Left Unity: Well-meaning naivety
Robert Hayes reports on the Manchester policy conference
The September 28 Left Unity policy conference at Friend’s Meeting House in Manchester was attended by around 100 comrades - which was good, considering many members felt that having a discussion on the policy of a new party before its founding conference was putting the cart before the horse.
The day was split up into three sections, within which there were parallel sessions; the three sessions I attended throughout the day were on the economy, electoral strategy, and the future party’s constitution.
Over the course of the conference I noted the well-meaning, confused naivety on display and witnessed the disheartening spectacle of the extremely bureaucratic ‘safe spaces’ policy in action. However, I also saw the majority of female speakers opposing the artificial promotion of women to senior positions in the future party through positive discrimination. Whilst the conference was more of a talking shop than anything else, it did motivate people and allowed comrades to debate face to face rather than via the internet.
Nice and safe
The first session I attended was a discussion on the economy, co-chaired by Peter Green and Salman Shaheen. Unlike the other sessions, this one was divided into two parts, but I only stuck around for the first of them, as I wanted to make the session on electoral strategy. The economy session had around 40 people in attendance and began with a quick history of Britain’s economy since 1945 (when I say ‘quick’, I mean 68 years of economic history compressed into a five-minute introduction). The economy commission has published a document asserting that the past 30 years of neoliberalism have favoured the 1%, against the interests of the 99%, whilst prior to this the Keynesian approach of successive governments from 1945 till around the early 1980s amounted to simply managing capitalism - presumably in a more neutral way.
In one sense the commission report is to be commended, in that it recognises “the limits of Keynesian attempts to simply boost demand” as a way of resolving economic crises, but it went on to call for “radical supply-side measures, which will shift resources away from the 1%”. Simultaneously it advocated “planned production for need, not profit”, contextualised in an economic system which is “based on the principles of democracy”. So, on the one hand, there is the hankering after the social democratic consensus of old; on the other, hints of a new mode of production/social organisation.
About 30 minutes into the session a man called Andrew entered the room, with Bianca Todd of the national coordinating committee in hot pursuit. She was insisting that Andrew leave the room, as there had been a “complaint” made against him and he was consequently in breach of the ‘safe spaces’ policy. Andrew refused to leave and argued that a complaint had in fact been directed against Bianca herself. The cameras recording the session were quickly turned off and it was only after co-chair Salman explained that all chairs had been given prior warning not to allow Andrew into any of the sessions that he finally left. When one woman asked why he was not allowed in, Salman told her that he did not know the specifics of the complaint and that anyone who was concerned should speak to Bianca.
Once the interruption had been dealt with, and comrade Green had finished reading out the economy commission report, the floor was opened up for a general discussion about what should be included in the document. At least one third of those who contributed to the debate described themselves as Marxists, which caused Peter to guffaw every time. When one woman mentioned the phrase “class-consciousness” he looked to the sky in exasperation. One would have thought that someone who used to be a Socialist Workers Party member would be less hostile to revolutionary ideas. Sadly, tolerance is a virtue Peter appears to lack and his condescending outbursts whenever someone voiced support for Marxist theory no doubt made many Marxists present feel uncomfortable - I even considered challenging his attitude as a contravention of the ‘safe spaces’ policy!
Left Unity needs to accept it is inevitable that people will fall out when discussing politics. It is almost guaranteed that people will have differences and that these divisions will not always take the form of polite conversation, but I would suggest that we on the left are used to being offended. I know that I can be quite blunt myself, to which some people take offence, despite the fact that the last thing I want is to upset them. I dare say the majority of offence which is caused through discussing politics is accidental and the type of response outlined in the ‘space spaces’ document is not just disproportionate, but totally counterproductive.
There were several positive contributions to the commission’s report, with calls for an end to the mindset that capitalism is natural, the replacement of capitalism with socialism and cooperation with Marxists to achieve that. On the other hand, there was the demand for international action to prevent capital from fleeing the UK, and calls for tax reform and a maximum wage. One comrade felt that the inclusion of the phrase “democratically planned production” in the commission’s report sounded too Sovietesque. Another thought that the “left sects” were trying to impose “their brand of socialism” on the project (this followed a contribution from a comrade who declared that she was from the International Bolshevik Tendency). Overall, however, the discussion was better than I had expected.
Due to the meeting’s late start and the interruption halfway through, it was felt that there was not enough time to discuss the draft tax policy and it was decided to carry it over to the next part of the session on the economy. After a quick glance at the draft policy statement I decided to give the discussion on whether the 50p tax band should be reintroduced a miss - likewise whether VAT should be cut to “the EU minimum of 15%” - and made my way to the session on elections.
Should we stand?
This meeting discussed how Left Unity should approach elections. On entering the room, I was surprised to see that Andrew was present - I guess the “complaint” against him must have been either resolved or dropped. This meeting panned out differently to the previous session.
