ‘safe spaces’ proposal lost the vote. Comrade Conway states: “In retrospect perhaps it was a mistake not to ensure more prior discussion, particularly about the aims of the policy, at both leadership and branch level”; and she concludes that the last-minute composite on the question was a mistake. It may well be, however, that a more careful reading of the ‘safe spaces’ document by members would have meant a more decisive rejection of this proposal. After all, this was a topic on which there has actually been more discussion than there has been of most of the LU policy documents.
Comrade Conway provides us with some after-the-fact illumination on the thought processes which led to the agenda. The original plan was to have another one-day conference, like March 19, to deal with “manifesto topics”. Then the September 20 national council meeting agreed that a two-day conference would be needed. Comrade Conway explains that this decision was taken in view of two factors. The first was a desire to take constitutional amendments - in particular to get rid of the partially ‘rotating’ structure of the executive committee. The second was that, “in the wake of the referendum campaign in Scotland, more members of the national council had become aware of the progressive dynamic behind the ‘yes’ campaign ... The national council ... agreed to re-establish the commission on the British constitution and to bring proposals on this question to conference.” In reality, both LU constitutional amendments and discussion on the British constitution fell off the end of the agenda.
Comrade Conway’s primary solution is that, “While the standing orders committee, who did a prodigious job, has the authority to make proposals as to how the conference agenda is structured, in future more work needs to be done by the national council to shape this in advance.” It should be obvious, however, that the NC cannot do this job: it meets only quarterly, is far too large for an effective committee, and is in effect a mini-conference; it is visible from its minutes3 that it has the same problem of overloaded agendas as conference itself. The SOC, meanwhile, is under the LU constitution independently elected - presumably as a ‘check and balance’ against the NC’s views on the conference agenda. Tinkering, in other words, can only slightly ameliorate the problem of the over-elaborate bureaucratic-legalist design of LU’s constitution. The problem is that - as is shown by her comments on ‘safe spaces’ - comrade Conway’s thought is wholly within the framework of this bureaucratic-legalism.
The last part of her article deals with the 2015 general election. This report is noteworthy for telling us that the proposal for local collaboration with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition “had not been universally supported by the existing LU officers’ group”. In fact, “Some key activists in Left Unity are concerned that by agreeing this proposal Left Unity is diluting its own potential profile in the election campaign.” Who, dear comrade? What political issues are involved? For ‘doing politics differently’ in any fundamental sense - ie, ‘It’s not them taking decisions on behalf of us’ - transparency is fundamental. And that includes transparency about disagreements at leadership level, not the ‘coded’ reporting seen here.
The article goes on to argue for the December national council to endorse a list of constituencies LU will contest and to give “a sense of shape to an election campaign where in some towns and cities there will be no Left Unity candidates - and where in others there are not yet any Left Unity branches”.
How this can be done remains unclear; it is unfortunate that Workers Power’s motion calling for a policy towards Labour in the coming election attracted no amendments (we in the CP are at fault here) and in any case fell off the agenda.
Close to the conclusion of comrade Conway’s report comes the statement: “Doing politics differently doesn’t mean not contesting elections - but doing so in order to give a voice to the voiceless, to champion all those fighting for survival on so many fronts in neoliberal Britain.” This takes us back to the beginning. SR does not grasp Marx’s and Engels’ arguments for political action of the working class. So it thinks about ‘action’ in terms of ‘campaigns’ - and then, when it comes to elections, it thinks about them in the same way as Ed Miliband: the party is to “champion all those fighting for survival”, rather than to struggle to help organise the working class to take its own political decisions.
To argue in the way comrade Conway does is precisely to continue to do politics in the old way - to offer merely a different ‘them’.
2. ‘The tyranny of safe spaces’ Weekly Worker November 26.
3. Available at http://leftunity.org/national-council.