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7 December 2013
“His heart is in the right place, even if his head has gone walkabout.”
Thus John Major, British Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, mocked the current leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Edward Miliband, when the latter recently proposed a temporary cap on the soaring price of energy supplied to British consumers.
The remark could equally be applied to the those attending the “founding conference” last Saturday 30 November 2013 in London of “Left Unity”, a new radical leftwing party supported by film director Ken Loach, which aims to fill the vacuum left by the Labour Party’s swing to the right.
About 600 of the new party’s 1200 “founding members” crowded into the ginormous main hall of the personality-free Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury to lay the foundations for a party that is intended to present a radical challenge to the prevailing capitalist order.
Where to begin?
First and foremost, it was crystal-clear from the outset that this was not a “founding conference”.
At a founding conference of a political party you might have expected a thorough no-holds-barred open-to-all comprehensive debate to determine the party’s raison d’être, basic premises and goals as well as the path to achieve those goals.
Not a bit of it.
From the start every moment of the proceedings was micro-managed to a degree that would have been the envy of apparatchiks choreographing a plenum of the Chinese National People’s Congress.
It was only the receipt of an email from the conference organisers on 26 November – a few days before the meeting took place – that non-insider conference attendees like yours truly became aware of the existence of a cat’s-cradle of highly complex pre-prepared conference documentation peppered with proposals, counter-proposals, statements and amendments. Paper documentation only became available on the day of the conference itself.
As a consequence, no serious participation in the proceedings of the conference was possible for attendees among the so-called “founding members” who were not privy to the months of detailed drafting that had taken place behind closed doors in the nine months since an appeal to discuss the founding of the party was launched in March 2013.
And in any case no such participation was wanted. It became apparent from the start that no open debate of any kind would take place at the “founding conference”, proceedings being strictly limited to the adoption or otherwise by conference of proposals set out in the pre-determined agenda.
Moreover, once voting on the agenda began, it became apparent that the conclusions of the conference were effectively in the hands of three or four groups of tightly-disciplined bloc-voting caucuses sitting together in different parts of the conference hall which were each proposing a “platform” of aims or policies that they wanted the conference to adopt.
Thus the various parameters of any significance had already been fixed in stone out of the public eye at caucuses of activists each with their own axe to grind.
Moreover, given the belated apparition of conference documentation, it was quite impossible for someone not already in the know to appraise the merits of the hair-splitting distinctions that differentiated proposals in the various platforms.
How could this be termed in any sense a “founding” conference?
In reality, the party had been already been founded before the conference took place.
The name of any political party is of mega-importance, particularly if the party is to seek a democractic electoral mandate in society at large.
Yet here – despite the multiplicity of names possible – we were presented with a limit of three variations on the name already chosen by the party’s inner circle – Left Unity – plus a single alternative. Unsurprisingly, Left Unity was the name approved.
Moreover, you would think that after a founding conference one would at least know the names of the party’s officers.
You must be joking. A proposal to elect the officers was thrown out by the conference in favour of confirming the mandates of the self-appointed inner circle that had been running the party up to now – but without even announcing the names of those involved!
Even the Chinese Communist Party of China makes public the names of appointed officials!
Moreover, it was hugely spirit-lowering that a large chunk of the afternoon’s proceedings was devoted to a drawn-out passion-killing session picking nits in the party’s standing orders, procedures and processes.
Instead of focusing on policy and goals, leaving the bureaucratic niceties to develop organically as the party grew, the conference was compelled by the pre-ordained agenda to waste hours considering bureaucratic amendments – such as “replace the word [section] with [caucus]” – of mind-boggling triviality but which threaten to impose an unnecessary strait-jacket on the party’s natural growth.
On 27 November 2013 conference attendees received an email which contained the following message from Ken Loach:
“A lot of people will have a lot of things to say, some of it quite diverse. Keeping to the agenda will be difficult. It’s got to be handled very skilfully, so that everyone emerges feeling we made the best use of the time, we’ve got the best result we can, and no one has been defeated, we’re all part of something we can all share and believe in even if we didn’t get everything we want into the statement [of aims], that our opinions are respected. If we’re going to be a broad party, there will be many people coming in who don’t share the well-defined set of ideas some of us who have been around these kinds of projects for a long time have. They should be welcome...”
Presumably thinking along the same lines, Loach himself proposed to the meeting on 30 November that submissions for the party’s aims should not be put to the vote at this particular conference. One assumes that, like ourselves, Loach wanted party members to be given more time to digest what was being proposed.
Loach’s proposal was rejected.
We were ourselves selling publications for Tony Cliff (aka Ygael Gluckstein) outside Kings Cross railway station in London in the early 1970s. We have taken part, to varying degrees, in radical leftwing politics ever since. However, unlike (as it seemed to us) many conference attendees, we have extensive contacts with people outside the left, with people who have no overt political allegiances and also with people who switch from left to right depending on the issue. If this party is to have an electoral impact and not confine itself to direct action (strikes, demonstrations, occupations, etc), then it is these people whom we have to win over. To that end we shall have to develop the kind of open-minded approach suggested by Ken Loach in his welcoming message. Unfortunately, we had the strongest possible feeling at the conference that large numbers of those present had rocked up from another planet, that they spent their political lives inside a non-popping leftwing bubble and that, like secular counterparts of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were largely oblivious of the indifference towards their beliefs that obtains in the world at large. And we say this, not out of any doctrinal opposition to a radical left stance – in fact, we voted throughout the day for the most radical options on offer, so far as we could find them – but because of our view that hard-left commitment (cynics might describe it as voting for motherhood and apple pie) must be combined with a degree of presentational intelligence.
