Left Unity: New politics not a new party, please.

The country yearns for better politics. There is an “endemic distrust of political process”. Left Unity has had a warm welcome by all of us that want better government, but can it do this?

I suggest that, unless Left Unity finds a way of doing politics differently, it is a waste of time creating yet another new party.
At the meeting last Wednesday, I gathered that the Left Unity movement is set on creating a new party. Green Party members present were not at all impressed. They said why should they support the creation of yet another party? Why should their party, which already has the right policies, be elbowed aside?
I guess this could be a common reaction and I suggest that, without the full support of those who see sustainability as vital, the Left Unity movement would be, at least, a very lame duck.
I suggested that, rather than itself being a party, Left Unity should be a “movement” with which any candidate can associate, for example as “Labour Left Unity”*, “Green Left Unity” or “Independent Left Unity”.
If there has to be a party then it should be formulated so that Green Party candidates, for example, are not considered second class to Left Unity candidates.
We are surely looking at an electoral pact under a Left Unity umbrella;  sheltering impartially with others under an umbrella is incompatible with being at the same time that umbrella.
Before rushing in to create a new party, we need to look at how parties actually work now and how it could be done differently.
At the moment a typical party has a core of policy makers who meet in grand houses or smoke-filled rooms and decide on actual party policies. These are then presented to members at party conferences for rubber stamping. Individual members have to accept things they do not really like if they want to continue a career in politics. The voice of the Whip overrides the voice of the electors.
Can a party operate effectively without Whips? Can the new party formulation take its direction directly and transparently from the whole Left Unity movement? How, in these days of the internet, would it actually work? Can we crowdsource policy? How does the Green Party do things?


*There is a precedence for this. In the 60s there was an active cooperative movement and there were “Labour and Cooperative” members. (Stan Newens in the Harlow constituency for example). Also this course provides a means of reforming Labour from without, rather than from within, by making candidates that do not have the Left Unity badge less electable.

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19 Responses to Left Unity: New politics not a new party, please.

  1. susan warner says:

    John, as a green party member at the meeting, I think I said I was prepared to work with Left Unity – after all, over the years, I have worked with many of the people that were in the room! Obviously though I am not going to get involved in setting up another party. In the absence of an active green party in Loughborough at the moment, I would probably vote for Left Unity in elections. However having done some research since the meeting I am more than a little uncomfortable with the level of attack on the green party by Left Unity members who seem hell bent on discrediting Brighton council for their budget decisions, which as we all know, are largely controlled by central government. The Green Party had to make tough calls with a reduced amount of money from central government. If Left Unity is really serious about pluralist working at a national level then I expect them to counter these attacks on their website. I believe that those locally who have initiated the setting up of a local group, want to work with all of those that stand on the left, but they will need to get there house in order nationally if they are going to have success locally. I agree with you that it would be great if Left Unity could be an umbrella group which brings us all together because, as you said at the meeting, creating a new party is already proving to be divisive – new ways of working are going to be essential if we are truly going to be effective as a pluralist alternative to the three main parties.

  2. grossner says:

    I believe we do need a new left party.Hopefully left unity will help to change this capitalist money greedy worid we live in. Sonja

  3. Ray Sutton says:

    John Greenwood’s blog “Left Unity: New Politics not a new Party, please” reminds me of a recent condemnation by Owen Jones in Red Pepper of what he called “the slightly mardy left”. Travelling around the country to promote the ‘People’s Assembly’, Jones was exasperated to find individuals on the Left who, as soon as they encountered a new initiative, assumed a world-weary cynical chin-stroking posture inferring that because it wasn’t quite exactly what they wanted, or evolved in the way they thought it ought to have done, negatively condemned it as ‘shit’. John is more polite about Left Unity but concludes in similar fashion that it may be a ‘waste of time’ or turn out to be ‘a very lame duck’.
    Yet with over 90 branches nationally after only two months and a successful launch in Loughborough attended by 28 people on 19 June Left Unity looks set to become a new party in November when a national delegate conference meets and makes a final decision. John’s suggestion that it be a movement instead is in my opinion simply a recipe for ineffectual procrastination and dithering.
    Leaving aside the practical problems of how Left Unity might co-ordinate a movement in which ‘any candidate can associate’, let alone the political difficulties this would entail, which even a novice might foresee, what he recommends boils down to advocacy of pressure group activity only. Labour Party history is littered with similar attempts – Fabians, Co-operators, Tribunites and more recently Compass – yet all of them have failed to turn the party to the Left.
    Nobody at the local Left Unity launch was sectarian about the Greens, either advocating they be elbowed out or their candidates treated as second class. On the contrary, it was stated that where they have made a breakthrough electorally and contributed to a new progressive local politics, others on the Left have much to learn from them. The role of their MP Caroline Lucas was also praised.
    But is John honestly suggesting that where the Greens do not exist as a party, or function merely as a friendship group, there is nothing that progressives from other traditions can do independently? If so, he misjudges the political situation entirely. There is now an urgent need for a party to the left of Labour – not some nebulous ‘movement’ but a force that fills a vacuum the populist racist right is presently trying to exploit. As the momentum behind Left Unity gathers pace it poses a vital question for Socialists: will they aid this crucially necessary process or remain on the margins like a well-meaning debating society mouthing platitudes such as not now, not that way and – oh I almost forgot John’s other proviso – “not without the full support of those who see sustainability as vital”?
    Ray Sutton

