Left Unity and its future

October’s aggregate of CPGB members saw discussion on Left Unity’s prospects and the blind alley of left Keynesianism. Micky Coulter reports

Two different but connected topics - the future of the ‘broad party’ initiative known as Left Unity, and political economy - were brought together at the CPGB members’ aggregate, held in London on October 17. The connection, of course, was the victory of the resolutely left social democrat, Jeremy Corbyn.

Introducing the first topic, Jack Conrad pointed out that Corbyn’s triumph has attracted many of the thousands of left-leaning people that Left Unity dreamed of pulling in. But instead they are flocking into the Labour Party, whose membership has also moved decisively to the left, cutting away the ground from under the LU project as originally envisaged. Later, Yassamine Mather looked at comrade Corbyn’s economic programme, dubbed ‘Corbynomics’ - a series of unrealistic, nationally limited illusions whose basis for existence is long gone; nonetheless it is a programme which will rally large numbers behind it.

Comrade Conrad began his talk by referring to the recently launched Momentum campaign, designed to organise Labour members and voters into a network-based activism. So far, said the comrade, the project has appeared very top-down, although it seems that anyone can decide to initiate a Momentum meeting in their area, which will then be advertised through the central Momentum database. However, it is only just getting off the ground, and its nature will be made clear through its development over time.

The fact that Momentum is not limited to members of the Labour Party has already led to scare stories about ‘infiltration’ by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party. Comrade Conrad noted that the anti-SWP rhetoric coming from within Labour was similar to the attacks to which Marxists within Left Unity are subjected by disillusioned ex-members of various leftwing sects. Such ‘anti-group’ sentiment is actually a gift to undeclared groups and it is one that must be opposed despite the SWP’s being a confessional sect. The Labour right as such is also concerned by the formation of Momentum, which is clearly an attempt to get around the unrepresentative and recalcitrant Parliamentary Labour Party and subject it to the wishes of the broad, Corbyn-supporting membership.

Equally to the dismay of the Labour right, the Conservatives’ proposed boundary changes to parliamentary constituencies provides the left with an opportunity to dislodge a number of rightwing Labour MPs. If only life were so simple though - unlike the leftwing surge around Bennism, this time it is the right which knows the rule book from cover to cover, and is deeply entrenched in the party machine. A disorganised left could stumble past any number of open goals in this situation.

At odds with reality

The reaction of some sections of the left, as readers surely know, has been stubbornly at odds with reality and, in the case of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, characterised by confused flip-flopping, as its theoretical conceptions regarding Labour of the last 20-plus years have been comprehensively disproved by life itself. Who within SPEW will be brave enough to tell general secretary Peter Taaffe that the emperor has no clothes? SPEW comrades were very recently putting motions to union conferences calling for disaffiliation from Labour - which their leaders now characterise as a “new party” worthy of support. As for the SWP, it sees the Corbyn phenomenon as a chance to draw people into endless protests, which is where, as Marxists, they believe the ‘real’ action is, and from there siphon them off into the ‘already existing revolutionary party’, the SWP itself.

Turning to Left Unity, comrade Conrad believed that its prospects had been negatively affected by the changes in Labour. Instead of joining a left organisation built around left Labour politics, people could now choose the real thing - and were doing so in droves. If Left Unity is to have a future, it must adopt principled Marxist politics and, as a first step, its November 21-22 annual conference must debate the new situation seriously - the first day ought to be devoted to the Labour Party and Left Unity’s future. (Likewise there must be a serious discussion about LU’s unworkable constitution, the only fully worked out alternative being proposed by the Communist Platform.)

Sadly, the standing orders committee has grouped motions on ‘The future of Left Unity’ along with ‘Miscellaneous’, which does not bode well. As for that future, comrade Conrad noted three main options among the motions: affiliation to Labour; business as usual; or liquidation into a network, think tank or whatever. Despite our demand for LU affiliation, we remain clear that the formation of a Communist Party remains the decisive factor and the CPGB’s main aim.

In the debate that followed comrade Mather thought it was important that we clarify our stance towards affiliation and the bans and proscriptions in the Labour constitution centred around clause 5A. Replying, comrade Conrad said that, for us, the only proscriptions for affiliates should be against standing candidates against Labour in elections. Comrade Mather was disappointed with the passive, defeatist attitude she had encountered around the left on the issue of the provisions of 5A. Even under these changed conditions, too many on the left did not see the importance of fighting this issue out, even if we do not win - which we potentially could, she felt.

