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Left Unity Conference: doing what differently?

By KD Tait

Left Unity’s Policy Conference on 15-16 November in London saw members pass a series of policy documents that revealed the party’s strengths and its weaknesses. KD Tait reports

Left Unity’s mission statement is to build a ‘broad party of the left’ that can become a serious challenge to Labour.

The conditions for a project of this kind have not been better since New Labour’s neoliberal programme of privatisation and war provoked mass disaffection from the party a decade ago.

Did Left Unity’s third conference display signs of a party capable of taking advantage of these conditions and living up to its ambitions?

As the National Council report made clear, Left Unity members have been active in a wide range of campaigns. Forests of leaflets and broadsheets have been distributed on the Palestine solidarity demonstrations, NHS marches and a range of local strikes and campaigns.

But a visible presence there and the ability to issue press releases is success of a superficial sort. Despite its 2,000 members and 50 branches with 20 “in formation”, Left Unity approaches its first birthday without the leadership, perspective and strategy necessary to make a real impact in the stormy political period that will open with the 2015 election.

Policy debate

November’s conference was the follow-up to the Manchester conference in March, which passed policy on the economy, Europe, health, housing, migration and trade unions.

A packed agenda saw members wade through 100 pages of motions and amendments to pass policy on the environment, equality, crime and justice, internationalism and social security.

Inevitably Conference was unable to deal with all the motions. Social security policy was remitted. This was right in our view as it contained policies which would have been a step back from more progressive and radical policies which the party has already adopted.

Three ‘Safe Spaces’ policies were put to the conference. Two previous conferences failed to reach agreement on what is becoming a vexed issue. The debate amounts to a contest between those who wish to impose a set of rules which privilege the subjective impressions of the individual and those who prefer a template that provides adequate disciplinary procedures for dealing with abuses, but does not smuggle in the pretexts for bureaucratic stifling of political disputes. Neither was satisfactory and in our opinion all attempts at providing elaborate codes of conduct and systems of reconciliation are futile.

The International policy debate witnessed sharp debates on our attitude to the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Conference made clear its opposition to both Syrian dictator Assad and to UK military intervention. Left Unity is committed to support the Kurdish struggle in Rojava, supports the decriminalisation of the PKK and will campaign for material support for the PYD.

Conference reaffirmed the right of peoples to resist Islamic State by whatever means necessary – including accepting weapons from the imperialists.

Socialists should aim to break down the artificial divide between ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ by developing policy that opposes the reactionary objectives of our government’s foreign policy and advocates labour movement support for progressive struggles around the world. It is one of Left Unity’s strengths that this attitude is a feature of its international policy as a whole.

However, the Policy Report that was passed contained a serious concession to reformism. Rather than stand unequivocally for the abolition of the standing army, whose function is to defend capitalism and imperialism at home and abroad, the Party agreed to “plan the re-configuration of UK military and emergency forces around the redefinition of security needs…” No revolutionary socialist should vote for this.

The Education Policy Commission report clearly exposed the problem with franchising out the development of policy to self-selected groupings whose documents are privileged in the debate.

The ‘socialist’ or even ‘feminist’ credentials of a commission that produces policy which permits the continued existence of private and religious education must be called into question. Fortunately Conference passed amendments which unequivocally opposed the reactionary religious indoctrination of children and affirmed the principle of secular education for all as the basis for Party education policy.

An amendment to the commission report from Lambeth Branch motivated an unambigious socialist policy for education, including the abolition of private schools. Unfortunately Conference voted to remit this back to the Education Policy Commission. This is plainly undemocratic. The Education Commission drafted its own policy and opposed the amendment. It is the democratic right of members to have motions either discussed or remitted to the elected and accountable political leadership – the National Council.

The debates were generally good-natured – a sign that Left Unity is maturing in its ability to permit the political contest of sometimes sharply counterposed ideas. It is the a testament to the Party’s generally democratic character that most of the controversial issues were given adequate hearing.

Electoral strategy

The session on Electoral Strategy showed up Left Unity’s skewed priorities. This was the Party’s final conference before the General Election. Despite this, arguably the most pressing issue was tabled towards the end of the agenda. There was inadequate time for discussion.

Conference did not discuss Left Unity’s record in the May local elections. Considering that many candidates got votes that would make the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) blush, this is perhaps not surprising. A poor vote in an election is nothing to be ashamed of if the organisation is willing to draw up an honest balance sheet of its experience. This didn’t happen.

Most of the session was taken up with an argument about whether we should collaborate in an electoral coalition with TUSC. Conference was subjected to a series of oft-rehearsed, not to say banal, reasons why it would be a bad idea for Left Unity to practise electoral unity with other socialist forces. In the end the status quo was adopted – Left Unity won’t stand against TUSC candidates, but it won’t seek to pool resources in a common campaign. This is a mistake that only benefits those whose commitment to unity is less than skin deep.

