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Kris Stewart: Report from Left Unity national meeting

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Last Saturday, 11 May, just over a hundred people met in a Bloomsbury hotel. This was the first national coming-together of people involved in the 'Left Unity' project since Ken Loach's intervention sent it viral.

Who was there?

All sorts came along. Workers and students, women and men, younger and older comrades, people from a number of different liberation groups. While I wouldn't say it was perfect, it was better than any other meeting I've sat in recently.

As for political backgrounds – there were people there who are very new to organised left politics as well as people who have been around a lot longer. People with activist backgrounds and people who are new to campaigning. And there were comrades from a number of organised groups on the left.

All round, I'd say it was a good crowd and to an extent representative of those we should be hoping can be attracted to a new left party.

And Ken Loach came along, which was nice. He's a nice fella.

What happened?

The big decision of the day – and one that doesn't seem to have quite received the fanfare it deserves – was to hold a founding conference for a new party of the left this coming November. That is, we voted to start a new party. And pretty soon. So there's a lot of work to do.

I've already read a good few reports of the day itself – and you should too if you haven’t (see the links down below). It's fascinating reading about an event you attended from different points of view. I spent a lot of the day with my local Left Unity group organiser Micheline Mason – who gave her thoughts on the meeting here.

A quick round-up of the formal business:

The meeting was a collection of local organisers and delegates chosen by local groups.

A statement written by Kate Hudson, one of the first organisers, had been circulated in advance of the meeting, with the intention that it be voted on. Some other motions had also been put forward. Instead, though, a different proposal was accepted, so that the only things which the meeting would take decisions about would be:

  1. The election of a new organising committee
  2. The date of the next national meeting
  3. The date of any founding conference of a new party
  4. The principle of any new party being based on “one member, one vote”

And the decisions made were:

  1. To elect a new committee of 10 on the day, reserving at least 50% of the places for women. Local groups to elect additional reps as they get organised.
  2. To hold the next national meeting in the autumn
  3. To hold a founding conference in November 2013
  4. To base any new party on the principle of “one member, one vote”.

As a positive footnote, the 50% reserve wasn't needed, as there were six women in the top ten votes.

What about the arguments?

There were some, mostly conducted in a generous spirit. One issue which came up a number of times was the relationship between Left Unity and existing socialist organisations. It's pretty clear that some people involved so far in Left Unity have had rotten experiences with some of the organised left. Well, you know, so have I. So what?

The majority (overwhelming majority) view of those present was that a new party of the left should be launched on the basis of individual membership. Only one person in the room even mentioned the idea of excluding members of other socialist organisations – and that person got no support for the idea. On the other hand, there was also very little support for the idea of allowing affiliation of groups, or for inviting non-voting observers from other left organisations to meetings.

Which is all very well. I voted for most of that myself. But once the new party is launched – as I hope it will be, in November – it will have to deal with the existence of the rest of the left. Yes at election time, of course, but also on a day-to-day basis, when organising activity, when giving solidarity, when playing its part in the movement. Some will be inside – IS Network members are already, as are comrades from Socialist Resistance, the Anticapitalist Initiative, Workers Power and others. Some won't – the left within Labour for certain, with SWP and Socialist Party comrades not clearly falling one way or another at this stage.

What will Left Unity's attitude be to joint work with those not in the project? The meeting wasn't having any discussion of such a thing. Which, again, could well be right at this stage. But it will very quickly become a real, practical question, and it will have to be addressed.

What about us?

How will the IS Network relate to Left Unity? Or, how will IS Network members work within Left Unity? One of the first things we agreed as the IS Network at our national meeting was:

"It should be a source of fantastic enthusiasm to socialists that Ken Loach’s call for an alternative to the watered-down neoliberalism of New Labour in the name of Left Unity has attracted many thousands of supporters from around the country. This sort of response, at a time when Labour is in opposition, really raises the possibility that we can establish a functioning party committed to fighting capitalism. We want to be part of this process of Left realignment and to reach out to the millions of people were previously not beyond the reach of the Left.
It is in this spirit that we welcome greetings from Socialist Resistance and the Anti-capitalist Initiative, who have expressed similar hopes that a new socialist Left can be built in Britain. We hope that we can work with them and many others in turning Left Unity in spirit into a genuine struggle for a better world. This would be really remembering what was best about the International Socialist tradition: building mass organisation to build socialism from below."

How does that translate into our day-to-day activity? Many IS Network supporters will remember operating as SWP members inside Respect, and before that the Socialist Alliance. Pretty much every one I've spoken to wants this experience to be different. But at the moment that “different” seems to be made up mostly of “not...”

So we're revolutionaries, but we don't expect Left Unity to be a revolutionary organisation, do we? In which case, are we going to work towards trying to build Left Unity as an avowedly socialist, class-struggle party? I want to. And I want to work with other people who feel the same. Does that include all the revolutionaries currently engaged in the project? How does that relate to the issue of revolutionary realignment?

And further – we're planning to launch a regular publication, with a cover price. When and how are we going to offer it for sale? Have you got your IS Network badge yet? Will you be wearing it on the anti-bedroom tax demo, or will it be your Left Unity t-shirt? When you offer solidarity to the Post Office counters staff on their picket line, which events will you be inviting them to, and how will you decide?

All of these questions are important ones for us and will become more and more so as time moves on. So let's get talking about them. What do you think? What has your experience in Left Unity been?

Some of these questions were reflected in the meeting. Ken Loach in his speech talked about capitalism, and socialism, and made clear he isn't after building another social democratic party, trying to pull Labour a bit to the left. Some agreed strongly with him. Others not so much, though they didn't make their arguments very clearly in response. Rather disappointingly, it wasn't easy to tell from the short written election addresses what various candidates' views were on this pretty central issue.

So Left Unity is still “up for grabs” - that doesn't mean it's ripe for takeover, it means the nature of the party has yet to be determined. That will come, through the arguments and activity of all the people involved in the project and attracted to it. And we should play our part in that.


PSThere is one other big issue which I haven't got the time, space or knowledge to go into here, and that's “What about Scotland?”. Ben Wray of the ISG has had this piece published on the Left Unity site, and I hope we'll see further contributions from Scottish comrades within the IS Network as well.

(And a plea from me, to all those socialist smokers out there – could you bear to move a bit further away from the door of the venue, please? I reckon I did the equivalent of a pack of 20 just going in and out of the hotel on Saturday.)

More reports: Adam Roden, Salman Shaheen, Pete McLaren, Terry Conway and even more on the Left Unity website.