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Britain: Successful conference forms Left Unity party; Richard Seymour reports

Around 400 members attended the founding conference of Left Unity.

[Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal will carry more reports of the founding conference of Left Unity.]

By Liam Mac Uaid

December 1, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance --  The first indication that Left Unity is different from most other left-wing organisations came very early in its November 30 founding conference. Ken Loach, the person who is seen as having given the inspiration for the launch of the new party, proposed that we shouldn’t take a decision on which of the political platforms to endorse. Ken lost the vote and conference moved on to next business. There was no dramatic tension, no sense of impending crisis. It would have been hard to imagine a similar scene at a Respect conference. It was a very promising omen.

Around 400 people attended the event. The morning sessions was given over to a discussion on platforms – documents which were intended to establish the general framework of Left Unity’s politics. Socialist Resistance was strongly behind the Left Party Platform which we think defines Left Unity as a radical socialist party with strong positions on ecology and feminism. To various degrees the other platforms wanted to define the new party as an explicitly revolutionary one.

The existing interim leadership received what was effectively a vote of confidence. Members voted to allow it to remain in place until a new leadership is elected at a conference to be held by the end of March.

The Left Party Platform (LPP) won convincingly with 295 votes in favour and 101 against. The Socialist Platform was supported by 122 members and opposed by 216. The significance of this is that it failed to win much support beyond the list of people who had originally signed the statement proposing it. By contrast the LPP got the endorsement of the majority of Left Unity’s members in the hall.

Another thing that made the conference rather different was that it was impossible to predict which way any of the votes would go. This was hardly surprising as most of the participants were strangers to each other. A vigorous debate on the safer spaces policy saw conference agree to refer it back for further discussion. While most participants understood the need for guidelines on protecting members from harassment and abuse the conference clearly felt that such a complex policy needed more time spent on it.

The afternoon was taken up with a long and intricate discussion on the constitution. From our perspective a crucial clause here was one which would have enabled Left Unity to organise in the north of Ireland. This emblem of the weight of British imperialism on the country’s labour movement was removed.

More explicitly than other attempts to launch new political parties Left Unity has set out to tackle issues of gender imbalances. It has a commitment to women comprising at least 50% of its leadership and speeches in defence of male privilege were received cooly, this despite the fact that men were over-represented in the hall. Left Unity is set to be a self-consciously feminist organisation.

Although the party only formally launched on November 30 it already has over 1200 members, 400 of whom were sufficiently committed or able to attend its first conference. That is a small but significant base which already makes it one of the largest organisations on the British left. It has come into being at a tricky time. There are local government elections in May 2014 and a general election the following year. Labour will win most of the anti-coalition votes as people want to punish the Tories and it will be hard to win a big audience for a new left-wing party. But there is an audience for such a party. Many people will vote Labour with no great enthusiasm and will want a party that articulates something better, different, radical and socialist. Now Left Unity is there for them.

Richard Seymour's report from the founding conference

By Richard Seymour

December 1, 2013 -- New Left Project -- Based on the votes, I would estimate that somewhat over 400 people gathered in Bloomsbury on Saturday to launch the new left party first suggested by Ken Loach some months ago.  The attendees were disproportionately veterans of the Left, older and white, but there were a lot of them. 

There were few real surprises.  The ‘platforms’ debate was settled—although only a fool would say ‘finally’.  Putting it schematically, the debate was between those who favoured a ‘broad left’ party and those who wanted a more traditional hard Left organisation based on a programme redolent—to my eyes—of the sort of ‘where we stand’ programme that Trotskyist organisations sometimes publish. 

The Left Party Platform, representing the ‘broad left’ option, passed overwhelmingly with some positive but relatively minor amendments.  It gained about three quarters of the votes. Approximately another quarter aligned with alternatives such as the Socialist Platform.  This reflected what one would have thought was the balance of opinion in Left Unity.  

Perhaps the most telling moments in the conference concerned the resolution of the new organisation’s gender politics.  The practical questions were these: should there be “at least 50%” representation for women in any leadership, and should the organisation have caucuses and sections for oppressed groups?  

Not all participants acquitted themselves admirably on this question.  One man complained that “at least 50%” representation for women would result in women being numerically dominant most of the time.  He indicated that he thought this was “nonsense,” but didn’t seem to be able to say why.  Others suggested that to have a quota would result in people not being selected on the basis of their politics.  This seemed to carry the implication that the present over-representation of men is in some sense politically meritocratic. 

However, these delegates were fighting a steep uphill battle.  They had lost before the debate began.  Conference gave the most heartfelt and animated reception to those who spoke for feminism, and voted by mountainous majorities for “at least 50%” and for caucuses and sections.  These may seem like baby steps.  Of course they are.  But the signal sent by this conference is clear: the culture of the Left is changing and feminism is winning the argument.

At one point as the vote tallies were announced, and as if to dramatise the urgent relevance of ‘intersectionality’, a man griped from the floor: “what about class politics?”  

A woman nearby rose in heroic fury, and demanded: “Who said that?  

 “Er…?”  

 “Who said that!?” 

“What about class politics?”  The luckless man reiterated, to jeers and a few desperate, scattered hand claps. 

“Right.  I’m a woman, and I’m working class—how about that?  she snapped.  Exuberant applause.

There were, on the other hand, some quite surreal moments of a sort that only the British Left can deliver.  These included, for example, a speaker for the Communist Party of Great Britain declaring, in a voice full of portent: “The Communist Platform is not madness!”  

