Anatomy of a conference

Jack Conrad offers pre-conference assessments and recommendations

Our standing orders committee has put on line (most of) the motions submitted by Left Unity’s branches and members for the November 21-22 national conference.1 As readers might well know, the first day is due to be devoted to a range of political issues and the second is scheduled to deal with the over-long, over-detailed, over-officered Left Unity constitution.

Mimicking the practice of the trade union and labour bureaucracy, there is to be a branch ballot on which motions will be given priority in debates (each branch has five votes). More an X factor popularity contest than a rational way of arriving at agreed tactics, strategy and structures.

Meanwhile, the SOC has arranged motions into eight - sometimes rather strange - groupings. Eg, the first group is entitled ‘The future of Left Unity and miscellaneous’. It includes a standard condemnation of the government’s Trade Union Bill (61); a motion seeking a common front with Spain’s Podemos, Germany’s Die Linke and Greece’s Popular Unity, with a view to fighting austerity on a European scale; a couple of motions opposing electoral coalitions - presumably aimed at cutting links with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (4 and 38) - and a motion on culture from Ray Campbell and Chris Hurley which amongst other things wants Left Unity to establish a “street band” (52).

In between this stuff there are 10 motions relating to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. They include a call for Left Unity to close down and become a think tank (15); to campaign for affiliation (20, 23, 27, 74); to align LU with Scotland’s left nationalist Rise outfit (69); to “temporarily” suspend election activity (70); or, in essence, to carry on as if nothing has happened.

Given the historic significance of the Corbyn victory, we in the Communist Platform have written to the SOC suggesting that the entire first day be given over to debating the Labour Party. Deciding the future of Left Unity vis-à-vis the Labour Party in one short session smacks of political light-mindedness to us.

To facilitate clarification, to test weak points, to bring out alternative arguments, to persuade doubters, all propositions on the Labour Party must be fully debated. If that does not happen, there is the distinct danger that LU will see further resignations … and soon end up as an irrelevant husk. Hence, not to debate motion 15 - moved by Pete Green, Salman Shaheen, Tom Walker, Rachel Godfrey-Wood and Carla Willig - because, maybe, it fails to secure sufficient branch votes, would be ridiculous. After all, not only are the comrades proposing to “dissolve” Left Unity “as a political party”. They have been elected to important positions. Comrades Green and Shaheen are principal speakers, comrade Walker is our media officer, and comrade Godfrey-Wood is a national council member from the London region.

Obviously, we will support motion 27, moved by Sheffield branch, Tina Becker and Jack Conrad. The motion not only calls for affiliation to the Labour Party. It outlines the strategy and principles we would pursue:

1. Left Unity welcomes the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. It amounts to a revolution in the workers’ movement in Britain.

2. All halfway house projects, opportunist attempts to chase the Greens, adaptations to petty nationalism have been exposed, wrecked or left high and dry.

3. Left Unity commits itself to the project of transforming the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism. Towards that end we will join with others and seek the closest unity of the left inside and outside the Labour Party.

4. Ideas of reclaiming the Labour Party and the return of the old clause four are totally misplaced. From the beginning the party has been dominated by the labour bureaucracy and the ideas of reformism. The party must be refounded on the basis of a genuinely socialist programme, as opposed to social democratic gradualism or bureaucratic statism.

5. The aim is not a Labour government for its own sake. History shows that Labour governments committed to managing the capitalist system and loyal to the existing constitutional order create disillusionment in the working class.

6. Labour should only consider forming a government when it has the active support of a clear majority of the population and has a realistic prospect of implementing a full socialist programme. This cannot be achieved in Britain in isolation from Europe and the rest of the world.

7. Socialism is the rule of the working class over the global economy created by capitalism and as such is antithetical to all forms of British nationalism. Demands for a British road to socialism and a withdrawal from the European Union are therefore to be opposed.

8. Political principles and organisational forms go hand in hand. The Labour Party must become the umbrella organisation for all trade unions, socialist groups and pro-working class partisans. Towards this end Left Unity will demand the complete elimination of all undemocratic bans and proscriptions and will seek to affiliate to the Labour Party.

9. The fight to democratise the Labour Party cannot be separated from the fight to democratise the trade unions. Trade union votes at Labour Party conferences should be cast not by general secretaries, but proportionately, according to the political balance in each delegation.

10. All trade unions should be encouraged to affiliate, all members of the trade unions encouraged to pay the political levy and join the Labour Party as individual members.

