Left Unity fails its first major test

Left Unity fails its first major test

The Left Unity leadership has ignored conference and stalled talks on left unity, writes Pete McLaren

I set myself the political goal at the start of 2014 of doing my bit to unite the left in the run up to the 2015 General Election. I am in a fairly unique position to try and help bring about some left unity, being a national officer of the Trades Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and a directly elected National Council and Executive member of Left Unity (LU). I am a branch secretary of both organisations. At the very least, I hoped to be able to use my positions to help get TUSC and Left Unity working together and preferably standing electorally together as a further step in building a new workers’ party in Britain

It wasn’t long before I was to realise the enormity of the task I had set myself. One of my comrades and friends, a member of both our Rugby TUSC and Left Unity branches, queried at a recent LU meeting how ‘Left Unity’ could call itself that when it appeared to oppose left unity in practice. I laughed at the time but experience so far in the build up to next year’s General Election tends to back that up.

At the January National Council of Left Unity, I moved the Rugby motion calling for unity of the left, which hadn’t been reached at the November Founding Conference. The motion began by noting that the stated aims of Left Unity included uniting the diverse strands of radical and socialist politics in Britain including workers’ organisations. The Rugby motion called for the opening of discussions with other major players on the left, including TUSC, to avoid electoral clashes; to aim for the largest possible left challenge to austerity in the 2015 General Election; and to prioritise the initiation of a debate about building one Party of the Left.

The response from Left Unity’s leadership and supporters was that unity with TUSC was not a priority. Left Unity was not trying to get the left together. LU national secretary Kate Hudson argued that we had now founded a new party of the left and we were not about to try and stick together the different groups on the left. Left Unity was the one party of the left referred to in the motion. There were also suggestions that TUSC was simply trying to take over. The motion was defeated by 23 votes to 5, with 2 abstentions.

TUSC remained keen to hold further discussions with LU but it was clear LU was having nothing of it. TUSC wrote to LU again at the end of February to try and get agreement on the May Council elections, stating that TUSC was committed to avoiding potential electoral clashes and to re-opening up communication between LU and TUSC. LU national secretary Kate Hudson replied four weeks later to say that it was unlikely that LU would work with TUSC for the May elections, although it was opposed to any clashes. LU had a Policy Conference within a week, she explained, which would discuss electoral policy and would be happy to meet TUSC after that Conference. The door remained open, I thought.

I decided to split up the motion on left unity, rejected at the LU National Council, into two separate motions and an amendment for the 29 March LU Policy Conference. A motion from Rugby LU branch, calling on LU to initiate debate across the left about there being one party of the left, was narrowly defeated by 92 votes to 83, a result which was visibly applauded by the Kate Hudson and national treasurer Andrew Burgin. Rugby also moved an amendment calling on LU branches, for the 2014 Council elections only, to be able to stand under any left label whilst LU was in the process of being registered, as long as they could promote LU during the campaign. This was overwhelmingly defeated. During the debate the LU leadership continued to oppose suggested discussions about left unity. I then individually moved the main motion on electoral clash avoidance and moves towards electoral pacts, with the initial aim of creating the largest ever challenge in the 2015 General Election. Against the leadership’s wishes, the motion was overwhelmingly agreed without a count. The resolution stated: “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”. 

The whole point of that motion was to do exactly what it says – to create the largest ever left-wing challenge in next year’s General Election. It was carefully worded. It didn’t preclude anything, including electoral coalitions. How else could there be the largest-ever left challenge? I also deliberately tied it in with policy of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is to ‘to achieve the broadest possible united left challenge in 2015’.

But, in the five months since, LU has done absolutely nothing to implement that decision. LU has not opened up any discussions with other left groups, coalitions or parties to avoid clashes and move towards electoral pacts – a bottom line really. More to the point, Kate Hudson responded to a request from TUSC for talks, on the same day as the request arrived (14 July), by making it clear LU was having nothing of it. She said that LU was looking at its electoral strategy, one aspect of which would be to have discussions with left organisations to avoid clashes, once the electoral strategy had been decided.

On being part of the largest ever challenge in the 2015 General Election, that brief letter from Kate Hudson to TUSC also made it clear LU was ‘not planning to enter into any electoral coalitions’, despite the fact that no one else in LU had ruled that out, and such a decision was certainly not precluded by the Conference resolution. The reply concluded by stating LU would be happy to meet with TUSC “as we develop our work on the party’s electoral strategy” – in other words, LU will only talk to TUSC and others on the left once it has a detailed electoral strategy itself. This will of course be too late for any meaningful discussions about 2015 to be held involving LU before other left organisations have made their electoral decisions, and would appear to be a deliberate stalling ploy on behalf of a LU leadership which thinks it is “The Left” and therefore doesn’t need to unite with anyone else in any way.

