The upcoming Left Unity conference will be the most important in the party’s short history. No fewer than half a dozen motions have been put recommending a complete turn away from standing in elections. The leadership itself is split between those who advocate continuing as a party, and those who want to orient full-tilt to the new movement around Corbyn. Articles are now being published in the “Inter:Change” online journal which seem almost embarrassed by LU’s existence; this is exemplified by the re-posting of material by Andrew Murray, who two years ago wrote a lengthy [pseudonymous] article opposing even the idea of building a new party.
Motion 15 will undoubtedly be one of the most controversial at conference. It proposes the dissolution of LU as an electoral party, and its reconstitution as a network of activists inside and outside Labour. So far, so zeitgeist. It’s the method of reconstitution which is alarming. The proposers (including two out of our four principal speakers, Peter Green and Salman Shaheen, and media officer Tom Walker) advocate suspending the constitution, and placing all authority and resources in the hands of the current Executive Committee. This would then be tasked with coming up with the constitution for a new “network” organisation.
First of all, we should note that the EC is not directly elected by the membership, and as such its democratic legitimacy for anything other than transacting the day-to-day business of the party in line with the decisions of its sovereign bodies (conference and the National Council) is tenuous at best. However, the implementation of this plan would effectively dissolve the entire party apart from the EC – which would then be accountable to no-one. Branches would have no status, or mechanisms of oversight and recall (these having been stripped away by the suspension of the constitution). The NC would be abolished, as would [effectively] the party’s membership itself – but presumably not their direct debits.
When challenged on this, some of the resolution’s proposers said they were “open to amendment” on where the responsibility for reconstitution should reside. All very well – but surely this motion as it stands must be the product of discussion between them? It is deeply concerning that elected officers of LU (and others) could come up with such a Bonapartist, anti-democratic plan.
In a general sense, we should oppose the political drift of this motion, as well as its specifics. We need a party, and a party is what all of us signed up for as members of Left Unity. Remember that even this was contentious in the period prior to founding conference: the project was set upon by onlookers calling instead to join the Greens, or to operate as a ‘movement’ rather than a party; all of these were rejected in favour of founding a political party.
The continuation of LU as a party is also at least an implicit assumption in all of the supporting statements put forward earlier this year by those who were elected to positions of office within Left Unity. In this sense, their political and moral mandates for continuing in these positions have expired prematurely, and should be renewed as soon as possible. In my view, this would best be achieved by the recall of all elected officers, delegates and NC members, with the internal elections being scheduled around conference. This would solve a number of problems. First, those former leading members who chose to act as individualists and quit LU without putting their case to the membership can be swiftly replaced. Second, all concerned would feel more free to engage fully with the debate – the proposers of Motion 15 could put forward new proposals, and make it clear that they would only be prepared to serve if the organisation’s new form reflected that platform. Third, whether it emerges from conference as a party or putative network, LU would have a new political leadership with a fresh and relevant democratic mandate, which would actually be capable of meeting the new challenges we face.
Otherwise, it is clear that the organisation and especially its leadership will suffer many resignations depending on which way the vote goes. It is clear that the faction in favour of dissolution will not feel obliged to stay and continue their involvement if the vote goes against them; this is in a sense understandable, as they no doubt genuinely believe to continue as a party is itself mistaken and sectarian at this time. An en masse renewal of the kind I propose would allow everyone concerned to engage in this debate in good faith.
Motion 20 opposes dissolution, and argues instead for working with the Labour Party rank and file to aid in the democratisation of their party. It lacks specific proposals on how to do this – something which might be contentious in light of the recent news that Corbyn has come out against mandatory reselection of MPs. Most of us would consider this an elementary measure to pursue if the Corbyn leadership is to have any chance of survival, let alone as a weapon in fundamentally reshaping the party. Interestingly, the motion also calls for the lifting of bans on separate parties affiliating to Labour – which to my mind implicitly sets out the proposers’ preferred path, even if their current position is to “wait and see”.
Affiliation is the prescription of Motion 23, which unfortunately appears to contain a factual error – claiming that the Co-operative Party is “affiliated” to Labour. As far as I am aware, this is not the case. The Co-operative Party has a joint electoral description with Labour (of the kind used by LU-TUSC), and sees Labour as the main or even only arena through which to influence politics; but it has no constitutional position within Labour itself, as would be afforded by affiliation. Motion 74 calls for the reversal of individual exclusions from Labour, and for LU to be recognised as a “legitimate political current within the Labour Party up to and including affiliation as a socialist society”.
Here we should pause and consider the question of affiliation, as it is a separate one from merely orienting towards Labour, or encouraging dual membership as an individual choice. Clearly these proposals have their roots to a greater or lesser extent in the pursuit of affiliation to Labour by the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s. However, this strategy always had a critical edge, that is to say, the request for affiliation was always made under the assumption that it would be refused by the Labour leadership. This would then have a propagandistic effect, in that said leadership would expose themselves as enemies of the class-struggle militancy advocated by communists. In this way, a wedge could be driven between the working-class base and their bourgeois leadership. This was distinct from, but pursued in tandem with, the aim of recruiting more members to the CPGB itself.
However, the motions to this conference which propose affiliation appear to have no awareness or understanding of this critical edge. Rather, they seem to be proposed in the forlorn hope that affiliation might actually be granted. To disabuse this notion is essential. First, for Left Unity to seek affiliation would exert no pressure whatsoever on the Labour Party or its leadership: how could it, when the former is less than 0.5% of the size of the latter? Moreover, Corbyn would be ill-advised to consider it, as he would once more open himself to accusations of inciting entryism, with negligible benefit in return. It is really not worth our time or effort pursuing such an unrealistic goal.