We have been told that the Socialist Resistance motivators of motion 23 - ie, the dominant faction in Haringey - refuse to even consider compositing with our motion. True, theirs does contain a line calling for LU’s “national committee” (sic) to “explore” the “possibility” of affiliating to the Labour Party. Nonetheless, it is clear that the comrades do not share our perspectives. Eg, there is no thought or hint of transforming the Labour Party into an instrument of class war. Therefore, until the “terms of affiliation” have become clear, the comrades want Left Unity to continue as “currently constituted”. The simple fact of the matter is that Socialist Resistance felt the need to counter those calling for affiliation. As a result their so-called plan amounts to little more than a manoeuvre and cannot be treated as a serious proposal.

By contrast, Norwich (motion 20) deserves support. We will argue that other pro-affiliation motions should be treated as stemming from, as being additional to, Norwich’s. In other words, if, after a full debate, the Norwich motion falls, the other pro-affiliation motions would likewise fall.

Anyway, in full, it reads:

Left Unity should not be dissolved. Instead we should work closely with the rank and file of the Labour Party. In particular we should join with them in ensuring that the annual conference of the Labour Party is restored as the highest decision-making body in the party whose decisions are binding; and secondly that all proscriptions preventing political groups who have their own programme affiliating to the Labour Party under rule 5A, be ended.

Labour’s clause II 5A is also worth quoting in full therefore:

Political organisations not affiliated or associated under a national agreement with the party, having their own programme, principles and policy for distinctive and separate propaganda, or possessing branches in the constituencies, or engaged in the promotion of parliamentary or local government candidates, or having allegiance to any political organisation situated abroad, shall be ineligible for affiliation to the party.2

Unmistakably, it is squarely directed at the old ‘official’ CPGB. Clause II 5A reeks of the cold war and catch-all bureaucratic drafting. Apart from adding that we consider it perfectly reasonable to expect affiliates not to back candidates standing against the Labour Party, there is every reason to build an energetic campaign to secure a radical rewrite.

And, though it has its weaknesses, the motion from Glasgow South (79) can also be supported. There is no call for affiliation. Motion 74 from Waltham Forest does contain the perspective of constituting Left Unity as a Labour Party affiliate. However, it ends rather oddly: “If accepted as an affiliated society, LU will make its first priority to ensure that all Labour Party branch meetings are fully accessible.” Yet Labour’s national executive committee is already obliged, under clause VIII 3E, to ensure that members are not “precluded” from meetings and events “because they cannot gain access”. A similar formulation can be found in clause VI 4.3 Whether or not this is the practice in every branch I could not possibly say. But, surely, “our first priority” ought to be “transforming the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism”. So a short amendment would be helpful.

The anaemic Lambeth motion will not get our backing. Motion 30 contradictorily wants the RMT and FBU unions to reaffiliate and yet also seeks to “abolish” clauses in the Labour Party constitution which prevent affiliates from supporting “other workers’ parties in elections” (note the RMT has actually backed Green candidates as well as the dead-end Scottish Socialist Party).

The comrades want to cheer on the “struggle for socialism inside the LP” … but from the outside. So, although there is a call to “temporarily suspend” national election work, the whole approach is half-hearted and unambitious.

The other motions on Corbyn and the Labour Party testify to the same sort of political myopia. Camden and Islington (78), Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin (48) and Fred Carpenter and Fred Leplat (49) amount to hopeless pleas for business as usual.


I shall discuss the rest of the motions as grouped together by the SOC.

The first motion in the second group comes from Dave Landau and Will McMahon (12). Both are prominent members of the so-called Independent Socialist Network. Overall their motion is not too bad. Voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the 2017 referendum on the European Union is a “false choice”. Etc, etc. However, the title ‘Active abstention campaign for EU referendum’ reveals an elementary failure to distinguish between ‘abstain’ and ‘boycott’. Marxist terminology normally treats ‘abstaining’ to be a passive stance and ‘boycott’ to be an active one. Hence we read this passage written by Lenin, arguing in the context of the Bolsheviks boycotting the Bulygin duma in August 1905: “we must exert every effort to make the boycott of real use in extending and intensifying agitation, so that it shall not be reduced to mere passive abstention from voting”.4

The boycott, of course, has its origins in the “mass resistance” of late 19th century Irish peasants against English landlords.5 Under the leadership of the Land League, they put the estate manager of Lord Erne under a ban. No-one would work for him, no-one would trade with him. His name, was, of course, Charles Cunningham Boycott. The campaign against Boycott became a cause célèbre in the global press.

