(this article was first published in the Weekly Worker, November 20)
Left Unity’s November 15-16 policy conference resulted in the retention of a number of important gains and some useful achievements – not least over the appalling ‘safe spaces’ policy proposals. Once more, this intersectionalist nonsense, despite being rewritten yet again, was kicked into the long grass. In fact the Communist Platform’s alternative “code of conduct” received more votes than did the cherished ‘safe spaces’ (although the former was not endorsed either – see the separate reports by Mike Macnair and Yassamine Mather).
The excellent LU policy on the European Union was reaffirmed, and this was protected from any watering down in next year’s general election by the rejection of a straight electoral merger with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. In addition, any trace of social-imperialist support for western intervention against Islamic State was voted down, and the CP’s policy on crime and punishment was agreed by a clear majority.
So, all in all, it was a successful two days from our point of view. However, it has to be said that the conference was beset by organisational problems, which made the weekend a trying experience – especially for political newcomers, I am sure. Ironically this stems from the extremely well-meaning attempt to be ‘inclusive’ and the rather less commendable effort to appear ‘bottom-up’. So any member or group of members was able to propose any number of motions and amendments, and this resulted in an agenda stretching to 106 A4 pages. Added to which, attempts at compositing the various (often very lengthy) motions were not always successful, and it could be very difficult at times to follow exactly which item was being proposed.
This was compounded by the fact that a large part of the agenda was taken up discussing the reports from the various policy commissions. These typically took up five pages and attracted a raft of amendments. Of course, any member could volunteer to join any of the commissions and these tended to produce either a mish-mash or a set of platitudes (or both), through the attempt to reconcile sometimes incompatible viewpoints within a single document.
All this resulted in a very crammed agenda – there was no way we were going to get through it all, despite the two-minute limit on speeches from the floor.
There were certain other difficulties too. I will not dwell on the problems with the microphones, which appeared to have a mind of their own, frequently cutting off when a speaker was in full flow. Nor on the overhead projector, which was used to display the motion being discussed on the screen above the stage and tended to blind the conference chair!
The conference began with the report from the standing orders committee, when John Pearson of the SOC explained how we would try to get through the agenda. The whole item was supposed to take 10 minutes, but his report alone took up 15, and this was followed by several challenges to the SOC’s proposals – mainly from those comrades whose motions were likely to fall off the agenda. Amongst them was Jack Conrad of the Communist Platform, who stated that the CP motion on the constitutional right to bear arms had been placed under the ‘Miscellaneous’ section, instead of under ‘Constitution and democracy’, where it belonged. This meant that it would not be reached. However, this challenge was defeated on a show of hands.
But even those challenges that were accepted by conference had little practical effect. For example, principal speaker Pete Green said that the decision to exclude amendments to the LU constitution from the agenda would mean that we would go on for another year with a “seriously dysfunctional constitution”. Conference agreed with him, but the item was still not reached.
As a result of these organisational disputes, the conference proper got underway some 50 minutes late with national secretary Kate Hudson’s annual report, which was overflowing with hyperbole. She said it had been “no mean feat” to found a new left party, especially one which had “achieved an extraordinary amount”. LU had mobilised an “enormous turnout” on the TUC demonstration last month, had had a “major presence” on the earlier Gaza demo and had also been “prominent” in Iraq protests. She was confident we would “rise to the challenge” of next year’s general election – we did, after all, have “similar politics” to Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, our “sister parties” in Europe.
Speaking of which, Syriza’s Marina Prentoulis was one of the guest speakers invited to address conference. She confidently predicted that her party was going to form “the first left government in Europe” – something that would represent the “victory of the left across Europe”. Later on another guest speaker – Ken Loach, whose media intervention had led to the formation of LU in the first place – made a pertinent comment on the likes of Syriza and Podemos. He asked: “When they get big, can they keep their politics?” Of course, neither organisation had ever been guided by principled Marxist politics in the first place, but Syriza is now regarded by sections of the bourgeoisie as possibly a safe option. Nevertheless comrade Prentoulis was enthusiastically applauded, including by comrades from Socialist Resistance and the International Socialist Network (more here).
