A crash waiting to happen

Not fit for purpose

Jack Conrad shows that the LU constitution internalises trade union defeats and contains self-defeating time bombs

Since Left Unity’s last national conference (November 15-16 2014), there has been a growing recognition that our constitution is not fit for purpose. Indeed it visibly limits and sets back the work of LU committees, branches and members. Unless we radically amend it, or come up with something much better, there is a distinct danger of LU coming to grief.

Already the forward momentum, seen two year ago, when Left Unity was first mooted, has been lost. Instead we have seen a stream of bad-tempered resignation statements by office-holders, disappearing or merging branches and largely unanswered calls for action for the sake of action.

At over 6,000 words, the constitution is long - far too long. And that count leaves out the two, integral, appendixes, including the hellishly rambling, endlessly redrafted and deeply patronising ‘Safer spaces policy’ (appendix one). The ‘Safer spaces policy’ gets five references in the main body of the constitution (clauses 3f, 4f, 10d and twice in 18b). Despite its elevated status it has never been agreed by a conference; in point of fact, it was referred back in 2013 and flatly rejected in 2014. The Communist Platform’s ‘Code of conduct’ won more votes (but not the 50%-plus required). So even on its own terms the constitution is shot through with holes and is embarrassingly incomplete.

This is the least of our problems. In the name of ‘control from below’ the constitution embodies the principle of direct elections of officers, electronic voting and term limitations. Though it all sounds exceedingly democratic, the result is, in fact, a distinct lack of control from below.

Fifteen members of the national council are elected by a largely passive and atomised membership. Members sit at home and vote either by email or slow mail. There is a stipulation for electronic hustings. But, as far as I know, this has never been implemented. Turnout is worryingly low.

The 15 nationally elected NC members join 40 elected from the regions using the same voting method. At least half of them have to be female. I am not sure how the one representative on the NC from the youth/students, LGBT, BME, disabled members and women’s sections are elected. But there is a stipulation that a male representative must be followed by a female representative the next year. In addition, there are four directly elected principal speakers (at least two must be female) and six directly elected office-holders (national secretary, treasurer, membership/communications officer, nominating/election coordinating officer, media officer, trade union officer). All elected by electronic or postal votes. By my reckoning that amounts to a national council of 70 members.

For a body which is supposed to act as the leadership of Left Unity in between conferences, this committee is debilitatingly large. Though numbers attending have been steadily slipping, overstuffed agendas preclude it playing any sort of leadership role. Typically the NC has 15 or 16 items to consider. Members are therefore limited to five-minute contributions ... and, of course, the agenda is never completed. Proper debate, proper consideration, proper decision-making is impossible. The NC is there to be a rubber stamp ... and in general that is what it does.

Nor does the executive committee inspire much confidence. The EC consists of the national office-holders and spokespeople, plus 10 elected from the NC. That means a total of 20 comrades. Supposedly the EC is responsible for the “day to day” running of the party. This includes reaching “interim derisions on urgent matters” (clause 13a). While it is formally bound to report “all its actions to national council”, given the overstuffed agenda and the timespan between meetings, that is hardly practical. In fact the EC itself meets far too infrequently to provide “day to day” leadership - the LU website carries the minutes of just three meetings: July, August and October 2014. Therefore such leadership must devolve to an unofficial group of comrades - I am told that the 10 officers and spokespersons do not meet together. So, at a guess, I would say “day-to-day” leadership is exercised by Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin, Terry Conway and maybe Tom Walker. A quadrumvirate.

It should be emphasised that, in saying this, I am not in any way criticising them. “Day-to-day” leadership is a political necessity. And, unless we have a much pared-down EC which meets weekly, an unofficial leadership group must emerge. So what I am criticising is not comrades Hudson, Burgin, Conway and Walker. No, I am criticising our unfit-for-purpose constitution. Of course, given their political outlook, the unofficial “day to day” leadership inevitably tends towards the banal. But that is a matter which belongs to a future article.

Direct democracy

Furthermore, in terms of the constitution, it should be noted that it internalises the cruel defeats suffered by the trade union movement since the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and her industrial relations laws banned workplace ballots and imposed an obligation to have postal votes (eg, the 1984 Trade Union Act and 1988 Employment Act). In the name of giving power to rank-and-file members, power was actually given to the press barons and the judiciary.

Naturally at the time leftwing activists objected. They highlighted how postal ballots could be manipulated and in general upheld the principle of indirect democracy: ie, a system of elected delegates. The reasoning was straightforward. Elected delegates could debate complex questions at length, fine-tune tactics and strategy, and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of various prominent leaders.1 Atomised members cannot do that. But they can be influenced and misled by The Sun or the Daily Mirror.

The writers of Left Unity’s constitution, most notably Sean Thompson, seem to have drawn on, copied, the rules of trade unions - which have been forced to abide by the Tory’s anti-union laws. Hence the direct election of a whole raft of office-holders and voting by email or post.

Needless to say, the Social Democratic Party of Karl Liebknecht, August Bebel and Karl Kautsky operated through indirect democracy and a system of delegates. A model copied by Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Social Democratic Party. Hence congresses elected a central committee and that central committee elected officers, including a political committee. Even in the United States, it is worth noting, formally the president and vice-president are indirectly elected. According to their population size, in each state (since 1964 plus the District of Columbia) voters elect “electors” who are committed to one party or another. They in turn vote for the president and vice-president. Theoretically they could shift side.

