A missed opportunity
Left unity continues to dodge the issue of its constitution, writes Paul Demarty
There was a moment, towards the end of the second day of Left Unity conference, where a superficially uncontroversial motion came up, and temporarily caused a little confusion within our ranks.
Submitted as an ‘emergency motion’ condemning Russia’s bombardment of Syria, it closed with a call to oppose British intervention in Syria. It came from Socialist Resistance comrades, who last year called for the west to intervene in support of the Kurds against Islamic State (and were thankfully sent packing); so apparently some progress had been made.
Yet there was something just a bit off about it; it still talked as if there was some revolutionary upsurge against Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime which needed to be protected, rather than a war waged very clearly at this point between contending reactionary forces, with the partial exception of Kurdish nationalists (whose attitude to Assad, not to mention the west, is at this point ambiguous). The motion was taken in parts and one sentence alone was controversial (an ‘Assad must go!’ clause, which in a context that did not even mention Gulf State funding of Jabhat al-Nusra and IS, very strongly unbalanced it.)
Some of us, including your faithful correspondent, wanted to abstain (after all, he must go, even if he is not the only one); others wanted to vote against. In the end, the leaders of our caucus went for a full thumbs-down. I grumbled, and put my hand up. My will had been thwarted. My judgment had been slighted. After all these years of loyal service to the cause ...
This is democracy in action.
It was hardly our finest moment, of course; from a (some say notoriously) solid, disciplined bloc, we descended briefly into urgent, deliberative babbling and confused shrugs. Democracy, after all, is the worst possible system, apart from all the others - to cite the words of a vile, bigoted anti-democrat. Yet we have, in the CPGB, a functioning regime that allows for disciplined collective action without denying anyone the opportunity to exercise meaningful control over such action.
This is not a regime we thought up ourselves, but one we pinched from the great parties of the Second International, most especially the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. It is best known as democratic centralism.
Who’s afraid of centralism?
I begin with this long excursus to better address events earlier on Sunday, which saw LU finally come to discuss its utterly dysfunctional constitution. This was an event heralded long in advance - the national council decided (at our urging) to make this year’s conference a two-day affair, with the second day dedicated to sorting out the constitution.
Somewhere in the intervening months, however, the election of Jeremy Corbyn turned everything upside-down, and we in the Communist Platform were among those arguing that the first day should be dedicated to LU’s future in the light of that event. Now comrades in other factions of the organisation turned sour on the idea of taking up the whole of the second day on discussing the constitution. So there was immediately a debate on a ‘non-priority’ motion (more on those anon) to defer all this discussion to a new “commission”, which would make recommendations to the next conference. Comrades may remember that this is exactly how we got the monstrous beast of a constitution we have today.
Nobody who submitted the motion bothered to turn up on the Sunday, however, so someone had to be found to move it. With unbecoming eagerness, up stepped national secretary Kate Hudson, who instead of actually motivating the motion, proceeded to attack our alternative constitution.
The end result was, I suppose, as expected - the committee was duly created, the alternative draft was defeated, and we will have at least another year to wait until we have basic rules and procedures at all fit for ongoing political organisation. (Comrade Hudson bizarrely interpreted the motion as only remitting the alternative draft, rather than other minor changes to the constitution; thankfully conference disagreed on that point, and we were able to vote on everything, even if it was unclear exactly what the effect of passing constitutional changes would be, given that we had just created a new committee to look at the matter).
Democratic centralism rather makes people blanch in LU (“This is a democratic centralist constitution!” Richard Farnos of Croydon branch exclaimed - “Yes,” we agreed). But it remains, alas, the worst system - except for all the others. Quite what comrade Hudson’s problem with it is we do not know. She was, after all, a member of the ‘official’ CPGB, and until pretty recently of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. She left, so far as we understand, not over any question of the organisational regime, but over the CPB’s ‘sectarianism’ on Greek politics (that is, the CPB’s support for its fraternal party, the Communist Party of Greece, whereas she wanted to support Syriza).
Her specific problems with the Communist Platform’s alternative constitution were specious in the extreme. It was too centralist and hierarchical. It would “get rid of ‘One member, one vote’” in favour of conferences electing the leadership. It would reduce us to a “laughing stock” by declaring a preference for small branches. And so on.
