Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reflections on the Left Unity Founding Conference

The name "Left Unity" has now been formally adopted
On the 30th of November 2013 I attended the Left Unity Founding Conference as a press observer. 

I traveled to London with reasonably low expectations because I didn't want to allow myself to get carried away and then find myself overly disappointed if things didn't turn out as I would have liked, and also because I felt that I would achieve a more balanced report if I attempted to cover it from the perspective of an impartial observer, rather than that of a strong supporter. Unfortunately, what I witnessed at the Conference failed to meet my own lowered expectations.

This is going to be a critical analysis, which will doubtlessly upset a number of Left Unity supporters, however in my defence I contest that I will report a number of positive aspects too. I believe that there is a huge demand for a new party of the left and it is my impression that the vast majority at the conference were decent socially concerned people that want to see Great Britain changed not for their own personal gain, but because of their desire to see a better, fairer and more just society. However being well meaning isn't good enough on its own - a number of issues raised at the Conference need to be addressed, and I believe that the most important role in friendship is recognising when it is necessary to offer some honest criticism when we believe that mistakes are being made.

Party Name

I'll start with something positive: The party name was decided as "Left Unity" which is a much better name than the alternatives "Democratic Voice" and "Left Party". The last thing they needed to do was to engage in a giant rebranding exercise, especially to adopt a name that is pretty much devoid of meaning. The positive thing about the decision to include the word "unity" in the name is that it puts a lot of pressure onto the party to actually strive to unite the left, rather than simply turning themselves into just another virtually irrelevant leftist faction. Whether they can actually live up to their newly formalised name is something we'll have to wait to find out.


Aims vs Constitution

In my view the most important thing for a new party of the left should be the development of a short and simple expression of their aims - so that people know what the party stands for and against. There were two problems at the Left Unity Conference. Firstly that the majority of the proposed "platforms" were far from short, simple or accessible; and secondly that the Conference voted to support an amendment that the surviving platforms would not be accepted as the official aims of the party anyway.

After a three minute statement from each platform and a ludicrously short 20 minute general debate, most of the platforms were explicitly rejected by the Conference. This left two sets of aims standing, the Left Party Platform and the Hackney/THLU statement. In my view both are problematic, but the Hackney Statement is clearly more accessible to people that broadly define themselves as left-wing than the LPP which is full of the kind of left-wing language that may appeal strongly to the activist left, but will doubtlessly turn off swathes of the broad left that Left Unity must engage if they are to have any chance of realising their ambition of making themselves a popular party of the left, rather than just another insignificant leftist faction.

The two surviving statements can be seen here. In my view the second is vastly superior to the first, which starts out with an extremely off-putting screed of political labels. It is important to note that neither of these statements are binding, and there seems to be no barrier to the development and presentation of other alternative statements of aims for the party to consider at the next conference.


After the aims were dropped, Conference moved on to the constitution of the party, which was eventually passed despite its many obvious flaws. It seemed that it was passed more on the principle that to vote against it would mean that the Founding Left Unity conference had hardly achieved anything, rather than because it is a great constitution that deserves support.

The fact that the party now has a constitution but no aims leaves them in the ludicrous position that they have built themselves a political power structure without presenting anything resembling a guiding statement of their political aims. Given their lack of formal objectives, Left Unity can hardly style themselves as an alternative to the three orthodox neoliberal Westminster establishment parties - which are nothing but hollowed out political power structures with no guiding principles other than political expediency. In my view it was a big mistake for Left Unity to prioritise the codification of their political power structure above the development of a carefully defined party philosophy.

It is a very negative sign that Left Unity has codified a complex political power structure before actually spelling out what it is that they want to achieve, however there is a positive side. Neither of the remaining statements of aims are the kind of stuff that are going to inspire the broad left to join the party in droves, but as far as I can tell there is no barrier at all to the presentation of a new set of aims at future conferences. Two particular amendments to the constitution are important here. The first was that future changes to the constitution (such as the addition of the explicit aims of the party) would need a simple majority, rather than 75% support; and the second is that individuals would be allowed to initiate motions at Conference, rather than motions needing a large group of support before being heard.

I believe the next Left Unity National Conference must work to formally adopt a concise and accessible statement of aims as a matter of priority.

Unrealistic timetabling

In my view it was never remotely possible to achieve everything on the Conference agenda within the allocated time. In fact, a single day is probably not sufficient to give fair hearing and considered debate to either the formalisation of the party aims or to the ratification of the party constitution, let alone attempting to do both. The result was a chaotic scramble of amendments and votes, without time for the contemplation and debate that are absolutely necessary in order to make good decisions.