For what it is worth, as LU is clearly not interested, TUSC had made two concrete proposals in its letter. One was for Left Unity to become a participating organisation in the TUSC coalition, on the same basis as the existing constituent organisations, with Steering Committee representation. LU would still be able to produce its own material in election campaigns; stand candidates, if it wished, under its registered electoral name (but stating they are part of the TUSC campaign, for example, for negotiating purposes with the broadcasting authorities). Left Unity would generally be responsible for its candidates’ campaigns, subject to candidates endorsing agreed TUSC core policy statements – which are the sort of basic socialist policies on nationalisation, opposition to racism, cuts and privatisation, defence of the NHS as any left programme would contain.

The TUSC letter went on to suggest that, if that was ruled out, “TUSC was prepared to discuss alternative arrangements. This would include, if necessary, the creation of a new umbrella coalition registered with the Electoral Commission”. This seems a most sensible approach, and I cannot fault the way TUSC has attempted to build an election coalition for 2015.

Left Unity has existed now for a year and a half. It has had plenty of time to discuss its electoral strategy. But elections were not discussed at the Founding Conference in November last year, and were only a brief item amongst many taken at the 29 March conference. Over two months later, a LU National Council meeting at the beginning of June set up an Elections Sub Committee and asked for volunteers. Its brief, from that NC following a recommendation from the national secretary, was to “draw up a general election strategy”, which would include having a national overview, consulting with the regions and making proposals on discussions with other parties, including TUSC.

It should be noted that this made no reference to the resolution on electoral unity passed at the March Conference, surely an over-arching plank in LU’s eventual electoral strategy.

This Sub Committee was set up on 7 June. Its first email discussions started six weeks later following an introductory letter from Convenor and Nominating Officer Chris Hurley. Chris gave sub-committee members her version of LU’s electoral strategy, which was to establish a committee to be tasked with liaising with local LU structures with a remit to, amongst other largely bureaucratic and obvious aims to

  • Liaise with branches in order to assess the viability of an 
electoral campaign in their area;
  • Identify possible key 
target constituencies
  • Identify members who have prior experience of elections in order to facilitate the passing on of their skills to the wider membership through a co-ordinated training program
  • Begin the process of drafting materials such as canvass sheets for 
national use.
  • Identify potential election candidates and obtain electoral registers and other 
relevant data
  • Devise local campaigns which both raise our profile and ensure we remain rooted within, and relevant to, local communities.

This all came from a motion agreed at Conference which concluded by stating that candidates should only be fielded where a political base of support exists within the community and where the human and financial resources exist to make a genuine and locally representative campaign viable. 
I do think this conclusion is too restrictive, but it wouldn’t exclude working with others on the left.

Nothing much wrong with the rest of this, tame and organizational though many of its suggestions are, but what is glaringly absent is, once again, the complete absence of any mention of LU being part of the largest possible left challenge in the General Election next year, let alone initiate discussions with others on the left! Conspicuous by its absence I would suggest!

Meanwhile, the Independent Socialist Network had decided to intervene. A motion, drafted by Ed Potts, was passed by the Exeter LU branch calling on the LU NC, as well as the party’s elected officers, to facilitate a thorough-going debate on the potential for intensive and structured collaboration (as opposed merely to non-aggression) between serious forces on the left at the 2015 general election; for any such meetings to be minuted and reported to the membership; and for local activists in communities and branches to take a lead in determining the nature of co-operation in order to present the most united and strongest possible socialist challenge at the general election. The ISN re-worded the motion for TUSC branches, and promoted it within both LU and TUSC.

On July 16th, my own branch of Rugby LU discussed the ISN motion, along with the correspondence between TUSC and LU. As Branch Secretary, I was instructed to write to Kate Hudson expressing our disappointment at her response to the invite from TUSC for talks. The letter pointed out that her response did not sufficiently take into account LU policy, agreed at the March Conference, for LU to be part of the largest possible left challenge. Rugby LU went on to remind the National Secretary that TUSC had given options as to how that large left challenge could be achieved, suggesting that an early meeting would help clarify what needs to be done to build the most effective challenge possible to the establishment parties, in 2015 and beyond….without reaching any conclusions (at this stage)”

Rugby LU concluded by criticizing the national secretary’s negative response to these suggestions, asking for the issues to be raised within the Elections Sub Committee and at the National Council.  It also stated that it could not understand how LU can open discussions about there being the largest ever left challenge in the 2015 General Election when it seems to be rejecting, at least for the time being, opportunities to discuss that possibility.

