More thoughts on Left Unity’s potential in the current political climate

Doug Thorpe writes: This article follows from an article I wrote in April, and in particular the last paragraph.

Left Unity’s stated aim “is to end capitalism” which we believe will require the creation of a mass democratic eco-socialist party. However, we are a long way from that, and we need some discussion about what we can do now; to get there, or to something approximating it, from where we are now.

Left Unity, strengths and weaknesses

Any assessment of what Left Unity can do, must start with an honest appraisal of what our membership is and our strengths and weaknesses.

Membership

Our membership is stable and remains at about 500. The great majority of these are members in that they demonstrate financial and political solidarity by maintaining their membership and receive member mailings but do not actively engage with the organisation beyond that. We are gaining new members but this is currently a trickle rather than a flood.

Strengths and weaknesses

Our most obvious weakness is our size and composition, particularly of active members, and the older age demographic of the majority of those. We have few young members or black members.

The lack of numbers limits our ability to have a sizeable presence on demonstrations, give out leaflets, participate in all the campaigns we would like to, or have a direct impact in trade unions etc.

Our main political weakness is that our original project, to be an anti-austerity party akin to Syriza or Podemos, was overtaken by Corbyn’s election as Leader of the Labour Party. Most of the anti-austerity current (including most of our membership), at least in England, understandably moved to channel through the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party.

Now, with the end of the Corbyn leadership, tens of thousands are leaving the Labour Party, and others who would have joined the LP in recent years no longer see it as an attractive option. That creates a vacuum on the left that needs to be filled. However, few of those leaving the Labour Party, or those coming into political activity and joining struggles for the first time are joining Left Unity. We are no longer the ‘new’ option.

But we do have considerable strengths.

Our membership of the European Left (EL) makes our internationalism real, demonstrable, and gives it practical effect. We have genuine interaction and engagement with serious left forces across Europe.

Our core members have enormous experience in many struggles and campaigns over decades. Key comrades have great respect within the movement. We have integrated experience from a number of strands of the socialist left and green parties. We have exceptional contacts both nationally and internationally.

We have a strong bank of policies developed over a number of years, worked on by many members and approved democratically.

We have a reputation for openness, lack of sectarianism and a democratic decision-making process. Most who have passed through Left Unity have found it a better experience than in other groupings they may have been in before.

Our audience is large in proportion to membership. Our social media following is reasonable at about 15-16,000. We have an established website, and a ‘broadcast’ mailing list of over 10,000.

What to do?

One of the strategies advanced in Britain, particularly by the left of the Labour Party, for creating a mass socialist party (which we would say should now be a mass eco-socialist party) was the project to take over the Labour Party itself and transform it. Without discussing here the reasons for the failure of the Corbyn leadership, it is my view that boat has sailed, and a similar opportunity is unlikely to arise for many years if ever.

The other short route to a mass party would be a major split in Labour with figures of some prominence among Labour MPs, and/or the Trade Unions leaving to form a new party. This cannot be entirely ruled out. There is already a ‘de facto’ split in the Labour Party happening with tens of thousands of members leaving (or being expelled). The expulsions seem to be accelerating as I write with a number of organisations being proscribed. The former Leader, Jeremy Corbyn remains expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party and has created his own organisation with 50,000+ paying members, albeit in the form more of a think-tank than an active or democratic membership organisation. At present Corbyn does not intend to develop this into an organisation that would take part in elections or have a clear membership structure. However, that issue may eventually be forced. At the next election if he has not been readmitted to the PLP, a question may arise about whether he stands for parliament as an independent. There are tens of thousands of people who would respond to a call from him or other socialist MPs to form a new party.

But for the moment neither the Left MPs nor the Trade Union leaderships show any signs of a fight, let alone a split. As we have said, Corbyn himself, although excluded, shows little sign of organising a new party. Whilst we must remain alert to any developments of this kind, and encourage them if we can, I do not think we should rely, or focus our efforts, on a strategy of waiting for a split, by Corbyn or any other significant section of the Labour MPs or Trade Unions.

