CONVENTION OF THE LEFT MANCHESTER SEPT 20 - 24
REPORT COMPILED BY PETE McLAREN, National Secretary, Socialist Alliance
I have drawn up this report from my own participation in a number of Sunday’s sessions, including the concluding session entitled ‘Unity in Action’, and ‘Question Time for the Left’ on Wednesday. Reports on other sessions have been taken from comments from those who were there, and, when specified, the Convention Organisation Committee.
The SA agreed to sponsor the CoL because it saw the Convention of the Left as having the potential to continue the process of re-uniting the left which began at the CNWP Open Forum before its Conference in June when leading members of Respect, the LRC and the CNWP, along with trade union leaders, called for the building of a new left party. This process had moved forward with the Left Unity meeting initiated by the SA on July 5 when 12 different socialist unity projects and left green/left organisations, including all the main players, met together and decided to look at their own positions on cooperation and unity with other groups, and to discuss forming a left liaison committee at the follow up meeting called for October 11th.
However, concerns were expressed beforehand as to whether the Convention would actually further cement what had been developing over the summer, or whether it would not really commit anyone to building the socialist alternative. The Statement of Intent, which was circulated before the Convention, in concrete terms only called for the setting up of left forums without defining how these would be organised or what their purpose would be.
A NUMBER OF POSITIVES
In the event, a number of positives came out of the Convention. Thousands attended the Stop the War demonstration on the Saturday, which marched past the Labour Party conference, calling for troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Holding the Convention of the Left at the same time as the Labour Party Conference gave opportunities for media coverage and provided a real contrast with the stage-managed undemocratic forum down the road. It also encouraged Labour left conference delegates and MPs to participate with the left outside Labour.
The Convention was genuinely open, democratic and most sessions were fully participatory. Many sessions apparently virtually did away with platform speakers. and instead were virtually handed over to the audience, thus encouraging a free exchange of views between the invited speakers and the meeting itself. On the sessions I attended, including Question Time for the Left on Wednesday evening, there were about 150 people present, although others report some 300 at times over the weekend.
The opening session of the Convention was entitled ‘What unites us?’ with a panel of John McDonnell MP, Tony Benn, Lyndsey German (SWP) and Derek Wall (Green Left). At the next session on Saturday, ‘The Break up of the UK’? the Organising Committee felt it became clear that the left, particularly in England, had not even begun to address the question of what to do when and if Scotland and Wales vote for independence, and how socialists in all these countries should work together. This was followed by ‘Campaigning against Immigration Controls’ where the Campaign against Immigration Controls teamed up with Manchester No Borders to demonstrate the ways in which they wanted to work together to prevent people seeking asylum from destitution, to close down detention centres and to stop deportations. There was also a session entitled ‘How do we stop the Database State?’
Sunday began with a session on Working for Left unity, led by Tariq Ali and John Nicholson. This was followed by ‘Fighting for Equality’ with Maria Exall (LRC), Katy Clark MP, Linda Riordan MP, Amrit Wilson and Margaret Boyle. The Organising Committee report the session contained substantial contributions to argue for women’s reproductive rights, and womens’ rights at work. The discussion also involved the National Assembly of Women, Feminist Fightback and the Abortion Rights campaign Other reports say it was a meeting run by women and overwhelmingly dominated by women speakers. A Women’s Charter was proposed, calling for societal, workplace and labour movement rights for women. The Charter already had the support of 15 trade unions.
This was followed by a session entitled ‘Where now for the Unions?’ led by academic Gregor Hall, Mark Serwotka (PCS), Matt wrack (FBU, Pat Sikorski (RMT), Jane Lofus (U) and Carolyn Jones (Institute of Employment Rights). There was a call for joint union activity against the pay freeze and in defense of jobs and working conditions. Included was a discussion about usefulness or other wise of the trade union link, how disaffiliation affected unions like the MT and FBU, and the possibilities or impossibilities of changing the Labour Party. There was also a discussion about the problems of getting a new party, on how to rebuild trade unions strength, and where the priorities of struggle should be in the next period.
WHERE NOW FOR THE LEFT?
