Left Unity: A Report from the Founding Conference

by Richard Seymour on December 3, 2013

We built it.  Will they come? 

Based on the votes, I would estimate that somewhat over 400 people gathered in Bloomsbury on Saturday to launch the new left party first suggested by Ken Loach some months ago.  The attendees were disproportionately veterans of the Left, older and white, but there were a lot of them.

There were few real surprises.  The ‘platforms’ debate was settled—although only a fool would say ‘finally’.  Putting it schematically, the debate was between those who favoured a ‘broad left’ party and those who wanted a more traditional hard Left organisation based on a programme redolent—to my eyes—of the sort of ‘where we stand’ programme that Trotskyist organisations sometimes publish.

The Left Party Platform, representing the ‘broad left’ option, passed overwhelmingly with some positive but relatively minor amendments.  It gained about three quarters of the votes. Approximately another quarter aligned with alternatives such as the Socialist Platform.  This reflected what one would have thought was the balance of opinion in Left Unity.

Perhaps the most telling moments in the conference concerned the resolution of the new organisation’s gender politics.  The practical questions were these: should there be “at least 50%” representation for women in any leadership, and should the organisation have caucuses and sections for oppressed groups?

Not all participants acquitted themselves admirably on this question.  One man complained that “at least 50%” representation for women would result in women being numerically dominant most of the time.  He indicated that he thought this was “nonsense,” but didn’t seem to be able to say why.  Others suggested that to have a quota would result in people not being selected on the basis of their politics.  This seemed to carry the implication that the present over-representation of men is in some sense politically meritocratic.

However, these delegates were fighting a steep uphill battle.  They had lost before the debate began.  Conference gave the most heartfelt and animated reception to those who spoke for feminism, and voted by mountainous majorities for “at least 50%” and for caucuses and sections.  These may seem like baby steps.  Of course they are.  But the signal sent by this conference is clear: the culture of the Left is changing and feminism is winning the argument.

At one point as the vote tallies were announced, and as if to dramatise the urgent relevance of ‘intersectionality’, a man griped from the floor: “what about class politics?”

A woman nearby rose in heroic fury, and demanded: “Who said that?

“Er…?”

“Who said that!?” 

“What about class politics?”  The luckless man reiterated, to jeers and a few desperate, scattered hand claps.

“Right.  I’m a woman, and I’m working class—how about that?  she snapped.  Exuberant applause.

There were, on the other hand, some quite surreal moments of a sort that only the British Left can deliver.  These included, for example, a speaker for the Communist Party of Great Britain declaring, in a voice full of portent: “The Communist Platform is not madness!”

Another contributor pleaded that conference should not vote to admit children as members, and broke into a maudlin song about childhood in order to make the point.  With the best will in the world—and one has to admit that the voice wasn’t bad—this cut through me like a dentist’s drill.  Obviously only a complete bastard would say this, but then someone has to.

A great deal of the conference was necessarily consumed by procedural minutiae and constitutional refinements.  This was exhausting.  The chair was a trembling wreck at the end of it.  I know I wasn’t the only one who, at a certain point in these discussions, began to check out.  There is a reason God made the smartphone, people, and this is it.

The upshot is, we have a party.  It has over 1,000 dues-paying members thus far, 10,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook, thirty seven branches, and now a constitution and a basis for action.  What can be done with this?

I have participated in two previous attempts to build a left-of-Labour party: the Socialist Alliance, and Respect.  Both crashed against unforgiving structural limits, notwithstanding the strategic errors made by the leaders of those formations.  These limits began with the severity of the defeats inflicted on the labour movement and the Left in Britain during the 1980s; the collapse of that symbolic space where a certain type of hard Left made sense; and the sweeping completeness of the Blairites’ victory within Labour, such that our main social democratic party was already fully committed to neoliberalism before taking office.

Whereas crises arose for European social democratic parties upon taking office and administering neoliberalism, no such crisis arose for Labour.  Anyone still a member of the party or voting for it had few expectations of Blair as a radical reformer.  When Blair’s record was worse than expected, members and voters withdrew from activity rather than join anything new, their demoralisation stronger than their outrage.  Even Stop the War, one of the few movements to genuinely merit the adjective ‘mass’, could only prise away one Labour MP.  That was George Galloway.  He did not want to leave, but was forced out, and did not bring a significant detachment with him.  The highlights and lowlights of his subsequent career are well known.

This is the problem that Left Unity faces.  The UK has no significant communist or far left parties equivalent to those in Greece, France or Portugal.  It is therefore impossible to do what Left Unity wants to do unless there is a realignment in which a sizeable chunk of the Labour Party, including MPs and councillors, splits.  Moreover, Left Unity is not coming up on the back of some great social movement, and the wider left in which it operates is historically weak.  To all appearances, it has emerged at a most inopportune moment.

And yet, one can’t wait for the opportune moment to do something.  By then the foundations should already be laid, or it is too late.  The challenge for Left Unity in the short-term is to stabilise itself, prove its ability to operate in adverse circumstances, collaborate effectively with those who continue to be in the Labour Party whether through the People’s Assemblies or more localised campaigns, and define a viable left politics that doesn’t simply speak in the idiom of forgotten eras of radicalism.

