The political initiative that became Left Unity was launched barely two years ago in response to an appeal from Ken Loach. Its founding conference took place just a year ago. What are the prospects for this latest in a long line of ‘unity’ projects aimed at providing an alternative to mainstream capitalist politics?
Left Unity’s third conference, which took place on 15 and 16 November 2014, provides an opportunity to assess the progress of the organisation and its potential for contributing to the refoundation of socialist politics. The two-day event attended by around 300 members focussed on a raft of policy areas left over from the policy conference of March 2014 as well as tackling ‘safe spaces’ policy and electoral strategy.
The 106-page document setting out the motions and amendments to be debated plus the 34-page standing orders committee report gave an early indication of the key challenge facing the conference – the sheer quantity of words that participants would have to read and understand if they were to follow debates and know what they were voting on.
The process of drawing up policy via commissions initiated in 2013 before a conference had been held or democratic accountability established was probably misconceived. Membership of commissions was self-selecting and once they had met repeatedly over a period of months it was all too likely that they would choose to produce a lengthy document that reflected the time they had invested in the exercise rather than the value of the contribution they could make.
Given the volume of commission reports, motions and amendments, it was little short of a miracle that the conference covered as much ground as it did – although many motions and all the constitutional amendments dropped off the agenda. Much of the credit for this success can be laid at the door of the standing orders committee and their proposals for the structure and timings of debates – despite my scepticism on the Saturday morning that its agenda would work.
One casualty of the tightly constrained agenda was space for the kind of debate that would have fully illuminated the issues at stake when faced with reports, motions and amendments of inordinate length (regularly stretching to between four and six pages) that even in the case of amendments were more like essays than pithy statements of positions and actions. Nevertheless, serious issues were thrashed out in often lively debates. Policy areas covered over the two days were the environment, crime and justice, social security, education, equality, and international issues.
The international session included an important debate on the approach to be taken to the plight of the Kurds in Syria as they face the onslaught of the murderously sectarian ISIS. An amendment to the international policy commission report from my own branch of Haringey effectively called for the British government to supply heavy weapons to the Party of Democratic Unity in Kobani (albeit with no strings attached) and for NATO to discipline Turkey.
At the branch meeting that approved this amendment I and a comrade from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in debate with the branch’s Socialist Resistance (SR) majority opposed these elements of the amendment. We argued that these demands effectively involved collaborating with the foreign policy of our own imperialist state when socialists should be articulating an entirely independent working class perspective. Any oppressed nationality has the right to defend itself and to obtain weapons from wherever it can. However, the solidarity provided by socialists elsewhere in the world with Kurds or other peoples fighting for their national rights cannot extend to abandoning our unremitting opposition to the imperialism of our own state – especially when the earlier interventions of that state in the region in question are directly responsible for the region’s current chaos.
At conference the amendment was defeated after an intervention by Kate Hudson, national secretary of Left Unity. She spoke of “red lines” of anti-imperialism being crossed. Among the motions on the Syrian Kurds that were passed was one from Sheffield branch inspired by the CPGB’s communist platform that in my view struck the correct balance on the issue.
The Syria debate illustrated a consistent theme of the conference: no single political block was able to exercise total control of conference decisions. SR remains influential and is easily the largest organised grouping within Left Unity but at conference they were far from hegemonic.
The debate on the long-awaited ‘safe spaces’ policy demonstrated that the quality of the argument could go a long way towards swaying conference. SR and the much of the leadership has invested a lot of political capital in securing passage of this overlong mishmash of an attempt to root out sexism, racism, homophobia and other social ills from Left Unity.
I had sympathy with SR’s Terry Conway who argued that changing society should involve fighting “the distorting effects of capitalism in our own heads”. But attempting to codify that struggle in convoluted conciliation and disciplinary procedures would most likely empower precisely those people who can already negotiate the power structures of capitalist bureaucracies – rather than the most oppressed in our society.
Besides, as Tina Becker observed in moving the communist platform’s alternative code of conduct, to insist on the complete absence of prejudice in new recruits (or even all long-standing members) in a society whose distorting effects are widespread and profound would mean recruiting virtually no one at all. The concept of a ‘safe space’ or island in which the effects of capitalism are absent is incompatible with the need to engage with that society, effectively challenge oppressive modes of behaviour, and build a mass party that can overthrow capitalism.
In the votes that followed the pretty acrimonious debate the code of conduct (to my surprise) gained more votes than the safe spaces policy. Neither achieved the 50% support required for adoption.
In fact over the weekend a number of policy propositions from what counts as the left of Left Unity –primarily the CPGB/communist platform and Workers Power and its off-shoots – received majority support. For instance, SR’s Alan Thornett failed to prevent an amendment to the environment commission’s report from the Lambeth branch that argued that “socialism is the best way to manage the resources of the planet” from passing. And a motion on crime and justice from the communist platform passed.
In so far as the Socialist Party and the SWP continue to stand aloof, Left Unity (despite its name) barely qualifies as a unity project at all. The fact that at the time of writing Left Unity is proposing to stand only four candidates in May’s general election while the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition that does bring together the Socialist Party and SWP has set itself the target of standing 100 candidates to qualify for a party election broadcast leads some – including within the Independent Socialist Network (ISN) – to conclude that TUSC is the more viable formation.
The key motion in the debate on electoral strategy was that on electoral unity and TUSC moved by the ISN’s Pete McLaren. The paragraph proposing “intensive and structured collaboration” between Left Unity and TUSC and a conference of the left “to discuss a united socialist challenge during and beyond the 2015 election” was removed by a successful amendment. The motion as a whole was passed leaving on the table cooperation at the local level. Indeed two of Left Unity’s four general candidate are standing under an official Left Unity-TUSC banner.
A strong left electoral challenge would be an achievement. Far more important is establishing a dynamic towards a mass party of the working class on the basis of principled socialist politics. On this score, what does TUSC, which for its main constituents serves as little more than an electoral non-aggression pact, offer? The Socialist Party and the SWP give little indication of putting at risk their organisational cohesion by joining a broader membership-based organisation, or by beginning to openly discuss and debate the theoretical shibboleths that have divided them for decades.
Left Unity for all its weaknesses and frustrations does provide a forum in which socialist politics can be openly debated – as its first three conferences have demonstrated. Those who challenge the elitist presumption of much of the Marxist left that a mass working class party can only be a non-Marxist one – that revolutionary politics are for initiates only – are in a minority within Left Unity. That is true also of TUSC. But so long as arguments can be openly advanced and decisions made democratically a minority has the potential to become a majority. That is an opportunity worth seizing.