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Report of Left Unity Policy Conference 29 March

By Andy Yorke

Around two hundred members of Left Unity (LU) gathered in Manchester for the first policy conference of this new initiative to build a new working class party, launched only four months ago on 30 November.  The conference marked a step forward for Left Unity, with largely fraternal debates deciding policy in important areas like housing, racism, immigration and the EU. A bright spot was our anti-racist policy decisions, committing Left Unity to rejecting all immigration controls and the British jobs for British workers slogans of sections of the left and labour and trade union movement.

The conference also showed that serious discussions remain to be had on important questions like Scottish independence and our attitude to the trade union bureaucracy, whilst a motion giving Left Unity a radical but ultimately reformist economic programme was passed overwhelmingly, due in part to a procedure that stopped anyone being able to speak against the document as a whole. The adoption of some definite areas of policy however should allow Left Unity to turn outwards, become more of a campaigning organisation, and to intervene into struggles, thus winning new members to active LU branches.

Growing in profile and members

Media exposure in the days before, with a Guardian article by left wing film director Ken Loach and an interview and LU spokesperson Salman Shaheen on the Politics Show, created a surge of 200 new members in two days. The conference was informed that overall membership has grown from 1,000 at the founding conference to over 1,700 (including the surge) by 29 March.

The national leadership election results, announced at the start, revealed an overwhelming majority of former signatories of the Left Party Platform as spokespeople, officers and on the NEC. Only 35 percent of eligible members voted (478 out of a possible 1367 members). These results – and the smaller numbers at conference, are sobering as against the claims of online success.

The election results – including the large number of unfilled regional seats on the NEC (due to the absence of candidates) and now requiring new elections, showed that the regional structures set up at the founding conference were completely artificial as some of us had warned.

A new party trying to challenge Labour cannot afford have such a large section of passive and maybe even paper members. To be won mainly via Guardian articles and the internet rather than by campaigning local branches and work in the trade unions, the schools and colleges will not produce a party fit for the class struggle nor even one up to electioneering.

Unfortunately too this conference had a noticeably smaller number of young people, minority and women members present than on 30 November.

A different kind of “democratic deficit” emerged in the conference itself.  While we got through a huge amount of policy, there were far too many motions to be discussed on the day, slashing discussion time below the minimum level for a fully democratic debate in some cases.

The policy commissions drafted the main policy motion for each section of the conference agenda, with the privileged position of both motivating the motion and then to replying to amendments before the vote, but without any slot for a speaker to oppose the motion and the movers of amendments having no right of reply. Very little time was allowed for speeches from the floor, and most of these were speaking for and against the amendments, not on the main motion, thus often focussing the discussion on smaller issues.

So the key motion on the economy – i.e. the answer to the question “how would a left Unity government pay for all the reforms and changes it proposes?” – was voted on after two speeches for and none against. The chair’s (correct and democratic) decision to take an opposing speech was challenged from the floor and voted down by conference.

Indeed the constitution commission acted throughout the conference as some sort of authority on “its” constitution. This was in part because the standing orders of the conference are thoroughly inadequate and need serious amendment. In addition any privileged positions for the commissions needs to be ended, as these bodies are self-selected not elected and should have no authority to decide what the conference can and cannot decide.

This procedure has to be challenged. An essential element of democracy is conference hearing both points of view, and limiting it in the name of “saving time” is pure demagogy. This happened quite a few times after a point of order from the floor. This is a bad practice and we should ensure it doesn’t become the norm.

Motion Number One

The first motion debated by the conference was the LU Economics Policy Commission’s motion in the “Economy and Austerity” section, which put forward a radical programme: “what we can seek to achieve in Britain, in association with other similar left parties across Europe, are fundamental changes”.

This meant reversing thirty years of neoliberalism, a national plan of economic regeneration, investing massively in a green economy and “purple jobs” to rebuild the welfare state and begin socialising childcare to overcome the double burden of work and unpaid housework faced by women. Naturally most members just saw this as a welcome alternative to Tory neoliberalism and Labour Austerity-lite.

However all this was assumed as being introduced by “a Left Unity government…under capitalism (but not necessarily in a fully socialist society)”.

Passing Motion 1 on the economy was consistent with Left Unity’s commitment to govern within the framework of capitalism as passed at the founding conference. It is a left-Keynesian, reformist programme, which would leave more than half of the FTSE 100 companies still in private hands, despite phrases in it about a “strategic vision of structural change” and the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, lifted from the Communist Manifesto.

But by not saying how such measures could be imposed on the oldest capitalist class in the world, armed with one of the most undemocratic constitutions, which would certainly resort to all the unelected parts of the state machine, judges, police, army etc. let alone its continued control of the economy – leaves the impression that winning a majority in parliament will be sufficient.

