Left Unity: Cuddling up for warmth . . . or striking out in a new direction?

voting3Don Milligan looks at founding conference

LEFT UNITY, the new political party of socialists to the left of Labour. was formed on Saturday at the Royal National Hotel in Woburn Place, Bloomsbury. A fine big room was booked and just under five hundred of us filed in to sit row upon row on ballroom chairs arranged in two big blocks. Six chandeliers sparkled overhead – five of a moderate size, and an enormous one in the centre of the ceiling, which dazzled as the little glass diamonds twinkled with all the colours of the spectrum. It was the bright focal point in an otherwise dismal scene composed mostly of forty something white men, three or four people of colour, and maybe thirty or forty women. Of course, there were some lively people, particularly young women who were, despite their small number, extremely active during the debates, arguing from a variety of different standpoints, counting votes, and liaising between the top table and the various conference bodies.

The opening speeches about “safe spaces” were clearly the product of haunting by the turmoil regarding rape and the conduct of affairs in the Socialist Workers Party. Consequently, women will, from the get go, make up at least half of all Left Unity committees, councils, and delegations. This is a significant departure from all previous left initiatives and is the single measure most likely to give the workings of the new party and its public profile a radically different character.

However, feeling throughout the hall was saturated with a wary, and certainly weary skepticism from a mass of people who have seen it all before. Stalwarts and survivors from a raft of other attempts to unify the British left in our common struggle against Labour and the other pro-capitalist parties. After decades of defeat and irrelevance there was a realisation throughout the hall that we have nothing to lose, and a glimmer of hope that Left Unity might actually succeed in hauling us out of the hole that we all tumbled into long ago.

In Raymond Williams’ apt phrase, the left has embarked, once again, upon a “journey of hope”, where issues of morale have always taken precedence over actually winning anything.

The new party has no links with the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, Respect, any of the Scottish socialist groupings; no Labour MPs, MEPs, or councillors have jumped ship, and no significant figures from the trade unions have associated themselves with us. The Socialist Workers Party and even Red Pepper were notable by their absence. Of course, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) – a tiny revolutionary group – was noisily present along with a smattering of other revolutionaries from a smattering of little cliques and cabals.

The conference, wisely I thought, decided not to proscribe groups like the CPGB who clearly intend publicly to campaign against the majority decisions of voting4the new party. Most of those present appeared to be well aware that banning such groups would merely involve us in a round of acrimonious disputes, disciplinary hearings, and a debilitating round of expulsions. There was a realisation that it is far more important for the majority to push on and begin to concentrate upon building influence beyond the narrow confines of the left rather than getting dragged down by scraps with die-hard Leninists and uncompromising revolutionaries who are, as is well known, never wrong about anything.

Indeed the strategy implicit in Left Unity’s activity seems to be establishing practical links with existing left groups and parties by engaging with the members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, Counterfire, or the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, in each locality, and in each campaign, in the hope that the leaderships of far left and revolutionary groups will eventually opt to come into Left Unity and fight their corner inside the party while campaigning publicly for the broader majority positions agreed at Left Unity conferences and gatherings. So, Left Unity does not set out to be a federation of existing groups, nor is it organised around a charismatic figure like Arthur Scargill or George Galloway – it is a broad left party which hopes to provide a focal point for all those who want to create a mass anti-capitalist party capable of mounting a serious challenge to the powers that be.

The business of the conference was dominated by the procedural matters involved in setting up a new party. Consequently, hour after hour was spent deliberating upon technical matters and discussing and voting upon amendments to the draft constitution. The chairing, both morning and afternoon, was as excellent as the founding members were disciplined. The agenda was got through with minimal delays and overruns; a draft constitution was passed, and the name of the new party, Left Unity, was approved by secret ballot.

All to the good.

But, there was also an air of unreality first revealed by the discussion of the lower age limit for party membership. The initial proposal of fixing it at 13 was speaker1overturned in favour of no age limit at all to a chorus of fervent assertions of the right of children to participate in political struggle. There was no mention of parental permissions, or of the difficulty of the party’s youth organisers dealing with DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) issues or of liaison with child protection agencies. This naive atmosphere in which discussion was infected by a sort of rhetorical voluntarism, in which the wish is father and mother to the thought, was compounded by discussion of the need to eschew all involvement in coalition government – to which I could only think – “The chance’d be a fine thing!”

