Tom Walker, Salman Shaheen and Pete Green write on the future of Left Unity.
When something happens that you believed was impossible, there are two ways you can respond. The first is to stick to your guns, keep doing what you were doing before, and say it will all blow over soon. The second is to admit – annoying as it is – that you were wrong.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is such an event. We, like so many others, believed until a few short months ago that the probability of the left winning the Labour leadership was so low that it could essentially be discounted. Any strategy based on remaining inside Labour was a non-starter, and had been for decades. The left outside Labour considered this so self-evident as to be barely worth discussing. We expected Ed Miliband’s successor to nail the coffin shut. Along with just about everyone else on the left, we got it wrong.
Now, in the face of a historic, game-changing victory, we are concerned that Left Unity looks set to double down on a wrong strategy. The party built its foundations on a political perspective that has suddenly had the rug pulled from under it, as indicated by the recent fall in its membership from just under 2,000 to closer to 1,500 and the likely further erosion to come. Hundreds of resignation letters overwhelmingly tell the same story: the politics of Left Unity are my politics, but now I believe the best shot at making a difference is through the Labour Party.
The case for a network
That is why we submitted our motion (motion 3) calling for Left Unity to stop standing in elections, and in doing so cease being a ‘party’, instead transforming into something more akin to a network. Here is the text:
“Conference recognises that the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election has transformed the political landscape and is now attracting thousands of new members into the Labour Party including many who have been active inside Left Unity. The struggle inside the Labour Party itself over its direction and policies is now critical for the future of the left and the interests of the vast majority of people in Britain.
It follows that Left Unity now needs to devote the opening session of its forthcoming conference to an extended debate about its relationship to the Labour Party and Left Unity’s lack of viability as an electoral alternative.
We propose that:
a) Left Unity dissolve itself as a political party which contests elections at any level.
b) Those present reconstitute ourselves as a Left Unity Network of activists and supporters who are committed to the principles and policies contained in our founding documents and to support for the various campaigns and struggles which correspond to those principles. This network would be open to both members of the Labour Party and those who choose to remain outside it.
c) Conference empowers the current National Council to sustain the existing structures of membership and communications whilst formulating proposals for a new simplified constitution and internal elections appropriate for a network which can be voted on by the membership as a whole.”
The intent is that we would continue as an organisation – constituted along the lines of any single-issue campaign or political association – in a form that allows for membership of the Labour Party. To be clear, no one would be asked to join Labour, and we certainly wouldn’t be ‘entryists’ inside Labour. Giving up elections, however, would mean that it would be legitimate for us to be a political organisation that included some people who were in Labour and some who weren’t (it would also, incidentally, open up Left Unity membership to Greens and others).
This motion has been met with some trepidation. The suggestion that our position is an existential threat to Left Unity has produced an unfortunate ‘defend the party’ response. Yet we believe our path is in practice the only one that offers some chance at preservation – even growth. Far from being an attempt to ‘end’ Left Unity, it is trying to find a way to preserve the good work Left Unity has done in a situation where an electoral challenge to the left of Labour has gone from difficult-but-necessary to being simply unviable.
We believe the answer is to give up the party form but continue as an organisation on the basis of our shared politics. And it is not simply a defensive move: while it would allow some who have resigned from Left Unity to re-join, it would also allow people in Labour who have never been in Left Unity before to sign up. We do not want to be prescriptive about what such a network would do. But there’s no reason why we cannot continue to issue broadsheets, leaflets and other material nationally and locally, hold our own meetings and engage in joint activities with others on the left. This is not a liquidationist proposal as some have interpreted it.
We’d also like to lay to rest a red herring that has arisen during this debate. The original draft of our motion included some interim powers for the executive committee in the case that Left Unity votes to change from a party into a network. This has been questioned as handing over power to some undemocratic group. But this part was never the point of the motion – it’s simply a suggested transitional arrangement. Our amended version (as above) has a different plan, involving the national council. It would be a shame if people voted on our motion according to the quality of its constitutional transition, when the questions we are attempting to raise are far more fundamental to the politics and strategy not only of Left Unity but of the left as a whole.
A movement finding expression through Labour
Much leftist ink has been spilled in analyses of the Corbyn phenomenon, though too few have admitted the huge strategic re-think that any serious attempt to understand it inexorably demands. Let’s try to think outside our own organisational positioning. How can we understand the rise of ‘Corbynism’?
The Corbyn surge has to be read as the latest stage of an anti-austerity movement that has waxed and waned since 2010, and seen different expressions over that time. This movement is not identified with any single organisation or centre: it is a diffuse politics that no one ‘owns’ or controls – in some ways as much an idea as a movement, or, more to the point, a set of ideas that has driven a series of movements and political shifts.
Consider the 2010-11 student movement, Occupy, the People’s Assembly, the Green surge. (Left Unity was itself a small part of this process, in many ways a byproduct of the strategic debates around the rise of Syriza in Greece.) These were all expressions of these ideas, searching for a vehicle. But, if we are honest, each had its own frustrations. This movement wasn’t satisfied with rallies, A-to-B marches or small organisations incapable of winning elections: it desperately wanted a way to actually change society, a way to win. When this happened in Greece it found expression through Syriza, in Spain through Podemos. In Britain, Corbyn presented a sudden opportunity, as incredible as it was unexpected.