Incidentally, we note that the party aims adopted by conference include an acceptance of the continued existence of privately owned enterprises – a position which sits uneasily perhaps with the emphasis on socialism that permeates the rest of the conference documentation. We also deplore the failure to define many of the key terms used in the documentation. What, for instance, are “ordinary people”? And what do we mean today by the term “working class”? Is it a definition to which Karl Marx would have subscribed? How can one vote on proposals containing such terms if one does not know what meaning the proposer attaches to them?
Talking to attendees in the course of the conference, one got the impression that things were going much as they had expected. People were neither unduly optimistic nor unduly pessimistic. There was a definite feeling, none the less, having regard to previous abortive attempts to cobble together a united left front, that “we have been here before”. This time round no one was prepared to count their chickens before they were hatched.
It is important to remember too that a number of hard left organizations are giving the new party the cold shoulder, at least for the nonce.
All that said, we hope that we are wrong and that our pessimism is unfounded.
In the face of a brutal capitalist ruling class that is stamping on the sick, the halt and the lame and turning those who are already poor into starving paupers, the need for an effective leftwing alternative could not be more pressing.
To conclude, we attach some remarks that we had prepared ahead of the conference in the hope that there might be a free debate in which to deliver them:
REMARKS PREPARED FOR THE “LEFT UNITY” FOUNDING CONFERENCE ON 30 NOVEMER 2013
1. Firstly, the name is of mega-importance. The monicker “Left Unity” is fine for a group of committed activists content to work outside electoral politics. However, if we are to venture into the electoral arena, then such a name would, in our opinion, be the kiss of death. The word “left” in certain circles is like a red rag to a bull. What we, personally, would prefer is something like “ The People’s Movement”. We believe at any rate that “the people” should come into it. Consider, for instance, the spectacular successes chalked up recently in state elections in India by a new party that calls itself “Common Man” (Aam Aadmi). In any case, the term “party” has become discredited during the past half-century. It is not by accident that in Italy Beppe Grillo has opted for the “5 Star Movement “ instead of the “5 Star Party”.
3. Thirdly, as Ken Loach has so percipiently stressed in his welcoming message, this movement must be a broad church. If we are to continue simply to talk among ourselves within the left, then fine. But if we are to reach out to others –perhaps millions of people – who share our outlook on particular issues, then we need to avoid being crudely sectarian or narrowly ideological. The importance of this goes without saying if we intend, as we presumably do, to take part in electoral politics.
4. Fourthly, two things follow from what we have just said:
A. The administration of our movement must not be micro-managed by the adherents of one or two established ideological leftwing currents, however laudable their objectives, but must be extended outwards to include a wide variety of people who are committed, in various ways and to varying degrees, to the overthrow of the established order.
B. The administration of our movement must at all times be sensitive and responsive to the views of the membership. So many leftwing organisations are so often neglectful of the opinions of individual members. Yet it is the individual members of an organisation that give that organisation its life force. Draw on their energies and enthusiasms and you will have a dynamic movement. Somewhat surprisingly, rightwing organisations have a claim to being more sensitive to this need than the left. We must not have the attitude that we know it all because we have been around so long. That is arrogant claptrap. No one knows everything. We all have to go on learning indefinitely.
5. Finally, in our opinion, we have to do something that some of you – not all certainly – but at least some of you – may be uneasy with. If our goal is to become a force to be reckoned with on the hustings, we shall have no alternative but to mount a full-on no-holds-barred attack on that wolf in sheep’s clothing – the Labour Party.
We take the view that until the Labour Party is driven from the political stage the chances for socialism in this country are precisely nil.
The Labour Party has not been a socialist party since Keir Hardie died in 1915.
The Labour Party has ceased to be a progressive party since the Attlee Government fell in 1951.
For decades the Labour Party has been a rightwing conservative party with policies virtually indistinguishable from those of the Tories.
None the less, even as it slithers ceaselessly towards the right, the Labour Party is still seen – by many activists as well as by much wider a-political swathes of the population – as the sole possible channel for progressive politics in this country.
As long as the Labour Party can continue to exploit its historical reserve of leftish goodwill, it will hoodwink enough of our citizens to prevent any threat to the red-blooded capitalism that it now espouses.
In the teeth of decade upon decade of evidence to the contrary, it is an illusion to believe that the politically bankrupt principle-free Labour Party is, somehow or other, going to pull a socialist rabbit out of its capitalist hat. It is not going to happen.
That is why we believe that a key activity of any leftwing grouping today must be to mount against the Labour Party a full-spectrum all-out onslaught with the ultimate aim of driving it out of existence.
Only with the demise of the Labour Party – only then – will an opportunity arise for the development of progressive politics in this country. Then and only then will it be possible to tap into the popular support that undoubtedly exists for the creation of a just and fair society in this our country.
Films directed by Ken Loach include: Poor Cow, Kes, Land and Freedom, Bread and Roses, Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and The Spirit of ’45.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.