Left Unity: Making a safe space for left ideas
Peter Manson reports on the official founding of the latest unity project
Up to 450 comrades turned up at the Royal National Hotel in central London for the founding conference of Left Unity. As we had predicted, the attempt to cram several days’ business into six hours left organisers with an impossible task. Nevertheless, given what the outcome was expected to be, communists should, by and large, be pleased with their efforts.
Despite the adoption of the eclectic Left Party Platform as the official aims of the new party, an important principle was established with the acceptance of an amendment stating that there should be no participation in capitalist governments (not that we expect LU to be offered such an opportunity any time soon).
More immediately significant was the removal of several undemocratic clauses from the proposed constitution - including the ban on internal caucuses campaigning against any of the aims and policies of Left Unity; the stipulation that meetings of such caucuses should be open to all members; and the replacement of the requirement for a two-thirds majority for constitutional changes by a simple majority. Finally, the notorious ‘safe spaces’ document was remitted - although not necessarily because most members want it ditched altogether.
As many commentators have noted, the afternoon session in particular, when the constitution was discussed, was a totally frustrating experience. But that was because the internal democracy and constitution commission (IDCC) had come up with an absurdly long and detailed document that took up a full 18 pages of closely typed provisions. On top of that there were several dozen amendments. What was needed instead was a few simple paragraphs outlining some basic provisions, and not, as Sean Thompson of the IDCC described it, “an instruction manual on how we run our organisation”.
The resulting four hours of purgatory meant that the necessary politics was all but squeezed out. For example, the presenters of the rival political platforms, which were to determine the new organisation’s political aims, were given a mere three minutes each to explain why their proposals were better than the others. The standing orders committee then allowed a generous two minutes each for no fewer than eight speakers from the floor chosen at random, who were free to say (literally) a couple of sentences about any or all of the six contenders. Comrades, that is no way to conduct a serious political debate.
To say that is not to accuse the organisers of malevolent or anti-democratic intentions. Far from it - they were clearly well-intentioned. But their political weaknesses found reflection in the organisational ‘solutions’ they came up with.
So, for instance, when ‘safe spaces’ came to be proposed by former Liverpool Militant councillor Felicity Dowling, there was no provision for anyone to speak against. We could either agree to all seven pages of intricate procedures to ‘protect’ women, ethnic minorities, gay and disabled comrades - take it or leave it - or remit the document without any further speeches for or against.
Comrade Dowling had evidently taken on board some of the criticisms when she assured us that she was for “robust, open debate”. However, we will “not accept abuse”, she said. The problem is, of course, that one person’s ‘abuse’ is another’s “robust” criticism - insults are often ‘in the eyes of the beholder’. She declared: “We want unity and solidarity”, rather than leaving “the individual member to fight this on their own”. What she meant by “this” was made clear when she explained that “violence against women is at an epidemic level” - they are threatened by “murder, domestic violence and hate crimes”. So obviously we have to do something to make them ‘safe’ within our own organisation.
After comrade Dowling had finished, Liz Davies, the chair, called for the vote to be taken straightaway. Unsurprisingly, this provoked protests, as nobody had been called who wanted the document remitted, let alone opposed the whole thing. “Go to the standing orders committee,” was comrade Davies’s initial reaction, but eventually, when the protests continued, she allowed Ruth Cashman of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty one minute to move for remission. But that one minute was enough - there was an overwhelming vote for ‘safe spaces’ to be referred back. This was followed by another contentious issue - a move to allow conference to elect a national coordinating group rather than permitting the current NCG to continue until the policy conference next spring. “We must be seen to be democratic,” said the Leamington Spa proposer. However, there was an argument put by a speaker from Lambeth, who said it was not democratic to “vote for people you don’t know”. To be fair, she had a point: we had not been provided with personal or political details about any of the NCG members nor of any other comrade who might have wished to be part of it.
This was the first time that we had to endure the long-winded voting procedure: it seemed to take around 10 minutes for every vote to be counted. But in the end the motion was clearly defeated - by 110 to 228.
The next item on the agenda was the decision on which platform(s) to adopt - it was theoretically possible for two or more to be voted through, since there was to be a straight ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote on each one. But first we had Richard Murgatroyd for the internal democracy commission, who moved a set of aims and urged us to “vote for this instead of any of the platforms”, which, he said, had “falsely polarised opinion” and were therefore “divisive”.
These aims included the call for “a democratically planned economy that is environmentally sustainable, within which all enterprises, whether privately owned, cooperatives or under public ownership, operate in ways that promote the needs of the people and wider society”. In other words, a ‘mixed economy’. It is not as though the IDC was talking about the economy inherited by a workers’ state immediately after a revolution. No, these were to be our “aims”, which were subsequently agreed, along with the LPP platform. However, Richard Brenner of Workers Power was incorrect when he later pointed out that the economy envisaged in these aims stood in flat contradiction to the Left Party Platform, with its call for a “democratic, planned economy”. Look again at the quotation above - the same, virtually identical phrase is contained in both documents.
