Response to Left Unity Disputes Committee
In early 2015 Republican Socialists decided to stand a candidate in the general election in England. It was agreed I would stand in Bermondsey. Although we did not know this until much later, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) also decided to stand in Bermondsey.
On 20 March 2015 the national secretary, Kate Hudson, wrote asking me to “withdraw your candidacy and support the ‘Left Unity-trade unionists and socialists’ candidate Kingsley Abrams”. At the end she said “If you persist with your candidacy, I advise you to resign from Left Unity. If not, I will pursue withdrawal of your membership with the appropriate party bodies”. She cited the requirement in Clause 3d that a member “supports Left Unity candidates in elections”. I replied rejecting the options of standing down or resignation.
On 30 September 2015 the Disputes Committee wrote to me. I responded on 2 October saying there was no point in pursuing it so long after the election and not long before the annual conference. The Committee promised to clarify if a dispute still existed, what it was about and who was raising it. After checking they said that Kate Hudson had agreed a dispute would be raised in her name as national secretary. I agreed to respond to the Disputes Committee. My response will be open to all members and address the political and constitutional issues.
1. The Political Issues – Anti Unionism and English chauvinism
The prime consideration is the political interests of the working class. Fundamental to the dispute is the recognition of the central importance of the working class in the struggle for democracy and the need to fight for the unity of the working class in Scotland and England. The left in England, weighed down with “economism”, does not recognise the importance of the battle for democracy or the dangers of English chauvinism in the present situation.
The disagreement over working class politics between republican socialists and the Left Unity majority were identified at the founding conference, came to prominence in the Scottish referendum and continued in the 2015 general election. This is a dispute over class politics not the LU constitution. Politics has to come first and not be hidden in a smokescreen of LU ‘constitutionalism”.
Republican socialists recognise the need for a new party. But it has to have a new programme. In TUSC and Left Unity we have an attempt to build a new party on the basis of Old Labourism and Left Unionism. It stands on an appeal to the restoration of the 1945 Social Monarchy. By contrast republican socialists recognise the Social Monarchy is in terminal crisis; now visible in the widespread disillusion with Westminster government. The new party, if it is not to fail, must have a democratic programme.
From Yes to Anti-Unionism
In September 2014, forty five percent of the Scottish people voted to leave the UK. The country came close to a major constitutional crisis. A ‘Yes’ majority would end the UK. It would have made constitutional change inevitable. It would have forced Cameron’s resignation. The Coalition government would have been severely, if not fatally, damaged. A ‘Yes’ majority was thus in the immediate political and longer term constitutional interests of the working class across the UK.
The Labour Party, TUC and trade union movement in England supported a ‘No’ vote or advocated abstention. Whilst the British ruling class bullied the Scottish people, the organised working class took no action. This only helped Cameron and the Tories to isolate the progressive section of the Scottish working class from potential working class allies in England. This has its parallels with the role the British TUC played in the 1984 miners strike. In both cases the Tories were able to harvest the fruits of victory at the subsequent general election.
Mass activity in Scotland took people to the brink of a victory. Mass solidarity action in England could have made the difference. Mobilising the working class in England against Acts of Union is the best defence against the danger of an English chauvinist reaction whipped up by the Tories, UKIP, Liberal Democrats or Labour. Left Unionism in the guise of the “British Road to Socialism” defends the Union in the name of proletarian ‘internationalism’.
The dispute over Scotland’s future did not end with the referendum. Cameron’s victory paved the way for a Tory majority in the general election. However the success of the ‘Yes’ campaign changed the character of the election battle, transforming it into a “Scottish” general election. Scottish voters gave the SNP a landslide in Scotland and the Tories won key marginal seats in England by playing the Anti-Scottish (or English chauvinist) card. In Bermondsey Simon Hughes warned of the dangers of voting Labour and ending up with a Labour-SNP alliance.
In a certain sense the 2015 general election was a continuation of the 2014 referendum. Republican socialists meeting in Edinburgh in February 2015 decided to run an independent campaign in England. During the campaign I wrote to Ken Loach asking for support. He replied “Dear Steve, Thanks for your letter. I’m afraid I can’t support you in standing in the election. I’m certainly not a unionist and a proper debate on the issue would be in order” etc.
Left Unity is a Left Unionist party more by default than design. Ken Loach recognises the contradiction. It is over a year since the Scottish referendum and six months since the ‘Scottish’ general election. Left Unity is still avoiding “a proper debate”. The Corbyn movement has sharpened that contradiction to breaking point. LU has no future as a Left Unionist party with a Corbyn led Labour Party. The future of Left Unity hangs in the balance.
The politics of standing down
In Ken Loach’s letter to me, he says “it is not sensible to have socialist candidates standing against each other”. I agree this is not sensible if the policies are the same or similar. In Bermondsey, Unite tried to persuade the TUSC candidate, Kingsley Abrams, to stand down to make it easier for the Labour candidate to defeat Simon Hughes. Kingsley refused on the grounds that he was an anti-Austerity candidate in contrast to Labour. He did not stand down for political reasons.
TUSC stood in all three Southwark constituencies. Republican Socialists have very different policies and priorities to Trade Union Socialists. There was no valid reason for Anti-Unionists to stand down for Left Unionists. There was no case for supporters of a Social Republic standing down for the Social Monarchy. Trade Union Socialism rests on ideas of ‘economism’ and Labourism which weakens the working class by undermining its struggle for democracy.