The discussion began with a debate as to whether we should stand in the European elections. There was a feeling among those present that we should not consider doing so due to the £5,000 deposit needed to contest each region and the 2.5% vote share needed to retain said deposit. There was also a debate as to whether or not Left Unity should stand in local elections - what if we were compelled to either pass a cuts budget or else allow our councillors to suffer serious legal ramifications? I would say that the majority were in favour of standing in local elections, however - and most people seemed to think that Left Unity ought to field candidates in the 2015 general election, with due noises about concentrating resources on targeted seats.
I argued that as a party we should use elections as a platform to spread our socialist message, that Left Unity councillors should be prohibited from voting for a cuts budget and that as a rule of thumb we should only form an electoral pact with working class candidates who were explicitly anti-cuts, such as those from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Respect.
My contribution opened up major divisions, with some arguing that we should be prepared to make an electoral pact with the Greens, as well as leftwing Labour politicians such as John McDonnell. Some also argued that a Left Unity council should pass a cuts budget if it meant that not doing so would result in councillors breaking the law. Others are opposed to the very idea of revolution and clearly hope Left Unity will be an exclusively electoral party.
Ultimately an indicative vote showed that there was a narrow majority who opposed formulating electoral strategy before we even know what sort of party will be formed and what platform adopted.
The final session I attended was on the proposed constitution for the new party. Roughly 50-60 members attended this meeting and the debate was squeezed by the very tight schedule. Richard Murgatroyd chaired this session and after all three draft constitutions had been disseminated and a brief introduction as to what was going to be debated the discussion got underway.
The first issue debated was whether or not Left Unity should adopt a policy of ‘One member, one vote’ (Omov) when it comes to party conferences or whether it should be based on a delegate system. All three draft constitutions stated that Left Unity should operate on an Omov basis until the membership rises above 2,000. One comrade argued that Left Unity should operate on a delegate system as soon as possible, since Omov allows well organised minorities, wealthy members and “professional activists” to dominate the conference, which would not accurately reflect the wider membership politically. Those who spoke in favour of Omov said that it allowed political minorities to be heard, as conferences based on delegates would invariably lead to minority platforms not being properly represented.
Myself and several other ex-Greens (the Greens are the only significant electoral party in the UK which operates on an Omov system) warned those present just how exclusive and undemocratic Omov can be and I went on to argue that perhaps Left Unity should adopt a system which allocates each platform a certain number of delegates, depending on their support within the party, as well as delegates from local branches. Comrades literally gasped at this suggestion, with Richard laughing and saying some would certainly find that suggestion controversial. I have no idea why. Surely that would be the best way to operate a delegate system?
I can only assume that those people who are opposed to this way of organising think it will enable “the sects” to take over Left Unity. But surely platforms should be embraced as a way of allowing like-minded people to come together and organise. Surely the basic principle of allowing a minority the possibility of becoming the majority is a good thing? Surely comrades must be able to see that hostility towards platforms, and those members of Left Unity who are also in a sect, is tantamount to the same hostile regime they fear will be imposed on them if they allow the revolutionaries to organise? Thankfully it appeared, from the few contributions there was time to hear, that a good number of those present did not want Omov and preferred a delegate system (albeit without reserved places for platforms).
The other notable division was around positive discrimination for women, when it comes to electing the national committee. Two of the three draft constitutions argued that at least 50% of the NC should be female. One comrade pointed out that by insisting on having a leadership made up of at least 50% women you would invariably create a situation where over 50% of the committee was female. Two women responded with sarcastic comments like “Oh, well wouldn’t that be a shame?” But three other women argued against reserved places. One made an impassioned plea not to adopt a policy of positive discrimination, as it could undermine the role of women in the organisation by making any high positions they hold appear tokenistic. She went on to declare that she wanted to be in an organisation where men could sympathise with the struggle women face, which she believed would be the case if Left Unity becomes a truly socialist party. In that case you would not need women artificially elevated to senior positions to keep women’s issues on the agenda, as men would already be championing them.
She concluded by making the observation that, whilst there were only five women in the room, there were absolutely no black people at all, and if Left Unity insists on adopting a policy of positive discrimination in favour of women then they should also adopt a policy of positive discrimination in favour of members from ethnic minorities and the LGBT community.
Whilst I obviously disagree with the doomed attempts to create a fairer capitalism advocated by many, whilst I oppose the oppressive ‘safe spaces’ policy, the positive discrimination many comrades are calling for, the emphasise on electioneering and the views some express on whom we should make electoral pacts with, I recognise that at the moment LU provides a site for arguing for left unity on a principled basis. I am not a sectarian, which is why I am willing to engage seriously with Left Unity, whereas others have written it off before it has barely begun.
I know that the people involved in the organisation are sick of the status quo and want an alternative, however naive some of their ideas. We need to argue forcefully for the principles of working class rule and human emancipation espoused by Marxism, but we will never win the debate if we do not take Left Unity seriously. As Marx said in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered”.
Whilst the Left Unity policy conference was essentially a talking shop with a few indicative votes, it is important that the left engages with this initiative. Getting involved at such an early stage is important, as the project is currently very fluid in terms of ideology - which allows communists the opportunity to have a real impact if we organise effectively.