Speaking of the LPP, we were once more treated to Felicity Dowling. The reason we need an “organisation of the working class”, she said in proposing this platform, is because we are “losing past gains”. We need to “reinstate free healthcare and education”. Not exactly inspiring.
Next we had none other than Ken Loach, whose appearance on BBC TV’s Question time back in March started the LU ball rolling. Speaking on behalf of Camden branch, he said that, while he agreed with the LPP “general statement” (just as he agreed with most of what was in the other platforms too), he felt it needed strengthening through the addition of “fundamental socialist principles”. The most important of these amendments was the statement: “We will not participate in governmental coalitions with capitalist parties at a local or national level.”
Simon Hardy from the Anti- Capitalist Initiative was speaking in favour of another amendment. But he took the opportunity to implicitly criticise the Communist Platform. He wanted to work in LU “alongside people who don’t agree with me as a revolutionary”, he said. That meant that, while he himself stands for a “classless, stateless society”, such an aim should not be contained in our platform, as it would be “too divisive”.
For the Socialist Platform, Nick Wrack correctly declared that if we want to “fight against austerity, for free healthcare”, etc, we must actually fight “against the system”. We need to “state from the beginning” that we are for a “new society” - socialism.
But Steve McSweeney of Workers Power, moving WP’s Class Struggle Platform, had a different take. He said that it was “too early to be conclusive on programme” - in other words, we should not adopt one. He criticised the SP for saying “nothing on the means of achieving socialism” - unlike the Class Struggle Platform, which proposes nothing but immediate, so-called ‘transitional’ demands, which will, apparently, spontaneously lead to workers organising for state power. Presumably it is only when the class starts to threaten in that way that we should try to win workers to our vision.
Jack Conrad for the Communist Platform said that the CP aims were “honest and straightforward”. He slated those who were “advocates of meaningless platitudes” and who dub us “fools” or “sectarians” for proposing the only ultimate alternative to class society (See ‘In praise of the Communist Platform’, opposite page).
We also heard from the anti-platform ‘Platform 9¾’ and from Steve Freeman, who was proposing his Republican Socialist Platform. Comrade Freeman used his speech to parade politics that could easily be mistaken for those of Scottish nationalism - “Another Scotland is possible,” read the slogan on his T-shirt.
In addition, a statement (“not a platform”, according to the mover) was proposed by Hackney and Tower Hamlets. It contained many eminently supportable demands, but its “internationalism” was partially defined by “fair trade” and its goal was “radical social transformation based on the principles of ‘people, not profit’ and drawing on the best of the cooperative, radical democratic, green and socialist traditions”. The Hackney speaker complained that the Weekly Worker had misrepresented this statement when we said that “Ed Miliband could probably sign up to all of it without much discomfort” (‘How to vote at conference’, November 28).
Comrade Davies then announced that she would take eight speakers from the floor, who could each have two minutes to say anything about any of the platforms or aims. These were to be chosen on the basis of “prioritising women, black and ethnic minorities, and disabled” - in other words, based on how you look, not the politics you hold. Once again a method that is unsatisfactory, to put it mildly.
It turned out that by chance almost all of those chosen at random spoke in favour of the LPP - including former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker (I am not sure what ‘oppressed’ category he belongs to), who waxed lyrical about the “historic day” we were witnessing and, like comrade Hardy, did not “want to be in a party with people who only agree with me”. There should be “no socialist entrance exam”, but a “broad party” with feminists, environmentalists, anarchists … Another comrade said that people were “not ready to come and listen to a lot of historic stuff”, while a further LPP supporter agreed: “People don’t want to feel they’re stupid” - which they would if we start talking about, say, 1917.
Because the first five speakers had all favoured the LPP, unsurprisingly there were complaints about the imbalance, leading comrade Davies to concede that she would take three extra, non-LPP, speakers afterwards. In fact seven of the initial eight supported the LPP.
As it happened, two of the three subsequent non-LPP speakers were supporters of the Communist Platform. One said that LPP supporters ought to have “more respect for people’s intelligence”. People were perfectly capable of understanding historical lessons. It was not sufficient to say we are anti-capitalist or even socialist, “because of Labourism, because of the USSR”. It was necessary to “define our socialism”.
Sarah McDonald of the CPGB pointed out that, although everybody was insisting that LU would “do things differently”, we were actually in danger of “making the same mistakes again”. Instead of adopting policies that a largely phantom right would find acceptable, we should “stand on our own politics, on Marxism”.