In this respect, Left Unity does have some advantages.  Its veterans have had the chance to learn from the errors of the past.  It is not reliant on some great personality, nor is it an undemocratic lash-up of the extant far left.  It puts the politics of women, LGBTQ and black people front and centre.  There appears to be no appetite for inscrutable dogma.  And it seems to be genuinely prepared for the long haul: the slow, patient work of building its presence in communities, trade unions and social movements.  That gives us a chance, to put it no more strongly than that. And I don’t like admitting this. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

Richard Seymour is a political activist who writes at Lenin’s Tomb and the GuardianHe is the author of Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, forthcoming from Pluto Press.

(originally published at New Left Project)

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Rectenwald December 3, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Does this sound familiar?

“It was the vacancy of the international Left which allowed these piratical
fuckwits [jihadists] to gain a foothold, first in the Middle East, then
elsewhere. The dynamic is almost an exact replica of the
process which saw the resurgence of the European far right. The
mainstream left and right colluding in a sort of depoliticisation
through the Nineties, the demonstrably baleful aspects of capitalism
becoming even more obscene, the political process even more moribund
than ever, centre-left governments concealing their failure behind a
facade of identity politics, PC radicalism, and a multicultural
discourse that is not only useless, but actually beneficial for the far
right. Multiculturalism, promoting the politics of ‘difference’ rather
than universal human rights, can produce strange ideological effects. “

Reply

gluelicker December 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

So… someone at this meeting suggests that something troubling is going on when the politics of ascriptive group representation blithely trumps the politics of, well, political analysis and positions. And apparently Seymour thinks that an adequate way to deal with this issue is to insinuate that the person who raises it is an embarrassingly passe troglodyte. I don’t know what the fuck has happened to Seymour these last few years — I suppose graduate school explains it — but whatever it is, it sure ain’t good. Amidst this flare-up surrounding the Fisher article, why isn’t anyone answering (or even asking) the relevant political sociology question: why, during the last year or two or three, are we suddenly reliving the worst of the late 80’s-mid 90’s?

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Ross Wolfe December 4, 2013 at 3:17 pm

great question

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Marq Dyeth December 5, 2013 at 12:56 am

Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Rectenwald, Mr. gluelicker:

Political work necessitates collective action, which implies uniting with others despite disagreements in the interest of larger goals. The experience and awareness of oppression is how most people in the U.S. come to radical politics. (I can’t speak for the U.K.) You might not like that, but you can’t change it by acting smart on the internet. It’s for real reasons having to do with concrete conditions and how we experience those conditions.

If this is about political work, then you will have to learn to love some pretty unlovable people, never mind how you feel about identity politics. Otherwise, what did the man say about embaressing passe troglodytes?

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gluelicker December 5, 2013 at 4:46 am

Marq Dyeth —

I have a lot more to write about this, but I’ll say this much for now: when reified identities rather than political principles are the starting point of a discursive formation, the ultimate result is separatism or therapy. The point is not that oppressed subjectivities should be discounted, the point is that they are not ontologically prior to political questions. And it is especially disingenuous for Seymour to brush aside the legitimate issue of NOT taking for granted what constitutes an oppressed identity and what does not, as if this is a settled matter that no sufficiently “in the know” person would dare breach.

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Marq Dyeth December 5, 2013 at 2:01 pm

gluelicker,

It may be that we just see things differently. My experience has been that the potential for universality is contained within the struggles against particulars instances of oppression and exploitation. I think there are a lot of activists in the anti-oppression camp who would agree with this, though not formulated in that exact language. I think it is a mistake to make theoretical unity the minimum necessary agreement for shared work, because in my experience theoretical unity comes from collective confirmation of shared experiences in practice. You can’t get around this stuff, so the question is what are we going to do with it?

I won’t be able to get back here for a little while so thanks for your thoughts and good luck with your work.

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gluelicker December 7, 2013 at 8:03 am

For me, it’s not about universalism versus particularity, with a preferential option for the former. To read me in that way is to misconstrue me. It’s about political will-formation versus sociological reductionism — and even among the critical critics of identity politics, standpoint epistemology, intersectionalism, and so on, I often see too much indulgence of the latter tendency.

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Marq Dyeth December 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm

gluelicker,

You wrote: “what happens instead is that political questions get put to the side, obscured.”

But from my perspective these ARE political questions, in two senses. First, they speak to people’s lived experiences under capitalism, that is, how the world confronts them. Second, as you have observed in your experiences at Occupy, these questions are unavoidable when it comes to issues of organizational life, alliances, campaign work, etc. These questions are political because they have bearing on carrying out our political work.

Now, your assessment may be that these are not the most central issues in today’s political environment. But if you want to create a higher unity with the people who are involved in this work then you have to address these questions directly. Like I’ve said before, you can’t wish this stuff away.

If you want, you can just refuse to work with students and middle class radical. There are lots of poor and struggling people who feel no strong attraction to the politics you are arguing against. But I think you will find that questions like these will be inescapable in any organizing environment. Religion, gender roles, nationalism, parenting styles, ‘respectable’ vs. ‘disreputable’ groups in the neighborhood, accountability and representation in decision-making, “who has the right to speak for who” as you put it.

You will be thrown back to these questions again and again until you see that these ARE political questions, that this IS the class struggle.

-MD

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