Standing in London’s elections
Left Unity has been discussing and voting on its approach to the 2016 GLA and mayoral contests. Daniel Harvey reports
About 70 members attended Left Unity’s first London aggregate on June 9. The last-minute stand-in chair, Doug Thorpe, began by explaining that there is no role laid out in the constitution for the meeting, so any decisions taken could only be indicative to advise the London regional committee. Such decisions would, however, be seen as a very strong indication of the way forward, he said.
The primary issue under discussion was Left Unity’s intervention in the Greater London Assembly elections of 2016. But before that there was a brief regional report from Simon Hardy who explained that London LU presently has 549 members on its books with just over a hundred regularly attending 11 branches.
A procedural intervention from Nick Rogers of the Independent Socialist Network meant that three motions dealing with elections were taken together and that there would be a full debate, instead of two separate sessions.
Liz Davies began by introducing the motion that she had proposed with Terry Conway of Socialist Resistance and Luke Cooper. The comrade said she had previously written a report for the NC. In her assessment the elections next year were incredibly important for building the profile of LU. It was necessary for a serious party to stand in elections - otherwise “What exactly would we be for?” She reminded us of the different components to the GLA elections. Assembly members are elected in two different ways: half come from very large constituencies using ‘first part the post’, which means only Labour or the Tories can win; and half are elected using a proportional-representation list system, in which minor parties can gain seats more easily. The Greens regularly get between two and three seats this way. The deposits are £1,000 for the constituency seats and £5,000 for the list, both with a 2.5% threshold for retention, and £10,000 for the mayoral race, where there is a 5% threshold.
The most important thing for comrade Davies was that European Union citizens are allowed to vote in these elections and we should actively play to this by emphasising our position on questions like migration. Luke Cooper followed this up by explaining that the motion also laid out a strategy of possibly acting alongside the other broad left parties in Europe - he named Podemos, Syriza and the Front de Gauche. Preliminary discussions had already taken place he said, and these parties seemed to be in favour in principle, but the campaign itself would be determined by what responses were received.
After this two other motions were introduced. The first was from Dave Landau and Nick Wrack, which was pushing the ISN line that Left Unity should “make every possible effort” to secure “an alliance” with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. In reality, of course, that would mean standing under the Tusc umbrella - as most of our candidates did in the May 7 general election.
However, comrade Landau said that this was not like the general election in one crucial respect. We could not get by with non-aggression pacts. In the PR list and the mayoral election there was no other choice but to either cooperate or compete. He said that the competing Hackney motion was mistaken on this - intra-left competition in elections is an “unedifying spectacle” for ordinary people and will marginalise all of us.
Then, introducing the Hackney motion, Sarah McDonald from the Communist Platform laid out the case for an independent position for LU. She said she welcomed comrade Davies’s motion, but thought it was necessary to ask why we stand in elections. This has to be on the basis of raising the profile of LU because that is how you can attract the attention of more people. She did not object to standing against George Galloway in the mayoral race, which are run under the supplementary vote system, where you can vote for two candidates in order of preference, and it would be wrong to step aside in favour of Galloway - a position advocated by Ian Donovan in the meeting. In any case, the Hackney motion left open the possibility of not standing in the mayoral race in favour of someone like Diane Abbott, if she ran on the Labour ticket, for instance.
But the key distinction between LU and Tusc, she continued, was that LU is a party in the proper sense, rather than just an electoral front for the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party. LU is therefore an organisation that can build on the basis of genuine democracy without vetoes given to union bureaucrats, as in Tusc. The other point was LU’s principled positions on open borders and the EU, where on these decisive questions Tusc is either pandering to anti-migrant attitudes in the working class by only opposing “racist immigration controls”, or is silent, as with the EU. Both the SWP and SPEW are for a withdrawal from the EU on a left-nationalist basis under the familiar refrain about it being a “bosses’ club” (unlike the UK and practically everywhere else supposedly). These questions are critical, she said, and therefore LU will have to remain organisationally distinct from Tusc in order to fight for its politics.
In the discussion which followed it seemed that LU in London had split into three broad camps. There were those who supported LU standing on its own on a pro-migrant and pro-European basis. This group was made up of the leadership in the form of Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, as well as Socialist Resistance speakers like Terry Conway. The CP lent its support to this grouping. Then there were the ISN speakers, who promoted Tusc on the basis of “socialist unity”. Finally there was a quite backward grouping, around Simon Hardy and the Workers Power and ex-WP milieu, which also had on board the likes of Ruth Cashman of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and some ex-SWP speakers, who felt that elections were a waste of money and what LU should really be doing is “building the movement”.
Nick Wrack’s intervention came near the start of the discussion, where he made it clear that he was in favour of LU standing in as many elections as possible. He said that he and the other members of the ISN had been raising the issue of free movement regularly and that he had probably written more critical articles on Tusc than anyone. But his position was based on a strategic orientation towards building a new socialist party involving both Tusc and LU. He thought that the voting public would not forgive us if we choose sectarianism. He promoted the letter from Tusc asking LU to join the coalition and praised its federal structure which gives independence to the SWP and SPEW. He said that because of this structure if Left Unity stood under the Tusc umbrella it would not be tantamount to “liquidating ourselves”.