Left Unity is preparing to go into an election in which it will counterpose itself to both Labour and the Green Party as the authentic ‘socialist, ecological and feminist’ voice of the working class. Strange then that there was no discussion of our attitude to the Labour Party.

The Labour Party may form the next government in 2015. It will pursue the capitalist project of austerity whose purpose is to transfer the welfare system into the private sector. It will continue to oppose strikes and govern in the interests of the richest in society. Nevertheless millions of workers will vote Labour to kick out the Tories.

Left Unity candidates canvassing next May will meet thousands of these workers. Many of them will share our convictions, support our campaigns and agree with our critique of Labour and the system it defends. They will doubtless ask us why we would not vote Labour – where we are not standing – at least to keep out the Tories, Ukip or the Lib-Dems or in Scotland the SNP.

To enter the election period without a serious policy outlining our attitude to the Labour Party is a mistake. Ignoring Labour or relying on denunciations of its most reactionary policies does not make us more credible – it makes us seem like we don’t have anything to offer except an appeal to vote for candidates who won’t get elected.

In our view, for all its moves to the right under Blair, Brown and Milband, it remains a party identified with the unions who founded it, still largely dependent on their money and voted for by majority of the working class. If we want to break these millions of workers away from Labour and its capitalist policies we cannot do this, whilst we are a tiny force, just by presenting a handful of socialist candidates. We have to do all we can, especially during elections, to spur Labour voters to question and criticise their party’s policies.

For this reason Workers Power supports a critical vote for Labour in constituencies where there are no Left Unity or other socialist candidates. We think Left Unity should have taken this position too. But even if it did not, Conference should at least have discussed the only strategy advanced for winning members away from Labour.

Left Unity must urgently set out the policies that we think a party that claims to govern in the interests of the workers should enact. On the doorsteps we need to be able to say – do you agree that these are the policies that your Labour MP should carry out? Policies we know Labour won’t carry out but that we can say we are fighting for in workplaces and communities up and down the country.

An organisation that thinks press releases substitute for actual campaigns has to ask itself – what happens if the Labour Party collapses before a credible alternative has been created?

Many Left Unity members mocked the hubris of socialist organisations who declare themselves ‘the party’ with a couple of thousand members. Left Unity should remember that in politics no one has a monopoly on hypocrisy.

The actual strategy for the election campaign will have to be developed by the National Council – which is only scheduled to meet twice before May. We are in danger of stumbling woefully unprepared into the most important election this century.

Party democracy

It is clear that the decision to outsource the development of policy out to self-appointed ‘Policy Commissions’ was not the most suitable method.

It is the nature of politics that everyone with a stake in the process will leave a party conference with complaints of one sort or another about the standing orders committee. We make no special pleading about our own motions or preferences for debate.

Nevertheless, the conference, whilst overall a positive experience, did reveal flaws which the Party must address if it is to put itself on a stable foundation for growth.

Left Unity’s constitution has been in place for a year and is clearly not fit for purpose. For one thing it sets the quorum for Conference as a third of eligible members – a threshold that was clearly not met. This is minor compared to the more serious political problems thrown up.

The question of Safe Spaces is something that many feel should lie at the heart of the Party’s constitution. We agree that the Party must establish rigorous, transparent and democratic procedures to ensure a healthy internal culture.
The wrangling over Safe Spaces stems from Left Unity’s confused attitude to the relationship between fractions and caucuses. These are structures that should exist in any democratic organisation. But if their purpose and functioning is not clearly laid out then the result is a mess which undermines the valuable roles these structures should play.

Fractions or ‘sections’ exist to carry out specialised work, e.g. work amongst women or work in the trade unions. They should be composed of party members who want to participate in this work. As such they should not be exclusively composed of women or trade unionists. Their value lies in concentrating the specialised knowledge of Party members in the implementation of Party policy in these areas. The embarrassing absence of youth and Black members in a Party with the ambitions of Left Unity shows more attention should be given by the leadership to the work of Fractions.

Caucuses are something different. They are voluntary structures of Party members from socially-oppressed groups. Since by definition they are exclusive, they create spaces in which people can discuss freely. At their most effective they fulfil a number of invaluable tasks. They are forums where members can raise issues of social-oppression present within the Party. They can discuss proposals and make suggestions to promote the participation of women and other oppressed groups within the Parties’ internal life and representation in its structures. They provide collective strength to challenge damaging practices, highlight oppressive behaviour, discuss what is and is not worthy of making formal complaints about and make suggestions to the Party leadership about appropriate steps to resolve disputes or impose disciplinary sanctions. As such the role of the caucus in relation to the party is to enable socially-oppressed members to play the most active role in determining the practice and policy of the Party as a whole in combatting oppressive behaviour internally and developing the policies to fight for externally.

