“a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: Here is the rose, here dance!” Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Prior to the rise of the Corbyn and the movement around him, the leadership of Left Unity had seen itself as building a broad left party that in the model of Syriza or Die Linke, with a left social democratic programme and a conscious decision to marginalise any possible socialist content. Indeed Tom Walker, a foot soldier for the broad party project , asked at the Left Unity policy conference “Why do people want to put socialism in everything?”
Much of the constituency for the “broad party”, left social democratic offer has now moved lock, stock and barrel into the Labour Party to defend the Corbyn anti-austerity project. What to do now? This was the major question posed at the Left Unity conference on 21 November.
If you are going to maintain a space for a small initiative then it is useful, in marketing terms, to have a unique selling point. Having spent most of the party’s short life distancing it from the ideas of ‘socialism’ and ‘class struggle’, the group around Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin decided that now was the time to talk about ‘socialism‘ and ‘class struggle’ – which Hudson duly did in her introductory remarks to the conference as part of a motivation that the party was not over.
Her peroration was met with polite applause, not quite loud enough to drown out the sound of people voting with their feet, but it set the tone for the good-humoured debate between the 150 people present about the future of Left Unity, which rightly took up all of the Saturday of the conference weekend.
For some, the conference was an act of valediction; others were engaged in a genuine consideration of how to move Left Unity forward – divided between those who wanted to take the organisation wholesale into the Labour Party in one form or another, and those grouped around Hudson, Burgin and Socialist Resistance who wished to keep the party alive .
In the end it was agreed to keep the project afloat because enough people had invested enough to be able to resist to what is blindingly obvious to many – the acknowledgment that the Corbyn tsunami had swept Left Unity and TUSC, and all the plausible reasoning for them that existed previously, to one side.
Regular readers of The Project will know that the case for joining the Labour Party where possible, and supporting the Corbyn project from outside where necessary, has been made by the Nicks Rogers and Wrack in a series of recent articles in The Project.
The question that came to the front of my mind during the Saturday debate was this: given the quarter of million who voted for Corbyn, why do some see a reason to maintain Left Unity when the politics of the leadership of Left Unity are essentially Corbynite?
As the debate unfolded I could discern a number of different motivations for keeping the party going – even though the bottled spirit of ’45 had found a new cellar. Combined, these may be enough to keep Left Unity going for a year or so, as class war ensues over the soul of the Labour Party.
For Hudson, Burgin and Socialist Resistance, the prize of maintaining registration is that they can be the official British section of the European Left Party – and a circus mirror equivalent of Die Linke, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark or the Left Bloc in Portugal. The rationale is to play on a bigger stage; to effect an escape from the world of the left in Britain, who Burgin had said at a Left Unity National Council “…aren’t worth talking to.”, to the much sunnier climes of European regroupment.
For others it is not the meaningless grandeur on a European scale that is at stake but hard won gains at a local level. Comrades from Wigan argued hard and well that the Labour Party in their patch was unconvertible and thus un-joinable. Steve Hall and others have a fine record of building local electoral opposition to the neo-liberal leadership of the local Labour Parties, have a meaningful presence in the consciousness of the working class and have revivified the Digger tradition in an annual festival. From their locality a move into Labour seems to make no sense. But this understandable localism misses the broader picture – the class struggle, expressed as political fissure, has re-emerged in Labour.
There were a number of contributions from ‘true believers’ – having had no other party Left Unity is their party – Chris Hurley expressed this view well. She had no intention of joining the Labour Party and it seemed to have no meaning in her political life – in this context Left Unity is a form of identity politics. It is an odd fact that there are still some people wandering round that are members of a party called Respect, another form of identity politics, who, having put time and effort into the original formation are now unable to leave and in effect form a chorus whose main role is to explain the political odyssey that is George Galloway. In their respective identities both Left Unity and Respect occupy a space believing should Corbyn fail then they will be the benefactors.
Some speakers expressed a visceral hostility to the Labour Party that was (and, they fear, still is). Those who have had hard fought battles in the Labour Party and were expelled for their politics or repelled by its political degeneration seemed traumatised by the thought of re-engagement. A fear seemed to be present that, whatever the configuration of the present battle, the war had already been lost, Corbyn defeated, and his legions dispersed, with some playing the role of a blood transfusion for social democracy, others a renewal of careerism or for many a final resignation from politics. Rather than go through that all again, is it not perhaps safer to sail in calmer waters, life boats at the ready for survivors, while Labour, Titanic like, eventually slips below the waves?
Finally there were contributions that bore all the signs of a form of political otherwordliness, a non-recognition that anything had happened at all, a sort of business-as-usual-ism – a simple refusal to engage with a new fact. The Corbyn insurgency seems to have appeared by magic, a transmogrification of the anti-austerity movement into the body of Labour that may have left some with the expectation that, genie like, it may disappear, with a click of the fingers, just as quickly as it appeared. It is simply not real.
It is fear of the hopes that Corbyn generates, that make some believe it is not real. This feeling I understand; after the defeat of the miners, the dissolution of the Sandinista revolution, the nightmare of seemingly endless imperialist wars in the long decade following 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis and Labour and Syriza’s capitulation to the austerity offensive – perhaps it is too much to hope that a force has emerged that may lead a counter-offensive for our class, that has been shat upon by the rich and powerful for so long?
Well the movement that has been generated around Corbyn suggests it may have. If this is a possibility then neither a decontextualised European broad party perspective, nor hard won gains made locally, or a form of identity politics, or even a wish to avoid the battle at hand because of past experience, or a fear that hopes are not worth having because of the possibility of defeat, are effective rationales for maintaining a project that will leave some, however small a number, sat on a hillside contemplating the battle that rages in the valley below – and this is what the Left Unity conference effectively voted to do – to stand to one side and watch.