In the final session on Sunday, entitled ‘Where now for the Left?’, the view generally expressed was that the Labour Party was no longer worth supporting, but it was not worth alienating those on the left inside the Labour Party by suggesting the creation of a new left party. The pre-circulated Statement of Intent was agreed in principle with none against. This called for an alternative to New Labour’s war mongering neo liberal agenda by joining together with all those seeking a better society - as an anti-capitalist left fighting for an alternative socialist society. The statement concluded that this does not mean the construction of another political party - but ways to co-ordinate action, strengthen the development of existing campaigns and encourage the devevelopment of local left forums to promote discussion and coordinate united action across the left in an inclusive, participatory, pluralist, tolerant and democratic way. It was also agreed to hold a “recall event” on Nov 29 to seek agreement on what emerges from the Convention.
On Monday, the Convention had sessions on the Dangers of Globilisation; The Economic Crisis; Stopping Brown’s nuclear madness; Anti fascist strategy for Manchester; Climate Change and Repeal the anti trade union laws. Aaccording to the Organising Committee, there were 350 people present. It was agreed at those first two sessions that you can not talk about the economy without talking about the environment and vica versa. There was an LRC Rally where Tony Benn called for left unity to combat the rise of the far right.
On Tuesday, there were sessions on People and Public Services, Housing, Transport, Education and Health. At the opening session according to the Organising Committee, Jeremy Corbyn called for a fight against privatisation across the world. In other sessions, there were also calls for free public transport; the building of alliances with workers, tenants and home owners; opposition to privatisation of education, especially the divisive plans for city academies; opposition to privatisation of health. At the end, there was a call for uniting the campaigns against privatisation and in favour of fully democratic, participatory structures.
Wednesday’s theme on Peace included sessions on ‘Africa’s Forgotten Wars’; Hamas; Iraq; Pakistan and Iran. These will be reported on later.
QUESTION TIME FOR THE LEFT
The convention ended on Wednesday evening with ‘Question Time for the Left’. This was billed as “aiming to bring together key figures from the left to debate the key issues raised during the convention”. It was also stated that panel members were asked to keep their answers short so there would be plenty of time for answers from the floor. This was only partially successful. The panel had eight members - Rob Griffiths (CPB); Derek Wall (Green Left); John McDonnell MP (LRC); Mark Serwotka (PCS); Hilary Wainwright (Red Pepper); Clive Searle (Respect); Colin Fox (SSP) and Lindsey German (SWP). John Nicholson was in the chair. The CNWP had, belatedly, asked for Dave Nellist to be on this or similar platforms, to no avail.
With eight panel members, all of whom spoke at the beginning, and most of whom had a further two minutes minimum on each of the eight questions asked, there was not much time left for members of the audience, and most of those called seem to be known by the Chair although, to be fair, that may have been a coincidence. Many of these contributions from the floor were anecdotal, and were more about what that individual had done than anything else. More to the point, the overwhelming number of questions taken came from someone on behalf of a particular Convention Session or Group, such as the economy or women. These questions had been received in advance. The rest of us were told on arrival that we could each submit a question, but it was unlikely to be called because a maximum of three (out of over twenty individually submitted) would be randomly chosen. I had prepared a question on the party question, as I correctly suspected this would be avoided otherwise. I was told 10 minutes before the start I had to write it out again on official Convention notepaper! My question asked the panel to accept that Labour was finished, and that therefore agree there was a need to unite the left as part of the process of building a new mass socialist party. It was not taken, along with most others from the floor.
The first question asked what each panel member thought of the Convention so far. Interestingly, this brought out some of the most useful responses of the Session. Colin Fox (SSP) hoped the Convention would be a move towards a more united left. Hilary Wainwright added that the Convention had shown there was an alternative to New Labour and that trust within the left was being rebuilt. Rob Griffiths (CPB) complained about the fragmentation of the left, and called for more discussions and more united campaigning. He also announced that Morning Star had opened up its coverage to the rest of the left. Mark Serwotka argued that we needed something politically better than Labour - we need to work together and build an alternative he suggested. John McDonnell felt the Convention had been a positive experience, with much consensus and high quality debates - but it must not just be a talking shop and action must follow. He suggested a network be set up and for there to be a campaign against energy price rises. He accepted that the debate between the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and those who wanted to remain in the Labour Party had not been resolved, but said that was an on-going discussion. He suggested the Convention become an annual event to coincide with the Labour Party Conference. Clive Searle felt the Convention had been successful and enjoyable, and he was pleased to have had the opportunity to talk with the left of the Labour Party. Derek Wall noted the blocks on building an alternative, such as an absence of PR and and the difficulty of breaking trade union links with the Labour Party. He felt the stress on tolerance and the need for a pluralistic approach had been important legacies of the Convention. Lyndsey German (SWP) argued the left must work together to respond to the present capitalist crisis and likely increase in warfare, and it should not ‘beat itself up’ about the past. The left had continued to work together to fight the BNP, and it had worked together in the Stop the War movement, she concluded.