Another elementary objection. The comrades demand the “public ownership” of the “forces of production”. In terms of Marxist A,B,Cs, the forces of production refer to machines, land, roads … and labour-power. Are the comrades really proposing to nationalise labour-power? That would be state-organised slavery. Obviously amendments are needed and in their absence much better to vote for the brief Sheffield branch motion calling for a boycott (56). Maybe the ISN comrades could agree a composite.

Norwich’s motion 21 is a fantasy call for the 2017 referendum they wish for. They also want us to align ourselves with the Greens. However, the Greens aside, Marxists strongly object to referendums. They are fundamentally anti-democratic. They are the favourite device of dictators and demagogues. Eg, Louis Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler. Vote against.

Southwark, motion 33, tells us that there will be a referendum “by the end of 2014”! Ignore the typo. The comrades want a ‘yes’ vote’. The same goes for Croydon (35). Give them both a ‘no’ vote.

We oppose all programmes that propose or imply a British exit from the EU. A spectrum that goes from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain to Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party. However, David Cameron’s negotiations with other member-states are predicated on rolling back rights, gains and possibilities. To vote ‘yes’ is unacceptable. To vote ‘no’ is unacceptable.


Sheffield branch, along with Mike Macnair and David Isaacson, want solidarity with the Greek people against the institutions. However, they criticise Left Unity’s “illusions” in Syriza (16). This is a Communist Platform-motivated motion and it clearly deserves support. The motion from Haringey is the CP’s … with the reference to Syriza surgically removed (25). We obviously prefer the original.

The Teesside, Sheffield and Yassamine Mather motion opposing imperialist interventions in the Middle East once again has to be supported. And, again, needless to say, it too originates with the CP.

Haringey’s motion 24 on the struggle of the Kurdish people is in essence a paean to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Hence the touching faith in the “self-organisation” in Rojava (in northern Syria). Despite that, the call for ending the British government’s ban on the PKK, etc ought to be supported. Ditto the motion from Leeds North and East (26). The Waltham Forest/Hackney/Tower Hamlets motion on migrants is standard fare and ought to be likewise agreed … without debate.

Crime and justice

Stockport branch wants a Left Unity policy on prostitution based on the “Nordic model” (2). Buying sex should be made a criminal offence. Regressive nonsense. Oppose. On the other hand, motion 19 on sex work, moved by the LGBT caucus, Lambeth and Croydon, ought to be agreed. Likewise, Birmingham’s motion on assisted suicide also seems unobjectionable to me (14).


Croydon’s call for ending the monarchy adds nothing new to our existing positions (37). It cannot be opposed … but it is really necessary? Surely not.

Steve Freeman and Russell Caplan want to abolish the acts of union between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (68). Does that mean they seek the re-establishment of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh feudal monarchies? Probably not. No, the motivation is clear. Instead of the working class in Britain unitedly fighting for a federal republic and international socialism, the two comrades want the break-up of Britain into separate capitalist states. Oppose.

The Teesside, Sheffield, Mark Lewis, Ben Lewis motion 11, on the standing army and people’s militia, cannot be opposed by any consistent democrat. It reiterates the left’s historic objection to standing armies and support for the “armed people” in a well-ordered militia. As the motion explains, this principle “will never be realised voluntarily by the capitalist state”. It has to be won. The original inspiration is, of course, the 1689 English Bill of Rights and then the 1791 second amendment to the American constitution. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels enthusiastically upheld that principle, as did the Second International from left to right. In other words, it was not only Vladimir Lenin, Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg who supported replacing the standing army with a people’s militia. So did Eduard Bernstein: ie, in his Evolutionary socialism. Even Natalie Bennett’s Greens want to scrap the standing army and replace it with a militia of some sort. Left Unity would do well to confront the issue.

Social security

Motion 5, moved by Bath and North East Somerset, advocates a “taxable citizen’s income payment”. It needs to be debated (but not necessarily at this conference). Frankly the pros and cons are beyond my present knowledge. I would like to hear the case for … and the case against.

Brighton and Hove’s motion on ‘Employment policy’ ought to be opposed. The comrades condemn the “capitalist idea” that “everyone should be expected to earn a living”. No, this is not a capitalist idea. The capitalist class does not “earn a living”. They exploit the labour of others and live off surplus value. But there is a socialist principle that everyone should work (if they are able). As Lenin bluntly put it in his State and revolution (1917), “He who does not work shall not eat.”6 A phrase directly borrowed from St Paul: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”7 The early Christian church practised a primitive communism, which was presumably why it was plagued with spongers and parasites. However, the target of modern communism is the idle rich - those living off inherited wealth, etc. They should make a socially useful contribution. As to the Brighton and Hove comrades’ second motion on social security (63), because it is based on exactly the same misconception, we will vote against it.