    • susan warner says:

      Ray – Look at the Left Unity website – I am a bit worried having done some reading on the Left Unity site – there was plenty of attacking the Green Party there, particularly Brighton. It doesn’t make for a good start to pluralist working if LU are attacking there allies. However as said above, we have worked together for years and i dont see that coming to an end any time soon, I’m just concerned that other LU groups will split a left vote elsewhere.

      • Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation in Brighton, it illustrates why a shared identity for both local and national parties can be a disadvantage. An unpopular decision by the local party could scupper the current member of parliament, which would be a pity.
        Same thing happened when an unpopular decision by the Lib Dems in parliament meant that many popular Lib Dem councillors lost their seats.

    • Ray – I was being a bit negative, which I realise, is not helpful.

      Left Unity is a new thing and I really hope that it will result in a candidate that I can vote for with enthusiasm. However it is only in the process of defining itself and still has to work out exactly where it is going. I believe that it ought to be particularly open to constructive criticism particularly at this stage.

      Simplistically, we face two urgent main types of problem: limits to growth and corruption in the financial system.

      However there is also the underlying problem of widespread disillusionment with the whole political process. Whatever the party, policy is decided by a cadre which is selected by a democratically dodgy means. Who they are and how they are chosen is murky and their deliberations are private. In short:: a Cabal.

      There is an ongoing cultural shift whereby everyone expects to have access to information about everything. I suggest that suspicion of Cabals is somewhere at the centre of distrust of the politic process (and the suspicion of European Cabals the only rational idea in UKIP).

      So, if Left Unity just got all the Left to unite, that would be quite good.

      If the Left and the Greens teamed up to tackle both limits to growth and corruption in the financial system in a joined up way, that would be very good.

      If they could start on working out how to do politics better, maybe by doing without Cabals, that would be fantastic!

      • susan warner says:

        yeah John – to be fair you were quite negative and maintained that the greens in the room were too! I wasn’t negative at the meeting – my heart did sink a bit when there was all that talk of the bureaucracy of setting up a new party (I wasn’t as vocal as mike, but I knew where he was coming from). I have some concerns about the green bashing on the website, but as I said at the meeting it would be good to have someone to vote for rather than feeling dissatisfied about having to vote tactically. as for limits to growth – the only way to get it on the agenda is to keep talking and feeding in to the new party’s policy by working with LU – we just have to hope they don’t choose to stand in green strong holds and split the vote. Its all new and we have to all work to steer it in the best direction for the majority of people and the planet (which is of course best of the people, coz without it we are all doomed!!!)

  4. Lauren Foster says:

    People are dying or being forced into destitution, I wonder how many- that are managing ok- are actually aware of that? The situation is, in reality, urgent and does need to be considered swiftly before more many deaths, evictions etc occur. Labour is not speaking for the vulnerable and poor, it’s actually contemptuous towards them. It is a party of millionaires the same as The Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. We are rapidly losing democracy. Britain is becoming a two tier society, the rich do as they please whilst the poor have little rights, or voice.

  5. Paul Henderson says:

    I think that any attempt to impose a new party on a largely disinterested (understandably cynical and disillusioned) populace can only end in disaster. This is not 1905. Let’s patiently build up our union strength.

  6. Unless ‘Left Unity’ has some actual useful policies that address the current needs of the country and it’s people, then we don’t need it, or any other new party. Does it have any actual policies or ideas? I agree the main parties (including my own) are far from ideal but I don’t see that this embryonic new left-wing party is going to bring anything useful to the debate.