It was in no way inevitable that this movement would crystallise through the Labour Party. In many ways we can understand Labour as the last ‘door’ it knocked on. Having tried a purer ‘horizontal’ street-movement type approach and met the barriers of political-state power, and having surged into the Greens only to find the way blocked by Britain’s electoral system, it finally tripped over the fluke that was the changes to Labour’s leadership rules and the possibilities they opened.
Consider a dammed river during a great flood. First the water finds easy places to go: small pools, tributaries, long-dry streams – all fill up, but cannot contain it. Sooner or later, the dam bursts. The Labour Party built its dam from 30 years of neoliberalism – but still it could not contain the flood.
The nature of the Labour Party has not particularly changed, but it has been often misunderstood. Its residual links to the trade unions were an important factor, but that alone does not explain Corbynism. Nor is it possible to understand it as a former social democratic party as in much of Europe. Labour was always, thanks to the electoral system, at least two parties in one: at one time simultaneously a social democratic party and a socialist party, and now a neoliberalised former social democratic party co-existing internally with a party to its left. The balance of power had long been towards the first of these, but is now shifting. It is no use simply pointing to international or historical precedent: we do not know how this situation will resolve itself.
The futility of ‘keep on keeping on’
Now we face a choice in how to respond to this series of unexpected events: between a perspective based on how to best nurture and serve this new movement, versus a perspective that starts from our party’s current form and tries to fit it into the new situation.
That brings us to the harshest critics of our motion: those who are keenest on standing in elections at every opportunity. In some ways this is not surprising, given that Left Unity did not manage to develop an electoral strategy beyond letting anyone who feels like standing in an election do so. This means Left Unity includes some members who appear to see it as primarily an electoral project, occupying a similar political space to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
That was never our approach. For us, standing in elections is not an end in itself, an exercise in the slow construction of socialism, or worst of all some kind of grim ‘duty’. It is a tactic that is appropriate in some situations and not appropriate in others.
The clearest expression of this is the argument that runs as follows: Your motion is a disgrace because you’re saying I shouldn’t run in the elections against my local Labour council. My local Labour council is really right wing and it’s cutting lots of important things. You’re telling me to support Labour cuts!
In this model, whether you should stand in elections is determined solely by whether your local Labour council is right wing. From this point-of-view, the election of Jeremy Corbyn might as well have happened on Mars for all the difference it makes. What is ignored is that people do not vote purely, or even mostly, on local issues or individual candidates. The ‘Corbyn effect’ is nationwide, and will draw left-of-Labour voters back towards Labour with magnetic force, whoever the local candidate happens to be. The space for a left challenge – a space that until recently felt like it was expanding at the same rate as disillusionment with the main parties – has dramatically contracted.
Such electoral stubbornness will not even serve the purpose of challenging Labour councils, because nobody is scared of opposition from no-votes Norman. If you want to know what scares those Labour councils and Labour MPs, have a quick look at the press: they are terrified of the growing Corbynista movement inside the Labour Party.
In the deep freeze
There is another camp, beyond the electoral enthusiasts, which makes a more subtle argument. This runs, roughly, that the fundamental nature of the Labour Party has not changed, that the Labour right will reassert itself, that Corbyn’s days are numbered and therefore we should not do anything rash, like turning Left Unity into a network. Instead we should do what we can to support Corbyn from the outside, keep the party ticking over as a sort of ‘insurance policy’, and present ourselves as an alternative when Labour returns to type.
The political root of this is a certainty that Labour cannot be transformed – cannot, in other words, be run by the left for anything other than an interregnum of undetermined length. This hypothesis may prove ultimately correct, but it is perverse to be so sure of it in a situation where Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the party. It represents an attachment to a theoretical certainty about the nature of Labour despite that very same theory predicting that this would not happen – an accumulator bet on an analysis that, at the very least, struggles to explain these events.
If this is our view, however, then we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may be only an organisation of 1,500 socialists, or thereabouts, but that includes many experienced activists and organisers whose impact goes beyond the strict numbers. We should not imagine that what we do does not matter. If we abstain from what’s going on inside Labour – worse, we argue that others should as well – we may end up allowing a defeat when a little more effort could have clinched a victory.
In any case, we can’t imagine it’s possible to put Left Unity in the deep freeze and pull it out again when it’s needed. With almost no new members, it will decay over time. And if the worst happens and Corbyn is deposed at some point, then consider: who will listen to us in that situation if we have remained ‘pure’ by insisting on our separateness? Do you imagine they’ll be impressed by how we stood aside and predicted their defeat? The question answers itself.
A network, by contrast, can sustain itself and the politics that brought Left Unity members together by making a reasonably clear trade. We would swap our electoral work – never our strong suit anyway, really – for an organisational form that allows us to engage with the coming struggles in defence of Corbyn. That’s a deal worth taking.
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