Motion 70 calls for the democratisation of Labour, encouraging further Trade Union affiliations, opening it up to socialists, and pushing for deselections. LU should not stand in the GLA elections (now a moot point any case), and all national electoral work is to be suspended. This really begs the question of what LU as a party is for – if indeed it is to remain a party. From what I know of Lambeth’s activity, it is one of the few branches in the country that could genuinely be described as ‘vibrant’. However, does their involvement in a wide range of activism require a political party to draw it all together, as electoral work does? In addition, LU members are to be encouraged to join the Labour Representation Committee – itself an unknown quantity as the LRC was all but moribund until Corbynmania. What its place is now, with the emergence of Momentum, remains to be seen – although it should be noted that its meeting at LP conference was unusually well-attended. Perhaps the proposers of this motion would be open to amendments which also (or alternatively) directed LU members towards Momentum. The motion also calls for the situation to be re-evaluated at LU’s next conference, which like Motion 20 seems to imply a stance of “wait and see”.
Motion 79 encourages LU members and supporters to join Labour, and disavows electoral work. Its proposal is to keep going as some kind of organisation oriented towards Corbyn supporters, and to produce a bulletin to pull together a Marxist current in the new movement. Clearly such a move to unite Marxists, whether inside or outside Labour, is something that should be supported. However, the basis on which it could be achieved, given the current state of the left, is questionable. Most of the sects now turning towards Labour have in mind only their own narrow selfish aims, despite various platitudes to the contrary. In addition, it should be recognised that the motion effectively proposes the end of LU as a party – this, in my view, would also entail the rapid withering away of any successor organisation, as I find it highly doubtful that LU (or its descendant) would be seen as the best vehicle for promoting Marxist unity (or indeed any other kind of politics). Firmer plans are needed if they are to be credible, and again it should be clear that a freshly elected NC would be required if this plan were to have any chance of being competently and enthusiastically implemented.
Motion 27 is an elaboration of the Weekly Worker’s line on turning Labour into a “permanent united front” of the working class. I intend to give this theory a more detailed analysis in a separate article at some point. In terms of general political principles, the motion makes arguments that I agree with: against a “national road to socialism” and withdrawal from Europe, against reformism and for a socialist programme. However, on the question of the Labour Party the demands are fudged. LU is to “demand the complete elimination of all undemocratic bans and proscriptions and […] seek to affiliate to the Labour Party.” The purpose or likely effect of this approach is unclear, for the reasons above. But it also calls into question the role of the Weekly Worker group within Left Unity. If all bans and prescriptions were to be eliminated, would the WW comrades not be inclined to seek affiliation themselves? What would be the point of an extra level of abstraction, being affiliated to Labour via their membership of a failed “halfway house”?
Speaking of halfway houses, Motion 48 from Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin contains the clearest commitment to maintaining LU as an independent party – although it falls down on the purpose, nature and activities of such a party. It lists the many areas of agreement between LU and Corbyn, while also noting the “further range of transformatory policies on which our party is based”. While some of LU’s policies clearly are commendable and worth preserving (open borders is clearly the example on the minds of all concerned), it is hardly the case that they are “uncompromising” in general – just take a look at the policy on the economy passed at previous conference.
As with Lambeth’s motion, this really raises the question of what we need a party for, if we are not going to stand in elections. The mention of LU’s recently-granted observer status in the European Left Party is simply irrelevant. To say that we are “part of the political spectrum, to the left of Labour, whether it is neo-liberal or social democratic” is clearly an attempt to draw parallels between LU and other ELP members such as Die Linke, which position themselves as left of “official” Social Democracy. Even given the cognitive dissonance which could lead people to ignore the fundamental differences in scale and relevance, this ignores completely the fact that the programmes of most ELP parties are themselves politically social-democratic rather than socialist. Which really brings us back to Left Unity’s original “platform debate” in a sharpened form: the advocates of the “broad party” approach have been proven wrong again and again, and events have continually demonstrated that the building of a permanent, ossified left-reformist party to the left of Labour is chronically mistaken, not least in the light of Corbyn’s reinvigoration of social-democratic politics. To justify organisational independence, you need independent politics, i.e. a socialist programme. The new approach implied in this motion clearly makes some concessions to our analysis – hence the [over-egged] emphasis on some of LU’s policies above others. But it might be too little, too late.
Motions 4 and 38 both move to kill off prospects of electoral co-operation between LU and other parties/organisations on the left. 38 specifically calls for de-registering the joint “Left Unity – Trade Unionists and Socialists” description which is registered with the electoral commission. What is striking about these two resolutions is their brevity; they run to only four and two lines respectively. No room, then, for even a pretence at political justification or argument for these reversals of current policy. I cannot help but conclude that the reason for this omission is because no credible argument can be made. Unity between socialists is simply ABC of good practice, whatever the reservations some may have about the form of unity which currently exists (and let us not be fooled into thinking that a higher form of unity is the proposal here).
We must also recognise that the question of the joint electoral registration is quite separate from that of our electoral policy in May 2016. It is perfectly acceptable for electoral descriptions to remain registered, and yet go unused. There can therefore be no credible case made, for example, that TUSC’s approach to standing in next year’s elections would jeopardise Left Unity’s own [probable] moratorium on electoral work – or by extension its [probable] new orientation to the Corbyn movement. All that would be required, then, would be a simple letter to TUSC explaining that LU had decided against standing candidates for the time being. To de-register the joint description is completely unnecessary, and for it to be proposed without any political critique of TUSC or of electoral work in general (some or all of which I might agree with) simply smacks of sectarianism. I would recommend that all attending conference vote against these two motions, with or without amendments.