Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Differing philosophies on the left

The platform debate at the recent Left Unity conference addressed, in a way, a philosophical division which has been evident within the Left over many decades. It's not a specifically Left phenomenon; exactly the same split can be seen in churches, where it's been studied by the sociologists. I originally came across this when I studied theology way back. It seems to be something to do with human psychology, and the way we organise ourselves into groups. Unfortunately, it's affected the British Left in a particularly damaging way. It's a subject I approach with trepidation, as some  may take offence, but I think it's one that we need to take seriously.

Several of the platforms on offer - the Republican Socialist Platform,. Communist Platform, and Socialist Platform - are close to the old Hard Left, and resemble the ideas of smaller churches which are known to the sociologists as 'sects'. I have to be careful here as people don't like being told they're a sect! A consistent characteristic they're not good at coping with differences of opinion. So boundaries are clearly drawn. In a church context, everyone's expected to sign up to a list of 'essential' or 'fundamental' doctrines; in a political context, membership is only open to socialists, sometimes socialists of a particular ilk. The harder the boundaries are drawn, the smaller the group usually becomes. In an extreme case, we have something like the Westboro Baptist Church, which seems to hate everyone except itself, and consists of little more than a single family, or the Maoist slave cult which was discovered recently.

These, of course, are aberrations, and I'm not making a judgement on this style of organisation. One of its weaknesses, which is only too obvious on the British Left, is its fissiparity. Hard left parties, like sectarian churches, split easily, and often squabble over petty things. I remember someone I knew dismissing a left-wing bookshop with a shrug. 'They're old-fashioned Stalinists'. I wasn't interested in the owner's theology, rather in the fact that he sold a very useful range of books. It was on a level with the church where I was once told that Methodists 'don't worship God properly' because we don't insist that the ladies wear hats in church. They're not very adaptable either. This, of course, is a function of their difficulty coping with difference, and possibly of their weakness. I doubt whether a thriving movement would have such petty difficulties. The result has been the proliferation of Left parties, which has made its own contribution to the Left's weakness.

Then there were the Left Party Platform and the aims moved by the Internal Democracy Commission, which are designed to create a wider movement, and which received far more support on the day. These are closer to what the sociologists call a 'church'. This is better at handling differences, and, in a political context, attracts people who want to work within a wider movement. So we have something like the Labour Left, or the Anglican Church, which includes people with a very wide range of theologies and ways of being church. It has its own problems. This is where the Labour Party poses a difficulty; it has attracted people with this approach, and effectively ensured that the Left would remain divided and weak. It's where I'm coming from myself.

I remember being surprised by the resemblances I found way back between the hard left parties and 'sects', but it explained the way I reacted to the choices on offer. I had bad experiences of sectarian churches, and hard left parties weren't for me either. I can't live with being lectured about my theological 'errors'! At the same time, the Labour left had obvious problems. The move rightward was in its early stages, but it was already evident that we weren't going to change society from within an organisation where we had no power. I left shortly after Blair took over.

Sects - I'm using the term in its sociological sense - are characteristic of groups of people who feel threatened or marginalised. So sectarian churches often flourish in poor communities, while the broader 'churches' are more middle-class. Sometimes the threat is a psychological one, even an imagined one. So US fundamentalism, which is extremely sectarian, has roots in the reaction against the abolition of slavery, and in a reaction against the urbanisation and industrialisation of the 19th Century US. It flourishes on largely imagined threats; evolution, the 'war on Christmas', abortion, Obamacare, and so on. It's something of a cultural aberration, but, from several thousand miles away, it's an interesting one.

It's easy to see how this style of organisation can flourish in working class communities which are often marginalised and threatened. Groups of people draw hard boundaries around themselves out of a need to define themselves against the bosses, or against a more powerful class which is excluding them. Back in Victorian times, it wasn't unknown for wealthy Wesleyan Methodist businessmen to build churches, and then insist that their workforce attend them if they wanted to keep their jobs. There were cases where people got together and built a Primitive Methodist church; this was the working class form of Methodism. If all the potential workers were in their own church, the boss had to employ them, and see his own building remain empty. They were under the boss's eye all week, why should it be the same on a Sunday? In a political context, people organised in unions. It worked well until the 1970's.

 Nowadays, the threats people face are different, and so is the political scene. Labour has moved decisively right, and has undermined its democratic structures to the point where it probably can't be moved left from within. Whether an external threat form a Left party can force it to move remains to be seen. The Tories, whose vote has been declining steadily for half a century, have been unable to win an election outright for over twenty years. Threatened from the right by UKIP, they're looking more and more like a spent force. Meanwhile, there's a vacuum on the left.