  7. Come on everyone! Where has the “Spirit of 45” gone?
    Be positive!
    How can we avoid a poisonous, reality denying, neo-liberal future?
    All the progressive parties must put aside their differences and form a common front.
    What is wanted, urgently, and in place before the next election, is an electoral pact, with a “pact manifesto” spelling out the common ground clearly and succinctly.
    Promoting this should be the main aim of Left Unity; forming a new party can wait.

  8. Martin Sears says:

    I was two years old in 1945 and can’t recollect the spirit of that time. I soon became very aware of post war rationing, egg powder (which I loved eating straight from the packet), and the limited availability of sweets.

    I have read the preceding comments, also some of the articles and comments on the Left Unity website and find myself in agreement with Steve’s comment of 4th July (9.40) above.

    In a democracy everyone has the right to form a new party if they so wish, some have, and now there are many minor parties on the ‘Left Wing’ – none of whom obtain significant support in the polling booth. Why is this?

    One reason may be that the voters at large are concerned with surviving with as much spending power as each individual can muster and are not at all interested in such terms as ‘neo-liberal’, ‘working class’ (exactly who is defined as ‘working class’?) and aspire to good health, a comfortable lifestyle that appeals to/reflects their particular personality, a home they, not ‘The State’/local authority/housing association/private landlord/private equity fund, own, and a reasonable guaranteed income (and defined contribution schemes are the only rational way forward on that issue) when they retire.

    IMHO the bureaucracy implicit in political parties, the infighting and the political jargon used leaves the electorate absolutely stone cold.

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  10. Andy Nevill says:

    Martin & Steve,

    We don’t live in a democracy or not what I’d call a democracy anyway. The parties currently capable of achieving power are simply machines for delivering power into the hands of a small group of people who are ‘owned’ by the rich and powerful. If you think this is acceptable then you’re right to stick with what you know.

    What is clear is that there’s a massive number of people who want this to change. True the big parties will do everything they can to stop a challenger at every opportunity. What’s quite worrying is that you Steve are doing exactly what they’d want you to. I’m a bit worried when you refer to “your” party “the main parties (including my own)”. This implies unthinking loyalty without questioning what it’s become and that’s why we are where we are today. There is no major party of the Left, if you really think so just look at the policies that New Labour drove through.

    I believe that a new party can be better than the ones we have at the moment, I have to, I’m not prepared to stand by and see my children grow up in a world defined by the current political classes.

    But it will take honest and passionate people to make this happen and to ensure that LU doesn’t become another party like The Conservative, Labour or the Lib Dems. Studying the LU website I know that there’s been a tendancy towards exactly that but what fills me with hope is that it’s met significant resistance.

    I would question “far from ideal” and “bring anything to the debate”. The Labour that my Dad believed in 50 years ago is long gone (maybe you aren’t referring to Labour?) and frankly there is no debate in the main parties that can make a difference.

    Policies will come from the bottom up in LU or at least that’s what I will fight for, having policies now would be exactly the same as the other parties where the membership are simply asked to get the vote out to support the leadership and the policies they’ve taken from their latest focus groups to try to attract the floating voters. Personally I’m very glad that LU has no policies yet, I hope we can all be part of defining them.

    Shouldn’t we want to be part of the process of defining policies? Politics in Britain needs to be about participation not waiting for others to give us a choice of 3 interpretations of Margaret Thatchers legacy….


    • Martin Sears says:

      Andy I agree 100% that we do not live in a genuine democracy. For starters, an unelected head of state that is permanently predetermined by the issue of a German family is not compatible with my concept of what constitutes a democracy. Just as bad is that our upper legislative chamber is totally unelected and currently has 830 members, vastly outnumbering the 650 MPs and achieving what exactly? This country falls well short of a genuine democracy.

      It is also true that individual members of both chambers have succumbed to exploiting ‘the rules’ to make considerable sums of money on the side – sometimes illegally.

      The concept of a political class/elite and lifelong career politicians also leaves me cold.

      But to return to the issue of policies. The three main parties currently develop their policies through a variety of processes in order to arrive at a manifesto which they think maximizes their chances of forming a government, whilst attempting to reflect the values of their core vote. The fact that they have appeared to vie for Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is not because they didn’t wish to be elected. But it should now be recognized and emphasized that the concept of rational, free markets and the ‘invisible hand’ concept within monetary economics was proven to be theoretical nonsense in 2008.

      With respect to the setting up of a new party that claims not to have already established policies consistent with its values, frankly I don’t believe it.