LU’s media officer, Tom Walker, chimed in at this point by saying that he thought that Tusc’s political approach in the election was sectarian. He claimed that Dave Nellist of Tusc had been furious at the idea of sharing a platform on the Daily Politics TV show with Left Unity when the offer was made from the BBC. In his opinion LU candidates who stood jointly with Tusc in the general election did in practice “become Tusc candidates”, and it appeared to many voters that LU only stood three candidates of its own. He said he would much rather have a distinct party that reflects his own politics this time around. Another speaker, Sarah Parker of Haringey, agreed, but said we should have something to say to people if they asked why the left was divided in the election. She supported the pro-migrant and European stance, but thought that Podemos and Syriza candidates were not necessarily best if anti-racism was our prime concern.
Leading the section that did not want LU to stand candidates at all was trade union officer Oliver New. He said that he did not think there was even a majority in the party for standing in elections (clearly erroneous if the voting at this meeting was anything to go by). He also thought that LU should adopt the line of Britain pulling out of the EU because of its “anti-working class” character. He counterposed uniting with the left and uniting with the working class. To do the latter, he said, LU needed to concentrate not on elections but supporting struggles like those of the bus and rail workers and campaigns on housing.
This sentiment was echoed by the AWL’s Ruth Cashman, who thought that getting five percent of the vote was highly unrealistic based on the left’s general election results. Ensuring that half of LU’s candidates are non-native British people, as suggested by the Davies-Conway-Cooper motion, was a bit of a gimmick, as was getting populist European parties involved. Simon Hardy agreed with this later. He jokingly started by giving his name and “188 votes for socialism” in reference to his campaign to become MP for Vauxhall. He thought £30,000 was too much for LU to raise on its own - it was twice as much as was raised for the general election. He did, however, see the EU referendum as a very serious matter, for which we needed to take a strong position. But he echoed comrade New’s vague aspiration for movement building “from below”, which he counterposed to running in elections.
This formed the basis of what he thought was the “real content” of the meeting in the second part, when he presented a motion from Lambeth which was full of a lot of motherhood and apple pie statements about the various campaigns LU should support in London. Joana Ramiro echoed this, and thought only joining these campaigns would really give her a reason to write about LU in the Morning Star, where she works as a journalist. The fact that this seems to say more about the character of that paper did not really seem to register with her.
Ken Loach decided to enter the discussion. Whereas he usually takes more of a back seat in LU, now the gloves came off. He thought the Hackney motion was “madness” and that it would lead people to invoke the Monty Python ‘People’s Front of Judea’ sketch - especially with LU’s name being what it is. We would be “laughed out of the room” if we adopted the Hackney motion, he said. The comrade also thought there should be more centralisation of electoral work - leaving the decision on whether to stand in the general election to the branches had been chaotic. He thought that a broad alliance on the left with European parties, but also with Tusc, was a good idea and would make the left seem much more mature. He chastised Tom Walker for not having fought hard enough against Dave Nellist to get Left Unity some airtime.
Nick Rogers welcomed comrade Loach’s support for the ISN position and thought that Tusc would not object to a strongly pro-migrant campaign, and that it was possible to negotiate with the coalition about a political platform that would work for both groups. This negotiation would form the basis of a new political regroupment and would give LU a means to challenge what we do not like about the Tusc platform.
Terry Conway, however, said that she found from her experience in Bow that cooperation with Tusc was very difficult. She said that SPEW representatives were very reluctant to discuss anything, let alone a common platform, and in as much as they were involved in the joint LU-Tusc campaign there they only really appeared to have their photo taken. The whole experience left her feeling that the SPEW attitude was very cynical.
Towards the end of the discussion Jack Conrad of the Communist Platform and Camden and Islington branch, said it was unlikely that there would be a breakthrough in the UK in the next few years. His approach was for patience. He also thought that counterposing the resources for elections and for other activities was the wrong way to think about the problem. What we need to do is “get out and inspire people”, he said. He went on to say that in reality the money is small change, or should be for an organisation like LU. He emphasised that the Hackney motion does not call for us to stand against Tusc candidates, and we do need a long-term strategy for building unity on the left. That could mean getting two hundred votes or less at first, he continued - “that is realistic”. We should also be realistic, he went on, in relation to Tusc’s proposition to LU and see it for what it is: an invitation to join the coalition. On that basis we just have to consider whether we support Tusc’s campaign for a Labour Party mark II, with no membership, a veto for union bosses and everything else that goes with it.
Of course, that is not LU’s strategy or politics at all. Which is why we have to maintain complete organisational independence from Tusc.
When it came to the voting, the Communist Platform had been unsure as to whether to support the Davies-Conway-Cooper motion or abstain. However, because of the large number of comrades who were advocating downplaying elections and relying on local campaigning and movementism, it was necessary to support those who were putting forward a political approach. This motion was obviously populist and gimmicky and not one that the CP would have put forward itself. But it won 34 votes, with 21 against and six abstentions. Nick Wrack was unhappy to see the ISN motion fall overwhelmingly, with only 11 votes in favour, but the Hackney motion clearly passed, although there was some confusion as to whether it won 25 or 27 votes, while there were definitely 21 against, plus a few abstentions.
Nick demanded a recount, despite the vote only being indicative and the fact that it had been successful, whether the winning total has been 25 or 27. He has since denounced the meeting on Facebook, commenting that it seems “madness prevails in London Left Unity” - an echo of Ken Loach’s intervention.
The Lambeth motion on movement building in London passed later on, but the debate was pretty unmemorable and the chair even forgot to take a count until prompted by Simon Hardy to do so. The CP abstained in line with normal procedure as far as the asinine is concerned.