Sense of strategy urgently needed

How not to organise

LU’s unworkable constitution is to be revisited. Sarah McDonald reports on this and other decisions taken by the national council

The first meeting of Left Unity’s new national council took place in Birmingham on Saturday April 18, with 40 out of the 60 newly elected NC members present, plus two observers and one rather cramped agenda.

Minutes and matters arising was to set the pace of the day’s discussions. Allocated a generous 20 minutes on the timetable, it took somewhere closer to twice that, including congratulations offered to the drafters of LU’s manifesto. Following on from this, Kate Hudson introduced the next item: matters for endorsement from the executive committee minutes. Again, this session overran, some items having been passed back and forth from NC to EC, to NC again (the trouble with such large and unwieldy committees being that they often cannot take a decisive position).

There was some discussion surrounding a motion from West London on the role of culture in politics, asking LU to give prominence to the arts within its political activities. Some comrades, while agreeing with the sentiment, commented that it was overly prescriptive. The EC had referred this motion to the NC, recommending support, though realistically ‘actioning’ such a motion at NC level is inappropriate. If West London wants LU to set up a samba band to play at the next big demo, they should go off and do so. Who would object? Similarly, a motion from Stockport calling for anti-austerity to be a branch priority was (correctly) regarded as well-meaning, but overly prescriptive. Most other motions passed to the NC from the EC for endorsement were agreed in principle (although there was some disagreement about the practice of agreeing motions in principle!).

The first real point of disagreement concerned the composition of the executive. The existing EC operates a rotational attendance (regional delegates taking it in turn to attend to reduce workload, travel, etc). This practice leads to the composition of the EC being completely different at each meeting, and so it is profoundly hampered in its ability to make decisions and carry out actions. The motion from Kate Hudson and Pete Green called for the NC to elect the EC from “categories listed in the constitution” (ie, regional delegates should elect a person from each region). There was a supplementary from Kate Hudson, that the EC should be able to meet between NC meetings to make day-to-day policy and organisational decisions, as necessary (which any NC member would be welcome to attend).

The main motion was voted on, taken with the suggested options: either the regional delegates elect their reps, endorsed by and recallable by the NC, or the NC directly elects the EC. The latter was carried with the unfortunate caveat that the regions could have one alternate delegate, so those attending the EC will still vary, although not as much as previously. This is an improvement, but the reality is that, because the composition of the EC is dictated by the existing constitution, with its gender, geographic, etc clauses, it is far too big to function effectively. What is needed is a much smaller EC, that meets regularly, communicates in the interim and can and will offer political leadership. In the end there was no controversy over who was elected. Everyone who wanted to be on the EC is on the EC. It is worth noting that neither of the Communist Platform’s two nationally elected NC members put themselves forward.

Election strategy?

By the time comrades broke for lunch, only three items had been covered (including minutes and matters arising) and it was clear that chunks of the agenda would never be reached. Yet, the timetabled 45-minute discussion on ‘Election campaigning and forward planning’ did not get any more pacey.

The first section, ‘Election campaigning’, was introduced by Tom Walker, who was worried that the session would get sidetracked into a discussion on the Greens. But there was no such injection of politics. Instead there was considerable tedium in the form of anecdotes about branch canvassing, running stalls, etc. All very worthy, but perhaps not the best use of NC time.

Terry Conway made the assertion that not enough women had put themselves forward as LU candidates for May 7, while Matthew Jones reported back on the situation in Scotland, where Labour is facing a virtual wipe-out. Comrade Jones did say that the Scottish National Party was “vulnerable to the left”, which, given the state of the left in Scotland (much worse than even in Britain as a whole), is interesting.

There was the general feeling, especially from London delegates, that Vauxhall has been given priority by LU members in terms of activism, because Simon Hardy is the only solely LU candidate in London (ie, not standing jointly with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition). Comrade Hardy (who was not present due to campaigning) had proposed that LU has a post-election conference to review the situation and presumably the campaign. But the NC decided to go for something more modest.

After various musings over election campaigning in the localities, the TV leaders’ debates, Tusc and Kingsley Abrams’ dog (!) an hour and a half had simply flown by and it was time for the second part of the same agenda item: ‘Future planning’ (remember, the whole general election discussion had been scheduled to last just 45 minutes). This sub-item was introduced by Liz Davies and consisted of a discussion around standing in the 2016 elections for the Greater London Authority, Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. Comrade Davies was quite correct in asserting that we should have taken a decision as to whether we pursue this by now. The NC agreed that, in principle, we ought to stand candidates for all three bodies and that the appropriate regional committees should discuss the practicalities.

What is positive about this is that it represents some (albeit small) idea of a strategy decided at national level regarding standing in elections. By contrast LU’s policy in relation to the general election has been non-existent - branches were left to decide whether to stand a candidate, with no national approach to who, where or why, and quite a few managed to balls it up (including my LU branch in Hackney). If the NC’s decision to stand in next year’s elections goes ahead, it should not simply lead and coordinate the election campaign, but should decide what strategically we want to gain from it. In other words, does it seek to build left unity in general? Does it seek to build Left Unity specifically? Does it want to promote local activism and community campaigns? What will be our approach to Labour lefts? Etc, etc.

The last item was the motion, originating with the Communist Platform, calling for a constitutional conference in 2015. When drafting this motion, we in the CP were unsure about the level of support we would garner, but we were acutely aware that many others, apart from ourselves. consider the constitution totally unfit for purpose. Yassamine Mather moved the motion, highlighting how the current document hampers our work. She commented that, while on paper aspects of the constitution ensure gender equality, in reality they do no such thing and many stipulations are, in practice, bypassed - otherwise we would be unable to function at all.

There was only limited discussion, due to time considerations. Len Arthur, representing Wales, found the whole idea of a constitutional conference tedious, like “navel staring” - he felt the ‘safe spaces’ debate at the last conference was a total bore. He asked for concrete examples as to why we deem the current constitution unworkable. As fortune would have it, I was called to speak next and provided him with a few (not least one or two from earlier in the day regarding the composition of the EC and the timetable of elections to the NC). It was proposed that one day of the two-day conference scheduled for the end of October be given over to the constitution and this was overwhelmingly carried.

It is unlikely that this conference will see the LU adopt the kind of constitution that we in the Communist Platform favour, but at least we will be beginning a rethink on how Left Unity ought to organise.

The two motions regarding safe spaces were not taken, as the mover, Felicity Dowling, was busy campaigning for the general election, where she is a candidate in Liverpool. It was agreed to take all remaining motions at the next meeting. The youth and student caucus constitution also fell off the agenda.