This kind of slippage, while not actually psychotic, has always informed much wrangling on the left, no matter how irrelevant or distant, such conundrums, contradictions, and challenges are likely to be. In this spirit various documents (“platforms” in left-party-speak), outlining the political principles and priorities of different groups within Left Unity were briefly discussed. So speakers were able to put forward the case for The Socialist Platform, The Class Struggle Platform, The Communist Platform, and a couple of others. When it came to the vote, The Left Platform, which emphasised the unity of anti-capitalist purpose while stopping short of making explicitly revolutionary demands and assertions, won overwhelming support. The arguments will no doubt go on, but Left Unity has set its sights on becoming a mass anti-capitalist party which while uniting diverse trends on the left, will become capable, in the fullness of time, of throwing down the gauntlet to Labour and the other pro-capitalist parties.

There will be a major policy conference in March next year at which Left Unity will begin to formalise its approach to a wide variety of different issues. It is there that the substantive political debates will begin and the party’s initial priorities concerning campaigning, strategy, and tactics will be sorted out as the experience of those involved in the practical work of the branches is brought to bear on the problems in hand. If sufficient ‘escape velocity’ is achieved Left Unity will be able to overcome the gravitational pull of squabbling revolutionary sects and other failed leftwing initiatives, to build a new socialist party with a mass following. If it fails it will fall rapidly to earth, burning out during its descent.

I hope it will succeed, but in order for that to happen, those of us in Left Unity will have to stop attributing the failures of the past to the sectarianism of revolutionary politics and to the lack of democracy in many of the organisations traditionally associated with the left. To blame these features for our collective failure is to muddle up symptoms with causes. The isolation and inward-looking character of socialist circles in Britain is the product of defeat, not it’s cause. Simply, proclaiming unity and ensuring that we have more democratic structures will not in themselves enable us to overcome our political and social separation from the mass of working people.

If we want to get anywhere at all we will have to inspect and challenge many of our existing assumptions and prejudices. We will have to develop a political programme with ideas that spring from the contemporary concerns and experience of the modern working class in all its contradictory and myriad diversity. Capital has, over the last thirty or forty years completely ‘re-engineered’ the working class. Consequently, Left Unity, our new party, will have to catch up with the perpetually emergent nature of modern class relations or it will continue to languish amidst the verities and rhetoric of 1945 – the home truths and slogans of left Labourism, and of a vanished world. Therefore, we will have to consider how to move beyond defensive struggles regarding welfare and public services, we will have to think about how we can move onto the attack in private sector employment, in banks and financial services, in distribution, among the self-employed, and into a host of other areas where the trade unions and the left has traditionally never ventured.



21 responses to “Left Unity: Cuddling up for warmth . . . or striking out in a new direction?”

  1. John Tummon says:

    Don, what a lovely flourish of elegant analysis you have produced there, with your usual panache. I didn’t know you were there or going to be there, but am pleased at your balanced and, on the whole, positive assessment of what took place and the chances of us breaking the mould. You already know where you and me disagree, or have disagreed, but we are in the same party now. We all need to drop our pet certainties and engage with “the perpetually emergent nature of modern class relations” and all who sail in her in order to re-build a collective analaysis and practice that reflects both the emerging, often disparate, realities of these relations and the ideological baggage overlaid in them from the neoliberal decades.

    We need, in my view, an extended ‘going to the people’ phase of development before we do anything else. Unless and until we are authentically rooted and engaged with all or most of the myriad constituencies within the modern working class, whatever we say in public and whatever strategic alliances we are able to make will count for nothing. This ‘going to the people’ will take a collective and individual confidence which has not been there for such a long time. Although what we are able to say to people in the course of this is relevant, it is not the key to making it work; I think the key is listening and learning from the people and then reflecting our commonality with them in what we say, how we build branches, how we run branches, what we attempt to do locally, regionally and nationally, if and when we put up for elections and with which policies.

    • oskarsdrum says:

      Yes exactly! I hope this can be something that the disparate fragments of the workers’ movement outside labour can unite around, and being to overcome our present state of marginality.

  2. David Ellis says:

    The danger with Left Unity is not that it will fail but that it might succeed despite itself. If a wave of unfocussed revolutionary anger spread throughout the working class and labour movement Left Unity might well be lifted like a piece of wreckage to the top of the wave from where it will offer political confusion, opportunism, `broadness’ and misleadership of the type that could get the working class killed.

