We live together or we die alone

Salman Shaheen on why a one member one vote party is the way forward for a new party of the left

Salman Shaheen

Salman Shaheen

On Saturday, a hundred people descended on a London hotel because they wanted to change the world. Like many, I went along to Left Unity’s first national meeting full of hope, but also dread. Because the path to that room was littered with the decaying corpses of a dozen other worthy projects to unite the left. If we cannot learn from their mistakes, ours will soon join them.

Some people have voiced their concerns on this website that Saturday’s meeting overwhelmingly voted in favour of a one member one vote organisation and against allowing observers to the national coordinating group from established parties such as the SWP, SP, TUSC, AWL, CPGB, WP, ACI, ISN or any other collection of letters in the alphabet.

But the biggest mistake we could make would be to forge a new party as a patchwork banner of existing far left groups hung out for election time and then left to gather dust.

Left Unity should be open for members of all groups and none to join. They should not be expected to leave their politics at the door, forget their affiliations, or be denied to right to form whatever factions they choose. But no group, old or new, mass organisation or splinter, should have the right of veto or special status that elevates them above individual members.

One member one vote is the only way to ensure democracy, transparency and accountability. If members of other groups wish to take part in the national coordinating group, they should do so as full participants, not observers. After being elected.

I for one am glad that members of the SWP, SP, TUSC, AWL, CPGB, WP, ACI, ISN and others were at Saturday’s meeting after being elected representatives of their local groups. I’m also glad we had people there who have been involved in Occupy and UK Uncut. I’m glad we had Greens, trade unionists, anarchists and disaffected Labour supporters tired of seeing a weak response to Cameron’s class war. I hope that all of these people will continue to participate in this vital project for Left Unity.

We have a long way to go. But we can make it if we work together.

Of course people will continue to be active members of their own organisations. We should welcome and support that. But Left Unity needs its own active membership base. It cannot just be a collective cloak worn once a year for elections and then discarded.

Together we should be taking part in the anti-cuts campaigns, the struggle against the bedroom tax, the fight to defend our NHS, our environment, our nation and our world. We must be with the poor and the oppressed that we seek to represent every single day. Only then do we have the right to ask them for their vote come election time.

Every second we are divided is another second the rest of the country doesn’t care. It’s another step closer to privatisation for the NHS; another life destroyed, like Stephanie Bottrill’s, by the government’s assault on Britain’s most vulnerable.

We have to live and work together. Or we die alone, our corpse left to rot beside every other failed project to build that better world we could see but never reach.


16 responses to “We live together or we die alone”

  1. John Penney says:

    Good article Salman. Of course Left Unity needs to be a political party, with an individual, subs-paying, membership base. Some Far Left Groups seem to think that only THEY can be structured as real political parties with individual membership. Everyone else has to be a loose united front structure – so much easier to manipulate and poach from ! IF we were ever so lucky as to secure trades union affiliations ,then in return for the CASH this requires, Left Unity will have to work out a fair democratic way for such organisations to be represented on LU decision-making bodies – whilst safeguarding the primacy of individual member control of the party. Not too hard to structure surely ?

    What we don’t want is for Left Unity to be manipulated by organisations or trades union grandees behind the scenes — leaving the individual membership as the manipulated “mugs” who do all the grunt work, but have no real control over “their” organisation — just as the Labour Party has been for a long, long, time !

    It amazes me, the sheer affrontery of so many Far Left Groups, so tiny, but demanding special rights and privileges from Left Unity. In return for what ? Their HUGE membership support ? Their profound political experience and understanding (which has done so much to build mass Left poltical action so far in the UK) ? A bit more humility needed from the Far Left methinks. You can all join Left Unity, AS INDIVIDUALS, just like the rest of us, not getting two or more votes each by wearing a number of “political front organisation hats”. Then you can fight for your political positions through normal democratic debate – and hopefully help to build Left Unity and the anti austerity struggle as well.

    • Tim Murgatroyd says:

      Tribalism takes many shapes and forms. In many ways it’s a natural reaction to the fact that all human consciousness is essentially a solo activity — we are defined by our thoughts and feelings, all a product of unique pasts and mental journeys. In many ways we are trapped in our hearts and skulls. Yet we dearly need each other’s co-operation to create a safer, saner, more equitable world. So that’s why I understand those who are afraid of OMOV. They want to be safe in their ‘family’, ‘clan’, call it what you will. It’s intensely natural and human.

