Heads in the sand
Commissaress gives her impressions of Left Unity’s November 21-22 national conference
So … the Left Unity national conference happened over the weekend, and it was the first party conference I had ever been to.
Every time I give my impressions on an event like this, I start by describing what I expected at first, but in this case I can honestly say that I had no expectations. At all. As much as I wanted to sound all knowledgeable and prodigious and pretend I knew everything I needed to, to tell you the truth, I had no idea what a party conference entailed, what the voting procedures were, what the jargon meant (‘movers’ sounded like a technical breakdance term to me) or anything. But after spending a day at the conference, and hearing retellings of the past couple of conferences, I have a good few first impressions to share. Here we go again!
First of all, I do not want to give the impression that the conference was a let-down or badly organised or bad overall, because that is not true. Apparently there was much less heckling than there had been last year, which I have to say I am secretly slightly disappointed by, since I really do love a good, heated argument, but a lack of heckling could also mean that the party has become less sectarian and more - heh - united, which means we will get things done more easily. I do also feel as though we got a lot done at the conference.
It was just my luck that I missed the day of the conference when electoral matters, particularly Labour Party-related ones, were discussed, because I imagine that would have been a little more dramatic. However, the lack of (so much) drama on the day I attended meant that everything ran smoothly, we could get through a lot of motions and have a sensible and civil discussion, which made me feel quite accomplished at the end of the day. And, apart from a little kerfuffle to do with the chair of one of the sessions interrupting a contributor because she apparently was not allowed to call Left Unity’s national secretary by her name - a tiny objection, which led me to believe that it was just an excuse for the chair to interrupt someone with whom they disagreed - the conference was well chaired and very, very democratic. I mean, we had a vote on when to take our afternoon break after discovering that the coffee shop closed at 3 o’clock - how much more democratic can you get? The fact that Left Unity could succeed where the vast majority of socialist outfits fail - at democracy - is seriously encouraging.
But, let’s face it, negative feedback is more useful to read and much more fun to write, so I am going to start discussing the things I found objectionable or, in most cases, disheartening, about the conference. First of all, I got the sense that Left Unity was really feeling the impact of the exodus of members, which happened at around the time of the election of a certain social democrat to the position of Labour leader. Normally, my reaction to the parting of these members would be ‘good riddance’. If these ostensible socialists want to throw their support behind yet another social democratic leader of yet another bourgeois party with yet more empty rhetoric, so be it: the fewer social democrats there are in socialist parties, the better.
But it seems that Left Unity was feeling the pinch, both financially and otherwise. The hall was not full and was apparently a lot calmer than during the last couple of conferences, there motions whose movers had actually left the party - presumably to join Labour - and some of the people who might sometimes have voted with the Communist Platform had also left. I do not know how much the party can actually do to counter the loss of influence and excitement that comes with a decrease in membership, but it is absolutely imperative to do something, or else Left Unity will risk becoming like one of the many Leninist splinter groups around: tiny, insignificant and uninspiring. And the very reason I joined the party was precisely that it was not like one of these sects; that, in contrast to the other socialist organisations consisting of more than a handful of members, it seemed to have a genuinely democratic and free-thinking culture.
I am now questioning why I joined. I am not pleased, in the slightest, with the policies decided on at the conference or, perhaps more importantly, the underlying themes and motives of these policies. The first of these, as you may be anticipating, is the response to Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader. I was not there when this was discussed, which may have been for the best, since I would certainly have needed a ‘safe space’ so as not to be mortally offended by all the reformism. But I knew - and I think everyone else did too - what the decision was going to be. Left Unity is indeed going to become a Corbynite echo chamber.
Apparently, the party is now going to stop running in elections, so that it can concentrate all its efforts on supporting Corbyn and thus telling us all that next time it will be different and the workers will not be screwed over like they were under every single social democratic government in history. Well, I love the ‘not running in elections’ part, but … seriously. I do not want to argue against supporting Corbyn here, because I have already done that, but Left Unity needs to get its collective head out of the sand and stop wasting its decent culture and organisation on supporting social democrats who are never ever going to deliver on their own meagre promises, let alone take any step towards socialism. It would be much more productive to engage in grassroots activism and make the argument that elections are futile and meaningless. But that would be too ultra-left, wouldn’t it?
This leads into the other big problem I had, and I think this issue is also something about which I have previously written. The fact that it seems to recur, from my experience, in leftwing organisations and events of every stripe indicates that it is something of a conundrum for the entire left. I am talking about ideologically driven criticism. The main instance of this was during a debate over the organisation of Left Unity and whether it should be more centralised. As I kept saying in exultation afterwards, I had never felt more Bolshevik than I did during that debate. The chief problem the advocates of decentralisation seemed to have with the idea of centralising Left Unity more was that it resembled the Leninist (what a terrifying word) strategy of democratic centralism too much.
This is a ridiculous argument. Obviously centralisation can go awry if central organs are not democratically controlled, but we were merely proposing making Left Unity less of a sprawling bureaucracy, not putting it under some kind of Stalinist management. Nor were we idolising Leninist strategy, as some other groups do: Lenin just happened to be right about a few things, and we should not be afraid to learn from these things because they may conflict with an image of ‘doing politics differently’.
A similar thing happened during the debate on Left Unity’s European Union referendum policy. I am relatively pleased that the decision was made to campaign for an ‘in’ vote, because I doubt how effective a boycott of the referendum would have been and think a campaign oriented around the working class case for staying in the EU, as opposed to caving in to the overt xenophobia of the ‘out’ campaign, but I do think it is extremely important to clarify that our case for ‘in’ is entirely different from that of the bourgeois parties, that we do not ‘like’ the EU and that, yes, our end goal is socialism. An amendment which would have gone some way towards doing this was rejected on the grounds that it was “just adding the word ‘socialism’” to our position. And why exactly is this a bad thing? Is this not ‘doing politics differently’ either? In both of the cases I mentioned, ideas were rejected on the grounds of completely immaterial objections, and these immaterial objections led to completely wrong decisions being made, which is quite worrying. Then again, supporting social democrats is nothing new; this is not ‘doing politics differently’. So it seems that being different and modern only matters when an excuse to dilute the socialism of the party is needed. That does not bode well.
In conclusion, last weekend’s conference was not bad, but a lot of things disheartened me and made me question, multiple times, whether I should just quit the party and find an organisation in which I would not feel like an ultra-leftist for supporting actual socialist ideas. This would be hard to do, though, because pretty much every other socialist organisation has a horrible internal culture, is stuck in the past, or both.
Left Unity’s lack of these things means it has a lot of potential: it just needs to realise it. Which, I’m afraid, it has not really done yet.