Britain: New party Left Unity is on the move
The Left Unity conference backed the health policy commission’s “10 point plan to re-instate, protect, and improve the [National Health Service] NHS”.
By Tom Walker
April 2, 2014 -- Left Unity -- Left Unity’s national conference on Saturday, March 29, saw delegates come together in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry to make decisions about the policy of this new party.
The party’s founding conference in November set Left Unity’s broad direction as a new party of the left and set up its constitution. This conference looked in more detail at policy areas including economics, health, housing and anti-racism, based on months of work put in by those who volunteered for the party’s policy commissions as well as many submissions from branches. (You can see the motions booklet here.)
The conference was buoyed by being held in the immediate aftermath of an article by Ken Loach in the Guardian and Salman Shaheen’s TV appearance on the BBC. As Left Unity national secretary Kate Hudson reported, this media exposure had seen more than 200 people join the party – an increase in membership of over 10 per cent – in two days. Kate talked about the Labour Party voting last week for the welfare cap, and said, “What clearer example do you need of the case for a new party?”
After the results of Left Unity’s internal elections, the conference moved into debate on economics policy. The economics document is a clear plan for an immediate end to austerity cuts as well as a wider strategic vision of a different kind of society, based on public and mutual ownership and full employment.
Pete Green, moving the motion, pointed to the importance of its call for “an extension of the publicly owned banking sector to embrace all the major British owned banks, building societies and insurance companies”. The document also includes measures to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and a major program of green jobs and "purple jobs" (jobs in the care sector). On tax, it calls for a "Robin Hood" tax on banks’ financial transactions, measures with real teeth to stamp out corporate tax avoidance, reversal of corporate tax cuts, a land value tax and more.
A series of amendments passed including, by a narrow vote, the immediate abolition of the indirect [like Australia's GST] value added tax (as opposed to it being phased out). A proposal to campaign for a 21-hour working week with no loss of pay, however, was rejected in favour of campaigning for a 35-hour week with no loss of pay in the first instance. After a serious debate a proposal for a universal basic income or "citizens’ income" fell, with speakers against arguing it is better to provide what people need through a comprehensive welfare state than to hand over cash and risk leaving some essential services in the hands of the market. Other votes in what was easily the section with the most motions included scrapping zero-hours contracts, abolishing destitution and opposing the US-EU transatlantic trade treaty.
There was a high level of agreement on health policy, with conference backing the health policy commission’s “10 point plan to re-instate, protect, and improve the [National Health Service] NHS”. This includes repealing the Tories’ NHS privatisation law, the Health and Social Care Act, a moratorium on closures and a focus on the “social determinants of health”, meaning that we must tackle poverty and inequality in order to improve health.
Amendments added calls to cancel the expensive PFI [Private Finance Initiatives] debts that hospitals have been burdened with, reverse the decline in health workers’ wages and replace Big Pharma with non-profit pharmaceutical production. A composite motion from Islington, West London and Barnet added a campaigning edge, committing Left Unity to “support and work within broad based campaigns to defend the NHS in a non-sectarian way”.
Felicity Dowling from Liverpool branch moved the main motion on housing with a well-received speech calling for Left Unity to be “the party of housing”. The main planks of this policy are a call for publicly owned and democratically controlled house building – council housing and cooperative housing – as well as backing the campaign to end the hated "bedroom tax".
Other measures in the detailed policy include house building being eco-friendly, removal of housing benefit caps, rent controls on private landlords and provision for LGBTQ people. An amendment saw a discussion around the level of rents: it was decided they should be affordable for all.
Europe and migration
The conference took a strong position on migration, opposed to the scapegoating of migrants, calling for Left Unity to be a “strong pro-migrant voice” against the likes of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party and defend people’s right to move across borders. Luke Cooper, moving the motion, pointed out that there is “no voice in the political mainstream” putting the case that migrants are welcome here – and Left Unity “needs to be the party that is prepared to make the argument”.
Left Unity’s approach to Europe and the European Union was more controversial, with a wide spectrum of views put forward. After the discussion most of these motions were remitted for further debate. Motions passed from Crouch End to back the European Left Party’s call for a “refoundation of Europe” on a socialist basis, and Milton Keynes in favour of European unity on a more democratic basis than the existing EU. Left Unity is not standing in this year’s European elections, as it is generally considered too early in the party’s life to do so. A motion saying the party should not support any other candidates fell, though it was pointed out that there are currently no plans to do so apart from supporting the anti-fascist campaign in north west England.
A motion from West London set out Left Unity’s electoral strategy, saying that: “Electoral support for a new left party will only advance to the extent that it is genuinely representative of working class communities, has no interests separate from theirs, and is an organic part of the campaigns and movements which they generate and support.” It calls for only fielding candidates where the political support and resources exist for a real campaign.
Rugby’s motion saying we should move towards bringing in smaller left groups into "One Party of the Left" narrowly fell. Pete McLaren, moving the motion, said, “The clue is in our name… we are about uniting the left.” However Joseph Kisolo from Manchester, speaking against, said we “shouldn’t be looking to unite the already existing left”, which is too white and male. Bianca Todd added that we should look to “the wider movement” while still working alongside other groups. An amendment from Rugby saying Left Unity candidates should be able to stand in elections under other electoral names also fell, but a further motion calling for the party to “avoid electoral clashes” with other left candidates passed.
The position the conference took on Scottish independence has been the subject of some discussion online – not surprising as it saw one of the closest votes of the day. Steve Freeman spoke for a pro-independence motion calling for a "yes" vote in the referendum, backed by Southwark and Worcester branches, but this fell by two votes (with 22 abstentions). The motion passed from Glasgow branch, with an amendment from Cardiff, took a neutral position on the question, saying “Individual members will be free to campaign both for and against Scottish independence in advance of the 2014 referendum”.