This also demonstrates the weakness of delegating to an economic policy commission the central core of a party programme “the property question” – i.e. who should own the means of production and by what means its present owners can be expropriated. Any one who thinks this is doctrinaire, unnecessary and impractical does not seriously think that they will ever be called on to lay a finger on the capitalists’ property. And by the way has not seriously thought about the how to implement the far-reaching reforms they suggest.

The spirit of left reformism was most clearly revealed by policies hiding in the text such as proposals for the Tobin Tax, or for keeping VAT because EU law requires it(!) An amendment against the latter was passed, if only by a small margin though thankfully after debate, showing how deep the vision runs in sections of LU of governing “normally” within the global status quo. Salman Shaheen for example thinks that pledging ourselves to abolish VAT (a violently regressive tax) and replace it with a wealth tax would make us a laughing stock.

The motion did state that its writers were “under no illusions that any such programme can be implemented without meeting resistance from the richest 1 per cent in Britain and elsewhere” but also insisted that “in a world of global capital and finance we cannot put an end to capitalism in one country alone.”

The comrades of the CPGB/Weekly Worker repeated this point in a couple of their speeches too. Of course we can overthrow capitalism in one country – the workers did so in Russia – but as Lenin and Trotsky insisted, without the revolution spreading to other countries we can’t open the road to developing a socialist society, much less one based on “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.

But the international programme sketched out in Motion 1 centres on cooperating with the current handful of “left governments” (Venezuela, Cuba, etc. no doubt) and left parties in Europe that aren’t yet in power, for instance on implementing the Tobin tax, not on spreading a European or world revolution.

It’s obvious that many in LU will say it’s unrealistic or divisive to debate such a policy. Far more unrealistic in our view is the illusion of electing a Left Unity majority to parliament and then expecting a left government to nationalise whole sectors of private industry and commerce, reverse neoliberalism (i.e. a huge re-reversal of the changes in income distribution of the past decades) none of which could be done by normal reformist means – i.e. buying out the capitalists. It could only be done by expropriating them. Such a government would meet not just resistance but a full-blooded counterrevolution from the capitalists, like in Chile in 1973. To avoid overthrow it would itself have to “go all the way”, arming the working class and breaking up the whole apparatus of repression (the state).

It is either naïve or downright cynical to pose the radical reform of capitalism as a necessary and possible stage before fully transcending it.

Although amendments – for economic decisions made in “workplaces, communities and across workplaces, and where appropriate centrally”, for the nationalisation of companies sabotaging a Left Unity government by investment strikes and capital flight – made some improvements to the motion, the overall result was to render it economically incoherent.

Economics and class relations are at the core of an anti-capitalist programme and despite amendments, Motion 1 lays out a programme for a government managing capitalism. A small minority of the left voted against it, including Workers Power and the CPGB. It must be stressed that there was barely any time for properly debating such a far-reaching document, so the discussion will no doubt continue.

A useful motion from Norwich LU passed (85:62), committing LU to concrete demands on the living wage, benefits and one million new jobs and houses, ending with a clear call that “If capitalism cannot provide this security we will use it to fight for an economic system that can – Socialism”.

Thus the debate between reform and revolution is far from over in Left Unity.

Advances in policy

A recurrent feature of each section was a long document with policy-wonk lists of fine-detailed demands from the technocratic policy commissions, as against motions from branches committing Left Unity to action.  So on health the policy commision’s “10 point plan to re-instate, protect, and improve the NHS” also involved only minimising the role of private sector and consultants, compensating PFI companies rather than their wholesale renationalisation without compensation. Here the desire to seem reasonable, not to be a “laughing stock” got the upper hand.

But in separate motions we agreed to get involved in the fights against A&E closures.  Buried in the long housing motion were provisions to legalise rent strikes and support “squatting for emergency housing need or to bring vacant property back into use”.  Motions to fight fracking, zero hours contracts and oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and Europe were passed too as areas of potential campaign work.

One of the best decisions was the conference’s overwhelming rejection of Europhobia – the sort of No2EU policies supported by the CPB and the RMT. Conference adopted a resolution from Crouch End, which included a part of the European Left Party’s motion to re-found Europe on a working class basis. Three observers attended from the European Left Party, Danish Red-Green Alliance and Die Linke.

In the highlight of the day, Left Unity voted overwhelmingly for principled socialist policies on immigration and racism in particular, put forward by policy commissions and introduced by Luke Cooper (Anticapitalist Initiative) who argued convincingly that there is no such thing as non-racist immigration controls:

“Left Unity completely rejects all anti-immigration arguments and rhetoric. We believe mass migration has had, and always will have, an overwhelmingly positive impact on society…Challenge[s] ideas in the labour movement, and even sections of the socialist movement, that openly support or implicitly endorse the idea of “British Jobs for British Workers”. Immigration controls divide and weaken the working class and [are] therefore against the interests of all workers.”

