A New Party of the Left?

by Kate Hudson, Ed Lewis

Kate Hudson discusses Left Unity - an initiative to create a new party of the British left. What motivated the project, how is it developing and can it avoid the problems that have beset so many other similar attempts?

First published: 21 June, 2013 | Category: Activism, Politics, Vision/Strategy

Kate Hudson is the General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and one of the founding members of Left Unity - an initiative to create a new party of the British left. She spoke to Ed Lewis about what motivated the creation of Left Unity, how it is developing and if it can avoid the problems that have beset similar attempts in the past. 

Left Unity is a new party that appears to have grown quite quickly since Ken Loach's initial call in March. Over 8,000 people have signed this call and there are email addresses for around 80 local groups. So, to start with, can you briefly outline what Left Unity is what you think accounts for its relative popularity?

Left Unity isn’t yet a party – it is more of an initiative, discussing whether we want a new party of the left and what that should look like. So far, the feedback from the local groups is very positive: there is a strong demand for a broad new party of the left to occupy the space vacated by Labour’s move to the right. Labour is widely seen as abandoning its historic credentials as the party of the people, founder of the welfare state etc and is now seen as attacking the gains that it helped advance after world war two. There is a feeling that we need to get organized to defend those gains and advance them rather than watch it all being destroyed while Labour advances austerity-lite and fails to pledge to reverse the bedroom tax etc. We are taking tentative steps in that direction following our first national meeting on 11th May. We agreed to prepare a timetable towards a founding conference in November 2013.

People will want to know who is at the heart of Left Unity. Who is organising and administering the central infrastructure - such as the website and the Facebook group? And who wrote the 'about us' section on the website, which is the most developed political statement the party appears to have as yet?

Our national meeting on May 11 agreed to elect a National Coordinating Group with a directly elected group of 10 (elected by the meeting) and group reps to be elected by the local groups. The report of this is on the website, with election results. One very positive outcome was the election of 60% women in this directly elected section. The website and Facebook group both have a number of participants/administrators. Many people put up materials on both. The originators of the initiative, prior to the big surge resulting from Ken Loach’s appeal, were Andrew Burgin and myself, who were inspired by the struggles against austerity in Europe and felt we need something like Syriza or Front de Gauche in Britain. Andrew and I wrote the ‘about us’ piece, following the 14th November general strike in Europe, when we started to develop the Left Unity website and try and get in touch with others who shared the same view. Obviously since then many people have come on board, so it is not a personal project in any sense.

In ideological terms, LU seems to be quite open as yet - Ken Loach's initial call and the 'about us' statement really only signify an opposition to austerity and a commitment to a more egalitarian, cooperative and democratic society. Beyond this, how do the politics of Left Unity seem to be developing?

A large part of what we will be doing over the next six months will be discussing what kind of policies and programme we want to adopt at a founding conference. Speaking only for myself, I would like a new party to share the approach of the left parties in Europe: socialist, feminist, environmentalist, against all forms of discrimination, anti-capitalist, anti-war, informed by Marxism but not defined by it, committed to new, participatory and open ways of working, developing the values and principles of the left in the context of the twenty-first century. It is very important for me that we break with the elements of traditional left structures that can allow a failure of democracy, or ossification or cultism to occur. It is also very important that we make a new party genuinely inclusive and break with the gender domination that prevails on the left – as throughout wider society obviously. It is a real happiness for me that our elected group is majority women without operating the ‘at least 50% women’ clause that we had overwhelmingly voted in favour of. It is also a big step forward that we have a leading disability activist on the group and that we have already circulated guidance on making meetings accessible to all the local groups. If we can’t do it differently it isn’t going to happen. There are other views too, that will be expressed in the course of discussion as we move forward. Some have what I would consider to be more traditional approaches – either that we need a socialist party based on the clause four type approach, or that we need a revolutionary programme like those of the smaller left groups. Obviously these are all up for discussion but I don’t think these latter two options will enable us to speak to/appeal to/meet the needs of people at this time of crisis when there is such an urgent need for a clear alternative to defend the gains that ordinary people have made.

Clearly the radical left in the UK is going through a process of realignment, partly caused by the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party. Left Unity is an expression of these shifting contours. I'm interested in which groups are getting involved with LU and which are not. I’m aware of involvement of activists from many different groups and parties, particularly from the party-oriented section of the far left. How effectively do you think LU will be able to unify different elements of the British left?