2. Left Unity constitutional issues
2.1 Membership rights
Many LU members have dual membership with a variety of groups such as the CPGB, Workers Power, Socialist Resistance, TUSC, International Socialist Network and Republican Socialist Alliance. There is no rule which says you cannot be a candidate for one of these groups or parties whilst remaining a member of LU.
Standing as a Republican Socialist or for TUSC, whilst remaining a member of LU, is not in breach of the Left Unity constitution. Nick Wrack stood in Peckham for TUSC whilst a member of LU as I did in Bermondsey. Both had the right to do this under the existing constitution regardless of whether LU endorsed either of us or not.
Left Unity is not a democratic centralist party. Members should abide by the constitution but do not have to carry out all the requests of the national secretary. LU, at this early stage in its development, is more like the Labour Party where MPs, like Jeremy Corbyn, do not always follow the party line.
2.2 Left Unity candidates
A Left Unity candidate must be a Left Unity member and be selected through a properly convened and constitutionally valid selection process. There should be a short list drawn up where, for example, matters of gender balance should be addressed. Non-members are not eligible to be LU candidates.
Southwark LU decided not to stand any candidate in any Southwark constituency. There was no call for candidates, no short listing and no constitutionally valid candidate selection process. Had there been a properly convened and constitutionally valid selection of LU candidates, the branch would have needed to encourage or ensure that women members were on the short list. No such process was undertaken.
Clause 3d of the Left Unity constitution says LU members must “support Left Unity candidates in elections”. Kingsley Abrams (TUSC) was not an LU candidate. He was not an LU member. He was not selected by a properly convened and constitutionally valid selection process. There was no LU short-list of possible LU candidates. He would not have been eligible for the short list or to attend the selection meeting.
Declaring Kingsley Abrams to be an LU candidate is not constitutionally valid. Those individuals or party bodies making such a declaration are acting beyond their powers (i.e. ultra vires).
2.3 Left Unity endorsed candidates
Left Unity could endorse candidates who are members of other parties for example Green Party, Labour Party, National Health Action Party or TUSC candidates. Expelling LU members who don’t agree to support candidates endorsed by LU is not covered by the constitution. It is unconstitutional. [It would require a constitutional amendment to cover it].
3. Southwark LU
Southwark LU had decided not to stand a Left Unity candidate because the branch was too weak and unprepared. Both Nick Wrack and I were members of Southwark LU who understood the branch would not stand its own candidate. Both, for different motives, we decided to fight the election for other parties. In the circumstances the branch should have respected our right to fight independently under a different programme.
The Southwark meeting was not held to select LU candidates but merely meet and consider which candidates standing for other parties the branch might endorse. There were only three other parties considered – TUSC, National Health Action Party and the Republican Socialists.
I did not seek or apply to become the LU candidate for Bermondsey, not only because the branch decided not to stand a candidate, but more importantly for political reasons. LU did not have a republican socialist programme and was not opposed to the Acts of Union. I went to the branch meeting to explain why I was standing as a Republican Socialist and appeal for any support or endorsement from Southwark Left Unity could give. For political reasons I did not, and did not expect, to get any support. [By the same political reasons, I did get endorsement or support from Anti-Unionists – the Republican Communist Network, the Radical Independence Campaign (AGM), A World to Win and the IS Network].
I have no issue or complaint with the majority of the branch deciding to endorse TUSC in Bermondsey which presumably they believed was more in tune with Labourite views. However the attempt to try to use the national secretary to demand I stand down as a Republican Socialist or resign or threaten me with “ramifications” was not sensible in the circumstances and not constitutional.
The threats issued are more to do with the politics of small groups. Socialist Resistance group was the largest group in Southwark. They voted to endorse the National Health Action party against Nick Wrack (TUSC) in Peckham and support TUSC against Republican Socialists in Bermondsey. Had the branch endorsed the National Health Action Party, then Nick Wrack would have, presumably, received an email/letter from the National Secretary demanding he stood down as a TUSC candidate or face expulsion. Fortunately that did not happen in part because Republican Socialists backed Nick’s candidature for TUSC.
This dispute is first and foremost about politics – ideology and programme. This went on around the Scottish referendum, in the general election and now in the era of Corbyn Labour. In standing in England as a Republican Socialist and Anti-Unionist internationalist I did everything I reasonably could to support the struggle of the progressive democratic and working class forces in Scotland and raise their case in England. The danger of English chauvinism has been underestimated.
When TUSC decided to stand in all three Southwark constituencies and then it became inevitable there would be a clash which would highlight the political differences between Left Unionists and Republican Anti-Unionists. TUSC have no right to demand or expect we would stand down and they did not do so.
My dispute with the national secretary is thus primarily about politics. I am calling on the national secretary issue an apology to the Scottish working class, and the Radical Independence Campaign on behalf of Left Unity for failing to support them in the referendum and thus giving advantage to Cameron and the Tories in the general election.
My secondary dispute with the national secretary is over the constitution. She needs to recognise that Left Unity candidates must be Left Unity members and have gone through a properly convened and constitutionally valid selection process. That needs to be respected or the constitution changed accordingly.