Sixty seconds and no politics
Launched in Nottingham, Transform is unlikely to set British politics alight. Carla Roberts reports on a truly bizarre event
Transform’s founding conference was one of the most bizarre political events I have ever attended. We were told that 6,300 people had signed up - which clearly has not translated into involvement. A mere 85 people travelled to Nottingham on November 25, while another 120 or so watched online (which soon dwindled down to just over 70). And yet, judging by some of the agenda items and speeches, you would have thought we were witnessing the birth of a mass party.
The conference started as boring as humanly possible, with a two-hour discussion of the draft constitution - and, as if that was not bad enough, it quickly transpired that the “10 core principles” were to be excluded. This is despite the fact that they are listed in the first section of the constitution and are, in the absence of anything else, the actual programme of this new organisation. This seems to have been decided by the interim steering committee (whose composition has not been publicised anywhere) without any kind of communication to supporters beforehand, which meant that, while plenty of amendments were submitted, they did not see the light of day.
To call these 10 points ‘principles’ is quite a stretch. They are supposed to sum up the so-called ‘things we all agree on’ and guarantee that this particular attempt to build yet another ‘broad left’ organisation is going to be super-popular, because there is nothing in it that anybody could possibly disagree with! Therefore, instead of using scary words like ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ - or indeed discussing how to get there - the self-declared socialists in the leadership have served up the usual sub-reformist hotchpotch of “climate justice”, “social justice” and “equality”. Take the first of the short points: “Transform is a left party, of and for the working class in all its diversity, seeking to redistribute wealth and power from the elite to the people.”1
This is the kind of Lassallean nonsense that Marx and Engels argued against at length, over 150 years ago. Surely those running Transform know very well it is not about ‘distribution’ of the profits stolen from the working class, but about the ownership of the means of production. But that is way too difficult to understand for the stupid working class, so let’s keep it light.
A couple of amendments sought to at least include references to socialism, but, alas, it is now up to the new executive committee to decide which amendments go in and which do not. Nobody quite seemed to know when the EC elections will take place - maybe before, maybe after Christmas. No doubt they will be held electronically, without any chance to question the candidates in any meaningful way (a kind of beauty contest).
To make matters worse, the interim steering committee decided that each amendment could be moved by a speech lasting no longer than a whopping 60 seconds! (One opposing speech was allowed to continue for another measly minute.) By the time people worked out where exactly in the constitution we were, it was time to vote. It is extraordinary that nobody in the admittedly small audience protested against these ridiculous standing orders or the fact that the actual politics were not even up for discussion.
There were a number of potentially interesting amendments, but there was just no time to develop any kind of serious discussion. For example, the draft constitution already allows for “national parties” to be formed in Wales and Scotland, “creating their own party structures and policies” - but a raft of amendments from Wales wanted to see that “members in Cymru and Scotland will separately consider how to take forward Transform aims and principles in their countries” and “produce their organisational constitutions and have autonomy over all policy, strategic and operational decisions and actions”. Basically, form entirely different organisations. Now what exactly would be the point of that? The amendments were quite rightly defeated - leading to a handful of people walking out in a huff.
Another amendment wanted to add the position of a directly elected ‘leader’. This was put forward by Charles James, a vocal supporter of the Breakthrough Party. He argued that, particularly “in a crisis”, you just need to be able to “move quickly” and “leave things to one person and not a committee”. The reason that “Left Unity has seriously stagnated in the last few years” was the fact that it was run by a committee. “But the Breakthrough Party has grown from zero to just under 1,000 members in less than two years - because of its leader.”
What nonsense. Breakthrough leader Alex Mays actually had a fan club of about 15 people with him, who whooped noisily whenever his name was mentioned or when he delivered his underwhelming and delusional closing speech. “Polling shows that 61% want a new party and we have to build it”, he said. “We will build a radical blueprint for the world we want to live in. Join us and be part of the change you want to see.” You get the drift - build it and the masses will come (no programme or transparency needed). Well, the fact that of the 1,000 alleged members Breakthrough managed to bring a mere 25 or so to Nottingham tells you all you need to know about the kind of ‘breakthrough’ it has achieved, politically or numerically. But at least this amendment was voted down.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a serious level of mistrust detectable - and not really of the healthy kind. Half a dozen of the amendments wanted to make sure, for example, that “current members” of the interim SC “may not stand for any national role within the first two years of the founding of Transform”; that “no person may serve for more than two consecutive terms without a two-year break”; that “delegates [to the national council] shall take instructions on how to vote at the NEC from their delegating bodies, and shall be responsible to their delegating bodies”; and that places on the national council “shall be declared vacant” if a member misses “three consecutive meetings”.2 No doubt, quite a few of these amendments come from people who have been burned by their experiences in this or that sect. But most of the proposals were based on technocratic controls of the leadership, rather than democratic transparency.