Another contributor pleaded that conference should not vote to admit children as members, and broke into a maudlin song about childhood in order to make the point.  With the best will in the world—and one has to admit that the voice wasn’t bad—this cut through me like a dentist’s drill.  Obviously only a complete bastard would say this, but then someone has to. 

A great deal of the conference was necessarily consumed by procedural minutiae and constitutional refinements.  This was exhausting.  The chair was a trembling wreck at the end of it.  I know I wasn’t the only one who, at a certain point in these discussions, began to check out.  There is a reason God made the smartphone, people, and this is it.  

The upshot is, we have a party.  It has over 1,000 dues-paying members thus far, 10,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook, thirty seven branches, and now a constitution and a basis for action.  What can be done with this?  

I have participated in two previous attempts to build a left-of-Labour party: the Socialist Alliance, and Respect.  Both crashed against unforgiving structural limits, notwithstanding the strategic errors made by the leaders of those formations.  These limits began with the severity of the defeats inflicted on the labour movement and the Left in Britain during the 1980s; the collapse of that symbolic space where a certain type of hard Left made sense; and the sweeping completeness of the Blairites’ victory within Labour, such that our main social democratic party was already fully committed to neoliberalism before taking office.  

Whereas crises arose for European social democratic parties upon taking office and administering neoliberalism, no such crisis arose for Labour.  Anyone still a member of the party or voting for it had few expectations of Blair as a radical reformer.  When Blair’s record was worse than expected, members and voters withdrew from activity rather than join anything new, their demoralisation stronger than their outrage.  Even Stop the War, one of the few movements to genuinely merit the adjective ‘mass’, could only prise away one Labour MP.  That was George Galloway.  He did not want to leave, but was forced out, and did not bring a significant detachment with him.  The highlights and lowlights of his subsequent career are well known. 

This is the problem that Left Unity faces.  The UK has no significant communist or far left parties equivalent to those in Greece, France or Portugal.  It is therefore impossible to do what Left Unity wants to do unless there is a realignment in which a sizeable chunk of the Labour Party, including MPs and councillors, splits.  Moreover, Left Unity is not coming up on the back of some great social movement, and the wider left in which it operates is historically weak.  To all appearances, it has emerged at a most inopportune moment. 

And yet, one can’t wait for the opportune moment to do something.  By then the foundations should already be laid, or it is too late.  The challenge for Left Unity in the short-term is to stabilise itself, prove its ability to operate in adverse circumstances, collaborate effectively with those who continue to be in the Labour Party whether through the People’s Assemblies or more localised campaigns, and define a viable left politics that doesn’t simply speak in the idiom of forgotten eras of radicalism. 

In this respect, Left Unity does have some advantages.  Its veterans have had the chance to learn from the errors of the past.  It is not reliant on some great personality, nor is it an undemocratic lash-up of the extant far left.  It puts the politics of women, LGBTQ and black people front and centre.  There appears to be no appetite for inscrutable dogma.  And it seems to be genuinely prepared for the long haul: the slow, patient work of building its presence in communities, trade unions and social movements.  That gives us a chance, to put it no more strongly than that. And I don’t like admitting this. But I'm cautiously optimistic.

[Richard Seymour is a political activist who writes at Lenin's Tomb and  the Guardian. He is the author of Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, forthcoming from Pluto Press.]

Left Party Platform dissolves

December 4, 2013 -- Left Unity -- The Left Party Platform was founded in July following a decision by Left Unity’s National Coordinating Group to allow platforms of ten or more members to openly argue for shared political positions.

The Left Party Platform produced an initial statement and background document which it publicised widely, seeking to promote its vision of a broad party of the left – socialist, feminist and environmentalist. In the run up to the founding conference, the Platform produced a revised statement combining elements of both its documents, strengthened by feedback from supporters. This revised statement was submitted to the pre-conference discussion as a proposed Aims section for the constitution.

At the founding conference, the Left Party Platform statement was debated along with other platform statements. Following amendment, the Left Party Platform statement was accepted, along with the Hackney/Tower Hamlets statement, as our first party policy documents – rather than the party’s Aims section – for the new party, by 295 votes in favour, 101 against and 12 abstentions.

As this vision of a broad party of the left has now become party policy, the Left Party Platform has taken the decision to dissolve itself. All our energies are focused on building the new party and taking its policies forward into our communities, campaigns and into the wider struggle.

We thank those who signed their support for the Platform – over 150 Left Unity members – and all those who decided to vote for the amended Platform statement at the founding conference.

Comments

So The Party is Not Yet Over?

It does seem to me, reflecting on Left Party Creation over the decades, that the problem is not its programme, its rules, its percentage of women leaders, but...well...the party form.

This one seems to have begun with Platforms and that suggests to me that it will continue with competing political/ideological factions. Indeed, the very creation of a party (particularly a Left one, particularly a Vanguard one, of course) is an invitation to factionalism.

The exhaustion reported of this founding event is, surely, a harbinger of the endless energy that will be poured into 'partying'.

I do feel that, yes, there is a need for an interface between 'the social and the political' (Ezequiel Adamovsky), but, in the age of cyberspace and networking, of Occupy and the Indignados, does this need to be a party? Cannot more impact be made without the middle...person? Should we not be putting our energy into these movements, learning from them, and working out how to have such an interface of a post-party kind?

Just asking!

Peter Waterman
(ex-party since 1969 and still learning)

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