End the farce
Surely it is time to join the fight to transform the Labour Party, writes Peter Manson
On June 16 Left Unity held its fifth annual conference, but it is pretty clear that the organisation is on its last legs. Just a couple of dozen comrades turned up at an event where every member is entitled to attend and cast their vote.
What a contrast to the first conference, held in November 2013, where around 450 comrades were present, and by early 2014 LU had over 2,000 members. Although the main far-left groups - namely the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales - declined to participate, a number of others, including the CPGB, did (there were no restrictions on such dual membership). Nevertheless, the majority of LU members were unattached - a good number were disillusioned former members of one or another of the left groups, who were now looking for a home.
At that time, the majority of such comrades did not even consider joining the Labour Party. While some might have accepted that Labour remained a bourgeois workers’ party, since the days of Tony Blair it looked to most like an organisation that would forever be controlled by the pro-capitalist right. Ed Miliband was marginally to Blair’s left, who had not quite managed to transform Labour into a bourgeois party pure and simple, but he was definitely regarded by most such comrades as a warmonger and trusted member of the capitalist establishment.
It was against this background that leftwing film director Ken Loach, along with Kate Hudson and Gilbert Achcar, wrote the article, ‘The Labour Party has failed us. We need a new party of the left’ (March 25 2013), which is still available on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ website.1
Almost immediately comrade Hudson - until 2011 a member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and still a leading figure in both the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Stop The War Coalition - issued, alongside Andrew Burgin (who, like comrade Hudson, had been a member of various left groups and campaigns), an appeal for left unity (lower case) within a new leftwing party.2
Needless to say, the basis of such a new party was hardly that of Marxism and socialist principle. It harked back to the “spirit of 45”, when we saw “the post-war generation transforming the lives of ordinary people by bringing improved health, housing, education and social security to the people of Britain”. The following sentence made the proposed new party’s limitations clear: “We need to defend these achievements and continue the tradition of protecting the most vulnerable in society.”
Nevertheless, we in the CPGB welcomed this development. As we wrote at the time,
... the revolutionary left should seek to actively involve itself in any unity process. Not unity for the sake of unity, but with the aim of winning the argument for a Communist Party armed with a Marxist programme
…. We support left unity as a step towards a Communist Party.3
The following week, we set out more precisely what the left should be fighting for within any new party:
Firstly, the resulting organisation must take the Labour Party seriously. We all know that its leadership is rightwing and detestable. But it is also organically connected to the trade unions and other mass organisations of the working class.
Secondly, the existing far left must, equally, be taken seriously. The squabbling sects of which it is comprised may not have the institutional heft of Labour, but contain in their ranks the necessary raw material for building any new organisation from scratch. Left unity requires a battle against the bureaucratic sect regimes that currently perpetuate our divisions - not trying to ignore them.4
In other words, right from the beginning, we were putting forward something rather different from the majority. Not just the need for a single Marxist party, but the medium-term aim of transforming Labour into a genuinely working class formation. We were adamant that Labour was still a bourgeois workers’ party, within which there was still a battle to be fought.
Of course, we had no idea what was to happen within two years - the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, thanks to the actions of the rightwing “morons” in the Parliamentary Labour Party. They nominated him as a leadership candidate for the sake of appearances, never believing for a second that he would have the remotest chance of winning.
But we took our place within the new formation, which adopted the name, Left Unity, at its founding conference on November 30 2013. As we suspected, the agreed platform was hardly radical. It aimed for a party that “stands for equality and justice”, reducing the political significance of classto one among a number of parallel ‘discriminations’ and of socialism to one among a number of parallel ‘visions’.
What was more important than socialist principle for an influential section of the membership was the politics of intersectionality, identity and ‘safer spaces’. Right from the beginning this section had a totally different vision of a left party to anything that had previously existed. But it was unable to force through its aims and even today appendix 1 of the LU constitution (headed ‘Safer spaces policy’) reads in its entirety: “Still in process of drafting”.5
However, as we wrote at the time, there were no bans and proscriptions, and so “Marxists, communists and revolutionary socialists have the possibility of openly organising and openly campaigning for their views.”6
You might have thought that, with Corbyn’s election in September 2015, there would have been a substantial rethink among the LU leadership. After all, Left Unity had been founded specifically on the basis that “The Labour Party has failed”.