      Then comes the rub. We want to build a Britain very different from this one. To do that we need a majority of the people to believe that their best interests lie in intense, unprecedented levels of co-operation with their fellow citizens. We need non-tribal debate. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, people are not only genetically individualistic to a certain extent (not totally, of course, before anyone jumps down my throat, otherwise a more co-operative approach for humanity would be impossible). Worse, we’ve all been socially conditioned to be intensely individualistic.

      If the above is true then you’ll never attract the majority of modern people to any radical organisation that doesn’t have OMOV. Only oddballs see democracy as working any other way.

      A final point. Would the society we’d like to live in be anything less than each citizen having an individual vote about specific issues on a regular basis? Of course not. Everyone knows that.

      So let’s talk instead about how we’re going to convince the millions of ordinary people disillusioned with a profit-based, private ownership system that an alternative is not just desirable, but possible. That’s really the test for Left Unity. We’ve got to explain how we could run things better than the rich — and be convincing. People aren’t daft. They remember Stalinism. So OMOV is a non-brainer — if you’re serious about trying to create a better world, that is.

    • Jed says:

      People around Left Unity are trying to be understanding and consensual in early exchanges with far left parties and the micro sects.

      Lets call a spade a shovel. As a first practical organistional step, Left Unity needs to esatblish how it will exclude micro sects from disrupting its evolution, and fast. I’m not talking about far left parties here – SP, SWP, SR, others, but those groups that act entirely parasitically and have no agenda beyond trival point scoring off other far left groups. The classic example being our old frinds the CPGB/Weekly Worker – entryists in every group hoping to pull a couple of recruits back into the sect.

      The ‘CPGB’ is an irrelevant and cannot seriouly be considered to be part of the labour movement. The leaders want to be recognised…of what? <30 people in an organisation that began in the early 80s? zero record of trade union or broad labour movement work, dedicated to navel gazing propaganda and 'interventions' in and a parasitic relationship with any moderatly successful left inititive; funded by interesting business sources.

      A group like LU is manor from heaven for hard core micro sects, i.e. open, inclusive, spirit of demoocratic exhange, pluralistic. LUs strenth is the sectarians opportunity to engage with new layers from the real labour movement. Incapble of building, they're power to destroy does exist.

  2. Bianca Todd says:

    A great response to the first meeting. Well written and objective. Thank you Salman.

  3. tim says:

    are we not fetishising ‘one member one vote’ party structures a bit?

    syriza is a coalition, with component parts (synaspisms, dea, kokkino etc).

    front de gauge is a coaltion, of the pcf, pdg and others.

    i should imagine that other parties of the left in europe are also coaltions, or at least started in that way.

    the labour party was federal in the early days to get the affiliated groups and societies to join together (the co-op party for example still affiliates in this way, the fabians etc.)

    ironically, it was when the socialist alliance moved away from an alliance structure (that didn’t allow for one group to dominate it) that it got taken over and then killed by the swp (with help from the isg/sr let us remember).

    different types of organisations require different structures. equally, the structures are not fixed, they need to change at different times within an organisations development.

    for example, syriza should in my view move away from a coalition structure and towards a party structure now – after winning mass support, and aim to recruit tens or hundreds of thousands to it (maybe this has already happened, i’m not sure). however, a party structure a few years ago would have allowed synaspismos to dominate, and could have then split the coalition.

    the ‘one member one vote’ system does not provide a safeguard against being taken over by the swp (or sp or any other group with a few thousand members). they could flood meetings locally and take it over. it would not be hard.

    yes we need a new party that involves individuals, gives them a democratic say on all matters, has it’s own life between elections, it’s own branches, website etc. etc. but don’t we also want to win the affiliation of the existing left parties, to actually unite the left?

    a final thought, maybe LU, if it becomes a party, will need to negotiate a new left coaltion agreement with TUSC, Respect, SLP and others?

    i hope this is coherent. it’s very difficult to try and unite the small left parties and organisations together and to create a new party that attracts the many individuals currently not in any party. balancing the rights and power of the fragments and individuals is very tricky. i have no answer to this, but i do think we need to be open minded about structures and flexible in approach.



    • If I’m fetishising one member one vote, then I’m fetishising democracy, which is a basic principle I think it would be a mistake to walk away from. And I hope the kind of mass party we’re looking to build, that brings in thousands of people from across the left including people disillusioned with Labour, will be large enough to prevent any one group packing its meetings. If we can’t build a party on that scale, then there’s little point to any of this. But size of the response to Ken Loach’s appeal gives me hope.