Waltham Forest’s motion on ‘Welfare policy’ is an eclectic mix of greenism, Marxism and tinkering reformism (77). Reject.


Southwark (motion 32) seeks to mobilise Left Unity for demonstrations in the week immediately following our national conference. Of course, it is on the side of the angels. But why bother moving such an utterly trite, utterly uncontroversial motion? Yet, despite the over-the-top formulation demanding “maximum support”, we will dutifully raise our hands … if it comes to a vote.

The Glasgow South motion on GM crops should not be dismissed (80). It opposes the “outright” ban on GM crops in Scotland. Instead it asks for scientific evidence and testing. Okay.

The ‘taxation’ policy moved by Stockport is rather technical - but from my rather swift reading ought to be supported … once again, if it comes up for debate (1).

Somerset and Wilts branch wants to revisit LU’s housing policy. The comrades seem to have an obscure bee in their bonnet. It is all very minor, all very technical. However, they do call for assistance to be provided to “home-owners effected by negative equity”. Do we really want to subsidise members of the bourgeoisie in Kensington and Chelsea who have been “suffering” from falling prices?8 Vote against … that or remit.

Our constitution

Bath and North East Somerset does not want us to debate our constitution (3). A mistake. Left Unity will not survive long if it remains hobbled by the existing version. It is widely recognised as totally unfit for purpose. Violations are already legion … by necessity. Vote against. Anthony Sween and Ron Luton-Brown want branch chairs included as possible suspects of “unruly or disruptive behaviour”. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. Okay … if it comes to a vote we will once again put up our collective hands.

Then we come to Teesside on the thoroughly misconceived 500-word limit imposed on conference motions (7). We in the Communist Platform favour and practise brevity whenever possible. But in the spirit of elementary democracy the Teesside motion must be supported. After all, one can easily envisage a question, a situation, a dispute that requires not under 500, but over 5,000 words.

Then there is ‘Code of conduct’ - once again Teesside (8) - and a ‘Constitution fit for purpose’ (9). Support. However, a couple of explanatory points. Thankfully the SOC decided to allow both motions. Together they constitute a radical, but far shorter, alternative to the existing 6,000-word constitution (leave aside the excruciatingly long ‘Safer spaces policy’). This is very welcome. Merely tinkering with LU’s constitution is possible … but would involve mind-numbing complexity. And the probable outcome might well be an even worse mess. Better - far better - to scrap the whole thing and put in place a short, effective, easy-to-understand constitution.

Felicity Dowling’s ‘Safer spaces policy’ has been disallowed (85-87). I do not know exactly why. Well, apart from her text being utterly incoherent - a series of disjointed headings. Oh, and there is the little fact that she should have gotten herself a seconder. Nevertheless, she should be allowed to present her case. After all, comrade Dowling is another one of those principal speakers (for unknown reasons there are four of them).

But we do need rules guarding ourselves against those who disrupt agreed election campaigns, who promote anti-Semitism in the name of anti-imperialism, or who otherwise bring Left Unity into disrepute. Here the Teesside motion 8 would serve admirably. It is, in fact, the exact same text which gained the biggest vote at our 2014 national conference … it went down only because we could not gain an absolute majority. The sullen abstentions were presumably the result of ingrained prejudice against the Communist Platform. Comrades, do not make the same mistake again.

Incidentally, the SOC has adopted the anti-democratic practice of demanding that those moving similar or identical motions withdraw them, leaving just one version in place. There is a 20-long list of such SOC rulings. Presumably this has been done in order to facilitate the branch priority ballot. But it is a bad practice and runs against our established norms in LU. All movers ought to be credited. The same goes for conference speakers. We have actually been asked to name ours … two months in advance. Naturally, we have politely declined. However, I do not know about others. It is unlikely that there is anything sinister going on here. I put it down to SOC inexperience.

That forgiving spirit cannot be extended to Leeds North and East. Frankly, the comrades are proposing a witch-hunter’s charter (17). They demand that members of minority factions “do not promote the politics and practices of another organisation … in public, in branches, in the open social media”. Horrible, unacceptable, totally misdirected control-freakery.