When it came to the vote, the IDC aims were declared clearly carried on a show of hands, while the Hackney and Tower Hamlets statement was agreed by 173 votes to 121, with 46 abstentions. The LPP received a huge total of 295 votes, with 101 people opposing and 12 abstaining, while the SP picked up 122 votes, with 216 against and 28 abstentions. The Republican and ‘9¾’ platforms were withdrawn, while those of the CP and Class Struggle were declared clearly defeated on a show of hands.
No-one could surely have envied comrade Tony Mercer as he took the chair for the afternoon session on the constitution, with its labyrinthine sections and clauses, together with numerous amendments - some accepted by the IDCC, some rejected.
After Sean Thompson had introduced this “instruction manual on how we run our organisation”, we began to wade through the proposed amendments. The IDCC had grouped them under particular themes rather than in section order, but, if anything, this made things even harder to follow, as we had to constantly page backwards and forwards to find the relevant clause.
Nick Rogers on behalf of West London and Haringey had two minutes to move the abolition of the two-thirds requirement to change the constitution, after which a comrade from the IDCC tried to persuade us that the constitution “shouldn’t be easy to change”. Why not? What happens if we get things wrong first time around? Thankfully, however, the proposal for a simple majority was voted through.
This was followed by a number of cameo debates, one after the other, interrupted by frequent long pauses, as comrade Mercer puzzled over the complexities and engaged in consultation with a member of standing orders. Leamington Spa moved deletion of the provision for 50:50 male-female representation on regional and national bodies. Arguments against the amendment and in favour of at least 50% of places being reserved for women during the subsequent eight minutes of “open discussion” included the notion that it is “very important this party feels different”.
Sarah McDonald was able to intervene for a second time. She proposed that leadership should be based on politics, on ideas. Yes, “underrepresentation is problematic,” she said, “but tokenism makes things worse” - she gave examples of the kind of patronising outcome that this produces from her experience in the Scottish Socialist Party. But this was the sort of argument that enraged Amina Mangera from Lewisham and Greenwich. She was “disgusted” at what she had heard, which was “no different from the Tories and the far right”. She demanded: “How dare you think it’s tokenism?” There were cheers and whoops in support of this rather irrational outburst and the amendment was clearly defeated.
In support of the Sheffield amendment calling for the removal of the clause restricting the rights of platforms or caucuses, Tina Becker from the CP made an excellent speech. She stated that we must be allowed to publicly state our differences, including over the party’s “overall aims and policy” - something the proposed constitution wanted to outlaw. An amendment from Hackney, calling for “and policy” to be deleted, had been accepted and there appeared to me to be a real danger that the Sheffield amendment might be defeated, so that campaigning against the party aims would still be prohibited. But comrade Mercer, when advising conference on what we were about to vote on, clumsily announced: “If you vote for this you’re voting for the right to campaign against the party.” This misrepresentation provoked protests, and Richard Brenner of Workers Power raised a point of order, pointing out that campaigning against a particular aim was not the same thing as campaigning “against the party”. The chair apologised and, possibly in reaction to this faux pas, the amendment was overwhelmingly carried.
Next, a comrade from Leicester moved a successful amendment to the ‘aims’ section calling on us to campaign “in ways that recognise and promote alternative and new forms of popular political culture”. To demonstrate what she meant she read out a poem against the bedroom tax. Mind you, that performance was put in the shade by another comrade, who later sang us a song about the innocence of childhood in opposition to an amendment to get rid of the minimum age qualification of 13 for LU membership. Children must be protected from politics!
Robert Eagleton from Preston and the CP, who at 18 was one of the youngest comrades present, pointed out that different people develop an interest in politics at a different age - he himself joined the Green Party at 15. But he was not too young to know that we must be “open and honest” about what we support and what we oppose, including perhaps LU’s newly adopted aims (see p6).
Jack Conrad said we “shouldn’t be afraid of argument”. He stated that, whatever the constitution declared, the Weekly Worker would continue to argue against what we opposed. Moreover, we will continue to hold both open and closed meetings. If that means expulsions or being placed on some list of proscribed organisations, so be it. Thankfully the amendment deleting the ban on closed meetings for “caucuses” was voted through.
Despite the impossibly short time allowed for debate, we reached the end of the time allotted for the conference without having got through a whole chunk of the agenda. The constant delays while the chair and standing orders considered the best way to proceed and the inordinate time needed to count a vote whenever it was close both took their toll. So there was no time whatsoever to discuss either “priority campaigns” or “electoral strategy”.
Finally towards the close of conference, after the ballot papers had been counted, the result of the vote to decide the new party’s name was announced. Out of the 401 votes cast, 188 gave their first preferences to ‘Left Unity’ as against 122 for ‘Left Party’. Once the two names with the lowest votes were eliminated and second preferences were added, these totals increased to 235 and 139 respectively.
So our name is unchanged and we are still Left Unity. But what about the politics we stand on? Unfortunately the little that was discussed on November 30 left a lot to be desired. But these are early days and we must hope that the next conference will be more productive. It can hardly be more frustrating.