Meanwhile, people are more marginalised than ever, but in different ways. Rather than depending on a wage packet alone, many people have their incomes topped up by benefits. This weakens the relationship with the employer, and creates one with the state which traditional modes of organisation are powerless to address. Power structures within workplaces may be more diffuse, and workers far less secure. Bosses may be too remote for workplace structures to influence; the recent Grangemouth debacle is an example of this. Meanwhile, people are threatened by privatised utilities, rack-renting landlords, rapacious banks, and all the panoply of neoliberalism. Many of them are only too well aware of the language of the 1% and the 99%, and stand well to the left of Labour on issues like nationalisation. the scene should be set for a Left revival, but we're failing to communicate.

We need new structures, new tactics, new strategies, and the field is open to the first party to develop them. My instinct is that we need to be a broad party, but not too broad. Labour is a reformist, social democratic party which found space for socialists; we need to be the other way round. If someone's walking down the same road as we are, they should be welcome to walk with us for as far as they want to go. They shouldn't, however, be able to take us down a different road altogether.

There some good ideas about how we might organise here. I have my own thoughts about community organising, but that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Birmingham City Council budget 2014 workshop

Yesterday I went to an invitation-only workshop on the 2014 BCC budget at the new library. It was run by BMG Research (they even privatise consultations to some extent), but at least that meant we didn't have to listen to Albert Bore pontificating. I wasn't involved in last year's consultations, but I've heard dire tales of his taking up an hour and a quarter out of a two-hour session. Thirty-one people were invited, and i believe they expected about twenty to turn up. In the event, all thirty-one were there. This may indicate the strength of feeling about the cuts.

We had to discuss a series of pretty general questions like '[Should the Council] target services for those most in need, but reduce them for others?' We then voted on a menu of options, usually support/support to some extent/do not support. We did this on the basis of inadequate information; the budget had only been published shortly before the meeting, and fact sheets weren't given out until after it finished. Part of the three hours was spent in smaller groups which could discuss issues in more detail.

I don't know what the Council hopes to gain from the exercise, but as a consultation it was of limited value, ans given the local Labour Group's record, I imagine decisions have already been made. Last year's consultation was completely ignored, and I anticipate that this one will be as well. In many ways we were at loggerheads with what the council is trying to do to the city.

Results will apparently be posted in a couple of weeks, but people consistently voted against cuts. A real conflict was apparent over the idea of volunteers stepping in to replace Council services. Several participants were already involved in volunteering. The unfortunate woman running that part of the meeting tried very hard to get us to talk about how volunteers could cope, but eventually had to give up after being told repeatedly that it was unworkable. Working together across services got a better reception, and there were mixed feelings about district committees.

As the meeting progressed, participants became steadily more vocal, especially in the smaller groups. I think we had a consensus that further cuts aren't wanted, that volunteers cannot replace services, and that the situation isn't the Council's fault. If the government addressed the problem of tax evasion, and then cuts might not be necessary.  If the government hopes they can unload cuts onto councils, and watch them take the blame, or BCC thinks it can do the same with district committees, they may be disappointed.

Part of the problem, of course, is that way BCC has given in without a fight. It could have done great things to marshal opposition to the government, but it hasn't the courage of a mouse. Albert Bore's complaints about Pickles in the Guardian are too little and too late. Councillors seem to see themselves as managers rather than people elected to represent the people, and ensure the best possible deal for them. The likes of the Clay Cross councillors who fought a lengthy battle against the Housing Finance Act 1972, which was repealed in 1975, are nowhere to be seen. In the face of a government like this one, a managerial approach will go nowhere.

I suppose the workshop had value in indicating the mood music, if anyone was listening. The main lesson I've picked up from it all is the importance of standing people against the current Councillors. If you take the fight to the enemy, then you never know. You might even win.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Left Unity Founding Conference

It was a very long day. Up at five, after getting next to no sleep, to go up to London for the Founding Conference. I was determined not to miss it, but I wasn't well to start with, and CFS reduces me to something like a wet blancmange quite easily.  I was exhausted before we even began. As you see, the room was crowded with several hundred people. I'm not sure of the total, but it must have been over four hundred. Richard Seymour has written a good report here.

I hate taking photos showing the backs of people's heads, but when I tried propping up the wall to take them, my head was spinning, and I gave that up. Never mind; the more important thing is that I lost track at times. I wasn't the only one.

I hadn't managed to find a way of paying the subscription. I don't have a bank card which works, and I may not be the only interested person who's been rendered destitute by the government's behaviour towards sick and disabled people, so this is something which needs sorting.  However, I'm sure it's no more than a teething problem. I went as an observer, which was a lot better than nothing. The lack of a creche was a difficulty for some, but that again is something which can be sorted for future events. More serious was the lack of breaks, as having to climb over people to go to the toilet is downright embarrassing. We were bound to overrun, and it would have been better to add an hour on the end of the meeting, and ensure there was ample time for breaks.

One of the first things we considered was the 'Safer Spaces' policy, which deals with abuse. This is important, as allegations of abuse are as likely to occur in Left circles as anywhere else. At the same time, I always felt the policy was a potential nightmare, and was glad it was sent back for reconsideration by a large majority. It hadn't been subjected to democratic scrutiny before, so this established an important precedent.

