Britain: Left Unity spokesperson on challenges in building a new party

Monday, April 28, 2014
Delegates to Left Unity's policy conference in Manchester. Photo from www.leftunity.org.

The newly formed Left Unity party held its first major policy conference in Manchester on March 29, following its founding conference in November last year. The party has its origins in a call for a new party to the left of Labour made by veteran left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach.

Against the backdrop of the most brutal austerity experienced in Britain for generations, and with the British left fractured, the call has been met with strong support. Green Left Weekly's Jody Betzien spoke with Left Unity spokesperson Pete Green about developments and debates in the fledgling organisation. visit www.leftunity.org for more details on the new party.

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Less than a year since its formation, Left Unity has more than 2000 members. Hundreds joined after recent national press coverage. What is behind this growth? How would you describe the membership base?

The recent membership growth is clearly a result of some effective media intervention in the run-up to the Manchester policy conference.

We have now elected people to leadership positions. That has given those of us who were in acting roles much more authority. The organisation now appears as a significant new player on the left.

That said, much of our membership consists of people who have been involved in other left groups over many years, as well as those still in organised groups who have joined left unity. There were 10,000 people who signed Loach’s appeal, so there are many who have not joined yet. We should aim to draw those people closer towards us.

My view, partly based on my experience in east London, is that many younger people who came around us with backgrounds in the movements, such as Occupy or the student protests, were then driven away by the spectacle of a bunch of older lefties arguing intensely in what became the platform debate before the founding conference.

The language coming from those formed by the Trotskyist milieu of recent decades is quite alien to many of those new to political activity. We need to move beyond that way of speaking and organising if we are to break out of the ghetto of the far left.

Those seeking to build a broad left party won the argument, but the process itself, while necessary, has taken up a year and lost us quite a few potential members along the way — hopefully not forever.

Over the past decade in Britain there have been a number of attempts to build new left grops, which have often started as alliances of existing left groups. These have either stalled or collapsed. How can Left Unity try to avoid the problems that plagued those projects?

The fact that we have, from the start, agreed not to be a coalition of existing groups but a party with individual membership has been very significant.

There is a coalition called the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are involved in, although the SWP's commitment now is really token.

TUSC will stand more than 700 candidates in local elections in May, and on past form will do very poorly. But those groups have an apparatus and some funds from the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT), which we so far lack.

But their political perspective is to roll-out TUSC as an electoral front and then fold it away again. This was how the SWP operated with the Socialist Alliance back in the late ‘90s and it alienated many of the sympathisers who weren't in any of the groups, or were ex-members such as myself.

The anti-war Respect party, which arose in the wake of the huge Stop the War campaign, had a few remarkable successes. But it fell apart once the SWP and ex-Labour MP George Galloway started to blame each other for problems.

We have no charismatic leader; although Loach has been inspirational, without any of Galloway's personal ambition. But we do have a collective leadership group combining experienced militants with a small but committed group of younger activists, which bodes well for the future.

The recent public controversy, related to allegations of sexual assault in the SWP, and subsequent splits, appear to have had a big effect on the British left and caused many socialist to rethink how parties deal with such issues. How is this discussion reflected in Left Unity?

Without making any judgement over the particular case, it's evident to those on the outside that it was so badly handled it is difficult to see how they can easily recover. One group of those who left have joined us but the more recent group that left in January are still working out their position.

Most involved in Left Unity are committed to feminist principles, along with socialism, environmentalism and internationalism as the core of our politics. But of course, ensuring that this shapes our practice from day to day is what will make a difference.

I think the Manchester conference was a huge step forward. We now have clear positions on areas such as the economy, health, housing and immigration, which are both principled and enable us to offer a left alternative to a Labour government after the next election which could attract significant support.

We have been criticised over the economic policy being “left reformist”, but I make no apologies for that. Critics of the policy are quite right to say that the document offers a program of partial reforms as the immediate task of a left government. But it also looks forward, offering an outline vision of a radically different society based on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.

A government elected on this platform would be helping accelerate a process of transformation of society. It would certainly not constitute the end of that process; an end we cannot possibly foresee as it will depend upon the creativity of the multitude.

There is still much more to be agreed, especially on the environment and equality issues. By next year we should have a well-worked out set of policies to underpin an election manifesto.

In the May local elections, Left Unity is standing in Wigan, Norwich, Exeter and Barnet in north London. What are the core campaign priorities at these elections?

What's happened is a result of initiatives by local groups, which supposedly have a good base. This may or may not help mobilise more local support, especially in Wigan. But it's too early to judge.

The campaign priorities are obviously focused on opposing the huge cuts in public services and privatisation, but also in Wigan there is a very big movement against local [gas] fracking.

The far right United Kingdom Independent Party looks set to make big gains in the local elections on anti-immigration and “anti-EU” platform. How should Left Unity respond to “anti-EU” rhetoric from the right in the context of the European Central Bank led austerity drive?

I am very pleased that Left Unity has rejected the “No2EU” position of much of the old left — a position that led even the railworker union leader Bob Crow (who sadly died recently and was an excellent militant leader of his own members on the railways) to oppose migration into Britain from the rest of the EU. This played into the hands of UKIP, who could certainly make big gains in this election on what amounts to a racist agenda.

We will be part of the Party of the European Left group, which includes SYRIZA in Greece and Die Linke in Germany, and calls for a radically different type of European integration.

Of course that won't be easy but our emphasis needs to be on solidarity with all those fighting austerity measures across Europe. That will differentiate us from both Labour and much of what remains of the old left in Britain.


From GLW issue 1006