Left Unity and the crisis of democracy
On 16 June Left Unity held its annual conference. The party has been steadily shrinking since 2016 but it still has over five hundred members. Over twenty five activists attended which tells its own story. It was a significant conference after last year’s nervous breakdown. The demand LU liquidates into the Labour Party was no longer evident in resolutions or speeches.
The main question before conference was the ‘crisis of democracy’ which grew from the politics of austerity. The EU referendum has taken this to a whole new level. It has divided England between the Anglo-British and Anglo-Europeans. An emergency resolution was tabled about the recent Anglo-British mass mobilisation in London by the supporters of Tommy Robinson, the BNP and UKIP etc.
The battle over Brexit is bringing us to the brink of a constitutional crisis in relations between the Crown, parliament and the peoples of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The shocking disaster at Grenfell Tower showed the ‘crisis of democracy’ at local as well as at national and European levels.
This fed into the main strand of the conference. What kind of party are we going to be? Was LU to carry on with its own brand of Trotskyism or recognise the centrality of the working class in the struggle for democracy and socialism? Should the Crown, parliament or people ratify the Tory Brexit deal? Should Unionism be able to impose Brexit on Northern Ireland and Scotland?
Left Unity was set up in 2013 as a Trotskyist front. All the leading activists were either in small Trotskyist organisations like Socialist Resistance, CPGB or Workers Power or were refugees from the various organisations which litter the left landscape, such as the WRP, SWP and the Militant Tendency.
The rationale was that unlike the major Trotskyist parties – the SWP and the Socialist Party – the fragments were unable to engage in mass politics. They realised they could do better by hanging together than separately. So Left Unity made sense. When it came to a programme for this new front then it was left reformism or social monarchism that could bind them together.
In 1945 the Labour government carried through its programme of social monarchy – extensive ‘cradle to grave’ social reforms on the basis of loyalty to the constitutional monarchy as embodied in George VI. The ‘spirit of 45’ ran like a red line through LU inspired by Ken Loach’s call for unity. Left Unity was designed by Trotskyists to fill the gap which the Labour left was too weak and feeble to occupy.
In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn burst onto the scene and left reformism (i.e. social monarchism) took back the ‘sprit of 45’ and raised it to new heights previously unimaginable. LU’s small groups began decanting to the Labour Party. Why build a front when you could join a mass Labour Party and try to convert it into a much bigger Trotskyist front?
Left Unity began to shrink, disorientated by the unexpected turn of events. The first version of Left Unity as embodying the ‘spirit of 45’ was as dead as a dodo. None of the current leadership refers to it and some even pretend it never happened. So the question before this conference was the politics and character of Left Unity Mark 2 version.
Left Unity Mark 2 version
The main ideological dispute between socialists in Left Unity was between republicanism and Trotskyism. It was in effect a dispute as to whether the minimum programme of LU should be social republican or social monarchist. British Trotskyism had long become a voice for Labour’s social monarchism with its demands for social reforms – on health, housing, transport and public ownership.
The matter came to a head over the new LU constitution. A resolution from South London sought to amend the statement of party aims. It proposed to insert after “environmentalist” the French word “republican”.
If passed the aims of LU would now read “Left Unity is a party of the radical left, linked to the European Left Party, working in solidarity with like-minded anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist parties internationally. We are socialist, feminist, environmentalist, republican and opposed to all forms of discrimination”.
Some comrades from South London felt this was so innocuous that it was bound to go through. But they hadn’t reckoned with the fact that republicanism is like a red rag to the Trotskyist bull. Ex-SWP ex-Militant, and ex WRP lined up to oppose republicanism. It wasn’t the crown they worried about but the threat this posed to their leadership.
The various Trotskyists declared they were totally and utterly republican. It was so obvious that there was no need to mention it. Every socialist felt the same and never mentioned it either. So too the Labour Party which never had a republican programme. Indeed avoiding republicanism was the litmus test of (pseudo)‘revolutionary’ and left reformist politics.
By the end of conference the Trotskyists secured their control of Left Unity with a new more centralist constitution. A great opportunity to rethink and discuss the strategy and programme was lost. This conference confirmed the decline of Left Unity. The ‘crisis of democracy’, which is growing in England, the UK and Europe, is showing itself in LU which is shrinking but more importantly has no answers.