I've been abused myself, so I'm well aware of the importance of addressing this. At the same time, I've also been on the receiving end of a false allegation. A girl pushed past me at a classroom door, and then claimed I'd touched her inappropriately. The class all backed me, and insisted that nothing happened, but I was suspended until Social Services looked at it. The situation was resolved quite quickly, but these things can drag on for months and even years, and it was a complete nightmare while it lasted.

Safer Spaces as it originally stood started with a long lecture about abuse, which struck me as unnecessary. Most of us know about it already, and teaching your granny to suck eggs isn't generally a good idea. The result was that it was far longer then it needed to be, and made very heavy weather of the subject. It ended with a boilerplate safeguarding policy, which was bureaucratic and cumbersome, like most of them. What we need is something much more streamlined, which takes allegations seriously, but at the same time safeguarda anyone who's accused innocently - this is where a lot of existing policies break down - and puts the emphasis on resolving matters as swiftly as possible.

We spent some time on a series of 'platforms', or political positions.  Some of these were in the same mould as the statements of the traditional Left parties; the Socialist Platform, Communist platform, and so on. I wasn't sorry these were rejected. Any voluntary group, whether it's a church, political party, or whatever, will work in roughly the same way. It'll draw people into the periphery, perhaps because they're looking for company, or because they identify with a particular project or campaign, all sorts of reasons. It'll then seek to draw them further in, and turn them into activists. The harder the boundaries are drawn, the more difficult it becomes for people on the margins, and the smaller the resulting group is likely to be.

We accepted two platforms; the Left Party Platform, with amendments, and the Hackney/Tower Hamlets statement, along with a statement in the body of the Constitution. This leaves us with three political positions, which are a little contradictory in places, but all are broad enough to be workable. No doubt things will be smoothed out in time. The various platforms can be found at the end of this post.

Most of the day was spent working through the Constitution, in detail. This was extremely hard going, but I was impressed with the effort put in, especially by the local groups which put in amendments. Some points were controversial. I'm not sure why some were so determined to oppose the idea of 50% female representation in leadership, but it was passed overwhelmingly, which is what matters. Another point concerned a lower age limit for membership. An amendment to remove a lower limit of 13 was passed, but not before someone had sung a song about childhood. She was a talented singer, but I don't know who she thought she was going to convince. An amendment to ensure that the Conference rotated round major cities, with the leadership based in Birmingham, was narrowly defeated. There's  a clear desire to avoid London-centricity, which made it into the Constitution, and it would be worth bringing this back at a later date.

Caucuses and sections were accepted. Like-minded people within a party are going to meet together whatever happens, and this has to be accepted. The final decline of Labour began with a witch-hunt against Militant during the Thatcher era, and we need to avoid the possibility of anything like this by recognising the legitimacy of such groups within  any broad party.

Things can go wrong in any organisation, of course. We need to guard against the rise of any faction which seeks to follow the path Labour and the union bureaucracies took, of trying to improve conditions within capitalist society, rather than working to replace it. Evils aren't removed, only mitigated, and, as we see from the history of the last thirty years, it's always possible for the elite to reassert themselves and undo the good work of earlier generations. We have to welcome reformists into our midst, as allies and potential coverts to Socialism, while remaining Socialist in our aims. Future generations may find that difficult, but that's a problem for them to solve. It's likely that any party can only have a limited lifespan before it becomes as moribund as those it replaced.

A motion to  raise the majority required to alter the Constitution from 50% to 70% was defeated, though I think we may have to return to this at some point. Labour's Clause Four debate showed how a party's fundamental documents can be eviscerated, and it's unwise to allow this to happen too easily. For the moment, however, things are still in a state of flux. No doubt we made mistakes yesterday, and for the moment, it remains possible to put these right without too much trouble.

Once we'd finished with the Constitution, we used the remaining half-hour for short speeches on a couple of issues. A lot of work had to be left for future Conferences, but that's probably no bad thing. I went feeling that we were tackling too much too fast. By the end of the day, I was much reassured, but the fact remains that a new type of political party can't be created overnight. By this time everyone was exhausted, and the chair appeared to be a complete wreck.

For the moment, the mould of British politics has been broken. For the first time, we have party making a genuine attempt to be democratic as every level. At last, people have the chance to join something which will allow them real participation, rather than using them as election fodder for the benefit of an elite, while at the same time failing to represent their interests.

We still need to make it work, and build it up to the point where we can challenge the buggers at the polls.  It's going to take years before we can make real progress; my guess is about a decade, though I may be wildly wrong in either direction. Meanwhile, there's no reason why we can't manage a few Council seats. Given the low turnout for local elections, many incumbents will be vulnerable once we build up healthy constituency parties. There's no reason why we can't get there!