Our view is that we welcome individuals to get involved if they are genuinely interested in the project and do not have another agenda or are seeking to hijack the project for their own purposes. I am less interested in the existing groups than I am in reaching a wider engagement beyond people who have been involved in the ‘organised’ left. There is an extremely large section of the population who no longer vote because they do not feel that any party represents their interests. That is a key part of society I want us to engage with – and judging by most of the discussion I have heard in LU so far - that is what most people want. LU is not a ‘lash up’ of existing left groups, it is a project towards a new party of individual members who share the vision of an alternative that we are working towards.

Obviously you won't want groups to hijack LU, but some will fear that the openness of LU could well lead to a power struggle between the more ideologically tight-knit groups that are involved, which seems undesirable in itself but could also pave the way for future splits. Do you think this is a reasonable concern?

I would stress that Left Unity is about a dialogue and development towards a new party of the left, conceived of as a broad and inclusive party engaging many people who have never been involved in organised political activity before, as well as people who have. It is not about pulling together existing left groups that come with different ideological platforms. It is about working towards a new political party based on individual membership collectively deciding what policies and programme we will have. When/if the new party is founded, and establishes its policies/programme, then people can back that and get active, or go elsewhere to develop other political projects.  

What can you tell me about the demographics of the people that have been getting involved in LU in terms of class, race, gender, age, sexuality and ability? how might you ensure that the party is not dominated by people from privileged social groups?

We do not have an audit of supporters but in my experience so far, I think the participants are very diverse. One small example of steps to ensure that is the case is the voting procedure that was agreed at our first national meeting. For ten directly-elected places we agreed after a short discussion that at least 50% should be women.  A very small number of people voted against this. In the event six women and four men were elected without any adjustment to the outcomes. One of these is a leading disability activist, one describes himself as mixed race, a number are very active in trade unions and three are probably under 30 (or look like it!) A guide to making groups accessible has already been circulated to local groups and we are currently working on a Safe Space Policy which will apply to our online space as well as physical space. We will be engaging in a continual process to expand inclusivity and diversity. We know we have a long way to go yet, but are very committed to this.

Some are concerned that LU will come to be a predominantly electoralist organisation, which raises fears that the party will seek an accommodation with the undemocratic structures of the state and with the tropes of mainstream political debate. What are your thoughts on this?

Only my own opinion here, but I expect we will have an electoral strand to our work but it will be completely rooted in local campaigning activity. But the fact is that Left Unity results very much from the realisation that with the shift of Labour to the right the working class has no political representation in parliament and whatever the flaws of parliament - or of Town Halls for that matter - this has to be redressed. What made the founding of the Labour Party necessary now makes a new Left Party necessary. We cannot be without a political force of our own acting in our interests.

How do you see LU relating to other parties, such as the Greens, TUSC and of course Labour?

This is somewhere down the line and I wouldn’t feel it would be right to offer an individual opinion on this other than to say that duplication of efforts and dividing of support where people stand for the same thing does not seem sensible.

In recent years we have seen two notable examples of parties that have attempted to unite individuals and groups to the left of Labour - Respect and the Socialist Alliance. Although both had some successes, they either collapsed or became seriously weakened within a few years. What do you think LU can learn from those experiences and what gives you hope that it may be possible for LU to avoid their fate and prove more successful?

I say this without direct personal experience as I wasn't involved in the Socialist Alliance and I became a member of Respect when it became an individual membership party not a coalition. But it seems to me that coalitions of small groups where people are often completely blinkered about their own sense of what is right, and in the case of some individuals unduly concerned about their own standing, and many seem incapable of constructive cooperation, are just the kiss of death for taking anything new forward. We are in such a desperate situation, in an intensifying class war with the danger of going back to the 1930s yet some on the far left seem incapable of thinking beyond the interests of their tiny groups and obsessive criticising of others. It is tragic and irresponsible and has led to a very strong determination within Left Unity to organise on an individual membership basis.

What are the immediate next steps for Left Unity?

We had our first National Co-ordinating Group meeting on Saturday where we worked out our timetable towards a founding conference in November 2013, including the establishment of policy commissions to work on policy resolutions for the new Left Party. We will also continue to be active across the country on a local level where our supporters are very involved in local anti-cuts campaigns, in anti-fascist activity and in arguing for alternative economic policies in our trade unions and other arenas and campaigns. 

Ed Lewis is a co-editor of New Left Project

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