Comrade, this is absurd. Who wants large branches? Small branches allow comrades to rededicate themselves to becoming embedded within their communities. They allow more active participation in discussions and activity at the atomic level of the organisation. “Do you want a branch of 10,000 members?” replied the CP’s Jack Conrad. No - we want a branch in ever tower block and on every street!
The business of ‘One member, one vote’ is hardly better. Our draft constitution was quite clear - the supreme body in the organisation is conference, to which all leadership bodies are subordinated. While we are small, conference is a meeting that any member can attend; when delegate conferences are necessary, branches get to vote for their delegates. One member, one vote (we note that the current Left Unity constitution allows for delegate conferences anyway).
As for centralism in general, we defy anyone to take a brief glance at the chaotic internal functioning of LU and conclude that it is too centralist. We cannot even expel people who straightforwardly scab on party actions like Steve Freeman. Nobody knows this better than a certain Kate Hudson, who has been reduced to writing impotent letters asking him politely to resign!
In fact centralism is necessary to elementary democratic functioning. The case of comrade Freeman is particularly clear. Southwark branch made a democratic decision to back one candidate in Bermondsey, at a properly constituted and hotly debated meeting. Steve, however, had “made a promise to the people of Bermondsey” to stand again in 2015, and that promise was more important to him than his party duties.
This is a snub to the comrades in the branch, and a middle finger to the organisation. It is a denial of democracy. That he continues to be a member is a disgrace - for which, however, it is primarily the rest of us, not him, who are to blame. We do not defend our democracy. We cannot very well complain when it is violated by some opportunist, looking for a cheap platform for his latest wheeze.
Rather than electing a just-small-enough leadership structure at conference, as we (again, copying more prestigious examples) recommend, Left Unity elects a vast tranche of individuals on an entirely atomised basis using internet tools - many to named positions. How bad an idea this is can be glimpsed merely from the fact that we are down two principal speakers after the resignations of Pete Green and Salman Shaheen - the latter not just from his position, but from the organisation. There is a crying lack of accountability here. Yet the only effective constitutional proposal passed was ... to create yet another committee, when the ones we have could barely be filled before a quarter of the membership quietly walked this autumn.
The result, as we have always argued, is an unworkable constitution that is necessarily ignored. Towards the end of the weekend, treasurer Andrew Burgin gave his financial report. “Doesn’t the constitution say the accounts have to be audited?” one comrade asked. “I know that,” comrade Burgin replied, with a helpless shrug. (I did not - reading that damnable document always brings up a fresh surprise.) If the constitutional provision that all bodies must have a minimum of 50% women on them was honoured, there would have been no conference at all - all remaining standing orders committee members were male.
Most of these defective features were motivated, of course, by the shortcomings of soi-disant democratic centralist organisations. There cannot be an organisation in the history of the post-war British left that does not have at least one embittered ex-member in LU. Many will have been genuinely treated like dirt by their supposed leaders, in the name of a centralist political regime. The instinct, then, is to go in the opposite direction.
But add it all together and you do not have democracy. You have an organisation based on a complex web of checks and balances, which can only function if its executive bodies ignore its rules on an ad hoc basis. No matter: you have the right as a member, apparently, to ignore any democratic decision, provided you can put up with the ensuing ‘mediation’. This is the worst of all possible worlds - an anarchistic bureaucracy, over which the membership can exercise very little meaningful control.
The greatest failing of LU’s leading faction is that it knows this is not working, but it allows it to continue. Terry Conway of Socialist Resistance claimed that people had been too busy discussing the Corbyn campaign to think up amendments either to the existing constitution or to the Communist Platform’s alternative, which is truly ridiculous. Comrades, you had eight months to come up with proposals, and two years of bureaucratic hell to give you ideas. Yet apart from one motion calling for the national secretary to have the right to summarily expel individuals (in ‘consultation’ with the disputes committee), no core leadership members had any motions on the constitution. The only substantial documents came from the CP. Thus we lope onwards, as disorderly as we were before, but with yet another committee to fill somehow. To LU’s leadership, this was the lesser of two evils compared to … having more, smaller branches.
We reassert that there is a better way: the subordination of lower to higher bodies, individuals to the collective; the absolute sovereignty of the highest body - conference; the accountability of officers to the leadership and the leadership to the membership; full liberty of factional and other agitation; and unity in action.
In other words: democratic centralism.