  3. Philip Foxe says:

    Fair enough account and so far so good. No matter how much you spin it, the 50% women ruling is profoundly undemocratic and will be a real stumbling block to democracy and accountability as it means women will be able to demand places based on their sex rather than their democratic support. The arguments against it were coherent and largely came from articulate and assertive women whereas those in support were either unconvincing or downright abusive. I have still to hear any principled ones. Sorry that Kate Hudson applauds it as she is someone I admire.

    • John Tummon says:

      I agree that rigid quotas are not the way towards bringing women and feminism into the central focus of LU; I found the speech from Amina accusing opponents of this of using far right arguments the worst part of the day – that kind of emotional demonisation, which frightens people from daring to say what they really think, has no place in LU.

      A strong women’s caucus was agreed and I voted for that – it will enable women to enskill one another, support one another and ensure that whoever gets onto national or regional leadership bodies will not be isolated. Rigid quotas mean that a few women will be put into positions primarly by default, until or unless a womens’ caucus has produced a very strong and numerous cadre. Some male comrades who could contribute a lot might miss out because of the quota rule, which would weaken LU.

      Even so, the decision on quotas might mean that women start to join LU at a faster rate than otherwise, because we are now attractive enough to the new generation of feminists and women in general. I hope so and that the women’s caucus is given enough resources to make the quota system less damaging than it could be.

  4. Mark Reeves says:

    “Indeed the strategy implicit in Left Unity’s activity seems to be establishing practical links with existing left groups and parties by engaging with the members of the Socialist Workers Party…”

    Are you suggesting we become a party of rapists and rape enablers?

  5. Ray G says:

    Excellent comments Don, and it was so good to see you there after all these years.

  6. Robert Brenchley says:

    Men could do the same thing, though. I’ve seen people promoted way beyond their ability through tokenism, and I don’t like it any better than you do, but we have to get the balance right. There’s no lack of able women out there who represent every point on the political spectrum, so we’d gain nothing by giving the traditional preference to men.

    • John Tummon says:

      Robert, I do agree that there are plenty of able women out there from all parts of the Left and that if they come into LU over the next 4 months, the quota system will be vindicated, although the flexibility in the 40% – 40% male female minimums amendment was the one I favoured and still do, because the abilities of candidates from both genders are likely to vary over the years and that flexibility allows meritocracy to express itslef. That amendment got killed by Amina’s rabble-rousing speech and that was a shame.

  7. Tim Cooper says:

    The general public is not interested in listening to heavy, polarised political debate within a party. The clue regarding how to proceed in is the name, Left Unity. So compromise and a charitable reading of perspective is, in my view, required from the outset. Urgent, honest, outward presentation must take priority over inward-looking self-analysis. This disempowered, repressed nation is crying out for a credible system it can identify with – one which enables popular sovereignty and erases mindless deference to unelected aristocrats, oath-swearing appointees and ruthless capitalists residing in the same greedy club. Identifying with the communist rhetoric of half a century ago will turn what has the makings of a vibrant, socialist alternative, into an ideological laughing stock.

  8. AP says:

    It’s about economics. It’s about jobs and work (and costs). Economic power is what the vast majority of people need. Left Unity – sorry I really don’t like the name, it sounds so 1970s – has to have economic ideas which can connect with people who are prepared to vote UKIP/don’t care or whoever else. It is good to be feminist and so on, but if you talked about 50-50 quotas, gender equality etc on air the coalition government would turn round to you and say `well we just lifted 1mn people out of paying tax altogether, disproportionately they are women`. How do you answer that?
    The whole LU gig has to be smarter, more modern. To use language and image in the way existing power does. And I’m afraid I don’t see it yet. I see more modernity in the anarchists and the US left. I genuinely hope I’m wrong.

  9. MickyD says:

    Is that ex RCP Don Milligan ? Blimey how times change ….

  10. Pete b says:

    Many of us hope left unity will work. I will study the agreed platform to see how it can serve a working class orientation. I think politicising the unions and building rank and file groups is priority.
    I want left unity to get something going with this and other initiatives. Pete b

  11. Mark Reeves says:

    Is my response to this thread on December 3rd ever going to be published?

  12. Actually Don, Red Pepper was there – to observe on and report back from the Left Unity conference. There will be coverage in our Feb/March edition (the conference having just missed our print deadlines for Dec/Jan).

  13. Graham Taylor says:

    How on earth can a party founded on the principles of equality and democracy saddle itself with such a ridiculous 50% women rule. People should be elected for their abilities and capabilities not for their gender. When will we ever learn? A gift for our opponents. We need to play a much, much smarter game than this. I would like to think that once the party has been established this rule will be revisited.

