Rank and file must not be disempowered

Doing things differently or same old?

Mike Macnair outlines the Communist Platform’s opposition to both word limits for motions and to a branch ballot to determine which should be prioritised at conference

Left Unity’s annual conference is scheduled for November 21-22. The second day is dedicated to sorting out the notoriously unworkable aspects of LU’s over-elaborate constitution.

The standing orders committee (SOC), with the support (apparently) of LU’s executive,1 has adopted two innovations in the arrangements for the agenda for this conference.2 The first is the introduction of a 500-word limit on motions proposed by branches and individuals. The second is a ballot of LU branches, asking them which motions should be prioritised on the agenda. This has been argued to be Green Party practice, though it should also be noted that a “priorities ballot” has also been Labour Party practice since Tony Blair’s 1995 ‘reforms’.3

Sarah McDonald argued in this paper on August 8 against these proposals.4 Now she and three other LU national council members, supporters of the Communist Platform, are proposing a motion against them to the September 5 meeting of the LU NC:

1. The national council is concerned by the decisions of the standing orders committee and executive committee to adopt for the November 2015 conference of Left Unity:

(a) a word limit of 500 words for resolutions proposed by branches and members, including proposed changes to the constitution;

(b) a “priorities ballot” of branches, which the website notice falsely asserts is provided for by the LU constitution.

2. The NC considers:

(a) that, while branches and the proposers of motions should be strongly advised to avoid writing long motions and in particular against long recitals of the evils of present-day society, the effect of imposing a word limit on motions from branches and individuals, but not on those proposed by this committee or by commissions, is anti-democratic, by preventing alternative proposals to those formulated by the leadership;

(b) that, whatever the general merits of a ‘priority ballot’ of branches, the present state of LU branches, the variable frequency of their meetings and the necessary timetable of a priority ballot means that a priority ballot for this conference cannot be organised in a way which will have a representative result and democratic legitimacy.

3. The NC therefore

(i) reverses the decision of the EC to support these arrangements for the organisation of the conference;

(ii) strongly urges the standing orders committee to reverse its decision to introduce these arrangements;

(iii) if the standing orders committee does not reverse its decision, will recommend rejection of the standing orders committee’s report on these matters when the conference meets.

The point of this article is to argue against the SOC/EC proposals and hence in support of this motion.

Both proposals respond to real problems. However, we have argued before that comrades involved in designing LU’s constitution have unconsciously internalised the regime of Thatcher’s anti-union laws, by adopting postal and online ballots, and so on.5 With the new initiative on the conference, the comrades involved have - presumably unconsciously - internalised Blairite mechanisms created in the Labour Party to allow bureaucratic manipulation of what can be debated at conference.

Behind this question is a larger one. Part of Left Unity’s ‘selling point’ is “doing politics differently”.6 In spite of the deep ambiguity of this slogan,7 the underlying idea is to do politics in a way which is open and democratic, as opposed to the mechanisms of top-down control found in the Blairite Labour Party and, in different forms, in far-left groups like the Socialist Workers Party. The problem with internalising Thatcherite and Blairite procedural forms is that the desire to “do politics differently” conflicts with the forms adopted, which are forms of “same old politics.”

500 words

The problem this new rule addresses is straightforward enough: at LU’s policy conferences in March and November 2014, and for that matter at the founding conference in November 2013, there was an enormous mass of paperwork. We have commented on the problem ourselves in past articles offering advice about how to vote at LU conferences.8

There are three causes of the excessive paperwork for LU conferences. The first is overlong agendas. This is the issue which the ‘priorities ballot’ tries to deal with - I will discuss below why it is not a satisfactory solution.

The second is the failure to composite resolutions effectively. Effective compositing depends on the SOC identifying as precisely as possible (a) related motions (as opposed to circulating everyone with any motion on the same agenda point) and (b) proactively identifying common ground and differences between motions and suggesting ways in which the differences could be brought to conference floor without the common ground being duplicated.

The third problem is the culture of the British left of using motions to trade union and Labour conferences and student unions as a substitute for a widely read press, by including in them long recitals which should be arguments for the motion. It is this phenomenon which the 500-word rule addresses.

The rule was proposed by Terry Conway and Merry Cross to the November 2014 conference, but fell off the agenda. At that conference, I discussed the proposal briefly with comrade Conway in one of the breaks and made the point that there would have to be exceptions to such a word limit and wondered how they would be decided upon; her response was that of course it would not apply to the policy documents proposed by the leadership or the various commissions LU has set up to draft policy.

The rule as stated on the website for the November 2015 conference does not explicitly state this exception. But it must apply in practice, otherwise it would be obviously absurd. But a word limit which exempts documents from the leadership or from an official commission clearly has the character of a Blairite bureaucratic control: a device to ensure that all initiative in policy formation must come ‘from above’, and the ‘other ranks’ are to be restricted to offering relatively minor amendments to texts whose framework has been chosen at the centre.

The case is stronger in relation to constitutional amendments, which are explicitly included in the word limit. The composite ‘safe spaces’ proposal put to the November 2014 conference by the safe spaces working group came to 3,828 words. The counterproposal moved by Tina Becker and Robert Eagleton, which won the plurality of votes, contained 1,642 words - incorporating the code of conduct, rules for disputes procedures, equalities policy and amendments to the current constitution. The last was the longest part, because the amendments followed the forms of the current constitution, which totals 7,935 words, including appendices. Communist Platform’s draft of a simpler alternative, published in this paper on April 13 2015, would total 986 words. The point is in the first place that it is impractical to offer amendments of any real substance to an 8,000-word constitution at the maximum length of 500 words.

