Back in March of this year, the film maker Ken Loach issued an appeal in The Guardian newspaper for a new party of the left – one that would fill the gap in Britain that leaves us without a political party committed to defending the welfare state and transforming the economy so that it meets the needs of ordinary people. The response to the appeal was – by the standards of previous such calls and considering the weakened, divided and demoralised left, not to mention the general population – a success. To date, more than 8,000 people have signed the appeal and more than 90 groups have sprung up around the country. Some of those groups, like ours in Leamington Spa, have just a small handful of members. Some are even one-person-bands. But others are already very healthy and lively and growing – the Brighton group, for example, has over 200 participants.
This Saturday marked the next step forward – Left Unity’s first national meeting, convened by a provisional organising committee, to discuss and agree how to take the project forward, and to elect a new committee to organise the group’s day to day affairs prior to a founding conference.
Prior to the meeting, there was a lively discussion on the group’s email discussion list, and, as well as many positive contributions, and a feeling of excitement and possibility about the new group, there was also a lot of fear, anxiety and distrust – partly about the scale of the task facing us, partly about the history of previous such projects weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
As it turns out, the excitement was more than justified; the anxiety and fear, to my mind at least, assuaged.
The meeting started with good introductions by the chair, Bianca Todd, and Kate Hudson, one the original group’s main movers, emphasising the scale and seriousness of the tasks facing us. Then there was open discussion from the groups around the country that had been able to send representatives – about 55 groups sent representatives, and, of the 8,000 people signing the original appeal, about 1,000 had so far been in contact with a local group.
The reports from the group’s representatives were all hugely inspiring and uplifting and, to a large extent, mirrored the experience and the views of our own group. Some of the people attending the groups were already members of existing left parties; some were campaigners, old and new, active and inactive, who were prepared to give the whole unity thing another roll of the die; others were entirely new to politics, including many – especially from the north of the country, and the disabled – who had been thrown into it by the viciousness of the government’s attacks on them (and there is much more viciousness to come). All were full of enthusiasm for the new project, but many were also wary: the majority of the meeting did not want yet another left project that was a stitch-up between the existing sects, or that could be dominated and destroyed by a group that used the project for its own purposes before pulling the plug, or that was democratic in name only.
After lunch, this discussion continued for some time before moving to the first motion. The meeting had originally been called partly in order to agree a statement of the group’s broad intentions and aims and principles, and many amendments and alternative statements had been proposed. But the first motion discussed by the meeting called into question the real democratic nature of our opening gambit. Most groups were newly formed, most had not had time to consider or discuss let alone vote on the statement, most had not seen at all any of the amendments or proposed alternative statements. Some of the representatives at the meeting could properly be considered democratically elected delegates of groups, others were just individuals, or had come from a group but with no mandate for voting. And, of the 8,000 people who had signed up to have a discussion about the new party, most had still not said a word or seen a single document. What democratic right did the meeting have to decide anything? To that end, it was moved (as amended):
This meeting resolves not to take any votes on any of the statements, resolutions or amendments except for those, or those parts, which deal with 1) the election of the new national co-ordinating group [to be dissolved and replaced with a properly elected body at the first conference] 2) the process of debate and discussion 3) the dates of the next national meeting and the founding conference and 4) the principle that the new organisation should be based on ‘one member, one vote’.
This passed by majority vote, and, to my mind, was a heartening start to the whole project. We would not start out by pretending to represent more people than we really did, we would not take any decisions out of the hands of future or indeed present members of the local groups, and the new party would be based on individual membership, with every member having equal power over decision-making. These last two points were especially important in assuaging fears about takeovers or undue influence and interference from existing groups and sects. A member of a left sect in the meeting moved that the new committee should invite observers from all existing left groups; others argued that existing groups should be allowed some kind of affiliation or group membership. On the basis of past experience, such notions were rejected by an overwhelming majority of those present. Members of existing groups would be welcomed as individuals, and their views would be treated with respect and given due consideration. Invasions by groups and parties with agendas of their own would not be.
The debate on this question and the subsequent voting got at times fairly heated, and, in the absence of previously agreed structures and mechanisms, pretty chaotic. It even perhaps teetered on the brink of disaster. But this was in itself pretty inspiring stuff. It’s what real democracy is like: it ain’t always pretty, it can sometimes descend into aggression and frustration, and it can be very hard work. But the results are worth it: a decision is eventually reached that satisfies most people if not everyone, and that has authority on that basis. After a debate and a vote like that, there is a certain quiet satisfaction in a job well done if the vote goes your way; a humble acceptance if it doesn’t. At least there should be.
Then followed a short speech by Ken Loach that soothed frayed nerves and reminded us why such hard work was necessary. It was a lovely, quiet, considered talk, that laid out in very few words his vision of what the new party should be. It should be anti-capitalist. (Here Ken semi-apologised for his use of what can often seem to the uninitiated confusing or alienating language. But as he rightly pointed out, this is the language that we on the left have developed so that we can talk accurately about the world we live in and what needs to be done. We should be against a world in which human needs are only met if doing so nets a profit to private individuals. That’s what capitalism means.) It should be socialist. (The only alternative to the chaos of capitalism is a planned economy, and an economy can only be planned if we collectively own and control it. That’s what socialism means.) It should also, on the basis of painful past experience, be fully democratic, and do without ‘charismatic’ leaders.
Of course, that’s just the vision of one man. What the party will actually be like and stand for is the point of the national discussion, which is ongoing, and will be decided at the group’s founding conference in November 2013. For what it’s worth, Ken’s basic vision is also mine.
The meeting then proceeded to vote for the provisional organising committee that will organise the founding conference, and we, the representatives of the Leamington Spa group, voted for those people who had been on the first committee, as they all came across as lovely, decent, committed people, who had clearly done a great job so far; otherwise, for others who had made good contributions on the day and spoke in way that revealed they were committed to democracy; but mainly and specifically for no one who was a member of a current far-left sect.
We came away from the first national meeting feeling more exhilarated and excited about politics than we had in a decade. Of course, the sheer scale and seriousness of the tasks lying ahead of us would be enough to calm anyone down from their high and sober them up. But we return to our local group in Leamington Spa full of hope for the future, and inspired to begin as soon as possible the hard work of deciding what we want a new left party to be, how we can work to make it a success, and how to win people to its banner in defence of their own interests, those of humanity, and of future generations.A report from yesterday’s first national meeting of Left Unity local group representatives by Stuart Watkins from the Leamington Spa group.
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