    • Liz Gray says:

      Well, whether or not we are ‘fetishising’ OMOV – and I think it’s a little too soon to make that kind of comment after one meeting and one vote on the subject – the fact is, people voted for it. Let’s move on now – or perhaps omov on, LOL – and concentrate on unifying the Left, which is after all what we’re all about.

  4. tim says:

    p.s. i would support left unity, tusc and respect holding talks and sending observers to each others national meetings. when left unity is a bit more established i hope this will happen.

  5. Bazza says:

    Just read the sad case of Stephanie Botterill the poor w class woman who killed herself over the bedroom tax and recommend everyone google this it may concentrate our minds.
    As a w class socialist I want to buid a socialist society WITH working people and we should also get the support of the progressive m class. We don’t have all the answers and will work out the solutions TOGTHER!
    The problem with the far left is they are top down, have ready made plans and all the answers and believe in the banking concept of political education – all they need to do is to deposit their programme into the heads of sufficient numbers of cadres and their elite central committee will win socialism FOR the w class. I stand with independent socialist critical thinkers. Who want to build from below. We should discuss pros and cons of ideas but the restricted uncritical Tots/Lenninists may only come with their pros. Come with open minds – in the end all the oppressed has is each other and our collective intelligence and imagination plus creativity. That’s all we need. Yours in solidarity!

  6. Karen Springer says:

    I’m not a member of any political party. I suppose I’m at the watching stage where Left Unity is concerned. I’m what might be called a disaffected Labour voter. Off I go to the polling booth to do my civic duty. Once there I vote for the Labour Party, even though they don’t have a socialist agenda and perhaps, never really did. I vote for them on the basis that they are best of a bad lot, or the least worse option among the large parliamentary parties. I wouldn’t dream of joining or voting for: “SWP, SP, TUSC, AWL, CPGB, WP, ACI, ISN or any other collection of letters in the alphabet.” That would be an even bigger waste of my time and my vote. Also I am not taken in by entryist, opportunist or those theoretist types,I won’t be listening because I do not have the time. I’m too busy trying cope on a low income; I’m in family with just one earner: blue-collar.

    Its about time people on the Left, broadly, got over the crisis of adulthood, you know the one, where you believe that theories can explain things, and instead started to respect grass-roots working people. I’m not interested in chattering classes theorising about me, but never serving me and my kind. Some of the Left need to cogitate upon the meaning of the servant-leader.

    What is required now is some real social activism in the shape of social service in real neighbourhoods like the one seen the other night in Channel 4’s ‘Skint.’ Help people, open a socialist food bank or canteen in competition with the Trussell Trust. Work. Actions peak louder than words. If the Left had worked rather than talked then perhaps ‘Skint’s’ Dean would still have his job at the steel-works, or at least he wouldn’t have to feed his family on knock-off meat bought from the boot of a car.

    I like “One Member One Vote.” Block votes lost Labour a great deal of credibilty, But don’t assume I’m anti-Trade Unions. Far from it. But I know trade union membership is now alien to many people because there is no union in their work=place or they were conned by Thatcher and some on the Far Left into believing that unions were sights of revolutionary intent.

    No, I just recognise the lay of the land in the Thatcher Legacy Britain. OMOV is not a fetish, it is a pragmatic necessity. The tribalism of all those groups on the Left, ‘the our theory is better than your’s’ approach forces me to conclude that Left is in the game to lose the game. As long as they keep on losing they can carry on criticising the system without any responsiblity; it’s quite a safe place to be isn’t it, a comfort zone, where you don’t have to face the tests of being in charge? As Zizek notes, there is a tendency of the Left, to mythologise what would have happened if they had succeeded, thus allowing them to occupy a safe moral position. The Left has to move from this ‘comfortable position of resistance’ which has allowed them to ignore real issues of the kind faced by ‘Skint’s’ Dean and his neighbours everyday.

    One Member One Vote will help people trust Left Unity. Even if all the combined votes from every member of: “SWP, SP, TUSC, AWL, CPGB, WP, ACI, ISN or any other collection of letters in the alphabet,” were cast for Left Unity they would not be enough to win a General Election.

    You need the votes of ordinary people to win a General Election: OMOV will help people to trust Left Unity.

    Good article.

  7. Jonno says:

    Excellent post Karen, hope people like you get involved in my local branch, they aren’t at the moment.

    • Karen Springer says:

      Hello Jonno, what kind of people have you got in your branch?

      Perhaps you could send the current members a copy of my post. I’d suggest that if they pull it to pieces, which of course they’re entitled to do, you might ask them what they propose to do instead?