The first commission report was on the environment and was presented by Sean Thompson. Inadvertently illustrating the vague and unsatisfactory nature of the report’s contents, he said that our task as “ecosocialists” was to “make greens redder and reds greener”. However, the report was accepted by conference, with the notable exception of the CP which abstained.
Following the environment debate, Will McMahon moved the equally eclectic and insubstantial crime and justice commission report, asserting that we needed a “much smaller criminal justice system, based on much greater equality”. Mike Copestake of Sheffield moved the CP’s straightforward and much shorter motion calling, amongst other things, for the defence of the jury system, the election and recallability of judges and magistrates, fines proportionate to income, etc. He urged the reference back of the commission report. In replying to the debate, Bianca Todd defended the report on the rather insubstantial basis that “we need something on crime for the general election”. In fact Sheffield’s motion, along with three others, was passed, but unfortunately so was the report.
However, there was a better result in the following session, on social security, when the commission report was indeed referred back, following strong criticism from the floor. One speaker said the report was “dangerous and reactionary”, while another likened the proposal for a “two-tier” national insurance system to something from a Frank Field scheme. Another comrade pointed out that the report was in conflict with what had been agreed at a previous LU conference.
But unfortunately the report from the education commission was accepted, despite the usual eclecticism and weaknesses. The CP’s Sarah McDonald pointed out that the whole thing had not been sufficiently thought through and was not comprehensive in the areas it dealt with – even the “secular amendments” to the report did not go far enough. Once more the report was defended on an insubstantial basis – it was only a “framework document”, and so could be improved later, we were told! Having failed to win a reference back the CP bloc abstained in the final vote.
The ‘International’ session saw several contentious issues. The commission report exhibited the usual eclecticism and had been weakened in particular by the acceptance of an amendment from SR, which was clearly part of an attempt to water down LU’s strong opposition to any campaign of withdrawal from the European Union. Fortunately, however, conference rejected another SR amendment, which wanted to sneak in a reversal of our commitment to remain within the EU, and fight for working class policies in that context, by deferring a decision on the LU position on any referendum to a future conference.
National treasurer Andrew Burgin and the CP’s Mike Macnair both spoke against. Comrade Burgin stated that Europe is a “fundamental part of our work”. He also admitted that “some comrades are sceptical about Syriza” – although personally he was enthused by the situation in Greece, where we were likely to see a “workers’ government”.
But the main thing was, although the commission report was accepted, the central plank of LU policy on this “fundamental part of our work” – Europe – remained in place.
The ‘International’ session also saw the defeat of attempts to weaken our opposition to imperialist intervention in the Middle East. The argument was that the Kurds have the right to self-defence against Islamic State and this means we must join a campaign to demand imperialist heavy weapons and air strikes to back up their ground counteroffensive. Some also expressed illusions in the Free Syrian Army.
This was countered by Ben Lewis and Yassamine Mather, both supporters of the CP. Comrade Mather said: “Decriminalisation of the PKK, opposition to IS – absolutely.” But the “mess” in the Middle East had been created by imperialism and it was absurd to demand another imperialist intervention to sort it out. She spoke as someone who had fought alongside Iranian Kurds and who knew from her own experience about imperialism’s role. Comrade Lewis, for his part, said that some members were making a “false choice”. Surely we could oppose imperialist intervention and support independent and democratic resistance to the likes of IS? Once again LU’s anti-imperialism won the day.
The Saturday ended before all the items under ‘International’ were reached, which meant that a number of topics, including Ukraine, South America, nationalism and the CP’s ‘War and peace’, were not reached. But, first thing on Sunday morning, a challenge to the standing orders committee (SOC) resulted in Waltham Forest’s motion on Palestine being reinstated on the agenda. Towards the very end of conference ‘Support for Palestinian rights and BDS’ (boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) was unanimously agreed.
