Left Unity, launched in late 2012 by ex-Respect members Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, held its founding conference on 30 November.
This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper.
The one day conference was to debate and decide the safer spaces policy, aims, constitution, electoral strategy and campaigning priorities of the organisation.
How did it do? The conference voted through a constitution and founding platform statement, but political debate was thin.
The time allocated for the platform debate was ridiculous; a three-minute proposing speech by each platform,followed by twenty minutes general debate. The two key platforms within LU were the, explicitly working-class, common-ownership, Socialist Platform (SP) and the broad-left, hoping-to-unite-everyone-to-the-left-of-Labour Left Party Platform (LPP).
The Left Platform won by 295 to 101 votes, and the Socialist Platform defeated by 216 to 122 votes. There was real support for the LPP at the conference, and this result was not a behind the scenes bureaucratic stitch up, but the debate left a lot to be desired.
The chair argued that it was impossible to ensure a balance of debate across all the platforms and picked seven speakers from the floor on the criterion of being young, women or BME.
Whether you see cock up or conspiracy in what happened next, it was not a balanced debate. The first five of the seven speakers were for the Left Party Platform. A number of us went to ask Standing Orders to step in and ensure a balanced debate.
Soraya Lawrence from the Socialist Platform put a procedural motion to take three speakers from other platforms to balance the debate, and that was accepted by conference.
Still no speaker from the Socialist Platform was called, so the second most popular platform, with 36% backing, got no time from the floor.
In speeches for the LPP, we got little reference to the content of the platform, but generic speeches in favour of socialism; and calls for a platform that could unite the whole left - revolutionaries, reformists, feminists, greens, anarchists and autonomists. (Ex-SWPer Tom Walker, who made that call, failed to mention which anarchists he planned to unite around a platform which called for the democratisation of the state in the interests of the majority).
There were speeches against a party with a "socialist entrance exam" (I’d clearly missed the entrance exam requirement in any of the platforms); and the worst type of left speech, a call for unity combined with a vicious attack on anyone who disagreed with the LPP.
Bianca Todd delivered a speech a Unison witchhunter would have been proud of, stating the debate had been skewed towards the LPP because women, young people and BME people supported the LPP and so SP should stop complaining and take a look at themselves. As one of the young women who supported the SP and had been arguing with Standing Orders for a more balanced debate, I was not impressed.
The LPP's movers accepted amendments to their platform from Camden LU, moved by Ken Loach, which incorporated many (not all) of the left-wing ideas from the Socialist Platform somewhere or other into their text.
An amendment from the Lambeth branch to designate the platform adopted at the conference as only a platform, not a statement of aims, passed. A left-wing statement of aims also proposed by the Lambeth Branch was defeated.
This had the perverse result of giving priority to a statement of aims proposed as part of the LU constitution which codified all the least left-wing trends of the LPP and defined LU by a "belief in the benefits of cooperation and community ownership" and "a democratically planned economy... within which all enterprises, whether privately owned, cooperatives, or under public ownership, operate in ways that promote the needs of the people".
As Richard Brenner of Workers Power rightly informed conference, this means Left Unity now goes forward with a constitution committed to a mixed economy and a founding statement committed to planned, common ownership.
The conference had opened with an attempt to get it to endorse a 14-page "Safe Spaces" policy, circulated only a few days before, with no chance to amend, one short speech for, and no debate. I was able to challenge the standing orders committee, get a speech, and get an overwhelming majority to remit the policy to the next conference.
The rest of Left Unity conference consisted of a long debate on constitutional amendments. Many criticised the chaos and inaccessibility of the constitutional debates.
· A move to elect a new National Coordinating Group fell by 110 to 228. The old NCG remains in office.
· Amendments opposing 50% quotas for women for LU committees were defeated, after a heated and demagogic debate.
· A constitutional amendment to bar LU from organising in Northern Ireland even if people there want to join was passed by a big majority after each side of the debate calling its opponents "imperialist".
· A constitutional amendment to have directly elected national council members in addition to representatives elected by postal ballot from (non-existent) regions was carried 125-113-47.
· A constitutional ammendment to have the council constituted by representatives from the 34 or so LU branches rather than postal-ballot reps from regions was lost 115-142-33.
· A soft amendment supporting strike action as a tactic, narrowly passed. The massive vote against may be a worrying sign that Left Unity is not a project uniting principled reformists and revolutionary socialists, instead that a number of the reformists want a purely electoral strategy and have little interest in class struggle politics.
· A clause to allow individuals (not just groups) to initiate motions in LU structures was carried.
All debate on campaigning and electoral strategy fell off the agenda. Two inspiring speeches, from the Tres Cosas campaign and victimised NHS union activist Charlotte Monro, ended the day
Left Unity now goes forward with a founding "platform" and constitutional "aims" which contradict each other.
Criticisms and notes of caution about rushing into an electoral project without a clear political basis or well-established activities outside election time were not heard due to time constraints.
The cumulative decisions of conference allow the incumbent leadership to propose anything they like as the political stance of the organisation, by drawing as they wish from the amended LPP and the adopted Aims statement.
Some local groups are building healthy local campaigns and unity initiatives. They will need to assert themselves to prevent what looks like a probable rightward and electoralist drift by Left Unity.