Left Unity leaders’ limited ambition

Left Unity leaders’ limited ambition

How to describe the 23 August meeting of Left Unity’s Executive Committee? There was much discussed to look forward to, not least the planned UK speaking tour by representatives of the new left-wing Spanish party Podemos in conjunction with LU’s founder Ken Loach, and the conclusion of the NHS march. There are also some efforts in progress to nurture green shoots of activity in the party with a branch organising day school, for which £500 of funding was allocated. The subject of elections, however, was one of the main items on the agenda, as the EC had received an interim report back from the elections sub-committee which needed to be discussed before being passed on to the NC.

The elections sub-committee produced a number of suggestions concerning electoral work, including: the sourcing of ‘celebrity’ candidates to stand and become the centre of high-profile campaigns, discussions with other groups and parties in order to avoid clashes, and standing LU principal speakers and officers against government ministers. By far the biggest divide in the sub-committee, however, was between those who felt that it was important that Left Unity begin conducting a proper response and dialogue with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) as a matter of urgency given the tight timeframe facing us before the elections in May 2015, and those who argued instead that LU must decide its own electoral strategy in isolation before conducting such discussions.

At this point it is probably worth noting that TUSC have written to LU with a dual proposal, the essence of which is: that LU consider joining the TUSC umbrella for the purposes of this electoral challenge only, with the full rights of distinct identity and autonomy enjoyed by all TUSC’s constituent organisations – or, if this is unacceptable, that LU proposes a different electoral coalition in which TUSC and LU can participate together. However, Kate Hudson (LU’s national secretary) responded swiftly with a polite but negative response, which confirms LU’s commitment to avoiding clashes but also continues:

Any candidates that we stand will be standing as Left Unity candidates and we are not planning to enter into any electoral coalitions. We would be happy to meet with you as we develop our work on the party’s electoral strategy.

Pete Mclaren, member of LU’s National Council and member of the elections sub-committee, deals more fully with the correspondence in his contribution to this issue of The Project. At this point however we should take a step back and consider LU’s policy on this matter (passed at the March policy conference), which is that:

“Left Unity should open discussions with other left groups, coalitions and parties to avoid electoral clashes and move towards electoral pacts – with the initial aim of creating the largest ever left challenge in the 2015 General Election.”

Given that this is LU policy, it is at once disappointing and telling that TUSC’s communication has not been communicated to the membership of the party as a whole, especially considering also the significantly uneven distribution of left forces across the country. For some LU branches, working with TUSC may be the difference between being involved in the 2015 elections or abstaining completely. Furthermore, there is an obvious discrepancy between our commitment to “move towards electoral pacts” and an assertion that we are “not planning to enter into any electoral coalitions”.

While it is, of course, the role of our National Secretary to respond promptly to such communication, in this case a personal reply on the same day, without wider consultation, which prioritised internal discussions over external ones has effectively cut the voice of the membership out of the equation. With time running out for proper co-ordination of an electoral challenge, it is still possible for this error to be corrected, and we can hope that it still may be.

This is a topic on which I have written previously, in an article two months ago in which I took a critical view of the left’s attitude towards elections. In particular I took aim at the notion that fighting elections were somehow of negligible importance as a tactic simply because they are not a route to socialism or working-class power. More generally I identified such attitudes as part of a general malaise within LU which, having got almost 2000 members through its doors, now has little idea what to do with them. After all, as is so often remarked, there is no shortage on the left of ‘revolutionary’ groups who seclude themselves in their own little niches of activity, whether trade union work, protest, anti-fascism, or a myriad of other monopolies. The point of Left Unity as I understood it was to break out of the sectarian mould and engage with the many thousands of people who could be won to socialist arguments; part of this, surely, must be electoral work. My views have little support among LU’s leadership; even so, the toxicity of the atmosphere in the room was surprising to say the least.

The discussion on elections started well, with constructive contributions from Guy Harper and Toby Abse who, though holding different opinions on the merits of standing widely, both seemed to acknowledge the importance of TUSC’s approaches as a key factor in any discussion. Toby put forward in very clear terms the necessity of a united front of some description with TUSC, noting that in his borough of Lewisham TUSC has already outlined three potential seats to contest.

The least helpful contributions of the day were supplied by Tom Walker (LU’s media officer) who commented that TUSC “makes the left look ridiculous”, that LU should not work with TUSC “because they said nothing and can say nothing on Gaza”, and that “we should put everyone else in the shade and show that we are the serious party of the left”.  Comrade Walker also pronounced that TUSC was “not serious” and that rather than standing widely in elections, we would be “better off throwing the money into a giant furnace”. The assumption is clearly that by standing in “around a dozen” seats, LU will be more likely to save its deposit in at least some of them. This is, of course, ridiculous. Whether LU stands 12 parliamentary candidates or 120, it will not save any of its deposits. This of course should not necessarily be a barrier to standing. However, if comrade Walker were to be consistent in his analysis, he would acknowledge that his own strategy is to throw at least £6,000 into a [somewhat smaller] furnace.