To be fair to Kate Hudson, she replied to Rugby the same day. On a more positive note, she did say that LU would definitely be discussing with TUSC and other left groups and parties as outlined in the March Conference resolution – but repeated her claim made in her reply to TUSC, that LU policy does not include us entering electoral coalitions, and that ‘we certainly need to formulate our strategy within the party before we can discuss it with organisations outside the party.’

There has since been some discussion over a two week period at the end of July amongst some members of the Elections Sub-Committee, but no face-to-face meetings. Right at the start, a couple of us mentioned the omission of any reference to the Conference resolution on the left General Election challenge, or any talks with others on the left. Kate Hudson immediately asserted that LU could move on to that phase only after it had discussed its own approach to targeted standing. She reiterated this in later posts, and did eventually, on request, circulate the recent correspondence between TUSC and LU.

To hide behind the excuse that Left Unity needs to decide its own electoral strategy brings horses which have bolted to mind. You don’t have to have a developed strategy in order to commit to working with others. The detail can be agreed and refined later, it is the commitment that is needed now, together with some sort of general idea of who wants to stand where – although even that will be open to debate for a few months. What is needed NOW, at the beginning of September, is for discussion to have at least started about the whole idea of mounting a united socialist challenge, under what parameters that could be achieved, and the sort of minimum policy programme such a coalition could operate around. It takes time for trust to develop between different organisations.

Syriza started as a broad left coalition and has only relatively recently become a Left Party. The coalition for the 2015 General Election in Britain could follow the same course. But – and here maybe lies the real truth – do the leaders of Left Unity really want that? I am beginning to suspect they don’t. I think that their plan may be to keep their powder dry until after the election, when dissatisfaction with Labour and their Tory policies may finally spur McCluskey to make good on his half-hearted threats to throw his weight behind a new party of labour. Perhaps some of the present leadership of Left think that if they can avoid being accused of having worked with ‘trotskyists’, they will be well-placed to become part of the new leadership of whatever reformist oganisation does emerge.

There has to be a political reason for the LU leadership’s tactics on this. There was even a suggestion, from Media Officer Tom Walker, that LU shouldn’t necessarily stand aside from seats others on the left were contesting, and that LU should demand that the rest of the left should avoid LU’s carefully-drawn-up list of target seats (while refusing to talk to them in the meantime). There is clearly a political fear that standing could jeopardise the chances of Labour or Green candidates. But I think it may well go much deeper than that. Maybe the politics simply are not there. I do detect sectarianism in certain quarters against older, traditional left groups almost as if such groups are not really part of the left.

I really do believe that some of the present leadership of Left Unity do think that LU, and LU alone, is the new mass party of the left – the One Party of the Left. This would explain why those same people have consistently voted against any concept of a wider left unity, why they are delaying meeting with TUSC, and why they refuse to implement party policy. I cannot for the life of me think of any other reason for the obvious reluctance of Left Unity to initiate or join talks with others on the left.

It is quite ironic that it is at this specific moment in time – just as TUSC is beginning to open up and democratize its structures, with an increasing number of enthusiastic independent socialists getting involved in building local branches and steering committees rooted in local communities – that Left Unity shuts the door to inclusion and involvement. Left Unity may have democratic structures in theory, but, in practice, decisions are made at the top behind closed doors. The reality of Left Unity after 18 months of existence is a few active branches, a couple of hundred active members in any realistic assessment, and a leadership which picks and chooses which Conference decisions to implement, and which to ignore.

The Independent Socialist Network should, in my opinion, continue its twin-track approach of working within both TUSC and Left Unity. But we must be under no illusions regarding Left Unity or its desire to live up to its name. In practice, that will entail continuing to promote genuine socialist unity throughout the structures of Left Unity, but, especially if nothing significantly changes, put our main efforts into continuing to build TUSC at local and national level to play our part in creating a broad socialist General Election challenge to be proud of, a challenge that will provide workers with a socialist alternative capable of undermining UKIP as well as the establishment parties, and a challenge that will take the process of building a new united, democratic and socialist party a number of steps closer.


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