The SOC reported at the start of Sunday’s business that it had agreed to remove the word “denigrate” from Felicity Dowling’s ‘safe spaces’ policy motion because of its “racial connotations”. This in my view illustrated to perfection the absurdity of the whole ‘safe spaces’ hullaballoo. Not even comrade Dowling had been conscious of the fact that the original meaning of ‘denigrate’ is ‘blacken’ (and I suppose it must also be unacceptable to use an expression like ‘blacken my name’). The privileged position of the ‘safe spaces’ protagonists also struck me. Who else could get an amendment nodded through at the very last moment by the SOC? (As I write, the ‘offensive’ word still appears in the ‘safe spaces’ motion on the LU website.)
For our coverage of the whole debacle surrounding the ‘safe spaces’ debate, plus the equally heated disagreements over discipline and the disputes committee, see the articles by Yassamine Mather and Mike Macnair. But here let me comment on the useful innovation of ‘counterposed voting’ proposed by the SOC, since it was used when it came to a choice between ‘safe spaces’ and the CP’s code of conduct. Its use was challenged by Jeremy Dewar of Workers Power, who said that the correct way of dealing with motions that directly contradict one another is to vote for the first one only; and if that passes the second, opposing, motion is deemed to have been defeated. This had been the method of the working class movement “for 150 years”, said comrade Dewar. But comrade Macnair responded that it was actually the method of the trade union and labour bureaucracy, designed to give an advantage to the leadership. His description of the alternative “democratic method proposed by the standing orders committee” brought a rare smile to the faces of the overworked SOC comrades.
The order of business was challenged again on Sunday afternoon, so that the debate on LU’s 2015 election challenge could be taken immediately. It was fortunate that this was accepted, since the discussion took up almost all of the remaining conference time.
This did not get off to a good start, for the first motion concerned “joint candidates” with the National Health Action party. Although comrade Mather pointed out in the debate that NHA could not be considered leftwing, since it does not even express a preference between Labour and the Conservatives, this motion was carried. True, it was not quite as bad as it appeared at first sight, because it applied only to individuals who were members of both LU and NHA. But it would certainly involve those individuals standing on a highly compromised platform.
At least the second motion, moved by Pete McLaren, had the merit of seeking cooperation with another working class group: namely the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. But the proposers wanted to take things too far, demanding “intensive and structured collaboration (as opposed merely to non-aggression)”. This might include, in the words of comrade McLaren, “being part of Tusc, but without giving up any positions of Left Unity”.
That, however, is easier said than done. LU’s good positions on Europe and migration would never make it into the Tusc party political broadcast, its national manifesto, etc, given that the main force within Tusc, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, has stood in the last two European elections on a platform that espoused a diametrically opposite position – in effect for withdrawal from the EU and for border controls (see here).
Thankfully, the amendment from Pete Green and Phil Pope (who described himself as “an anarchist prepared to talk to Trotskyists”) removed the call for closer collaboration and when this was passed the motion was supportable. A further amendment wanted to extend cooperation to the Greens, but this was overwhelmingly rejected.
Finally in relation to the elections, a joint motion from Leeds and Lambeth stated: “LU should only stand candidates if we can democratically agree a manifesto through a policy conference and a delegate conference on the final manifesto …” The mover, WP’s Jeremy Dewar, argued that the Labour Party “has never allowed” a delegate conference to determine its election manifesto, and therefore such a thing must be a good idea. A little bit of a non-sequitur. An amendment from Tom Walker replaced the references to a further conference by one to LU’s national council, which would draw up a manifesto based on policies determined “by this conference and previous Left Unity conferences”. Once again, the correct position was voted through.
As expected, several issues were not reached. In addition to amendments to the LU constitution, sessions on the British constitution and democracy, equality and housing fell off the agenda.
Let me end this report by quoting Joseph Healy of the disputes committee, who made an ironic comment in relation to this paper. He said: “If you want to find out what’s happening, read the Weekly Worker. I’m thinking of writing a weekly column called ‘Disputes corner’!”
We look forward to that, comrade Healy!