The motion on racism reiterated this and supported community self-defence against fascists. The huge vote in favour of both shows how the growth of UKIP has hardened even those in LU worried about the need to avoid divisive policies that challenge the law or “common sense” about what’s “realistic”. After all a policy of no immigration controls will be the opening attack of every rightwing TV journalist and Labour politician. But it was a great moment that we stood on the principles of internationalism and working class unity – let’s follow that method on every question.

Trade unions

Conference agreed to hold a national meeting of Left Unity trade union activists in order to “to help develop policies and strategies on how to organise and build trade unions and win support for Left Unity across trade unions”, with a commitment to “the development of a rank and file trade unionism.” An excellent amendment from Lambeth sought to deepen this, explaining the relationship of rank and file to the union leaderships and a series of demands, from strike committees to recallable officials, to ensure rank and file control. Its analysis – which was spot on – was motivated by young trade unionists and activists in Left Unity, but came under attack:

“The [Left Unity] party orients to the rank and file of the trade unions above privileging any relationship with left wing officials, because we recognise that union leaders, lefts as well as right-wingers, are prone to compromise and call off action at the decisive moment. A working class party must always be free to criticise leaders when this happens and direct its agitation and advice directly to the union members under attack.”

A series of leading LU members got up to attack this idea.  Oliver New – one of the two LU trade union officers – tried to link it to the supposed practice of the “sectarians of the left who wait till there is a dispute and show up to say how it should be run”. Alan Thornett from Socialist Resistance directly attacked the idea of maintaining a critical independence from the left union leaders, saying Left Unity would want to win “a whole layer of leftwing officials” in the union.

Eve Taylor of West London LU and Ealing Trades Council, went onto the attack, calling for a “reality check”, slamming the amendment as “complete nonsense” and demanding to know how we can build a mass working class leftwing organisation if we refuse to relate to those leading struggles except calling them “a bunch of shits” – sheer demagogy. She insisted that there are “really good people at all levels of our trades unions, in positions right the way through the structures, not just talking about Bob Crow” – “they’re decent, not perfect”.

Ignoring the role of Len McCluskey Mark Serwotka, Billy Hayes (and yes Bob Crow too) in actually calling off strikes at critical junctures, most notably the N30 pension strike, to keep a seat warm for them at LU’s top table won’t get us anywhere. We have enough of that at the People’s Assembly. The national trade union meeting should make sure the agenda has plenty of space to discuss this issue once more and make its views known to the rest of Left Unity.

Class struggle is key

Workers Power and the Class Struggle Platform put forward a short set of clear demands; immediate points for action which otherwise were lost in the policy detail.

After all we agreed not to stand in the council and European elections, and whatever policy we pass we need to relate it to activists fighting the bedroom tax, trade unionists marching and striking, anti-EDL protestors and the justice campaigns (Hillingdon, Orgreave, Stephen Lawrence, Police deaths). The Class Struggle Platform was aimed at showing activists that Left Unity is not just another bunch of suits turning up for their vote – but a party that gets stuck into campaigns and helps them succeed.

Workers Power will continue to argue that Left Unity needs more than a series of long policy documents or resolutions on individual issues, however excellent some of them are. It needs an action programme to take into the class struggle. Into elections yes, certainly, but first and foremost into the eruptions of resistance at workplace, local a national level, i.e. where people are fighting.

In each of these fronts of struggle we needs to present a clear series of demands that can be a basis for uniting the different forces – that LU can help organise – and that point the way forward to a decsisive clash with whatever government is demolishing our welfare state, promoting the interests of the rich, degrading the environment, fomenting racism and preparing new cold and even hot wars.

We need also to transform the growing online membership into activists who can turn Left Unity from a paper project into a grass roots reality. This means an orientation to the actual movements and struggles, not a year-long preparation aimed at the 2015 elections. We also nee – despite the rushed decision in Manchester – a strategy that promotes rank and file organization independent of the sell-out merchants in the union bureaucracy.

We also need to address the weakly representative and potentially bureaucratic regional and national structures. The aim should be to convince activists from the movements that Left Unity is worth joining, by working together, and consolidating and developing new contacts met through the internet by involving them in our activism and discussion. Promising reports from some branches like Lambeth, show that this does indeed bring results.

The consensus in speech after speech was that Left Unity’s mission should be to build a mass working class party – that’s brilliant. The next question is how and what its overall strategy and goals should be – its programme. Maybe we need a programme commission?

Workers Power thinks this should not be based on ‘filling a reformist-shaped space’ just to the left of Labour, but to act as a fighting organisation of the working class against the rule of capital, one which in Marx’s words “disdains to conceal its aims” – i.e. the complete overthrow of capitalism.

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