Left unity: Anti-sectarian sectarianism
Left Unity began badly, with existing left groups barred from attending, even as observers. Tina Becker reports on the May 11 national meeting
About 100 people attended the first national gathering of Left Unity on May 11 in London’s Ambassador Hotel. The meeting certainly succeeded in its conscious aim to be different from the various other left unity projects that have emerged over the last 15 years or so - the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, etc. No one organisation or group of people dominated proceedings; opposing views were heard; plenty of time was allocated to air arguments and on a number of occasions the conference (or “internal meeting”, as Kate Hudson insisted in an exchange with the CPGB1) voted against the wishes of the ‘interim steering committee’ that had convened the gathering.
That is to put a positive spin on things. A very positive one. In reality, in terms of moving the organisation forward (clarifying its politics, for example), the day was a bit of a shambles. Left Unity is totally underorganised and underprepared.
Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin (important driving forces) would have liked the proceedings to have gone differently. After all, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect - organisations both comrades were prominent in - were far more choreographed. But, ironically, bureaucratic coherence in fronts like these was provided by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party, part of the organised left to which LU is to a great extent a reaction. The politically decrepit Socialist Resistance - the one ‘insider’ group - is no substitute.
The proposed political platform written by Kate Hudson was circulated three days before; a proposal for the electoral procedure to the national coordination committee was sent out 20 hours before; the chairs seem to have been pre-chosen on the basis that they had no previous experience of handling big meetings (one chair was actually introduced as someone who had “never attended a political meeting before”). No wonder that quite a few times people in the room (the chairs included) did not actually know what exactly they were voting on. It was pretty chaotic, in other words.
This was also reflected in the rather uneven attendance. Local groups were supposed to send two delegates each, but where more people expressed an interest in coming, they were advised by the interim leadership to simply divide their group into smaller parts. For example, Manchester comrades - all sitting together in the same meeting, in the same room - selected five delegates from different parts of the city. Elsewhere, groups had not even met yet. Andrew Burgin admitted that about half of the “90 or 100” local groups exist only in so far as one person had volunteered to be the local contact. So the reality was that pretty much anybody who wanted to come could do so.
Unless, of course, you happened to be a representative of a political organisation. The interim organising committee had decided to bar existing groups from even sending observers - apart from a representative of the Red-Green Alliance from Denmark, who showed up halfway through the meeting. Obviously it would have been a little harsh to send this poor comrade packing after he had made such a long journey, presumably on a well-informed hunch.
Nevertheless, the organised British left was there, of course. Apart from two CPGB members, I identified about four Workers Power comrades, six from Socialist Resistance, one from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and two members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The ‘less organised left’ was there too: about half a dozen each from the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and Richard Seymour’s International Socialist Network. While the ACI was led by ex-Workers Power member Simon Hardy, no leading member of the ISN was present. Those ISN members who did attend did not seem to have a clear idea of what they were doing there.
There were also a fair number of people I had not seen since the Socialist Alliance days: Will McMahon, Pete McLaren, Dave Church, etc. The rest (probably the majority of attendees) struck me either as having not been in anything before or those who had been burned - some singed, some third degree - by the organised left in one form or another.
Banning the groups?
In fact, the question of what role political organisations should play dominated the conference from the start. In the first and longest session of the day (which was billed “local report-backs”) it became clear that most local groups had only just been formed, so there was not a great deal to report. People used the opportunity to talk about the relationship between the LU and the existing left - or, more precisely, how to keep the buggers out. There was a distinct air of anti-sectarian sectarianism about the proceedings, with many arguing for “safeguards” against an SWP or SPEW takeover.
One ex-SWP member suggested that new members should be “vetted” to make sure they are “serious” about LU. Another ex-SWP comrade, Tom Walker, stated that “we can’t stop them from joining, but we can stop them from trying to split LU or recruit to their own organisations” (though he did not elaborate on how that could be done). Worse, I have been told that there are local LU branches that have banned SWP members. Though there have been reports that in other parts of the country SWP and SPEW members have been attending.
I would guess that about half of those present were implacably against any involvement of the organised left in any form. The other, more sensible, half, however, at least recognised that “we can’t pretend that the rest of the left doesn’t exist; we can’t just go around them”, as it was put. One comrade ironically asked: “So let me get this straight: we’re going to be the only non-sectarian group on the left? Don’t you think all the groups we criticise think exactly that of themselves, too?” Most of those people seem to agree that groups of like-minded people should be able to get together to form political platforms. I was surprised, actually, by how many people echoed this demand. However, without even a membership structure in place yet, this healthy sentiment could not be enshrined as a founding LU principle. The next national gathering in September will undoubtedly revisit the issue.