  14. Jara Handala says:

    Thanx to Don for his report, & I just want to comment on one topic he covered, one that concerns many, the matter of the never-less-than-50% politics that won the day on what was framed as the question of gender equality. I emphasise framing coz no-one at Conference conceptualised the question as one of sexism & its practical problems. As I hope my comment makes plain, there’s a chasm here – & great dangers.

    This is what Don said early on in his report:

    “. . . women will, from the get go, make up at least half of all Left Unity committees, councils, and delegations. This is a significant departure
    from all previous left initiatives and is the single measure most likely to give the workings of the new party and its public profile a radically different character.”

    So what’s the problem in Left Unity warranting this never-less-than-50% politics? What’s the evidence?

    Emancipatory political activity, including what we say, is likely to be more successful if it is guided by knowledge, not just any belief; it means such activity should be rational, & therefore based on evidence.

    Thus if an organisation, as LU has done, decides that girls & women will never be a minority on any regional or national committee (it seems this doesn’t apply locally, to branches) then one would expect that this was based on an investigation that had shown that anti-female sexism was so rife within LU that an internal political campaign, & possible remedial organisational measures, were necessary to challenge & change this sexist behaviour. And why is sexism a problem? Because its realisation as practice results in oppression, it obstructs attempts to live more egalitarian relationships between people, & it institutionalises rulership (if only in the sexed &/or gendered dimensions of our lives). In the case of a political organisation it helps a sexed/gendered group become decision-makers, thereby securing control over resources that it can then distribute & consume in a sexist way.

    So what evidence has been presented of sexism in LU? From what I can gather, none. However, what has been said within LU, by the advocates of discrimination in favour of girls & women, amounts to little more than assertion, although one can construe an implied argument: in being present in a sexist society, Britain, it *must* be the case that LU is sexist; presumably almost everyone in LU believes sexism is wrong, so something has to be done to oppose sexism within LU, moreover it’s all the more dangerous in that it is almost always unintended; so let’s try something, let’s ensure females are never in a minority in a LU regional or national committee.

    Sexism is a problem in British society, but how is it a problem within LU? How is it institutionalised, & how onerous is it, how harmful? That we haven’t been told. Invoking talk of the totality, stepping back a moment, what inequity is there in LU, not just its sexed/gendered expressions? Again, not been told. In the LU oppression stakes, what’s the rank of sexist behaviour between LU members? Perhaps the lives of LU members are being messed up to an even greater extent by other kinds of relations they have with one another? One could go on. Let’s just say, when you start examining this matter, even in a cursory systematic way, it becomes obvious that there’s been a huge over-reaction given the paucity of evidence offered.

    And who could think, especially for a Brit, that simply being a girl or woman makes a person *necessarily* more enlightened, more virtuous, more socialist? One word: Thatcher. Two words: Le Pen. Women were the majority on the British SWP Disputes Committee that protected its former National Secretary. The voting fodder of Blair’s continuation of the Tory onslaught were ‘the Blair Babes’, 101 of them – which given that many know their George Orwell should have sounded a warning in itself. That’s why Tony Greenstein at LU’s Founding Conference said,

    “[to] impose a 50% quota it’s substituting what you want for what you are . . . I believe – I’m sorry – that if you’re faced with a choice, vote for the person you agree with because of their *politics*, not because they happen to be born of one sex or another.”

    (Next came Amina from London.)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7tLopZbebY (from 5:40)

    But I’ve been misleading you – grossly: the advocates don’t speak of sexism: they want *gender equality*. So one doesn’t need to investigate whether there is a problem (sexism): the only problem is those resisting gender equity. You see, it’s *not* about oppression, about practices, behaviour, what people do to one another; no, it’s about form, about the composition of committees, about satisfying a formal criterion. This means it is *not* about politics: the politics of the females concerned are irrelevant. More precisely, the politics is getting the quota institutionalised, keeping it there, & only then comes the competition for places, when the political views of individuals start to be considered. And in this what is primary, the necessary quality, what makes one eligible, is having either a XX chromosomal composition or living as a gendered female (see my point below).
    http://leftunity.org/29248/ (please see clause 4d)

    To speak in terms of the social ontology of our species – & we should, as it illuminates – gender equity is static in nature, whereas behaviour, sexist or anti-sexist, is processual, it’s dynamic. It’s the difference between is & becoming. One is preoccupied with identity, the other with interests.