However, the main problem of direct elections in Left Unity is accountability. The constitution says: “All party bodies have the right to recall the elected delegates, officers and spokespersons accountable to them” (clause 4c). Yet, as the officers and spokespersons are directly elected by a largely atomised membership, it is hard to imagine an individual being recalled. True, if a particular spokesperson goes onto Newsnight and comes out with a load of rubbish - eg, they supported the continued existence of the mercenary British armed forces - then the membership would presumably be inclined, when the annual elections come round, not to vote for them again. But is the ordinary branch member expected to organise a national petition to recall such a spokesperson? The problem is hugely more difficult when it comes to officers who are charged with what might be seen as essentially technical tasks. Eg, how well is Chris Hurley, our nominations officer/elections coordinator, performing? What about the media officer or trade union officer? Those on the national council might know. But, given how infrequently they meet together and the impossibly long agendas, I doubt it.

Left Unity has been plagued with resignations, not least by elected office-holders. Regional delegates to the national council have been decimated. Bianca Todd walked as a national spokesperson. Ditto Tim Nelson as our trade union officer. A similar attrition has affected the disputes and appeals committees. The loss of continuity and the impossibility of properly constituted meetings (clause 11d stipulates that all elected national committees must have a 55% quorum) has seen Communist Platform member Laurie McCauley cast into a sort of LU purgatory. Having been suspended, eight months ago, by an inquorate Manchester branch meeting, for the ‘crime’ of writing an article in the Weekly Worker, he has been unable to get a properly constituted hearing. Such a dreadful situation brings Left Unity into disrepute.

Time bombs

The constitution has ticking time bombs implanted within it too. Clause 4b says: “No member may hold a nationally elected post within the party for more than three consecutive years, following which s/he may not stand for election to that post for two years.” Left Unity is now approaching its second year of existence. That could mean that in 12 months time comrades who have accumulated knowledge and experience, who work together harmoniously, who have been tested and not found wanting will be expected to automatically step down.

True, in the Ottoman empire of Abdul Hamid II “officials of the same rank” were regularly rotated (icra-yi becayis).2 Likewise in today’s China “leading personnel in government departments” are obliged to rotate every five years.3 The aim was to reduce corruption. Businesses too sometimes rotate managerial trainees. That way, some degree roundedness is gained. And doubtless the rotation of administrative posts will be progressively introduced under socialism. After all, we strive towards a situation where all learn to govern. But then we would be drawing on a pool of talent consisting of the entire society.

However, Left Unity, along with the rest of the left, has a severe shortage of comrades who have the necessary skills, time and the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice. Such comrades do not grow on trees. We are a very small organisation of an oppressed class. Unlike the mainstream parties, the Greens and UK Independence Party included, we do not want to hire people on the labour market. We do not offer a well rewarded career ladder from political advisor to cabinet minister. Our officers are unpaid. They work voluntarily. Bad leaders should be replaced, of course. But good leaders should be valued, encouraged and re-elected.

Huge political strength derives from the continuity of good leaders. Lenin famously discussed this in What is to be done? (1902). He cites social democracy in Germany and how it attracted millions of supporters. These millions, Lenin goes on to comment approvingly, “value their ‘dozen’ tried political leaders” and firmly “cling to them”.

Naturally members of hostile parties in the Reichstag taunted the social democrats because of the continuity of their leadership. Lenin puts these words into their mouths: “Fine democrats you are indeed! Yours is a working class movement only in name; in actual fact the same clique of leaders is always in evidence, the same Bebel and the same Liebknecht, year in and year out, and that goes on for decades.”4 As might be expected, for Lenin such accusations were to be treated with utter contempt. They amount to a demagogic attempt to undermine the workers’ movement by dividing masses from their leaders.

Yet, even before Left Unity has learnt to walk, we have hobbled ourselves with a constitutional clause which in the name of control from below internalises demagogic attacks on leadership continuity. Lenin called such an approach - advocated in his time by opportunists both within German and Russian social democracy - as the “profundity of fools”.5

There are other time bombs. Clause 9d stipulates that, once “Left Unity reaches 2,000 members, the provisions in 7d will come into force”. This is a clause that will end decision-making at national conferences on the basis of one member, one vote. At the moment this principle works well and is entirely practical. According to Andrew Burgin, national treasurer: “We have around 2,000 members.”6 Yet only around 250 comrades turned up to the November 2014 conference in London. Not that he is advocating leaving behind the OMOV formula (at least as far as I know). It also has to be admitted, however, that many branches barely function or have ceased to function altogether. Triggering a national delegate conference because paper membership has reached 2,000 would perhaps disenfranchise a large portion of members (I do not possess exact figures). True, all would be allowed to attend, but only as “visitors” (9diii).

Meanwhile there is a provision for the national council to organise e-conferences “on specific single issues” (10b). How they would be conducted in a genuinely democratic manner - ie, with proper debate, giving a hearing to minority viewpoints, appreciating swings of opinion, etc - boggles the imagination. The whole thing smacks to me of rule by referendum - the favourite device of Louis Bonaparte, Adolph Hitler, Alex Salmond, Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farage.

With all this in mind it is clear that Left Unity would be well advised to revisit the constitution as a matter of urgency. A special conference has to be called if there is a two-thirds vote by the national council, a resolution passed by 25% of braches or a petition which gather 25% of the membership (9b). The Communist Platform is well placed to give such a lead.


1. Eg, the late Mike Marqusee condemned Blair’s internalisation of Thatcherism in the Labour Party: “… hailed as a major democratic innovation, [the “plebiscitary postal ballots”] eliminate informed collective decision-making and transform every key decision into a test of loyalty to the leadership” (New Left Review July-August 1997).

2. N Sohrabi Revolution and constitutionalism in the Ottoman empire and Iran Cambridge 2011, p203.

3. W Yiaoqi China’s civil service reform Abingdon 2012, p101.

4. VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, p461.

5. VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, p462.

6. http://leftunity.org/left-unity-and-elections-some-brief-thoughts.