Reforms to the Party constitution along these lines could go a long way to putting responsibility for nurturing a healthy internal culture into the hands of members. We should strive to create a Party where loyalty and disciplined common work enables most disputes to be resolved by the rank and file, reserving disciplinary action for the most serious offences.

The second major issue relates both to the Party’s constitution and to how its leadership operates. More attention should have been paid to the conference agenda to ensure that conference was able to give its view on motions which will be contentious in the election.

This would not have been such a problem if Conference had passed a motion from Lambeth Branch which called for a delegate Conference to agree Left Unity’s election manifesto. Unfortunately Standing Orders wrongly allowed a negating amendment to be voted on instead of obliging those opposed to a delegate conference to explain why. This means our election manifesto will be once again drafted by a commission of volunteers and agreed by the National Council.

This is anti-democratic on two counts. Firstly, we have seen that commissions have a patchy record on actually meeting and drafting coherent documents. Secondly, the National Council was not elected on a political basis, which undermines its democratic mandate to decide which policies should form the substance of the manifesto.

Additionally, the NC now has a large number of remitted motions to consider. This at a time when all its efforts should be focussed on developing a strategy to lead Left Unity into a turbulent election period.

To make matters worse, the leading bodies of the Party (National Council, Executive Committee and Officers’ Group) don’t function effectively. The National Council is a large and unwieldy body which is supposed to develop strategy for the Party. The Executive Committee – tasked with carrying out the directives of the NC – is hampered by the fact that its composition fluctuates, obstructing the development of a capable and consistent leadership. It also views its role as solely executive – its hands are tied by the political limitations of the NC. The Officers’ Group – who head leading responsible roles – are not even allowed to meet (formally).

The Party’s constitution is in need of urgent reform. The NC should elect a standing monthly-meeting EC which should not be afraid of developing Party policy and initiatives. It should be held accountable to each NC, which can re-elect it if necessary. The Officers’ Group should be elected from the EC and free to meet as a secretariat in order to ensure agreed tasks are carried out. The branches should elect delegates to an annual national conference that elects the NC on the basisis of the political positions set out at conference. This will ensure Left Unity has a leadership that represents the politics of its members.

Without establishing stable and accountable structures Left Unity will not develop an experienced, collective leadership. Rotation and quotas might create formally representative bodies, but in a small party with a limited pool of competent activists and leaders, these measures are inimical to both democracy and efficacy.

Perspective

Britain is entering a general election period dominated by Tory claims of an economic recovery, which exists only for the rich, amid a wave of populist xenophobia stoked up by UKIP and the media.

Yet despite opinion polls show overwhelming support for the renationalisation of public transport and utilities, hostility to the privatisation of the NHS and Royal Mail, the Labour Party remains pledged to carrying out Tory austerity targets. It condemns strikes by NHS workers and fire fighters supported by a majority of ordinary people.

Millions of workers, youth and unemployed people are appalled by the prospect of never ending austerity. They are furious at the Labour Party’s capitulation to policies which make ordinary people pay the cost of a crisis they didn’t cause. Yet Ed Miliband, responding to Tory taunts that he is beholden to trade union paymasters, seeks funding from an outfit like multinational accountancy company PricewaterhouseCoopers.

These should be fertile conditions for building a party that advocates a radical break with a system that guarantees poverty for the many in order to deliver prosperity for the few.

On reflection Left Unity’s second Policy Conference presents a mixed balance sheet. It adopted many good policies. It also adopted mutually contradictory motions. We decided to stand against Green councillors but support a Green MP. We will collaborate with TUSC, but not too much. Except in one area where we will support a joint TUSC-LU candidate.

There was a lot of talk about ‘doing politics differently’. But simply adopting hundreds of pages of paper policies is not doing anything different to the other fringe parties. Declaring ourselves The Party and hoping the masses spontaneously break from Labour and flood into our branches is a recipe for stagnation and irrelevance.

Popularising a radical critique of capitalism is a valuable, necessary task. But it is not a substitute for the struggle to contest for leadership of the working class struggle in the here and now. In this context a glaring absence is any discussion or decisions on the role of the trade union leaders in the struggle against austerity. That is something that Left Unity must address and quickly.

If our socialist policies are to leap from paper to practice then our Party must set out to win the best activists and the most militant workers to a consistent strategy that makes us the organising centre of the resistance to capitalism.

Left Unity has two great strengths. Its commitment to socialist principles and its growing activist base. Our Party has the potential to embody the radical socialist alternative. But we still have a long way to go.

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