A number of comrades argued that ‘one member, one vote’ would be an effective guard against any one group taking the project over. This is an illusion. The SA and Respect organised on that basis and were dominated by the SWP. And why not, in one sense? SWP comrades were the majority - and majorities, like minorities, should have rights. OMOV could not prevent an organisation like the SWP dominating LU - unless the new initiative implements a regime of bans and proscriptions from its inception. And down that road lies madness - and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.
We argued for an individual membership structure. But we also urged an honest, open and active engagement with the existing left. Surely, the massive task of building an alternative to the capitalist system requires the unity of as much talent, energy, experience and commitment as we can muster - cadre, in other words.
Unfortunately, our proposal to “invite political organisations that are interested in building left unity to send one observer each to the newly set up national coordination committee” was defeated, with only Workers Power, ACI and a few individuals supporting the amendment (the two SPEW members voted against it, while Nick Wrack abstained). The motion got a relatively decent 19 votes.
Workers Power also pushed for political organisations to be allowed to affiliate, though it did not concretise this in a motion and no-one seemed to support the idea anyway. One of the SPEW members bravely called for a federal structure. I spoke to the comrade later and it became clear that he had not been sent there by his organisation, but just happened to be involved in LU locally and thought a federal structure would be “a good idea”. Needless to say, his suggestion went down like a lead balloon.
Kate Hudson’s statement was intended to “clarify our politics”. Undoubtedly, there is a real need for this. Apart from Ken Loach’s short appeal, LU has nothing approaching a political platform. Comrade Hudson’s statement clarified little, unfortunately. Or, as comrade Carmen from Manchester put it, “I like the fact that the statement is so broad. Everybody can interpret it any way they like.” Which is actually a problem, rather than a strength.
Despite its vacuous nature, the statement sparked controversy even in the non-elected interim committee. Without the time to thrash things out, the committee nonetheless decided to circulate it to members and local groups for discussion. Most LU signatories did not see it before Wednesday May 8 - three days before conference. So there was no time to discuss it in any detail (or at all). A few groups managed it and 20-odd amendments from a handful of them had been sent in, but these were only distributed on the morning of conference.
Correctly recognising the “democratic deficit” of this process, comrade Nick Wrack moved a procedural motion to the effect that the meeting should not vote on the statement (and the various amendments to it). After a long debate, his motion won a relatively strong 51 for, with 36 against and 12 abstentions. Good stuff. The statement was pretty awful and would have required major surgery. There was neither the time nor the political will at this gathering. Strangely though, Workers Power voted against the procedural motion. Leading member Richard Brenner berated us: “While we’re spending hours discussing the process here, the Tories are dismantling the welfare state.” (One can only wonder how impatient this ‘Bolshevik’ comrade would have been with the months and years the Russian Marxists spent on programmatic discussions while the tsar was being generally rather unpleasant to workers and peasants.)
Apart from having the ‘no vote’ motion go against them, comrades Hudson, Burgin and their supporters in Socialist Resistance must have been especially annoyed to spot Ken Loach, no less, raising his hand for the motion. Immediately following the vote, he gave a brief speech, which he opened with the sentence, “It’s really great to see democracy in action”.
His speech was a little confused, but it stood in contrast to some of what was on offer. We should not be afraid to use leftwing terms, he said (one ex-SWP member had said that we should not use “left language, as people don’t understand it. I was a member of the SWP for years and I don’t understand it” - that’s the SWP for you, comrade, not the language). Comrade Loach argued that we should openly fight against capitalism, for a planned economy and for socialism: “We don’t want a social democratic party, we don’t just want to pull Miliband a little bit to the left.”
I am reliably informed that his speech was a conscious dig at Hudson’s soft statement on the one hand and Socialist Resistance on the other - the latter had actually been arguing against LU becoming a socialist organisation. Hudson and Burgin were obviously not happy bunnies: they sat stony-faced through Loach’s speech, not laughing when others did and clapping him rather limply when there really was no alternative.
Originally, the plan was to have 50 members elected directly to a national coordinating committee at the May 11 gathering. But this proved controversial on the interim committee, so the day before it was announced that local groups should send one delegate each to the new body and another 10 should be elected at the conference. I have already mentioned that our amendment - calling for an additional point 4, allowing for groups to send observers to the committee - was defeated, but there was another controversy around Point 3: “At least 50% of the 10 people on the NCC elected today should be made up of women.” Soraya Lawrence, a member of the interim committee, argued against “such bureaucratic measures” and moved to delete the point. In the end, we in the CPGB were among the 20 who voted for deletion.
It would have been much better to seriously discuss how to involve more women in politics. On a practical level, a crèche at conference, for example, would have been a nice touch.
The 10 members directly elected at conference were: Andrew Burgin, Terry Conway, Merry Cross, Felicity Dowling, Guy Harper, Kate Hudson, Chris Hurley, Salman Shaheen, Bianca Todd and Tom Walker.