For Simon Wells the liquidation motion being put forward to LU conference by Salman Shaheen, Pete Green et al was a sign of a total loss of heart in the project in which they were leading members, and that they were seeking a way out. Mike Macnair commented that the media attacks on Momentum - including, for example, the nonsense about Labour Party Marxists and other ‘extreme’ socialist ‘infiltrators’ - were indications of the natural reaction of the bourgeoisie to the first signs of the left getting organised. He argued that if the Socialist Resistance group, which operates within Left Unity, were to turn pro-Corbyn, that would alienate a layer of its floating support. He also pointed out that, for example, Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin did not view LU as a halfway house: they were genuinely committed to the creation of a Eurocommunist-style party as an end in itself.

Sarah McDonald said that, if Left Unity failed to have a serious discussion about Labour and its own failed constitution, then there could well be no point in remaining in the party. However tedious sitting in Constituency Labour Party meetings might be, she speculated that they might feel less pointless than their equivalent in LU unless things were to change substantially. Phil Kent agreed with this sentiment, but the importance of continuing to work within Left Unity was stressed by comrades Macnair, Conrad and others. Mark Fischer argued that we had achieved surprisingly positive results in LU from time to time, often at conferences, and that it was not unthinkable that the same may happen again: we should not assume the worst as inevitable.


In analysing the outlines of the Corbyn economic programme, comrade Mather stated that she was not seeking to provide a technical criticism, policy by policy, but rather to critique its historical antecedents, the character of its supporters and ideological bedfellows, its national illusions and its silence about the question of the capitalist mode of production as such. An article based on her speech can be found elsewhere in this paper.

For Stan Kelsey, amongst others, the points made by comrade Mather served as a useful addition to the criticism of Corbynomics offered by Michael Roberts in the Weekly Worker (‘Good for the working class?’, October 15), who, comrades pondered, appeared to think that the main problem with Corbyn’s national-autarky programme was that it did not include far-reaching nationalisation, rather than its fundamental unrealism.

The discussion prompted Jack Conrad to ask when what starts off as ‘clever tactics’ becomes your reality - John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn may well privately believe that the crisis is systemic because of global capitalist relations, but they are concerned with winning the election in 2020 and looking ‘realistic’. Questioning the received wisdom of the left that of course a Labour government was preferable to a Conservative one, he asked if we really ought to prefer a Miliband government to a Corbyn-led opposition. Which put the working class in the better position? Of course, the questions answer themselves and stand as a riposte to the ‘Labour should take office’ fetishists both in and out of the party.

Seeking to burst the ‘30 golden years’ bubble which has gained currency on the left, Mike Macnair noted that the weakness of finance in the UK post-war was a direct result of its more forceful subordination by the USA immediately after World War II. The UK state had manifestly done better under the neoliberal regime after the collapse of Bretton Woods than in the ‘golden years’. To want this period back in the belief that this would represent an improvement, as the team around Corbyn and others seem to think, was “total nonsense”, in his opinion. Additionally, refinancialisation was itself partly led by the creation of the offshore eurodollar market, fed and watered through many crown-dependent tax havens that prefigured the full neoliberal period. The seeds of neoliberalism always lay within the period, he concluded.

The discussion soon turned to the means of confronting the methodological nationalism of Corbyn’s economic programme in a way which would not be misread as implying he was not an internationalist on other issues, particularly the struggles of various oppressed peoples. On such international issues, his support for just about every progressive cause going cannot be doubted, but he remains trapped, along with McDonnell, within the framework of national government action to attain wealth redistribution under the current order, which could backfire catastrophically. It was not at all unrealistic, said comrade Conrad, that London could cease to be a major financial centre under a Corbyn government - international capital may prefer an eager Frankfurt or somewhere else on the continent - and there was simply not the industrial base for a social democratic-run state to fall back on any more. Comrade Mather added that you could say goodbye to perhaps 20% of the UK’s tax receipts should this happen, and the rest of Corbyn’s programme would rapidly dissolve even further. Comrade Macnair added that perhaps the only two states on earth that can today pursue autarkic policies with any success are China and the USA.

In terms of how we approach the Corbyn movement, comrade Conrad thought that we have to work out more concretely what we are striving to achieve in relation to it. What demands/conditions should we place on a Corbyn government? This was a question for today, as the whole of the Corbyn/McDonnell programme is based on Labour taking office in 2020. How can we best advance the cause of the working class striving to take power internationally? We need a class-based opposition party, which breaks with the utopian national methods, the Keynesianism and the moralism of those providing many of the ideas of the new Labour leadership, and which are often, unfortunately, unquestioned on the left, even after the recent - and inevitable - capitulation of Syriza.