Left Unity: the tortoise and the hare

The Left Unity group, launched in late 2012 by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson after they quit Respect, and given a boost in early 2013 by support from film-maker Ken Loach, plans a conference on 30 November to constitute itself as an organisation and adopt a political platform.

Burgin and Hudson are promoting a draft called the Left Party Platform. Its supporters include the Socialist Resistance group. Tom Walker, a former Socialist Worker journalist who quit early in 2013 and is now prominent in the SWP-splinter International Socialist Network (ISNers), writes, in support: “The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the ‘European Left Party’ tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche...

“We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes — exactly! That’s the point!” The draft is, as Walker puts it, “inclusive of socialism”, but not explicitly socialist.

The main rival draft is the Socialist Platform, explained on this page by one of its authors, Nick Wrack.

Wrack was editor of Militant (forerunner of the SP’s The Socialist) in the early 1990s and has since then been prominent sucessively in the Socialist Alliance, SWP, Respect and TUSC.


Nick Wrack: We have 79 names now, so I can’t speak for the whole platform.

From the beginning of LU, there have been different approaches to what sort of party we want to come out of the process. Most people signed up because Ken Loach issued an invitation for people to debate and discuss a new party. He didn’t set down any confines for that discussion.

A lot of us have been through similar experiences — Respect, the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, or the Socialist Labour Party — and want to make sure we don’t go down the same route again.

One of the things that struck some of us from the beginning was that a lot of the material being produced was extremely vague and nebulous, and probably deliberately so, so it didn’t have to define exactly what the aims of the party would be.

Solidarity: Many people make that vagueness a virtue. They argue that it will help to garner wide electoral support from everyone to the left of the Labour Party, and that the Socialist Platform would narrow it down.

NW: Our aim should be to make socialist ideas popular, not to become popular by hiding them. The view that’s shared by the platform signatories is that popularity based on appearing as all things to all people is not worth having. You’re building on sand.

I believe that socialist ideas, explained patiently, are inspirational, and the socialist left has forgotten how to inspire people. One of the consequences of socialist ideas being in retreat in society is that even a section of the socialists themselves have become reluctant to argue openly for socialist ideas and socialist change. They think that, if you water your ideas down, you might get electoral support.

We’d prefer to play a longer game. This is not an overnight get-rich-quick exercise. We want to take socialist ideas into working-class communities and give them roots so they last. We don’t want an ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow success.

One of the criticisms that’s been raised against the Platform is that it’s too abstract, and that somehow we’re not interested in day-to-day battles. But the statement itself is not a party programme, or a tactical recipe for the here and now, it’s a statement of aims and principles.

Socialists obviously get involved in all working-class struggles, whether it’s strikes, struggles in communities, or on campuses, but link those to a battle to change society fundamentally.

Solidarity: You mentioned some of the previous attempts to set up left electoral coalitions or parties. What lessons do you draw from those experiences?

NW: There are two fundamental lessons — whatever project we set up has to be socialist, and it has to be democratic.

There are also other factors behind the failure of those previous projects. You can’t analyse the failures outside the historical context we live in. The last few decades have been a period of defeat for the working-class in Britain and elsewhere. Those failed attempts have been against that background of defeat and retreat.

The other thing we face in Britain, which doesn’t exist to the same degree elsewhere in Europe, is a monolithic labour movement party. The idea that the Labour Party can simply be supplanted overnight is a big mistake. It will take a long time to challenge Labour. That’s not to rule out smaller victories in isolated places to begin with. My position is that you work patiently over a period of time, and the electoral tactic is part of your work, not the be-all-and-end-all.

Solidarity: There seems to be another discussion going on inside Left Unity. Is this mainly an electoral vehicle, which supports struggles, but doesn’t see itself as having a role in trying to initiate them, shape them, or propose policy for them? Or is LU trying to build something which is systematically active in everyday struggles?

NW: Left Unity hasn’t actually been set up yet. It doesn’t exist except in an inchoate, putative manner. The national conference in November will set up the new party, and what kind of party it is will be partially decided by the debates we have now. I would imagine that everyone involved in LU would say they are in favour of participating in and helping to build working-class struggles in their areas. Of course, we need to turn that into deeds.

In terms of elections, there is a danger in some of what’s being said about attracting everyone to the left of Labour. Does that mean winning their conscious support for a set of ideas, or just capturing their votes?

What we’ve tried to do with the Platform is set out briefly and succinctly some basic socialist aims and principles. It’s a bit disturbing that people who actually agree with those aims are arguing that the platform shouldn’t be supported because it’s “tactically wrong”. If everyone who agreed with it supported it, there’d be no problem in getting it adopted in the conference.

What’s your take on the debate?

Solidarity: Basically, that you and the Platform are right. Some people in LU seem to want be an in-gathering of everyone under the sun — although sometimes excluding the existing left groups — that will somehow win wide electoral support, and that’s it.

You’re right that everyone in LU would say they’re in favour of participating in and supporting struggles. But a socialist party or organisation doesn’t just support struggles. It tries to organise for them, develop policies and strategies, and organise out of them. That active attitude doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as widespread in LU.

Another concern is whether LU has enough puff to make it viable. It’s not set up as the type of thing socialists can do at any scale, large or small, but as something that has to be fairly big or nothing. People talk of it as being as big as Syriza, which doesn’t seem likely to us.

NW: Those are all concerns that people in the Socialist Platform would share. The people who have that view about LU becoming a force equivalent to Syriza over a very short period of time are going to be sorely disappointed.

In a sense it’s the tortoise and the hare, and the Socialist Platform is the tortoise. Some of my comrades might not like that, but I think that’s a good analogy.

The Socialist Platform

The Socialist Platform: http://leftunity.org/socialist-platform-statement-of-aims-and-principles/

1. The [Left Unity] Party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

2. Under capitalism, production is carried out solely to make a profit for the few, regardless of the needs of society or damage to the environment. Capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority. Its state and institutions will have to be replaced by ones that act in the interests of the majority.

3. Socialism means complete political, social and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism. It means a society in which the wealth and the means of production are no longer in private hands but are owned in common. Everyone will have the right to participate in deciding how the wealth of society is used and how production is planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the natural world on which we depend. We reject the idea that the undemocratic regimes that existed in the former Soviet Union and other countries were socialist.

4. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all oppression and discrimination, whether on the basis of gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, religion or sexual orientation and aims to create a society in which such oppression and discrimination no longer exist.

5. Socialism has to be international. The interests of the working class are the same everywhere. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all imperialist wars and military interventions. It rejects the idea that there is a national solution to the problems of capitalism. It stands for the maximum solidarity and cooperation between the working class in Britain and elsewhere. It will work with others across Europe to replace the European Union with a voluntary European federation of socialist societies.

6. The [Left Unity] Party aims to win support from the working class and all those who want to bring about the socialist transformation of society, which can only be accomplished by the working class itself acting democratically as the majority in society.

7. The [Left Unity] Party aims to win political power to end capitalism, not to manage it. It will not participate in governmental coalitions with capitalist parties at national or local level.

8. So long as the working class is not able to win political power for itself the [Left Unity] Party will participate in working-class campaigns to defend all past gains and to improve living standards and democratic rights. But it recognises that any reforms will only be partial and temporary so long as capitalism continues.

9. The [Left Unity] Party will use both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means to build support for its ultimate goal — the socialist transformation of society.

10. All elected representatives will be accountable to the party membership and will receive no payment above the average wage of a skilled worker (the exact level to be determined by the party conference) plus legitimate expenses.