But at its November 21-22 conference comrades Hudson and Burgin - respectively national secretary and treasurer - put forward a motion that was basically ‘business as usual’. It began with a routine welcome for Corbyn’s “landslide victory”, and made the well founded claim that this “opens a new period of class struggle”. But, faced with what they described as an “historic opportunity”, comrades Hudson and Burgin merely proposed to cooperate with the development of Momentum, organise another talking shop conference in a few months time and “reassess our electoral strategy” the following year.
But elsewhere among the leadership the attitude was precisely the opposite. Principal speakers Pete Green and Salman Shaheen and media officer Tom Walker were among those proposing to “dissolve” Left Unity “as a political party” and reconstitute it as a loose “network”, working mainly, but not exclusively, within the Labour Party.
For our part, we proposed a motion whereby LU would continue to exist as a party, but with the aim of “transforming the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism”. Labour must become the “umbrella organisation for all trade unions, socialist groups and pro-working class partisans” and towards this end we called on Left Unity to “demand the complete elimination of all undemocratic bans and proscriptions” and seek affiliation to Labour.
Unfortunately, however, it was the Hudson-Burgin motion that was carried, while our motion won the support of just a couple of dozen comrades. Meanwhile the dissolution motion won precisely 10 votes, provoking the immediate resignation from LU of comrade Shaheen, who was subsequently joined by other leading figures.
In her report as national secretary, Kate Hudson paid lip service to the need to “change the context in which we work” as a result of Corbyn’s victory. But, apart from defending him against the right and cooperating with the movement to support him, particularly within Momentum, it seemed it was a case of business as usual and building Left Unity on virtually identical politics to those of Corbyn.
For his part, comrade Burgin admitted that LU shared “many of the policies” of Corbyn, but, he asked, “what can be achieved by Labour”, which remains dominated by the right? “Even if the Labour Party returns to social democracy”, it will have many “differences with the radical left”. So basically we should just carry on as before. A number of comrades hoped that when Corbyn “predictably falls” there will be a mass influx into Left Unity. Dream on!
We in the CPGB decided to continue the fight in Left Unity for the time being, but when a few months later the LU national council voted to stand candidates against Labour in the forthcoming local elections and rejected our call for an emergency national conference dedicated exclusively to the Labour debate, this was the last straw.
Of course, we were far from the only ones who gave up on LU - the vast majority of unattached comrades either drifted away or actively resigned, so as to play their part in the battle within the Labour Party. I do not know what LU’s real membership is now, but it is certainly just a tiny fraction of the 2,000 it once boasted.
If the list of motions before the June 16 2018 national conference is anything to go by, it is still a case of ‘as you were’ - as though nothing at all had happened in Britain’s bourgeois workers’ party. The one motion that referred to Labour was moved by Dave Landau and Pete McLaren. This condemned the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, opposed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism and called on LU to hold “public meetings about the struggle to defend Corbyn from false accusations, to oppose anti-Semitism, including an understanding that anti-Semitism can impact on the left and campaigning for Palestinian rights.”
The motion was passed - but only after an amendment was agreed which deleted “to defend Corbyn from false allegations”! This had the effect of skewing the original motion to such an extent that it almost appeared to be siding with the Labour right.
Well, Left Unity still exists - just about - but it is now completely and utterly irrelevant. The remaining members should follow the lead of the vast majority of their former comrades - join the fight where it really matters!
3. ‘Loach makes his bid for unity’ Weekly Worker March 28 2013.
4. ‘Realise potential, avoid pitfalls’ Weekly Worker April 4 2013.
6. ‘Plans for the hard left’ Weekly Worker December 12 2013.