This section saw Left Unity discuss its approach to the unions. Motions calling for full support for trade unions passed without controversy, as did policies of opposing the anti-union laws and working at the grassroots of the unions to build the party.
An amendment from Lambeth putting forward criticism of left-wing trade union leaders for being “prone to compromise”, and calling for Left Unity to stand against them in internal union elections, fell. Speaking against, Eve Turner from West London called for a “reality check” and said “there are good left-wing leaders and there are good left-wing officials” who Left Unity needs to reach out to if we want to build a mass working-class party.
The motion passed from the anti-racism policy commission put forward a detailed analysis of the roots and nature of racism in Britain today, including the atmosphere of attacks on migrants and Muslims against the backdrop of austerity, and how Left Unity should organise to counter it. Richard Seymour from Barnet branch, moving the motion, said, “The fascists aren’t the only racists – we’ve seen this with UKIP, we’ve seen it with the Conservative Party, we’ve seen it with the Labour Party frontbench… we need to be the ones who are standing unified against that.”
By this point the conference was running out of time, and more motions on the environment will be taken at the next conference. But delegates made sure to make space to hear a motion on fracking from Stockport and Manchester branches – as Stephen Hall from Wigan pointed out, Left Unity branches across the north of England are “getting stuck in” to the anti-fracking campaign. The motion means Left Unity has a policy of banning fracking “and all other types of extreme energy extraction”, and instead backs renewable energy and a million climate jobs.
All in all there were many motions to get through and time was tight as ever, but the conference saw many serious debates and passed a good set of policies that will shape Left Unity’s campaigning in months to come. Another conference is planned later this year to discuss other policy areas and motions not reached this time.
Labour must now watch its left flank
By Salman Shaheen
March 31, 2014 -- New Statesman -- Left Unity, the new party founded in November with the support of Ken Loach, held its first national conference in Manchester.
Left Unity is the hottest thing on the left right now. In a few short months, it has attracted more than 1,800 members. With a new member joining every 10 minutes over the March 29-30 weekend, the party is going from strength to strength.
On Saturday, Left Unity held its first national conference in Manchester. After a day of open, democratic debate around a series of motions sent in by branches and members around the country, the party agreed that it would launch its challenge to the Tory-led government and weak Labour Patrty opposition by campaigning against austerity, poverty pay, zero-hour contracts and privatisation.
Left Unity is committed to introducing a mandatory living wage and a 35-hour working week with no loss of pay to support people struggling with their work-life balance.
It will campaign to bring the railways and the energy companies back into public ownership, policies that the big business-backed Labour Party will not even consider even though it is supported by the vast majority of British people. The best Labour leader Miliband is willing to offer, despite rightly pointing to a cost of living crisis, is a temporary price freeze on energy bills. But neither the energy companies nor the railways – which could only ever be run as monopolies in private hands – have delivered the promised and overly vaunted choice and competition that the deified ultra free market philosophy would have us believe gives the best deal for consumers. Bringing them back into public ownership would not only allow such companies to be run in the interests of their workers, but also their consumers, the poorest of which are being crippled by soaring costs.
The party committed itself to defending the National Health Service from creeping back-door privatisation, to campaigning against the bedroom tax and campaigning to build a million new affordable, spacious social homes while reigning in rocketing private rents.
Conference supported a push not only for many more green jobs, but many more purple jobs as well. The term refers to jobs in the caring sectors which are being remorselessly cut by local authorities as a result of national government reductions in their funding. Left Unity not only wants to reverse those cuts, but significantly expand the public sector, ensuring that labour necessary for society no longer faces low wages and increasingly casualised and precarious conditions of employment.
These are jobs which are critical to support disabled people, the sick and the rapidly growing numbers of older pensioners. They are also jobs in childcare, which the party agreed should be provided free to all those with children below school age. Fundamentally, the purpose of purple job creation is to free women from primary caring responsibilities which have led to their concentration in part-time work, discontinuous labour, and involuntary underemployment. Ending segregation of the labour market where women are consigned to low pay and underemployment to enable them to provide care for children, sick, disabled people and the elderly, these jobs will enable men and women to work in this sector. This is a step towards ending women’s unpaid personal labour at home, allowing their full participation in employment and their access to education, personal development and economic independence.
Left Unity is opposed to fracking. As yet, the evidence for the safety of pumping chemicals into the ground to extract gas from shale is sketchy. And even if, in the fullness of time, fracking is proved safe, it ties us into further exploitation of fossil fuels, hampering efforts to bring carbon emissions down and distracting us from the need to be massively expanding renewable energy.
Now that Left Unity has agreed a core set of policies, the hard work of campaigning can begin. The party has had an encouraging start for an organisation that emerged from nowhere to be built from the bottom-up by independent activists fed up with the political status quo.
But for Left Unity to succeed, it will now have to turn outwards. It will need to campaign on the streets, in the workplaces and in the unions. It will have to support – not hijack – local campaigns across the country to save hospitals and libraries, to shut down fracking sites, to oppose the bedroom tax and to stop the racist English Defence League. Only when Left Unity has done all of these things, when it has actively tried to make a difference to the lives of poor, vulnerable and oppressed people, will it have the right to ask for their vote.
The UKIP may be making the headlines as we approach the European elections next month, threatening to steal thousands of votes from the Conservatives and forcing them to watch their right flank. But the Labour Party will have to watch its left flank in the months and years to come. Because Left Unity is on the move.
[Salman Shaheen is a Principal Speaker for Left Unity.]