LU national treasurer Andrew Burgin, after injecting a little realism into the debate and acknowledging that LU candidates would inevitably start small with poor votes, proceeded to misinform the meeting by claiming that LU could not work with TUSC “because they have the exact opposite position to us on Europe”. Even comrade Burgin must recognise that this is completely false, unless he is under the impression that LU is in favour of a “capitalist, militarist United States of Europe” (opposition to which is the full extent of TUSC’s policy on Europe, and which of course would find no disagreement among any LU member anywhere). Only reluctantly did he back down and admit grudgingly that it was the policy of the Socialist Party he disagrees with, rather than that of TUSC. Quite apart from the inaccuracy, this was obviously of profound irrelevance given that we have five years in which to debate EU policy before the next European elections. Such dishonest diversions do nothing but distract from the real issues.

Raising the flag of “our new politics” against both the little and the giant furnaces was one of LU’s principal speakers Bianca Todd, who threw a spanner in the works by rejecting the idea of standing any parliamentary candidates at all. It was refreshing to hear an honest opinion being put forward by a minority of one – something the party needs a lot more of – but comrade Todd’s reasoning left something to be desired: by standing candidates Left Unity will either be seen as “like the main parties” or “like TUSC” – well which is it? The invocation of “our new way of doing politics” was predictably vague, and worse was to come: apparently LU should wait until 2020 before challenging for parliamentary seats. LU is the first ‘party’ of which I have been a member, so I’m speaking from learned history rather than experience here: the left has been fitfully working towards an electoral alternative for the best part of 20 years in various guises. Now comrade Todd wants to delay it for another five years. I find this completely bizarre and in my opinion it reflects a severe lack of confidence in our ability to go out and submit ourselves to the judgement of the working class.

Even among those in the leadership who are not rabidly hostile to other socialists, there remains a simplistic critique of electoral work which fails to explain either the lack of success to date achieved by TUSC, or how Left Unity candidates might fare any better. Comments that TUSC is “boring” and that LU should only do “exciting” things seemed to capture the spirit of those fumbling in vain towards a more sensible approach through the toxic fog of sectarianism. However, even these comrades still cling to the notion that the lack of an electoral breakthrough is pretty much solely attributable to the “old left” who have been “doing it wrong”. We must promote a realistic view of our prospects if the party’s activists are not to become quickly disillusioned and fatigued.

Kate Hudson, for her part, was “completely against privileging discussions with TUSC” – which might make some sort of sense if it didn’t completely fly against a material assessment of what is actually happening on the left right now. Essentially the only forces of note are the Green Party and TUSC. The Greens have little to gain from an arrangement with the much smaller and less experienced LU (even if such an arrangement were to our advantage), and in any case mostly see the formation of LU as a superfluous rivalry. Referring to the TUSC letter, I suggested that given such a reasonable proposal it was incumbent now on LU to come back with a serious reply. Comrade Hudson however flatly contradicted this, claiming that it is “not incumbent on LU to do anything in response to a demand in a letter”.

On the subject of the Greens, I raised the opinion that in the context of elections, the Greens are not part of the left, for the simple reason that the major dividing line in local politics at present is whether or not to oppose austerity in practice. This view seemed to gain support and the Greens were removed from a list of organisations with which the EC recommended LU should avoid clashing. However it would appear that this question is still very much open in a more general sense, given the readiness of some in the party to give the Greens a clear run on issues like “beating the fascists” in the North West. It would seem likely that there are many in the party more predisposed to working with greens than with socialists, and this debate must be drawn out into the open.

There were some contributions which helped a little to stave off despair. One comrade warned against sliding into the undemocratic processes she had seen in the Respect party, where “hero” figures had been unaccountable and not genuinely part of the party; this was especially apposite given that the predominant mood in the elections sub-committee (and in the leadership more widely) seems to favour seeking out “left celebrities” for the rest of us to cheerlead.

After this point the discussion seemed to coalesce around the previously implicit assumption of standing candidates in “around a dozen” seats, although there were a handful of contributions which favoured a challenge even more minimal than that. Peter Green protested (understandably) against the idea that he could be drafted into contesting a Tory safe seat against a government minister, and there was general agreement that this was an unrealistic proposal.

Overall, there was little to feel positive about. An understandable trepidation at contesting elections at short notice is being fashioned into a sectarian stick used to beat those who have been in the game a little longer and who understand the importance of elections as a tool in building a base. There remains a pervasive and stifling fear of “looking stupid” by getting a low vote; depending on the seriousness and openness of the comrade in question, this can then be turned outwards as a pretty poisonous accusation that by daring to stand and put our politics to the only test that matters, we are making everyone else on “the left” look stupid.

Far from damaging our credibility as some would imagine, contesting elections shows that we are serious about offering an alternative to the capitalist parties, and not afraid to give the working class the chance to let us know exactly what they think of us.

At this stage, Left Unity appears to be an electoral project that doesn’t even take elections seriously. As such, the original promise of LU, as I and many others interpreted it, has not been fulfilled. Note that this is not a huffy statement of resignation, or a lofty declaration of LU’s inevitable failure. I’m going to stay and fight for a party – a real, mass party – that takes itself seriously.

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