It is right that LU requires those such as the Communist Platform not to present themselves as Left Unity. We have no problem with that. And I am sure that Workers Power, whom I understand to be the main target of motion 17, would agree. The likes of Mathew Caygill - along with me, one of Left Unity’s 15 directly elected national council members - seem to have been infuriated by WP.

But, surely, those who have a minority viewpoint have the absolute right to “promote” their own politics and principles, while engaged in LU activity “in public, in branches, in the social media”. As long as it does not disrupt an agreed action, what is the problem?

There are many opinions within Left Unity. Some amount to just a single individual. In other words, a sect of one. Others are sects of two or three. However, much larger, albeit undeclared, factions exist. Eg, those grouped around the Hudson-Burgin leadership. Then there is the Communist Platform, Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, the Independent Socialist Network. All are organised on the basis of definite principles. Indeed, whenever possible, the CP prepares, votes and argues as a disciplined bloc in branch meetings, regions, at national conferences, the national council, etc. No secret.

If the comrades in Leeds North and East had their way, we would presumably be reported for expressing our unacceptable views at branch public meetings organised to discuss … Greece, the EU, Corbyn’s campaign, Israeli elections, etc. In my Camden and Islington branch no-one who attends can have the slightest doubt that myself, Moshé Machover and other CP comrades are promoting our own distinct principles. Terry Conway of Socialist Resistance does the same. So does Dave Landau of the ISN … comrades, it is called politics.

And what about Leeds North and East? The fact of the matter is that their majority is in national terms a tiny minority. The comrades have a distinct - in Left Unity terms a distinctly rightwing - orientation. They used to operate under the banner of the Alliance for Green Socialism. Nevertheless, despite the hypocrisy, the comrades ought to be allowed to organise, allowed to promote their principles … as long as they do not disrupt agreed actions. Anyway, reject motion 17.

Southwark and Croydon want to tinker with the existing constitution. Eg, they propose a reduction in the size of the national council and getting rid of a load of office-holders (31). The motivation seems to be well founded and healthy. But far, far better to go with the Teesside alternative constitution (drafted by the Communist Platform). The same goes for the Croydon’s call for new, unspecified branch standing orders (41). Once again … go for Teesside.

Croydon also proposes to have “all year round” electronic voting on proposals. A plebiscitary travesty. Reject. Moreover, Croydon (44) wants members to be obliged to support LU candidates. This is surely directed against the idiotic Steve Freeman ‘Republican Socialist’ campaign in the May 2015 general election. Though he is a Left Unity member, he stood against Kingsley Abrams (jointly backed by Left Unity and Tusc). We support the spirit of the motion. But it is already more than covered by Teesside (plus the “omitted” motions from Jack Conrad, Mike Macnair, Moshé Machover, Yassamine Mather, David Isaacson, Sarah McDonald, Sheffield branch, etc).

Southwark’s ‘Empowering regions’ is another example of minor tinkering (28). So is its part two (29). The same goes for Croydon’s ‘Branch standing orders’ and crowdsourcing. Yawn. Abstain. Croydon’s motion 44 is a repeat of the above. Croydon’s motion 46 is likewise a tinkering bore. Abstain.

Waltham Forest’s ‘Combating oppressive behaviour’ amounts to the safer spaces policy through the back door (76). Another witch-hunter’s charter. Vote down. The constitutional motions moved by Phil Pope and Gemma Brown both appear to be sincerely motivated (83 and 84). But, once again, go for Teesside.


In branches where the CP exercises a decisive influence vote, firstly, for motion 27 (Labour Party, as moved by Sheffield, Tina Becker and Jack Conrad). Secondly, motion 9 (Teesside, ‘A constitution fit for purpose’), three, Teesside’s motion 8, ‘Code of conduct’, four, ‘Standing army and the people’s militia (11) and, five, Greece, as moved by Sheffield, Mike Macnair and David Isaacson (16).

Otherwise, in politically rightwing branches, argue for Norwich’s motion 20 … and then go down in flames.


1. http://leftunity.org/motions-to-left-unity-conference-for-priorities-ballot-and-amendment.

2. http://labourlist.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Rule-Book-2013.pdf.

3. http://labourlist.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Rule-Book-2013.pdf.

4. VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p182.

5. TA Jackson Ireland her own London 1985, p326.

6. VI Lenin CW Vol 25, Moscow 1977, p472.

7. ‘Second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians’, 3:10.

8. “In Kensington and Chelsea, London’s most expensive borough to buy in, prices dropped 7.2% from June to July, according to Rightmove” (City AM July 20 2015).