This is a constitution for a mass party, with dozens of directly elected officers, which will form the executive committee (much better to have a collective leadership body that decides on those positions among itself) and a national council made up of representatives from yet to be formed regional groups, national parties and reps from various caucuses based on “shared oppression”.
Like Left Unity, Transform also allows members to “organise in platforms of like-minded members within the party, to articulate a particular position”. However, they “must work publicly within the policy framework agreed by the party conference and national council”. This vague formulation leaves the leadership open to silence or censure dissenting voices.
Considering the speed with which the conference raced through the amendments, it was difficult to follow which ones were carried and which defeated. Only about one third of them were discussed, before the meeting then split into the obligatory working groups for an hour - as usual, they were being sold as ‘empowering’ the participants, when in reality they do exactly the opposite: without any positions agreed upon or even any feedback to the main meeting, they are designed to bamboozle participants into believing their ‘voices are heard’. Quite a few people, including myself, decided to give them a miss.
Conference then spent over an hour and a half discussing ‘How to win power’, which was like something from a parallel universe, considering how few people were there. Speaker after speaker outlined their particular hobby horse, local campaign or ‘community action’ that would likely inspire the masses to join Transform and “take the power”, to quote a few.
The main focus - for the rest of the day - was elections. There is clearly the hope that Transform could serve as an umbrella for the myriad of ‘independents’ standing in coming local and national elections.
Here Transform is currently in competition with Tusc, SPEW’s front campaign, which has been busy writing to each and every organisation on the left, “to ask you to discuss with us your plans for the next general election”.3
Tusc used to be part of Transform’s forerunner: it was one of five organisations invited by former Labour MP Thelma Walker to set up the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL) - an attempt to bring together some of the soft-left groups that were standing in elections on similar platforms. It also included the remnants of Left Unity, the Breakthrough Party, Chris Williamson’s Resist and the Northern Independence Party (NIP).
But things went sour pretty quickly. In May 2022, after about a year of monthly meetings held in secret, Tusc was thrown out, because it decided to allow George Galloway’s Workers’ Party observer status. PAL also threw out Williamson and Resist (which has since folded into the Workers’ Party).4 Soon after that, NIP left because it could not convince the other groups of its silly demand for “independence for the north”. Its founder, Phillip Proudfoot, has since left to join the Green Party!
Transform is, in reality, what is left of PAL - which was not very impressive in the first place. In other words, it is a merger of the Breakthrough Party and the rump Left Unity, plus a few assorted individuals like former Green Party councillor Romayne Phoenix, who gave a long and rambling speech about ‘climate justice’. Then there is Andrew Jordan, former national president of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. Comrade Jordan chaired a session, in which he announced that “Transform already has over 60 local groups” - but after a sceptical question from a delegate he had to clarify that “they are at very different stages of development and some of them exist on WhatsApp or Zoom”. I got the impression that quite a few of them consist of little more than a bloke in an attic.
Corbyn sit out
Left Unity has been hanging on by a thread ever since it decided to sit out the Corbyn movement in 2015. By fluke, it is still a member of the European Left Party, which is how LU’s Kate Hudson described her political affiliation on the previous (now deleted) version of Transform’s website. She, along with a few other LU ‘old timers’, gave the conference a miss for the sake of the pro-Palestine demonstration in London.
I did though spot the Mandelite LU veterans, Doug Thorpe and Joseph Healy, now members of Anticapitalist Resistance. In August, they published a rather sweet article about Transform, in which they predicted: “The launch of the party will be the point where we formulate policy beyond our 10 principles … One of our guiding principles is that the party will be democratic and bottom up from the beginning and that all of our policies won’t come from above.”5 Seeing that none of that happened, we are looking forward to their damning report!
To be fair, a few speakers said from the start that this launch might be somewhat premature and that Transform is unlikely to make any real impact at the next general election - it wants to be in place to hoover up people who will be disappointed with Keir Starmer as prime minister in a year or two. However, while things might indeed start moving politically then - especially if some of the bigger unions start rebelling against the Labour government’s inevitable ‘betrayal’ - it seems somewhat unlikely that any union leaders or substantial numbers of workers will join an organisation that is so lacking in any kind of coherent political outlook.