    I contend the political problem is sexism, not gender inequity; enduring systematic & institutionalised sexist behaviour, not an unequal relationship between gendered human beings that can be put right by insisting on never less than 50%. Likewise, the problem is racism & racist behaviour, not trying to make the relations between racialised human beings, races, more equal. The problem is a set of oppressive regimes in & through which people live their lives, each delivering a condition of rule, all of them rendered intelligible in that they are all conditioned by the practical imperatives of the productive forces being in the social form called capital. Liberation from exploitation & oppression is the politics here. This point was made a long time ago by Milton Fisk.
    http://www.ceeol.com/aspx/issuedetails.aspx?issueid=74f340c0-df3e-45b0-a6ad-cc937cbbab2d&articleId=1f28c37f-d98d-4766-acaf-1de3e62b35a5 (‘Feminism, Socialism, and Historical Materialism’, Praxis International [Belgrade], 1982, downloadable for free)

    A well-tried attempt to reduce inequity has been the policy of explicit positive discrimination in favour of one group at the expense of another group, be they racialised/ethnicised or genderised or aged, ostensibly to favour the oppressed group, & by extension oppressed individuals (an important difference). This, by its nature, is not simply non-class, the absence of class, it is a-class, it is apart from class, it’s in another dimension.

    My evaluation of the efficacy of positive discrimination is neither here nor there. I just want to end by saying, it seems the critics of positive discrimination offer only one egalitarianising alternative, one liberatory strategy, call it the Greenstein Strategy: vote in those with the best politics, the politics that can be used to create party structures, policies, & practices that are best suited to help people both oppose oppressive behaviour & create more egalitarian practices, be it inside or outside the party. But the question remains, is there no place for quotas? Should it just be a matter of campaigning for the institutionalising of the best politics?

    Finally, on living as a gendered female. It merits noting that the embedding of the gendered male/female binary into LU organisational forms has stirred the ire of those who promote the interests of transgendered and so-called intersex people. Can’t find where I read it the other day, but it seems the LU full-timers and the Internal Democracy & Constitution Policy Commission are having to look into this. Maybe someone in authority can tell us.

    I say ‘so-called’ because the term, not the concept, is an expression of discursive binomial imperialism: those other than XX or XY in their chromosomal composition should not be wedged between the dominants but should get the recognition they deserve, as being their own sex; even to say they are para-XX/XY is discursively imperialist as it defines them *in terms of* some other sex. We all know how derogatory it is to call coloured people (a quasi-anagram of the right-on ‘people of colour’) non-white. It’s the same here. Perhaps, if one must, it’s preferable to say these people are allosex, not intersex, other than the much more prevalent XX & XY people with whom we share this endangered humanised planet. And of course when we speak that way we realise how absurd is our chromosomal composition *in itself*, how irrelevant it is for our interpersonal, groupal & social lives. Even so, it doesn’t stop some of us being made to suffer, sometimes horribly, even murdered.

  15. John McLintock says:

    I like the new party’s policiies in favour of positive discrimation and I hope that the Safe Spaces policy survives. To reproduce- inside the Left Unity Party, the discriminatory culture of capitalist society would be to ensure that the party will be still-born. Decades and decades of experience have categorically disproved the ‘trickle-up theory’ of women’s emancipation. It’s time for something better from a new party of the left.

  16. Oliver says:

    Would it perhaps attack the problem more directly to impose a maximum limit for white/straight/middle-class males, say 30-40% of executive positions? (I fit this category BTW). This might seem less patronising/tokenistic, and perhaps answers the begged question of why there aren’t minimums for other marginalised/oppressed groups. At least 60-70% of the leadership will then be people who have to put up with some variety of b******* on account of not ticking every box of privilege.

    All of the talented, capable white straight males can continue to make vital contributions to the party in any manner of ways – developing policy ideas, designing leaflets, organising activities, conducting research, writing speeches – just fewer in an executive/spokesperson capacity.

    • John McLintock says:

      I like your thinking Oliver because I really should have said that I like that the new party actually HAS positive discrimination policies even though I’m not at all sure that a simple 50/50 rule is workable (just consider a 3 or a 5-person body to see what I mean). And the proportion of representation positive discrimination aims to enable is only half the story. There is also the question of what kind of electoral system would be used to deliver the desired results. For example, I suggest that all-women shortlists is a poor method and that something better would be needed.

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