      It would be an act of supreme optimism, extreme naivety, or desperation, for members of the public to vote into power such a party,

      As I have stated previously, it is the right of any individual or group to set up a new party. For my part I wish to concentrate on developing policy ideas that are entirely consistent with my personal values and then to attempt to match my ‘ideal’ with what is ‘on offer’ from the established parties. That does not mean I am a passive ‘taker’ of whatever policies are on offer. i also intend to shout my ideas from as high a roof top as I can muster. That is my, and everyone’s, democratic right.

  11. Geoff asked me to post this

    Geoff Gay writes:

    Until now, I have not got involved in this discussion because (a) I was away for some of the time it was going on (b) I don’t tweet, I don’t blog, I don’t put my thoughts in writing until I have given the subject careful consideration. So here is my considered reply to the discussion so far :

    John Greenwood seems to have modified his position between his first and later contributions. Early in his first contribution he says, “…..unless LU finds a way of doing politics differently, it is a waste of time creating yet another new party.” Agreed, but I think the whole motivation behind LU is one of “doing politics differently”. This is reflected in the Compass article : “The new culture has to be more open, tolerant, respectful and pluralistic.” Ray Sutton says that LU should be “open to constructive criticism particularly at this stage.” I would go further and say that Martin Sears is basically right to say that the bureaucracy, infighting ( I would call it shadow boxing ) and jargon leaves the electorate ( well, most of it anyway ) stone cold, and that part of the the new culture should be a permanent openness to constructive criticism. As John helpfully and positively says in his later contribution, “If ( the Left and the Greens ) could start working out how to do politics better….. that would be fantastic!”

    At the June 19th launch meeting, I floated the idea of a left electoral pact, a position taken up by John and others. John initially said that LU should be a movement and an umbrella for an electoral pact. I am sure that, under our stupid first-past-the-post voting system, we will need an electoral pact – we don’t, for example, want LU candidates standing in the same constituency as Green Party candidates. But I think the “umbrella” idea is dead in the water, firstly because the Green Party won’t wear it, and the Labour Party won’t even touch it ; secondly because it is unnecessary – I would also draw attention to and support Ray Sutton’s comments on this point. In a later short contribution, John says that we need an electoral pact “urgently and in place before the next election” but then “….forming a new party can wait”. My view is that these statements almost contradict each other : without a substantial, electorally-viable new party, who is going to form the pact ? For a start, Labour and the Libdems will have nothing to do with it. Before LU came along, I formulated the idea of a pact involving existing left forces like TUSC , Respect and, hopefully, the Greens. I now doubt that the Greens would want to be associated with those localised and fragmentary organisations, but, if LU could achieve a substantial national presence, at least on a par with the Greens, there would be more chance of the latter becoming involved in the necessary pact, and that would encourage the others to join in.

    Just to correct John’s point about “Labour and Co-operative” candidates – he puts this in the past tense, but it is still very much a reality ( Andy Reed was one for example ). The organisation which supports such candidates is the Co-operative Party ( not the “co-operative movement” by which John is probably mainly referring to the retail organisation ). However, the Co-op Party is hardly a political party in the usual sense ; although nominally independent, it is de facto just another Labour-supporting pressure group.

    I agree with Sue Warner that attacks on the Green Party ( in Brighton or more broadly ) are anything but helpful. However, I should report that at the People’s Assembly * a Tower Hamlets councillor reported that her council had managed to retain free care for the elderly, maintain the youth service, build new libraries and set up local versions of EMA and student grants. “If we can do it,” she said, “how hard are other councils trying to avoid cuts ?”

    I understand Sue’s concern about “other LU groups….. splitting a left vote” and in reply would reinforce that we need an electoral pact. I would also say that, once LU is constituted as a party, local branches and members should , while not excluding debate and expression of views, agree to broadly promote and carry out the democratically-determined policies and tactics.

    I think there has been some confusion in the discussion between broad principles on the one hand and detailed policies on the other. To reply to Steve Coltman and Martin Sears, LU, having established its broad principles, is now engaged in the difficult process of formulating, as Steve puts it, “some actual useful policies that address the current needs of the country and its people”. Andy Nevill makes some good points on these lines in his contribution of 10/07.
    ( contd. )

    Andy will be aware ( as a result of the many discussions I have had with him over “democracy” ) that of course I agree that our democracy is anything but a done deal – that’s why I am putting considerable time and energy working with Martin, Ray and others ( including Libdems ) in the Leicestershire group of Unlock Democracy. But I cannot support Andy’s tendency to write off our democracy with statements like, “We don’t live in a democracy”. This is like writing off the centuries of struggle which have got us to where we are.
    In a global context, Britain’s democracy is relatively ( I stress “relatively” ) advanced. For example, it would be almost inconceivable for our army to overthrow a leader elected by a perfectly legitimate process .
    ( I would not have supported Morsi or the principle of political parties based on a particular religion, but that is not the point ).