The older ‘revolutionary’ socialist parties, such as the SWP and the Socialist Party to name but two, continue to plough much the same political furrow they have for decades. It seems unlikely that repeating the same methods now will have any more success now than it has previously. While they may be able to continue a declining existence this way, there is little evidence these groups are proving attractive to significant numbers of those leaving Labour or coming anew into politics nor are they likely to.

A number of small new parties and groups have formed to the left of Labour. We have been in contact with some of these where they appear to have similar aims and politics. There appears to be a tendency amongst some of these to over-emphasise electoralism (and overestimate their chances in that arena). But they show energy, have a younger membership, and reflect the political vacuum opening up to the left of Labour and the desire for something to fill it. We need to continue to engage with these organisations.

What we have also seen in the last couple of years is a mass groundswell of movements responding to the limbs of the intersecting crises of capitalism. Around, the climate crisis, racism, state repressive powers, and Palestine there have been increasing numbers of young people, often black and/or women led, coming onto the streets in demonstrations and direct action. This despite a global health pandemic which has itself thrown up self-organised mutual aid structures around food, health, and poverty. Around the Kill the Bill protests we have begun to hear calls for a ‘Movement of Movements’.

However, the pattern of these protests has often taken the form of initial bursts of energy, direct action, confrontation with the police, settling into repeated more centralised and less combative marches, these being repeated until numbers dwindle or move on to the energy stage of a new issue. These horizontal movements have proven very effective at mobilising large numbers, at short notice through the use of social media, in response to repressive action by the state. But they have been less effective at planning ways to take the struggle forward, analysing mistakes or creating sustainable organisation. The core activists in these movements have an understanding that capitalism as a system is at the root of the crises, but they have difficulty in (or are ideologically opposed to) developing structures that could prepare and sustain a ‘system against system’ struggle.

The Kill the Bill Coalition is currently discussing developing a structure and reaching out at local level to other campaigns in what it calls ‘community outreach’, but this is, as yet, at an early stage. XR has a structure, but its leadership has, so far, resolutely resisted a class analysis. This may be beginning to change with the current debate about adding a ‘fourth demand’ around ‘justice’ and tentative alliance building with other social movements.

Left Unity

For Left Unity I think this means we cannot count on growing in the way we did from 2013-15 or expect that by incremental growth Left Unity will itself become the party that is needed. That does not mean building Left Unity is not important. It remains important and I will return to this below.

If we just exhort our existing members to join more and more campaigns, and take on more and more activity, this is more likely to lead to burn-out and members leaving, than significant growth.

Nor can we afford to just continue existing as we are, in the hope that something outside us, independent of our efforts, will create a bigger formation we can become part of.

Whereas in 2013-15 we hoped to build Left Unity as an organisation that contained most of the anti-austerity left within it, as the alternative to the Labour Party, I think we now need (whilst still building Left Unity) to play a part as a hub helping to build a similar alliance/network but recognising most of this will be outside of our organisation. It is my view that we should increase the focus of our activity towards building networks with others for joint action and discussion.

However, to be able to play any role in emerging networks or alliances, Left Unity must have something to offer. It is essential that we sustain and build the organisation around its strengths.

We should deepen our integration and links with the European Left. Our internationalism is central to our understanding of ecosocialism. We have started to increase our representation on the European Left’s working groups and should look for other ways to increase our work with the European Left.

In order to deepen our analysis and understanding of different issues we should rebuild caucuses. Branches are important where members are close enough together to do joint work and activity. However, where members are spread out geographically, and meeting virtually, they may gain more practical support and benefit from, and contribute more to, meeting with other members working on the same campaigns and issues. Collective discussion will strengthen members in activity in their local campaign work and deepen the analysis of Left Unity as a whole on these issues.

We should also have regular national meetings for members to attend and share experience. These can be programmed in advance and be a mix of educational meetings and discussion of key political topics. Where appropriate these could be public meetings, or joint meetings with other organisations that we have been working with.