Secondly - as was also visible in a number of policy documents and motions in 2014 - the commissions write more verbosely than those who attempt to offer alternative versions. So restricting the branches and members to 500 words, while leaving untouched the habits of verbosity of the commissions, will probably in the end increase the amount of paperwork produced for LU conferences.

The rule attempts to address a problem of political culture - the tendency to write long explanations and recitals into motions - with a bureaucratic device, which will immediately tend to stifle debate and initiative from the ranks. It will also simply fail to solve the underlying problem.

Priorities ballot

The “priorities ballot” will presumably be conducted online. The web page with the information about the conference timetable says:

As per our constitution, branches will also have a chance to vote for which topics of discussion and amendments will be prioritised at the conference. This is called a priorities ballot. Details are below.

The “details” consist simply of dates, beginning on September 21, when the compositing process begins, and ending on October 30, when the priority ballot closes. Branches will be able to discuss and vote on priorities - provided they are scheduled to meet between October 5, when motions and composites are published, and October 30. Practically the period will be shorter - it would be unreasonable for those members who have the time to work through all the motions and composites as soon as they appear to ‘bounce’ the other members of the branch into priorities decisions before they have had a chance to look at them. It will not be possible to affect the branches’ votes on priorities if it appears from amendments - which will not be published until after the ballot has been held - that there turns out to be a major policy issue in question (as was the case, for example, in relation to the international policy commission document in 2014).

The claim that provision for a priorities ballot of branches is in LU’s constitution is simply false. The nearest approach is in clause 10(b):

The national council shall organise e-conferences on specific single issues or questions as it decides or when requested by 25% of branches in the course of a three-month period. These shall take place on a forum to be organised by the NC with online debate and voting, restricted via password protection to subs-paying LU members.9

Nonetheless, if the idea was democratic and practically useful - it is not - it would certainly be proper for the SOC to introduce it.

The priorities ballot is an attempt to address the problem of overlong and crowded agendas, with insufficient time for discussion, which has characterised all the conferences of LU to date. Certainly some such decision needs to be made to limit what will be discussed at conference. What is problematic about it, as with Labour’s priorities ballot, is a lack of transparency. That is, the leading group will certainly have views about what should and should not be prioritised. Because the ballot is a ballot, and one in which each branch discusses separately without a general, open debate, leading to an open vote, the leading group is enabled - and other factional groupings are equally enabled - to lobby behind the scenes for particular results, without ever openly avowing their views on priorities or taking political responsibility for them. This is why the Blairites adopted the method.

Left Unity’s conference remains ‘one member, one vote’ - but in November 2014 we were close to the limit of 2,000 members, at which delegate conferences are supposed to kick in under the constitution. Proposals were then made by several branches to increase the number from 2,000 to 5,000 or above.10 Why? The answer is not that a delegate conference would be a bad idea in principle for an organisation of 2,000 or more. It is that the actual attendance of members at branch meetings, and their functioning, is so poor that a delegate conference would be obviously more unrepresentative than an open membership conference. It follows allthe more that the views of the branches expressed in a priorities ballot must not be taken as final, as compared to the views taken on discussion - however brief - by the assembled members at the beginning of LU conference.

The first of these problems could be dealt with by appropriate design changes. The NC needs to take political responsibility for proposing a conference agenda and priorities. If it does so, and there is an open discussion in LU as a whole, balloting the branches after there has been an opportunity for different views on priorities to be reported to them and discussed would be a useful exercise. It should, however, be sufficiently late that debates which have emerged on amendments can be part of the process.

The second problem is not soluble at the present stage of LU’s development. It is just a fact that many branches meet erratically and are inquorate under the present rules when they do meet. Under such circumstances, any priorities ballot of the branches this year will be meaningless.

Doing politics

The underlying problem is one of the concept and culture of ‘doing politics’. The comrades who made these proposals for LU conference have inherited from their own backgrounds, and from the dominant culture of the British labour movement, a bureaucratic conception. It is one in which leadership works in private and through the manipulation of rules, rather than openly avowing its role; and which, in parallel, open disagreement and minority initiative are seen as a problems. This approach inevitably results, whatever they may intend, in stifling rank-and-file initiative.

The alternative is to openly recognise the role and responsibilities of leadership in proposing agendas, in making sure as far as possible that real issues are discussed, and so on; in doing so, to let the light shine in; and on the other side of the coin to accept that disagreement is normal and healthy. This approach would really be ‘doing politics differently’ - in a way which would genuinely empower the ranks and those new to politics l



1. ‘Apparently’ because Kate Hudson so reported in an email to national council member and Communist Platform supporter Sarah McDonald; however, though the minutes of the June 14 national council show a request to the EC to consider word limits, there is no mention of it in the EC minutes of July 11.

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

3. Eg, www.leftfutures.org/2012/09/how-votes-work-at-labour-conference.

4. ‘Prioritise principle’ Weekly Worker August 8 2015.

5. ‘Not fit for purpose’ Weekly Worker January 15 2015.

6. Googling “left unity” “doing politics differently” produces about 1,500 hits.

7. One might equally see “doing politics differently” - differently to the rotten ‘centre ground’ - in Ukip, in Beppe Grillo or in Timur Vermes’s resurrected Hitler as a media star (Look who’s back). This is, of course, not what LU comrades mean by the slogan.

8. ‘How to vote at conference’ Weekly Worker November 28 2013; ‘Indecision and irrationality’, March 13 2014; ‘Code of conduct or a safe spaces nightmare?’, November 13 2014.

9. http://leftunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Constitution-as-of-7-12-13.pdf.

10. They dropped off the agenda owing to lack of time (see minutes at http://leftunity.org/national-conference-november-2014).