Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Left Unity Conference

A banner headline which didn't match the strap lines

Another Missed Opportunity as feminists and reformists link-up

Left Unity is the brainchild and founding father, the distinguished socialist film maker Ken Loach who has produced more radical and socialist films that I can remember.

Ken Loach - Left Unity's guiding light
 According to its own web site, as one might expect, the new Left Unity (it’s doesn’t call itself a party!) saw a successful launch for Britain’s new and latest socialist project.  All inclusive, democratic, it is the ideal counter to the sectarianism of the far left sects.

If only things were as simple as that.  For a start it involved a glossing over of political differences.  This was made possible by the utter madness of having a constitution more fitted to a party 100,000 strong, not one that is 1,200 and, according to a seasoned ex-member of the Morning Star Communist Party, Andrew Burgin, is expected to increase to 2,000.

There are not only branches, but regional structures, a National Committee and an over-weight Executive.  It would seem that some members are going to be burnt out just attending the meetings and since the life-style feminists were determined to ram through positive discrimination then no doubt the structures are not going to function for long if at all.   Activity and campaigning is going to be at a minimum.

A simplified branch structure, feeding into an Executive would have sufficed.

Politically the main problem is that a large number of members are political refugees from the SWP, like Richard Seymour.  Unfortunately they have drawn all the wrong conclusions from the shipwreck of what is left of the SWP.  The problem in the SWP wasn’t feminism or the lack thereof.  It was a failure of democracy and the determination of women to get the leadership clique to accept that rape and sexual molestation are unacceptable in a socialist (or any) organisation.  Comrade Delta i.e. Martin Smith, managed to be acquitted by a jury of his mates, not because there was no positive discrimination but because the SWP lacks all democratic control by its membership.  Indeed Alex Callinicos and co. were very clever.  The majority of those involved in acquitting Smith were in fact women.  The only dissent on the Disputes Committee came from a man.  Positive discrimination, which is written into the new Left Unity project’ constitution, comes from a faulty analysis (see more later).

A conference session
What one didn’t get the sense of was any active political involvement by many of the women.  Perhaps this was best epitomised by Liz Davies, a barrister who chaired the first session and did her best to call women or men she knew.  The afternoon Chairperson was no different.  Some habits die hard!  Ms Davies in particular doesn’t seem to have a sense of shame or political honesty.  At the 2001 Socialist Alliance Conference when the Socialist Party walked out and the SW P began its take over of the Executive, via ‘independents’ like Liz Davies, she accepted the role of Chair of the SA knowing full well, not least because a caucus at lunch time pointed it out to her and her partner Mike Marquesee, that she was, to be blunt acting as the SWP's patsy.  A died in the wool reformist she is typical of the new feminist bureaucrats.

What was even more confusing was that the Chair couldn’t decide whether the Aims and Objectives were part of the constitution.  He ruled against but the agenda stated differently.  If so, then we have a party that is committed to the mixed i.e. private and public, economy.  A great start for a unified socialist party, which is probably why the term ‘left’ rather than ‘socialist’ was the order of the day.  There were 4 platforms – Class Struggle, Socialist, Communist and Left Platform.   The latter won out with a ¾ majority.

Kes - the first of Ken Loach's films I saw and possibly the best
But there were some recognisable seasoned cooks, from the left groups like the perennial Alan Thornett, who the last time we spoke berated me for having opposed the SWP’s move in the Socialist Alliance to create Respect.  Nothing it would seem has changed for this veteran of the Workers Revolutionary Party.  And his Socialist Resistance is one of the better groups on the far left.

