Politics needs space

Prioritise principle

National council member Sarah McDonald points to two major problems concerning the November conference

With all that is happening in the Labour Party, one could be forgiven for letting some of the click-through links in Left Unity’s emailed members’ bulletins remain blue. However, those of us who did connect to the newly published information on LU’s November 21-22 conference will have noted a couple of points.

Firstly, there is a limit of 500 words for all motions to conference, including “proposed changes to the constitution”. Bearing in mind that the second day of the conference is to be devoted entirely to the constitution precisely because so many recognise that the current version is unwieldy, excessively technocratic and unfit for purpose, it is not implausible that some members, including ourselves, would wish to put forward an alternative constitution (the one that the Communist Platform has drafted is around 1,000 words).

While we most certainly favour brevity - the current version, excluding appendices, extends to 6,000 words - it is absurd to expect this to be achievable within the confines of 500 words. It also begs the question: is this limit applicable to all submissions to conference? If Felicity Dowling (as is likely) tries to push her (twice rejected) ‘safe spaces’ policy document through once again, will this also be confined to 500 words? It is hard to imagine how the vulnerable (ie, women comrades) can be adequately protected from abuse in every fathomable way within such a measly limit. Of course, the notion of ‘safe spaces’ is ridiculous and patronising, but there are many serious issues that do require a more substantial and thought through document.

It is understandable on some level why the standing orders committee and the conference arrangements committee (a subcommittee of the executive) have arrived at this decision. Readers will be well acquainted with the SOC pre-conference task of trawling through uncontroversial motions, involving overly long preambles and pointing out that the Tories are bad or free education is good, for example. If this is the price to pay for developing intelligent policy on complex issues, then so be it. Hence, it is equally obvious that such a limit should not apply to the constitution

The second point of concern regarding these conference arrangements is the question of a ‘priorities ballot’ - something apparently practised by the Greens. According to the pre-conference timetable information, “once all the motions are collected in, the SOC will issue a ballot form for branches to vote on which ones they would like to prioritise. This is a way of ensuring that the party members get to discuss the topics that are of most concern for them.”1

While it is marginally better that this is done through branches rather than a Big Brother-style online vote by individuals, surely the agenda of a conference ought to be the property of conference? Steps such as this go further down the line of trivialising conferences to the point of a mere formality, where decisions are taken by a largely atomised membership. In the same way as a mandated delegate conference appears at face value to be more inclusive and democratic, while in reality it means that conference decisions are a foregone conclusion and debate is superfluous, similarly a priorities ballot is likely to exclude from the agenda discussion of essential questions that are, however, only currently being considered by a minority. In other words, the minority is to be deprived of any opportunity to attempt to win over the majority.

The effect of a priorities ballot could be that conference becomes dominated by subjects that are currently popular or topical, rather than of fundamental significance. Conference could focus on ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ issues. In what is likely to be an ironic twist, given that current developments in the Labour Party could see off LU (not to mention the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition), it is foreseeable that branches will prioritise motions regarding the Labour Party on the back of a potential Corbyn victory. Though what will they have to say, other than ‘we should support him’? There are not going to be motions with a thought-out thesis on the Labour Party (well, not in under 500 words!).

Of course, LU, just like the many unity projects that preceded it, sells itself as a Labour Party mark two - a sensible reformist party that can be supported by ‘ordinary people’. In reality, this reflects the far left’s opportunistic attempts to be popular. Unfortunately, for them, putting forward ‘sensible’ Labourite proposals, particularly in elections, has never succeeded in fooling very many people. If voters want to vote for what they perceive to be ‘traditional Labour values’, they will join Labour - especially now that there appears to be a huge space opening up in that party with Corbyn.

If LU is to have any meaningful future, it should stand on the basis of principled Marxist politics. Yet such principles are unlikely to see the light of day following the priorities ballot. For example, can we envisage a situation where a motion favouring the right to bear arms and the abolition of the standing army is considered worthy of a debate? Of course not. True, if such motions were taken they would be overwhelmingly voted down. Why? Because LU members are in favour of the British army? No, because like Liz Kendall they think it wise to play to their right.

Unfortunately for Kendall large sections of Labour are on the left. Part of the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn is that he is seen as honest and principled: he says what he believes is right. If LU were to stand on the politics that were held by the majority of its members, rather than cynically dressing up in the colours of social democracy, it would likely not fare any worse, in terms of polling or wider support, than it does currently. Why repeatedly attempt (and fail) to recreate the Labour Party, which already exists, when you could be striving for what is really necessary?


1. http://leftunity.org/national-conference-2015-pre-conference-timetable.