One particularly problematic aspect was the extremely confusing way in which debates over countless amendments on various different pages were clumped together, and then voted on in batches, which left many people totally befuddled about what was actually being voted upon. Had Conference adopted a simpler strategy of debating one amendment at a time and then voting on it, and stripped away all of the confusion over what was being voted on and the endless repetition of page numbers, then there would have been a bit more time for actual debate.

Deciding things democratically is absolutely the right approach, however if it is done in such a rushed and haphazard way that there isn't time for proper debate, and a significant proportion of people are not even clear on the subject of the vote, let alone the implications, it becomes uninformed democracy - which is bad.

I think it is very important that Left Unity learn their lesson here and set more realistic timetables for future events.

Positive Discrimination

By far the most disappointing part of the conference for me was the debate over whether to include a statement of positive discrimination towards women (but not for ethnic minorities, the disabled, LGBT minorities, class minorities, minority theological stances or any other scapegoated minority group) in the Left Unity constitution.

I'm going to write an article about positive discrimination, so I'll keep my objection here as brief as I can: I object to positive discrimination because I believe that people should be judged on the content of their character rather than on the shape of their sex organs, (or what they chose to do with them for that matter).

The positive discrimination policy that was brought to debate by two proposed amendments was the statement that "As part of our overall commitment to gender equality, at least 50% of those elected to regional or national party bodies should be women".

One amendment aimed to scrap the statement entirely (democracy), the was to introduce a degree of flexibility by stipulating a minimum of 40% representation for either gender ("positive discrimination lite").


The problem with the contentious statement is that it implies that if 60% of people elected to a particular body within the party happen to be men, the party will intervene against the democratic consensus because as part of their commitment to gender equality they will explicitly discriminate against "surplus men" - However if 60% of people elected are women, the party won't intervene to impose an artificial gender balance.

To paraphrase -
If you don't agree with arbitrary and anti-democratic
gender balancing, you're a fascist and you ignore rape!
[standing ovation from audience]
People were selected from the floor to argue for or against on a discriminatory basis, (favouring women, ethnic minorities and the disabled*) but when most of the speakers made strong arguments against positive discrimination, the decision was made to artificially "balance" the debate by hand picking people to argue in favour of positive discrimination. This decision to appeal for more speakers resulted in one of the most offensive political speeches I've ever heard in my life. A speech in which anyone that disagreed with discrimination against men was derided as "no different from the Tories" and "far-right", baselessly accused of "ignoring rape" and explicitly accused of thought-crime: "how dare you think ...".

The fact that such a speech was made wasn't the really terrible thing - after all, people are entitled to express their views (even if they are nothing more than offensive "if you don't agree with me you're a fascist" based nonsense). The awful thing was that this empty and offensive rhetoric received the loudest cheers of the day (significantly louder than the applause for the opening speech from Ken Loach) and both of the amendments to chuck out the statement that implied explicit discrimination against men were both heavily defeated.

The fact that such an appalling barrage of emotive and offensive rhetoric won the ovation of the day was utterly disheartening, but it did illustrate a point I've tried to explain in my writing many times - the emotive argument often trumps appeals to logic, evidence and reason.

The right-wing neoliberal orthodoxy has been winning the [mis]information war because it is far better at creating emotive narratives (an immigrant has stolen your job, a scrounger is living off your taxes ...) than the left is. The fact that a large room full of left-wing people ignored the reasoned, evidence based appeals against positive discrimination and then whooped and cheered their approval of offensive and fact averse rhetoric in favour of it, shows that the left are just as susceptible to confirmation bias and the empty emotive argument as the ordinary Daily Mail reader.

The really silly thing about the decision to keep such a divisive, one eyed and ludicrously contradictory statement in the Left Unity constitution is that elsewhere in the constitution it is contradicted by point 14) f. which states that the 50% gender balance is all important and sets out a policy whereby if men are over-represented, the democratic process will be subverted to install a woman, but equally if women are over-represented, the democratic process will be subverted to replace them with a man.

In my view this kind of anti-democratic tampering is political cyanide. If the party feels strongly about gender equality, they should work hard to support candidates that explicitly support gender equality, no matter what the shape of their sex organs. To judge a candidate solely on the shape of their sex organs is inherently sexist, and to dismiss a popular and democratically elected candidate in order to replace them with a less popular or less talented candidate simply because their sex organs are the wrong shape is the kind of ludicrous nonsense that drives fair minded people away from the left in droves.

Children's membership

The original draft of the constitution would have allowed very young teenagers to become full members of the party, but setting the age limit for membership at 13 wasn't good enough for many people at the Conference. Despite the fact that the only young person to speak in the very short debate on membership age spoke against allowing the very young to become full members, Conference voted to scrap all age limits on membership.

In my view this was a daft decision but I don't want to dwell on it too much other than to say that if I were an unscrupulous bastard I could now triple my potential voting power by signing up to Left Unity and enrolling my seven year old daughter and my five year old son as full party members and telling them how to vote.