Left Unity conference

All hell broke out when I had the temerity to oppose positive discrimination.  Apparently that made me a member of the far-right, according to one hysterical woman that followed me.  The points I made were simple:

i.              In a political party you vote for someone according to their politics.  You should not have a free ticket because of your sex.    

ii.             If you are going to have positive discrimination for women, then why not for black women, gays, the low paid, disabled transgendered etc.  It is a recipe for fragmentation, not unity and socialism is about unity if it is about anything.  However judging by some of the screeching feminists, this is probably a good thing.

iii.            In   my own union, UNISON, there is the most advanced form of positive discrimination there can be.  It’s called the ‘diversity agenda’.  Every fraction, from black lesbians to the low paid and women are represented.  The only problem is that a union  which has a largely female leadership, led by Dave Prentis, sells-out its members, mainly working-class women, every year. 

This really got the sisters howling.  But since it’s only nurses, teaching assistants, carers etc. who experience the 'benefits' of UNISON's positive discrimination then who cares.  Female barristers and bankers are more concerned with 'glass ceilings' than strikes and class struggle.  But since there seemed to be few if any working-class women (or men) at the conference it probably didn't matter.

It is a sign of how the democratic norms of the SWP have been imported into Left Unity that the Chair made no attempt to quieten the cat-callers, quite the contrary.
But of course positive discrimination is not something particularly socialist or ‘left’.  Anyone who remembers that photo of the 101 Blair Babes, women labour MPs, most of whom owed their position to all–women short-lists, might also recall that when it came to the vote against the Iraq War in 2003, 40% of male Labour MPs voted against war and just 25% of female MPs voted against the war and many of them were the old, traditional socialist working-class women, like Alice Mahon, who had become an MP in the absence of any positive discrimination.

To get 500 socialists in a conference hall, without a solitary Socialist Worker seller, is an achievement.  However I fear that Left Unity has already reached its apogee and the way from now on will be down.  Left Unity has been set up on the basis of a false analysis of the problems facing the socialist left which is not that we don’t all come together but that there is no shared strategy.   

This is, in turn, the product of a working class that has been defeated and restructured (atomised) with a consequent weakening of trade unions.  The problem with Left Unity is that the debate on the Constitution prevented any discussion or debate on strategy or elections through lack of time.  This was a serious, if not fatal mistake.

A case was also briefly made by the Republican Socialist Platform for a party with its roots in the English revolution (1649), in contrast to the two main platforms, Left Party Platform (1945) and Socialist Platform (1917).

Tony Greenstein


  1. Dear Tony Greenstein,

    Although very new to political activism (and a woman) I attended the conference as a supporter of the Republican Socialist Alliance (RSA). I have no idea what you think the RSA's prospects are but I wanted to share with you my initial reaction about positive discrimination (which I expressed in an email to our alliance, as we were being asked to comment on the conference):

    Howdy brothers and sisters ;)

    I have quite a lot of positive and less positive thoughts about the conference but would be happier to share them in the next meeting. One of the things I wished had happened is that my fear of public speaking had not got hold of me when this hysterical (I don't mean 'funny ha ha') woman spoke so indignantly about the right thing to do about gender quotas in groups. I really, really took exception to being virtually called a fascist (or conservative or far-right) for my opinion that there should be no quota. I wish I had stood up and calmly said something like 'I'm sorry for wanting to uphold the values of the Enlightenment, lady and f*** you too. If inside a party like LU women feel threatened that they're not going to be represented properly by men, they simply shouldn't join. Mistrust breeds fear and fear brings hatred and that's not the way, in my humble opinion, to be a feminist." On this I would have taken my top off wearing no bra to show I mean what I say. Ok, this last bit is a joke. Regards,"

    Cecile Menon

  2. Hi Cecile,

    I'm sorry you had nerves but I think the Chair wanted to selection a black woman anyway! I suspect the nearest she's been to an EDL demonstration is from the TV news.

    I don't think the RSA will be other than one of a no. of small tendencies but that is fine. Left Unity was supposed to take this and many other th ings on board but the mixture of bourgeois feminism and advocates of the 'mixed economy' probably rules that out. Strategy is the main thing, how we really unite the left, not how we help group of careerists climb the greasy ladder.