      Ask them how successful the activism of all those ‘Alphabet’ groups has been?
      How many people like ‘Skint’s’ Dean are there in SWP?

      Where we are at now is neatly summed up by John Steinbeck:

      “Except for the field organizers of strikes, who were pretty tough monkeys and devoted, most of the so-called Communists I met were middle-class, middle-aged people playing a game of dreams. I remember a woman in easy circumstances saying to another even more affluent: ‘After the revolution even we will have more, won’t we, dear?’ Then there was another lover of proletarians who used to raise hell with Sunday picknickers on her property. I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by the investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew—at least they claimed to be Communists—couldn’t have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic. Besides they were too busy fighting among themselves.”

      1.Margaret Thatcher understood that the workers in this country were just ‘temporarily embarrassed capitalists,’ but the Left never did. New Labour did tap into this aspect of working class life, but the wrong way. They allowed debt to increase rather than looking at real earnings. The minimum wage was simply too little, too late.

      2. Thatcher took full advantage of Left infighting.

      This can only be changed if the Left start give some leeway and respect to the working class desire for fun and for material acquisition. It is a starting position, not a forever position. When Labour got into power in 1945 they set the seeds of future Left failure by barely addressing the concerns among people who had been materially deprived for decades. Yes, there was the NHS, but benefits were set at rates lower than those recommended by Beveridge, a Liberal. Too many of these frugal intellectual Lefties or Labourites just couldn’t understand why the workers wanted to spend money on fun rather than buying an improving book. They also expected too much from women who had been worn out managing their families’ food during the war. They never addressed the sources of structural inequality: education, the House of Lords etc. It was business as usual with a hint of socialism.

      Address material deprivation to gain support and trust. Then introduce the kind of education which over time will develop people’s non-material resources. In other words, it’s all very well telling ‘Skint’s’ Dean to get rid of his trampoline and grow some veg in his garden, but he and his kids need to eat now. they can’t wait until August and they need some fun now.

      Jonno, get your group to put on a Fun Day for kids.

      All the best.

  8. Rupert says:

    A good article Salman. You’ve highlighted the anti-bedroom tax campaign, of which I am involved in Norwich. I find a few things problematic with Left Unity. All things Left of Labour over the last 15 years have been written off as failures. Elements of the Socialist Alliance and Respect were successful.

    Before going along to my local Left Unity meeting I checked how the British Communist Party had faired in all elections – from 1920s to 1956 (Hungarian uprising – mass realisation of Stalinism) and from 1956 to the 1990s. Though Jimmy Reid was the hero of workers’ occupation, in many quarters, he never achieved 10 per cent of the vote in elections. Indeed, post-war, until the General election of 2001, there was no generalised Left alternative to Labour. For some, the Greens occupied some of this space. So Socialist Alliance was a real break – following Blair’s landslide election (and, more importantly, his introduction of PFI – the first stage of NHS privatisation).

    Blair was not just a war monger bastard but placed a notion of democracy before the interests of the working people who voted him in: constitutional reform over and above union rights. Devolution happened while reform of the Lords didn’t, though it’s rolling ‘reform’ kept the union beauracracy onside.

    However, from the Minimum wage and Sure Start to keeping hold of Owen jones et al, Labour is a huge pull for working people still. The Greens have been most radical in Norwich, propsing a ‘no evictions’ motion in the council – which Labour rejected. Because the most radical Greens are involved in the anti-bedroom tax campaign, they understood that on those most affected estates they lost seats to Labour. Labour is remembered as the opposite of the Tories – unless there is a force greater on the left.

    Last time that happened was the Poll Tax rebellion 89-90. In little Lowestoft there was a march of 700 and in Norwich 1,000 gathered at City Hall and broke the door down! I was there. At the same time (1990), strikes and the threat of industrial action won victories – ambulance workers, firefighters, teachers. And this was under the Tories.

    Real ‘left unity’ can only be forged through struggle – from anti-bedroom tax campaigns to the NHS London Demo this weekend – to any/every picket line or worker campaign (as we’re seeing in teaching). Ultimately, parliament and councils are just part of the equation because ALL the powers hammer workers and the poor to think of themselves as Shrews. Any Leftie’s role is to encourage them to rise like Lions!

    All best wishes, Solidarity, Rupert

    Best wishes and solidarity, Rupert

    • Hi Rupert, great to hear from you, it’s been years! How are you? Are you involved with Norwich Left Unity? I fully support your sentiments on campaigns and collective struggle. As I said, I don’t think Left Unity has any right to ask for anyone’s vote unless it has first stood with them and tried to make a difference to their lives.

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