Left doesn't unite
Well-mannered and inoffensive - the Convention of the Left illustrated the problem the left faces, writes Chris Strafford
“It’s official - the left unites!” That is the bold claim made by the Convention of the Left in its September 22 bulletin. Those present agreed to the statement of intent that was developed by the CL organising committee. The declaration was put forward by John McDonnell MP and supported by Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob.
While the convention brought 300 or so people together in the same building, that, unfortunately, is not quite the same thing as the left uniting. The CL postponed any discussion on motions or decisions on actions, etc until the recall conference some time in November. We said that the CL would be a talking shop and we were right.
It is true that the convention did see some debate and it was organised in a way that was more open and inclusive than most left events. The problem, however, is that the so-called ‘20% that divides us’ was skirted around. It is only by tackling our differences head-on that we can hope to achieve real unity. And, of course, there is no intention on the part of the organisers to aim for that unity to take party form.
After the weekend the number of participants dropped considerably, yet sessions were reasonably well attended for weekday meetings. The CL made space for discussions on a wide range of issues, but what was missing, and indicative of how the majority of our movement approach unity, was the lack of time given over to assess what has gone wrong and how we are going to fix it. The view that if we stop arguing about what our disagreements are and just get on with working together on the basis of the ‘80% where we agree’, then everything will be fine. In reality it is a recipe for unprincipled lash-ups and inevitably splits further down the line.
Despite this lack of clarity the CL is seen by some as the start of a process to rebuild the base organs of our class. They hope that the spread of the CL across the country could begin to build up better coordination and confidence amongst the working class and its campaigns. For this to happen, it would need not only the full commitment of the main left groups, but the drawing in of thousands of others. Neither of those things are about to happen - the Socialist Workers Party and Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain have hardly thrown themselves into the CL, while the Socialist Party stayed away altogether.
A more likely scenario will be the holding of a few poorly attended local conventions, set up by comrades who might have or might not have participated in the Manchester convention. A recall conference will hardly be a mass event and will perhaps be even less representative of our movement. It would certainly lack the organisational clout needed to move it forward, given that nobody involved at the top is even aiming for a principled Marxist party.
The CL ended on September 24 with a session entitled ‘Question time of the left’. The panel was made up of an ‘official communist’, the CPB’s Robert Griffiths, Mark Serwotka, the shibboleth-dropping Lindsey German of the SWP, left nationalist Colin Fox (Scottish Socialist Party), the left’s favourite Green, Derek Wall, the ever-present John McDonnell MP and left liberal Hilary Wainwright (Red Pepper). Unfortunately George Galloway MP did not attend and was replaced by Manchester Respect member Clive Searle.
The whole affair was well-mannered, inoffensive and illustrated perfectly the problem the left faces. Everyone agreed on the need for better public services, a windfall tax and opposition to war. What no-one touched upon was the chronic failure of the left to come together in a single, democratic party of working class socialism. Just what went wrong with Respect, the SSP, the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Labour Party …? Why has the left shrunk even further into the political wilderness? Far from being the ‘historic moment’ that was claimed by some, CL ‘unity’ is built on such a fragile and superficial basis that it is destined, just like its forerunners, to fall at the first hurdle.
Apologetics versus solidarity
The CL hosted a debate between Campaign Iran and Hands Off the People of Iran on September 24 - though it took time to convince some on the organising committee that a session featuring two organisations with such different approaches would have anything at all going for it.
SWP member Naz Massoumi opened the meeting for Campaign Iran by outlining the continuing imperialist threats against Iran and the growing media offensive aimed at justifying a military strike. Comrade Massoumi declared that Iran was definitely not trying to develop nuclear weapons and was under threat because of its oil reserves.
He claimed that the “victories of the Iranian people” (he meant the establishment of the Islamic republic) constituted a massive blow against the US. What he did not discuss was how the 1979 revolution ended in counterrevolution which eventually resulted in the slaughter of thousands of leftwing militants. He repeated the tired old argument that any criticism of the Iranian regime at the moment is tantamount to aiding the imperialists as they prepare for war.
Chris Strafford (Hopi and CPGB) responded by stressing the need for a twin-track approach - while imperialism poses the greatest threat to the Iranian people, the theocratic regime is no progressive force. It is essential to do all in our power to stop the drive to war, while simultaneously acting in solidarity with the working class and democratic movements in Iran in their struggle to defeat the theocracy.
Vicky Thompson (Hopi steering committee and Permanent Revolution) also emphasised that the greatest threat to the Iranian people is posed by US-led imperialism. She spoke about the developing movement of workers, students and women that is breathing fresh hope into the struggle against both imperialism and the Islamic republic.
The debate was sharp, with several comrades damning the SWP and Campaign Iran for its lack of solidarity with the Iranian working class and social movements. Peter Grant from Aslef spoke about how his union was internationalist and was committed to building links with workers across the globe as well as fighting the drive to war. Other comrades tried to get the meeting to take a vote on whether Hopi should be allowed to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition, but the chair refused point blank to allow this.
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