Left Unity: Policy put on hold
Dave Isaacson (Milton Keynes LU) and Michael Copestake (Sheffield LU) report from Left Unitys first national coordinating group meeting
It is now over a month since Left Unity held its first national meeting on May 11, which voted in favour of a launch conference for a new political party to take place in November this year. That national meeting also agreed to create a national coordinating group (NCG) to plan for and organise that conference and on June 15 the NCG met for the first time. Overall the meeting was a positive one which has moved LU forward and placed it on firmer democratic footings. However, the meeting did begin with controversy and disquiet regarding the actions of a group of NCG members.
The national meeting which voted the NCG into existence had agreed that the body would be composed of one delegate elected by each LU branch (36 local groups sent delegates on June 15) and 10 members elected at the national meeting. Observers from local groups were allowed to attend the NCG meeting, but in a vote it was decided by 19 votes to 13 that they would not have speaking rights.
In the week leading up to the first NCG, as documents for this meeting began to be circulated to delegates, it became apparent that the 10 members elected at the national meeting had already held two meetings. Other NCG members were not informed that these meetings were taking place, and no minutes were circulated until the week before the NCG, although various decisions of an executive nature were taken by this body. A number of us at the NCG meeting were keen to get some answers as to why and how this had happened, and reassurance that this committee within a committee would disband. Thankfully on the last point everybody, including the 10, were clear that there would be no further meetings of this nature.
Unfortunately, the agenda which we were presented with by the group of 10 provided no space to discuss these issues properly until the afternoon, when two last-minute motions on transparency (submitted by branches in response to hearing about this situation) were scheduled. Following a welcome from Doncaster LU and listening to a guest speaker from South Yorkshire Fire Brigades Union speak about cuts to the fire service, a challenge to the agenda was made by Will McMahon (Independent Socialist Network), who called for the motions on transparency to be discussed at the beginning of the meeting. Will explained that the group of 10 had no remit to make the many decisions they had taken.
The co-chair of the meeting, Tom Walker (International Socialist Network), expressed dismay that we might get bogged down in discussion of “procedure” and urged us to move on. Phil Hearse (Socialist Resistance) agreed with comrade Walker and said he was pleased that the group of 10 had got things done. Another SR member, James Youd of Cambridge LU, saw things very differently. His local branch had submitted one of the motions on transparency and he said that, while somebody had to act to convene the first NCG meeting, the group of 10 had clearly overstepped the mark. Dave Church (Walsall Democratic Labour Party) was also critical and insisted that we must learn the lessons of why other projects that have sought to bring the left together have failed if we want LU to succeed. An independent comrade remarked that, while he shared the concerns people had raised, he thought we should leave further discussion of the matter until later on the agenda. When a vote was taken to resolve the issue, the challenge to the agenda was defeated. Comrade Church walked out of the meeting at this point, presumably in frustration.
We then moved on to a discussion of the principal task set the NCG by the May 11 national meeting - that of organising a launch conference for November this year. A draft timeline, setting out a framework for discussion between now and November and a basic outline of the nature of the conference - who can attend, what discussion will be focused on, etc - had been drafted by Kate Hudson and approved by the rest of the group of 10. Another decision that the national meeting had mandated the NCG to put in place was a call for the development of policy commissions. In Kate’s draft timeline the ideas of the policy commissions and the launch conference were brought together, so that the policy commissions would be the focus of discussion leading up to the conference and they would produce motions on the various policy areas which would then be debated at conference.
There were lots of problems with this proposal. Firstly, its grand scope, with policy commissions covering almost every area that would be in a general election manifesto, was felt by many delegates to be overly ambitious and unrealistic at this stage in LU’s development. Others questioned why it looked to be geared towards standing in elections, when no decision had been made to do so. An amendment from Hackney Left Unity sought to shift the focus of the conference onto deciding on a general policy statement, democratic structures, membership issues, and issues related to ongoing or imminent campaigns. While the policy commissions would still be launched, their work would be more long-term, running beyond the November conference, possibly to feed into a weekend-long policy conference in 2014. After a long discussion the Hackney amendment was passed unanimously.
As well as being more realistic, such an approach will hopefully allow us to see the wood from the trees in debating what LU stands for. While the policy commission approach would have ensured lots of issues were covered, they would all have been decided upon in isolation from each other. Amongst all the policy commission headings proposed, none would have allowed for a direct consideration of where we stand in response to the totality of capitalist rule and what alternative we advocate. Chris Strafford (Anti-Capitalist Initiative) correctly remarked that we needed to decide what sort of society we wanted before we could plot out how to get there.
Another argument against Kate Hudson’s original proposal, expressed by Nick Wrack (Independent Socialist Network), was that basing conference proceedings on the output of policy commissions also lent undue bias to ‘experts’ and those with lots of time on their hands, as opposed to centring discussion on local branches, where there would be higher levels of participation. Comrade Hudson’s proposal was rather eerily reminiscent of the way motions make their way to Labour Party conference via commissions and a national policy forum - a process consciously designed to take the agenda away from the membership and their branches and keep power in the hands of the bureaucrats.
Comrade Wrack submitted two amendments intended to make the process more democratic. Firstly, that branches must be able to submit motions themselves, not just amendments to what emerged from the policy commissions. This was passed unanimously. Secondly, that political platforms and other groups of individual members should be able to submit motions that had the support of at least 10 members. This proved more controversial, with some arguing that this gave rights to, or encouraged, factions - which of course, is the last thing we would want! Once the dreaded f-word had been bandied about, we feared this amendment would fall on that basis alone. It was a positive sign that this fear was misplaced and the amendment was passed by 27 votes to 14. With these amendments, and other more minor ones, in place, the meeting really had moved in a productive fashion to arrive at an outline plan for a conference that was pretty much acceptable to all. The vote on the amended timeline was 37 votes for and none against, with three abstentions.
Then after listening to, and accepting, a proposal from a small production company to make a film about LU, and a lunch break, we eventually got round to discussing the motions on transparency. The first came from Cambridge LU and was moved by comrade Youd. He recalled that the May 11 national meeting had voted for the creation of one elected body - the NCG. The 10 took up a mandate they did not have by going off and making decisions which we were not party to, he argued. The motion stated that “all national committee members are to be treated as equal and that all national committee meetings should have their agenda circulated in advance and the minutes circulated after the meeting”.
This motion was discussed together with one from Southwark LU which read: “all minutes and documents from national meetings and committees to be posted on the Left Unity website, so that everyone can have access to the articles discussed, amended and passed, and see the decisions made.” Southwark’s motion was moved by Nick Wrack, who also accepted an amendment that minutes from LU’s various working groups also be published online. Some comrades worried that this might put sensitive information into the hands of “the enemies of Left Unity”. This is little more than a red herring. The only example of an “enemy” given - by Phil Hearse - was Andrew Murray of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. An amendment that sought to keep minutes in a password-protected area was defeated before both the Southwark and Cambridge motions were passed with overwhelming support. This certainly marks progress and begins to put LU on a firmer democratic footing.
Finally, there was a brief discussion of how to respond to an invitation from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition for talks. Nobody suggested that we should not meet Tusc, but some felt that we should wait until after the November conference. However, the majority thought there would be no harm in meeting earlier.
This report can only summarise the discussions and decisions made in a five-hour-long meeting. Hopefully the official minutes will soon be available on the LU website for all to examine. Further information can also be gleaned from Pete McLaren’s thorough report on the Independent Socialist Network website.1