    Again, while the 1997-2010 Labour government was quite solidly neo-liberal ( and Andy is quite right to say “There is no major party of the left” in this country ), from a left perspective we would have to admit that some of that government’s policies were objectively progressive ( I would mention the minimum wage and Sure Start for example ). By the way, Andy, Steve Coltman is a Libdem.

    Martin, in his contribution of 10/07, refers to the public “voting ( the new party ) into power”. He surely knows as well as I do, that a new party has almost no chance of even a small share of power in 2015. Realistically, the absolute best the left can hope for on that time scale is that, as a result of the hoped-for electoral pact, there will be a handful of left MPs who can work together at “doing politics in a different way”.

    In reply to a point in Martin’s 09/07 contribution about “not looking for squares of protest”, of course there are big cultural differences between Britain and such as Turkey, Egypt and Brazil, but the People’s Assembly has decided on a course of direct action to protest against “austerity” ( i.e. as Lauren Foster said, albeit more emotionally than analytically, ” letting the rich do as they please whilst the poor have little rights or voice” ) involving civil disobedience ( on November 5th ), a mass protest at the Tory Conference ( September 29th) and a national demonstration in the new year – it will be interesting see how much support can be garnered for this campaign.

    I disagree with Martin about home ownership, but this debate is not about detail of policy.

    I am still a member of the Labour Party and can see nothing to be gained by leaving until and if LU takes off as a party ( incidentally, Left Unity is not a very good name for a party, but I am struggling to think of a better one ). I am also a member of Compass. I agree with Martin that most of the Compass article is “spot on” ( as, lead by Neal Lawson, it usually is ), but I think that Compass is still putting too much hope and emphasis on the “transformation of Labour”. Over the years, I have put hope and work into trying to contribute to this, but I increasingly feel that Labour is showing little if any sign of transformation in the direction of “openness, tolerance, respect and pluralism”. Labour Party rules state that membership of Labour is incompatible with membership of any other party which contests elections, so I could not be a member of both Labour and the new party – I would have to make the choice and I may well come to the conclusion that my efforts would be more productive in the new party. Meanwhile, as LU is not yet a party as such, I am free to contribute what I can to its development.

    Geoff Gay 17/07/13

    * I attended the People’s Assembly as a delegate from Leicestershire NUT and Leicester and District Trades Union Council. If anyone would like a copy of my report of the People’s Assembly, please let me know.

    Of course we are in a very different situation – indeed a different world – from 1905, but relying on “building union strength” is not enough : this
    idea is known as “syndicalism” and has never actually fundamentally changed politics. (Paul Henderson is Secretary of Leicester and District Trades Union Council ).

    • Paul Henderson says:

      Just a reply to Geoff’s PS. 1905 was in fact one example of union strength changing politics. Do you really think that the Labour Party just sprang out of thin air?
      Paul Henderson
      July 2013

  12. Andy says:

    A friend of mine made a comment to me the other day that resonated. I said at face value a conservative policy made sense. His reply was “they have a track record of policies that sound reasonable and fair but implement them in ways that adversely impact the poorest” ( he used more colourful language ). I couldn’t help thinking – at least they have policies that make sense at face value. The left should focus on making policies that make sense, and then ways to implement them in a progressive way.

    W.R.T. Left Unity – its an interesting idea however I cant see how it can be effective when the most likely result is to further split the vote – especially when vast swathes of the population have and always will vote labour blindly without thought to candidates or policies. ( and therefore standing as labour almost guarantees you more votes than standing for a new party).

    All parties that chase votes will inevitably slip to the right IMHO as there is always an incentive to win over voters by reducing taxes…especially as most people consider the welfare state etc to be “good enough” and therefore not worth paying more tax for improving.

    For all of the above reasons I believe reforming labour ( if its possible ) from the inside to be more effective – or possibly a libdem-labour coalition ( and potentially even a pact ) would do the most short term good. The reality is that the referendum on the alternative vote was a squandered opportunity to meaningfully reform politics however the explanations and campaign for it were terribly ineffective and no one really rallied behind it even from the smaller parties who stood to gain most. Most people will therefore continue to vote for the two main parties in order to ensure someone they really don’t like doesn’t get in.


  13. Lauren Foster says:

    Geoff, empathy (feeling) for those with vulnerabilities and anger at injustice are indications of a healthy brain. We have evolved those areas for a reason. Plenty of neuroscientific research to back that up. 😉

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