Connecting with others

At a national level we should propose formal, ongoing networking between organisations and campaigns who we have been in discussions with or working with, and who we see as progressive. Although this could include coordination around elections, where local base-building work makes this appropriate, that should not be the main purpose of such networking. More important will be working together on campaigns we are active in and having discussion about the political situation. Who we build these networks with, is likely to differ between England and Scotland & Wales (in which latter countries radical independence networks will more likely be a focus – see article here.) Within this networking we need to highlight our analysis of the interconnectedness and systemic nature of the multiple crises of capitalism, and the state’s increasingly authoritarian and repressive actions in response. An explicitly ecosocialist analysis.

At a local and individual level, the work that members are involved in already is important. The depth of experience gained from working on an issue over a long time is invaluable and builds the credibility of Left Unity as a serious organisation. Many of our members do not live in towns or areas where there are other active Left Unity members. We cannot expect members to be continuously active in multiple campaigns, nor is it productive for them to move from campaign to campaign as the flavour of the month changes. However, the creation of local networks of campaigns and organisations would be a step forward. Such networking need not be over frequent or burdensome but open up collective channels of communication where information can be shared, joint action agreed, underlying features analysed. The networks could include socialist cultural groups and mutual aid groups as well as more traditional socialist groups and campaigns. And at those times, where one issue is facing a critical point, the assistance of the whole network can be called on to maximise effect. This would entail a level of trust in others we are working with, rather than trying to do everything ourselves.

At a local level members should be encouraged, as well as continuing the valuable work they are already doing, to try to build local networks for action and discussion or join and argue to extend these if they already exist. Within such networks, as at national level, members would be able to promote joint activity, and foreground the systemic and class nature, and connectedness, of the issues we are facing and our ecosocialist analysis.

In time, opportunities will arise to argue for the joining up of networks regionally and nationally. We should encourage and support this where we can. This could be through a call for a national conference of ecosocialist networks, organisations, and individuals, or some more organic or federal process. Ultimately a national ecosocialist organisation will be necessary if we are to challenge the power the state, but there is unlikely to be any short-cut to this that does not involve patient, consistent, and outward connecting work along the lines suggested above.


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3 comments

3 responses to “More thoughts on Left Unity’s potential in the current political climate”

  1. Ken King says:

    This is an excellent article; full of incisive analysis of our party and the general labour movement. So while no criticism of Doug’s article, I would like to comment on something I feel was left out. The current low political consciousness of people in this country.
    For decades – alongside Neoliberal economic policies  – the culture of this country has been seriously downgraded,  which has affected many people’s ability to analyse and evaluate – to think for themselves.  The purpose being to transform the majority into docile sheep who go along unthinkingly with the status quo. The general election result of 2019 is clear evidence of this, where scores of very poor people, hit hard by 10 years of austerity, vote for the exact same party again on the pretext of a ‘change’.
    Every day the media perpetuate this state of infantility….. just seriously consider how trivial royal stories, from an outdated feudal institution,  dominate the news agenda.
    Now reinforce that with a endless daily dose of reality TV shows, a cultural infatuation with the goings-on of mindless celebrities, endless sport and opportunities to gamble, a religion of consumerism, prurient pornograghy everywhere and an education system for the masses that is so dumbed down as to be embarrassing, and then in total you have the compliant State.
    The result has been, in large part, a reduction of collectivism and class consciousness – and the dominance of an individualistic culture in society. This is something that we can not ignore.

  2. Tim Weller says:

    This is all excellent writing from both Doug and Ken.
    In Birmingham and the Black Country, we are discussing the article on Saturday at our monthly meeting.
    I find the meetings well worthwhile for serious discussion and for fresh or different insights. Useful, too for mutual encouragement and support. I think our distinctive perspective must be brought to bear on the decision-makers in local and regional government, in particular. We must challenge them and be their conscience over, in particular, climate concerns that seem ever more real and relevant.
    I think we must send our point of view as press releases and letters on topical issues to the media, under our banner of ‘Left Unity’ to make sure we don’t get left out but to raise our profile.
    Tim Weller

  3. Allan Todd says:

    Have only just(!!) read this from Doug – very sober assessment, & spot-on. Great that we are now working with Green Left and Anti-Capitalist Resistance in the Ecosocialist Alliance. This is definitely the way forward, & an excellent place for attracting radicals inside & outside Labour.

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