    I've seen it all before and the main problem lies in the combativity of the class itself. E.g. there has been no real resistance to the bedroom tax, a subject that didn't get a mention.

  3. Very interesting, thanks Tony. Good to see a balanced and reasoned appraisal not just "rah rah it's great to have unity" nor sectarian attack. Andy Ford, Manchester Socialist Party

  4. In the wake of all this, I'm rejoining the SWP. Better than this shower.

  5. I’m afraid Tony’s rants against feminism (both at the conference and on his site) comes across as “women bashing” and puts everyone’s backs up. You can have a perfectly reasonable argument about the importance of taking positive action in political parties to overcome the under-representation of women and discrimination against them (overt or covert).

    I think its not a bad idea to aim for 50% representation of women in the leadership of LU – there are plenty of competent women around in LU to achieve that in a leadership of 50/60. Not sure I would insist on it in the constitution but sometimes to reach a goal you have to impose it (like all women short lists for a number parliamentary seats in the LP). The question then becomes what positive action steps you take to ensure women feel confident to contribute on a leadership body – caucuses, education etc.

    Just ranting about middle class feminist and barristers gets us nowhere – how about the middle class men and male barristers who attend the LU leadership? Tony says nothing about them. The answer lies in getting more worker activists involved in LU, male female, black white, gay straight. Then you have a political choice between a bigger pool of women, black members minorities for all posts.


  6. Crikey Tony! I thought dinosaurs were extinct until I read this. I know you were upset about the heckling but "screeching feminists" and "hysterical women"? Really?

    Just a quick history lesson on Unison. The principles of proportionality and self-organisation were won in the teeth of right-wing opposition going right back to Nalgo days. The right only conceded it when they were staring defeat in the face. If you want to look at why the right is ascendant in Unison look no further than the failure of the left there to organise rather than scapegoating "feminists".

    You've obviously decided to take a glass half empty approach to Left Unity - 500+ people gathered to put a left of Labour Party organisation without the "help" of the existing self-interested far left parties - that's up to you. But you must have been in a different room if you think bedroom tax "didn't get a mention".

    Obviously, with hindsight they tried to do too much in one day, but everyone's still learning.

    There is a further Conference in March to discuss policy, with discussions still going on in the branches - a real bottom-up process for a change.

  7. I defer to Andy's knowledge, regarding the introduction of the principle of proportionality in Unison. If so, it was a fundamental mistake which has done nothing to build the Left.

    I think 'screeching' is more than applicable to the woman who followed me and whose sole argument was that the far-Right opposed positive discrimination. I wasn't at all upset at the heckling, though it is a good commentary on the role of the Chair. I've suffered far worse!

    I take the point about feminists not being responsible for the defeat of the Left in Unison, but positive discrimination has made the task of evicting the right more not less difficult.

    Like you I certainly hope that the next conference will be more productive. I have my doubts though.

  8. One other thing. I may not agree with Liz Davies on some things, but I really think someone with her history in the movement deserves better than some of the abuse you've heaped on her. Stick to politics if you want to have a go!

  9. I don't think I was abusive about Liz but her politics have represented the worst of left elitism. In particular providing a cover for the SWP's destruction of the Socialist Alliance and refusing to account for her decision.

    Not to criticise her over that is to forego any form of accountability. She played a major part, with Mike M, in allowing the SWP to destroy an organisation which was larger and more firmly based than SU. It's fine that she pops up 12 years later but I don't think one should simply pass over what she did, including saying nothing pubicly about the SWP shenanigans in the office.

    My criticism over her chairing is, in my opinion, fair and I was equally critical of the afternoon Chair.

    I've also heavily criticised Alan Thornett on the same account and he went further with his endorsement and participation in Respect.

  10. Tony, you're right about feminists. Don't listen to the jumped-up liberals who say otherwise. They'll never understand socialism or what equality really means.


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