The main concrete campaigning idea to come out of Question Time was a general agreement to organise a campaign this autumn and winter against fuel poverty - specifically for a windfall tax on energy companies; for the industry to be taken back into public ownership; and for direct action to prevent disconnections. There could also be a coordinated refusal to pay for increased bills under the slogan “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay”.
These ideas were supported by Mark Serwotka, who informed the meeting that PCS was already in agreement with a campaign for a windfall tax, and argued that all utilities should be in public ownership; by Rob Griffiths who called for a joint mass campaign; by John McDonnell who added that nationalisation must unite energy workers and consumers; by Clive Serle who argued for a mass campaign of disobedience against disconnections; by Derek Wall who argued for workers control and economics ‘beyond capitalism’; by Lindsey German who suggested the demand for a windfall tax should initiate the campaign; and by the rest of the panel in general terms and by three members of the audience who spoke on the issue.
This was all good positive stuff, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating - will such a campaign actually be organised?
There were several other questions asked from Convention sessions. To the second one, on why left organisations were so pale and male, there was a general panel consensus that the left needed to do more to organise in a way that makes its meetings and activities more accessible to women and black communities, and should make more effort to look outwards and to work with minority groups. In answer to a question on attitudes towards the wars Britain was promoting, which Labour would not discuss, the Panel talked about the million deaths and 4 million refuges in Iraq; the massive hatred of Britain across the world for its war and occupation policies; the shame the wars have brought on the country; the ability of the establishment to ignore or misunderstand public opinion; the continuing danger of an attack on Iran. On the positive side, the success of building a massive anti war movement was mentioned, a movement which remained strong largely thanks to the left’s involvement.
A question on the need for a free, nationalised and public ally integrated public transport system, brought to the fore by climate change, was heartily supported by one and all, and it was suggested that there was a real basis for a campaign on free transport, with, as John McDonnell pointed out, the three rail unions now supporting an integrated public transport system based on public ownership. John McDonnell also suggested the left engages with the climate change movt, and joins campaigns against the 3rd runway at Heathrow.
A question was taken from the audience as to whether the Panel would support direct action against ID cards. Only two panel members responded: Lyndsey German spoke of the increased attacks on civil liberties, and Rob Griffiths felt direct action was justified - we should refuse to have an ID card. This was followed by a ‘group’ question on how do we as socialists justify workers implementing immigration controls. Mark Serwotka explained that the PCS represented many such workers, but the PCS as a union supported all campaigns against deportations and immigration controls. The union also campaigned to change the laws on such issues, but it was important for workers in these areas to be unionised, as had been the case at GCHQ despite its role for the state.
The final question before I had to leave after nearly two hours was on the Statement of Intent - what would panel members do to encourage the development of left forums? John McDonnell described how one was already being set up in his constituency, and the LRC would discuss the possibilities at its AGM in November. Clive Serale felt forums could come out of the fuel campaign. Derek Wall felt we should use the Morning Star which was opening up to others. Lyndsey German suggested we relate to all local campaigns, and forums must be based on activists and not be talking shops. At this stage, a member of the Labour Party, speaking from the audience, argued passionately that we needed a strategy for building a new party to the left of Labour!
The Convention was, in some ways, a continuation of the process we are all involved in to re-unite the left and build a new mass socialist party. Some interesting suggestions and plans came out of it. It should be supported for that. Whether anything more long term comes out of it remains to be seen - we have to convince the rest of the left, including those at the Convention, that we need to build a new Workers’ Party now, not at some undefined date in the future.
Report on the Convention of the Left, Manchester, Sept 20 – 24 2008