I'm not actually against the idea of a 12 year old of exceptional political awareness for their age being allowed full membership, but to revoke the age limitations entirely is an absurd way of dealing with the issue. Surely a more pragmatic stance would have been to set the age limit somewhere sensible (say 15), but include a clause that younger people can be allowed membership at the discretion of local branches. Thus if the local branch agree that the exceptional 12 year old actually has their own political worldview (rather than just being a cipher for their parent's views), then they could be given full membership.


The Broad Left

One of my big hopes for Left Unity was that they could step away from the traditional closed-shop bickering between socialists and the extreme-left, and actually focus upon the construction of a left-wing party to appeal to the millions of people that have some left-wing principles, but wouldn't necessarily label themselves a socialist or pine for the outright destruction of capitalism. It is absolutely clear that a massive proportion of the population feel this way. A recent Yougov poll found that 87% of the public want the NHS "nationalised and run in the public interest". 68% want to see the energy companies nationalised, 67% the Royal Mail and 66% the rail network.

There is a massive appetite for left-wing ideas, but the very syntax of traditional socialism had been undermined by decades of anti-left propaganda that have warped the meanings of words like "socialism" and "Marxism" to such an extent that their actual meanings have been obfuscated. The left needs to move away from the old language of socialism and reach out to the masses in language that modern generations can engage with.

Another trend that Left-Unity should be well aware of is the move towards casual left-libertarianism amongst younger generations. I consider myself as much a left-libertarian as a socialist, in that I value concepts like justice, privacy and individual liberty just as highly as I value the more socialist ideals of democratic control over vital infrastructure, social welfare and equal access to services.

I didn't see anything at the Left Unity Conference to suggest that they are capable of transcending the old language of socialism in order to engage the broad left, or the heterodox left that they will absolutely need to, if they are going to actually change society rather than exist as just another minor leftist faction.


Conclusions

The reason I have struggled to complete this article (it's taken me nearly two weeks) is that I didn't want to be overly critical, but it has been extremely difficult given that the most ugly part of the whole conference was also by far the most popular with the crowd. Hearing someone accuse me of thought crime and "ignoring rape" for daring to believe that democracy is vastly more important than arbitrary gender balancing exercises, was bad enough - but the fact that this individual received rapturous applause for it seared it into my mind as by far the most memorable moment of the event. It's not that Conference voted in favour of the arbitrary gender balancing that created such a stench, but the fact that the Conference whooped and cheered for a divisive "if you don't agree with me you're a Nazi" style speech from the political playground.

Given that I was made to feel like an outsider and a thought-criminal for daring to believe in natural gender equality rather than some contrived and arbitrary quota system, it is has quite difficult to imagine how I could endorse Left Unity in the future, and made the search for some positive conclusions to draw that much more difficult.

Some of my positive conclusions are that the choice of name was a good one, the decision to allow a simple majority to amend the constitution was excellent and the fact that the party has (by default) another opportunity to have go at clearly defining a set of aims that will actually strike a chord with the public, rather than turning them off with the language of the hard left.

Another conclusion is that the majority of people there clearly meant well, and were motivated by their vision of a better, fairer society, rather than the pure self-interest of the orthodox neoliberal establishment politicians.

After returning from London I went to the Left Unity website to find a copy of the amended and ratified constitution so I could link to it in the article, however, even after nearly two weeks it either hasn't been uploaded, or it has been uploaded is such a way that it is almost impossible to find. What I found instead was an article which described Left Unity as a new party for "Socialists to the left of Labour". In my view, if the party is to have any success it must strive to be more than just an exclusive club for people that identify as "socialists to the left of Labour". They've got to reach out to the broad left, the heterodox left and most importantly of all, the millions of politically disengaged. Without striving to build a broad base of support, Left Unity will ultimately fail to transcend the obscurity of being just another hard-left faction.

I have decided that from now on I won't be specifically endorsing Left Unity, but that I will continue to promote awareness of the party by including them in my list of worthy movements and alternative political parties.I will continue to follow their activities with interest - in the hope that they will move towards a policy of engagement with the broad left rather than shutting themselves off as a small hard-left faction more interested in endlessly debating their differences, rather than leading an effort to unite the left against the radical right-wing economic ideology of neoliberalism that has utterly dominated UK politics since 1979.


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* How is it even possible to pick people on the basis of being visually disabled without discriminating against those with non-visual disabilities such as mental conditions or painful but not visually apparent symptoms? In order to avoid discriminating in favour of the visually disabled and against the less visually disabled, you'd have to give all disabled people special identifiers so they can be discriminated in favour of. However a special voting card, armband or badge to mark out the disabled is probably skirting a little to close the Star of David armbands of Nazi Germany for most minority groups to be entirely comfortable with.



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