People’s Assembly and Left Unity.

A discussion piece by Geoff Gay. 09.05.13.

I want to draw attention to two current political movements, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity (PAAA) and Left Unity, either or both of which may turn out to be highly significant for the future of the British political left.
The People’s Assembly was generated by the Coalition of Resistance whose President is Tony Benn. Numerous well-knowns have put their name to it, including many trade union leaders, Green MP Caroline Lucas, a handful of Labour MPs, film maker Ken Loach, writer Owen Jones and comedian Mark Steel.
They have an event in Nottingham on Saturday May 18th, 10.30 – 5.00 at the Friends Meeting House on Clarendon St ( about 10 minutes’ walk from the Old Market Square ). I have to say that the website for this event, at which you can register to attend, is not good in that it seems to want to hide the exact details of the event. Then there is the big London event at Central Hall, Westminster on Saturday June 22nd, 9.30 – 5.00. You can attend this as an individual or as a delegate from a trade union body or other organisation. There is a delegate fee of £10 for delegates, or, for individuals, £8 waged or £4 unwaged.
Left Unity was initiated by Ken Loach, director of “The Spirit of 45” and is evidently a movement aimed at building a new political party of the broad left.

I would like to explain my motivation for promoting these initiatives, both historically and leading up to the present :
I was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1966 through to its final Congress in 1991. From 1951 onwards, the central concept of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism ( developed in the face of a great deal of disruptive internal opposition ) was that of the Broad Democratic Alliance, based on the objective reality that the interests of something like 95% of the population lie in uniting around a counter-hegemonic strategy involving the radical extension of democracy paving the way for replacing free-market capitalism by a fairer, more equal, more participative society ( which we called “Socialism” ). I still take the view that this strategy is on the right track, at least in its concept and its essence.
In 1993, I joined the Labour Party , represented Labour as a councillor from 1999 to 2011, and even had a period as Constituency Secretary. I have never felt really at home in the early 21st Century version of the Labour Party , dominated as it is locally by middle class do-gooders and nationally by largely middle class career politicians, and obsessed as it still is by gaining local and national “power” through the first-past-the-post electoral system which forces any party which sees itself as the main vehicle for a more progressive ( or at least less reactionary ) politics to gravitate towards “safety” as opposed to any kind of radicalism. The only radical Labour government was that of 1945-51, in the very one-off circumstances following two world wars, punctuated, for a large proportion of the population, by a period of grinding poverty and deprivation.
During the current period, in which the Labour Party has been absorbed by neo-liberalism ,
( is “One Nation Labour” any less of a vacuous slogan than “New Labour” ? ) there have been numerous attempts to challenge the “safety” position, most of which have been doomed to failure by their sectarianism. I find myself much closer to the position of the Green Party than to mainstream Labour politics, but, as the Greens do not seem capable of making an electoral breakthrough on a national scale, I still have more reason to stay in the Labour Party than to leave it. I went through a period of believing that the future of the British left lay in some sort of alliance consisting of different forces in different places – the Greens here, Respect there, TUSC * somewhere else, the SNP, PC and Sinn Fein in their respective nations, and so on. Compass has probably been the most influential of the left pressure groups, but it is only a pressure group, not a political party contesting elections.

But now, please refer to my previous article “A Gramscian Party” inspired by a talk by Richard Johnson. Antonio Gramsci understood the need for a counter-hegemonic strategy, as opposed to the sort of pragmatic and anti-theoretical Labour position. If the Labour Party is incapable of becoming a Gramscian party, then the initiative will have to come from elsewhere. I had thought that the PAAA was the best bet, and I still think that it is an important broad left initiative. But, again, the PAAA seems to be more of a pressure group on the austerity issue than an embryonic Gramscian party. So perhaps the Left Unity movement ( which I had not even heard of until very recently ) is now the better bet. I would urge readers to investigate the websites of both these organisations.

* Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – the brainchild of the ex-Trotskyist “Socialist Party” .

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One Response to People’s Assembly and Left Unity.

  1. Ruth says:

    Very good article Geoff
    This could be the political movement/ party we have been waiting for!

    Left Unity’s first national meeting: a report

    Back in March of this year, the film maker Ken Loach issued an appeal
    in The Guardian newspaper for a new party of the left – one that would
    fill the gap in Britain that leaves us without a political party
    committed to defending the welfare state and transforming the economy
    so that it meets the needs of ordinary people. The response to the
    appeal was – by the standards of previous such calls and considering
    the weakened, divided and demoralised left, not to mention the general
    population – a success. To date, more than 8,000 people have signed
    the appeal and more than 90 groups have sprung up around the country.
    Some of those groups, like ours in Leamington Spa, (THERE IS ALSO A
    small handful of members. Some are even one-man-bands. But others are
    already very healthy and lively and growing – the Brighton group, for
    example, has over 200 participants.

    This Saturday marked the next step forward – Left Unity’s first
    national meeting, convened by a provisional organising committee, to
    discuss and agree how to take the project forward, and to elect a new
    committee to organise the group’s day to day affairs prior to a
    founding conference.

    Prior to the meeting, there was a lively discussion on the group’s
    email discussion list, and, as well as many positive contributions,
    and a feeling of excitement and possibility about the new group, there
    was also a lot of fear, anxiety and distrust – partly about the scale
    of the task facing us, partly about the history of previous such
    projects weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

    As it turns out, the excitement was more than justified; the anxiety
    and fear, to my mind at least, assuaged.

    The meeting started with good introductions by the chair, Bianca Todd,
    and Kate Hudson, one the original group’s main movers, emphasising the
    scale and seriousness of the tasks facing us. Then there was open
    discussion from the groups around the country that had been able to
    send representatives – about 55 groups sent representatives, and, of
    the 8,000 people signing the original appeal, about 1,000 had so far
    been in contact with a local group.

