More than 400 members of the Left Unity party project gathered in London on November 30 for the party's founding conference.
The fledgling project has its origins in a call earlier in the year for a new party to the left of Labour made by veteran left film maker Ken Loach. Against the backdrop of the most brutal austerity experienced in Britain for generations and with the British left fractured, the call met with strong support.
The enthusiasm of the gathering has to be measured in context of relatively recent failed bids to build new left parties, including Respect and the Socialist Alliance. Another project, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, has stalled and remains isolated.
Many conference attendees were part of these projects and spoke with conviction about avoiding what many regard as the “top down” personality politics that dogged those projects.
Despite conference starting with some of the heckling and sledging that has plagued the British left, it quickly set a course for a serious and respectful discussion about how to put the left on the map in Britain.
Loach enjoys huge respect from parties members, but the conference began with members voting overwhelmingly against his proposal to postpone debate on various platform proposals until a future gathering.
Debate over the contending platforms centred on whether the party should cast itself as a broad socialist party or a more ideologically narrow far left party. Supporters of a more ideologically defined party wanted a more explicit prescription about how capitalism could be overthrown and socialism achieved.
Supporters of the broader party vision supported the Left Party platform. The platform declared the party should be “socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination”.
It stated: “Our goal is to achieve the full democratisation of state and political institutions, society and the economy, by and for the people.”
The conference was not delegated, allowing any paid up member present to vote. The party explicitly rejected the “affiliate model” of Respect and Socialist Alliance that gave special rights to existing left groups. Such “deals” are widely viewed as part of the reason for these projects failing.
Members are able to work together to form platforms to advance particular political positions as occurred in the lead to the founding congress.
A resounding vote of 295 to 101 supported the Left Unity platform. The conference also voted to keep the name Left Unity.
Before the conference began, it was clear the question of feminism would be central to the discussion. Over the past year, the Socialist Workers Party was hit by a scandal over its handling of rape and sexual harassment accusations within the party, causing hundreds of members to leave. This has provoked a lot of thinking on how the left deals with such issues.
More broadly, a rethink on how feminism relates to socialism is under way among many on the British left.
Conference participants supported a quota system to help address gender inequity within the party. Opponents if a quota argued quotas were ineffective, unnecessary or patronising. However, the conference agreed by a large majority to mandate a 50% minimum representation of women on all elected bodies.
Questions of disability rights, LGTBI rights, climate change and racism were also key issues discussed.
The party has about 1200 paid up members, with 1000 more people registered as supporters. Those present at the conference tended to be older and more experienced left activists, but there were plenty of young and new voices too.
Undoubtedly, there are also many people adopting a wait and see approach to the party, unsurprising given the recent history of failed left projects in Britain. However, on the back a a very successful founding conference, the party is in good stead to extend its reach.
Council elections, a key battleground with the far right, are scheduled for May 2014. With national elections the following year likely to deliver government to a pro-austerity Labour Party the new party has challenging times ahead. A policy conference is set for next March.
[Jody Betzien is a member of Australia's Socialist Alliance who attended the conference.]