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!

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