    The reports from the group’s representatives were all hugely inspiring
    and uplifting and, to a large extent, mirrored the experience and the
    views of our own group. Some of the people attending the groups were
    already members of existing left parties; some were campaigners, old
    and new, active and inactive, who were prepared to give the whole
    unity thing another roll of the die; others were entirely new to
    politics, including many – especially from the north of the country,
    and the disabled – who had been thrown into it by the viciousness of
    the government’s attacks on them (and there is much more viciousness
    to come). All were full of enthusiasm for the new project, but many
    were also wary: the majority of the meeting did not want yet another
    left project that was a stitch-up between the existing sects, or that
    could be dominated and destroyed by a group that used the project for
    its own purposes before pulling the plug, or that was democratic in
    name only.

    After lunch, this discussion continued for some time before moving to
    the first motion. The meeting had originally been called partly in
    order to agree a statement of the group’s broad intentions and aims
    and principles, and many amendments and alternative statements had
    been proposed. But the first motion discussed by the meeting called
    into question the real democratic nature of our opening gambit. Most
    groups were newly formed, most had not had time to consider or discuss
    let alone vote on the statement, most had not seen at all any of the
    amendments or proposed alternative statements. Some of the
    representatives at the meeting could properly be considered
    democratically elected delegates of groups, others were just
    individuals, or had come from a group but with no mandate for voting.
    And, of the 8,000 people who had signed up to have a discussion about
    the new party, most had still not said a word or seen a single
    document. What democratic right did the meeting have to decide
    anything? To that end, it was moved (as amended):

    This meeting resolves not to take any votes on any of the statements,
    resolutions or amendments except for those, or those parts, which deal
    with 1) the election of the new national co-ordinating group [to be
    dissolved and replaced with a properly elected body at the first
    conference] 2) the process of debate and discussion 3) the dates of
    the next national meeting and the founding conference and 4) the
    principle that the new organisation should be based on ‘one member,
    one vote’.

    This passed by majority vote, and, to my mind, was a heartening start
    to the whole project. We would not start out by pretending to
    represent more people than we really did, we would not take any
    decisions out of the hands of future or indeed present members of the
    local groups, and the new party would be based on individual
    membership, with every member having equal power over decision-making.
    These last two points were especially important in assuaging fears
    about takeovers or undue influence and interference from existing
    groups and sects. A member of a left sect in the meeting moved that
    the new committee should invite observers from all existing left
    groups; others argued that existing groups should be allowed some kind
    of affiliation or group membership. On the basis of past experience,
    such notions were rejected by an overwhelming majority of those
    present. Members of existing groups would be welcomed as individuals,
    and their views would be treated with respect and given due
    consideration. Invasions by groups and parties with agendas of their
    own would not be.

    The debate on this question and the subsequent voting got at times
    fairly heated, and, in the absence of previously agreed structures and
    mechanisms, pretty chaotic. It even perhaps teetered on the brink of
    disaster. But this was in itself pretty inspiring stuff. It’s what
    real democracy is like: it ain’t always pretty, it can sometimes
    descend into aggression and frustration, and it can be very hard work.
    But the results are worth it: a decision is eventually reached that
    satisfies most people if not everyone, and that has authority on that
    basis. After a debate and a vote like that, there is a certain quiet
    satisfaction in a job well done if the vote goes your way; a humble
    acceptance if it doesn’t. At least there should be.

    Then followed a short speech by Ken Loach that soothed frayed nerves
    and reminded us why such hard work was necessary. It was a lovely,
    quiet, considered talk, that laid out in very few words his vision of
    what the new party should be. It should be anti-capitalist. (Here Ken
    semi-apologised for his use of what can often seem to the uninitiated
    confusing or alienating language. But as he rightly pointed out, this
    is the language that we on the left have developed so that we can talk
    accurately about the world we live in and what needs to be done. We
    should be against a world in which human needs are only met if doing
    so nets a profit to private individuals. That’s what capitalism
    means.) It should be socialist. (The only alternative to the chaos of
    capitalism is a planned economy, and an economy can only be planned if
    we collectively own and control it. That’s what socialism means.) It
    should also, on the basis of painful past experience, be fully
    democratic, and do without ‘charismatic’ leaders.

    Of course, that’s just the vision of one man. What the party will
    actually be like and stand for is the point of the national
    discussion, which is ongoing, and will be decided at the group’s
    founding conference in November 2013. For what it’s worth, Ken’s basic
    vision is also mine.

    The meeting then proceeded to vote for the provisional organising
    committee that will organise the founding conference, and we, the
    representatives of the Leamington Spa group, voted for those people
    who had been on the first committee, as they all came across as
    lovely, decent, committed people, who had clearly done a great job so
    far; otherwise, for others who had made good contributions on the day
    and spoke in way that revealed they were committed to democracy; but
    mainly and specifically for no one who was a member of a current
    far-left sect.

    We came away from the first national meeting feeling more exhilarated
    and excited about politics than we had in a decade. Of course, the
    sheer scale and seriousness of the tasks lying ahead of us would be
    enough to calm anyone down from their high and sober them up. But we
    return to our local group in Leamington Spa full of hope for the
    future, and inspired to begin as soon as possible the hard work of
    deciding what we want a new left party to be, how we can work to make
    it a success, and how to win people to its banner in defence of their
    own interests, those of humanity, and of future generations.

    If you haven’t already, please go to the website and sign Ken’s
    appeal. Get in contact with your local group. And let’s start the hard
    work of creating a world fit for human beings to live in.

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