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Question time for the left

And it finally seems like we've figured out what the questions are

September 24, 2008
4 min read

The convention’s final session, ‘Question Time for the Left’, brought together a panel from across the left to see, once and for all, if they could work together. Not to spoil it for you or anything, but the answer was ‘yes’.

The panel was certainly wide-ranging: the panel took in Colin Fox (SSP), Clive Searle (Respect), Lindsey German (SWP), Robert Griffiths (CPB/Morning Star), John McDonnell, (LRC/Labour left) Mark Serwotka (PCS union), Derek Wall (Green Left) and Hilary Wainwright (Red Pepper).

I’d be blogging all day and all night if I wrote about every question that was asked and answered: the session was rapid-fire, with speakers’ points kept short and audience participation made central to the session. The ‘us and them’ wall was broken down once and for all.

Their verdict on the convention was unanimous, though: it was ‘historic’ (Wainwright), ‘a tremendous success’ (McDonnell), and even ‘maybe, just maybe, the start of 21st century socialism in Europe’ (Wall).

The discussion darted from why left organisations are so ‘pale and male’, to the anti-war movement, to free public transport to tackle climate change – but it somehow stayed on track, making real links between the problems we face without resorting to the old ‘the problem is capitalism’ schtick. Suddenly the underlying question wasn’t ‘what are the problems?’ or ‘can we work together?’ – it was ‘how will we win?’

Lindsey German pointed out that not only can the left make a difference, but it does every day: on strike picket lines, in the anti-war movement, in fighting the BNP. ‘I don’t think the left should beat itself up,’ she said. Our groups might not be perfect, but our convention was full of life – Labour’s conference had none.

On fuel bills, most of all, the mood to go out and build a mass campaign right there and then was palpable – some members of the audience told of how they’d seen their bills almost double. ‘We need to be going straight onto action,’ said John MacDonnell, while Mark Serwotka called it ‘the best issue I can think of’ to organise around.

Colin Fox called for militant action to stop people dying from the cold: ‘There are millions who will be disconnected this winter. We have to say: if they try to disconnect one single worker…’ – the rest of the sentence got lost in the wild applause.

German offered a nice slogan – ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ – while Clive Searle said it was an opportunity to really make the left relevant to people’s lives, and Robert Griffiths told an encouraging story of how well petitions on fuel bills had gone. Hilary Wainwright added: ‘The importance of a mass campaign around a winnable issue is that it opens things up for us.’

Other campaigns with broad support included the climate camp (which may be forced to launch direct action at Heathrow as soon as December if the third runway gets the go-ahead in parliament), civil disobedience against ID cards (the next poll tax, for sure), renationalisation of public services, and the Europe-wide mobilisations against Nato and the spread of war.

When the convention’s idea of local left forums was raised again, McDonnell had news of some people who have already gone home and started setting one up: ‘I think it could be a tremendous breakthrough.’ Searle tackled the ‘talking shop’ issue head-on: ‘If they were just talking shops they’d be good, if they’re talking shops linked to action it’ll be excellent.’ There is going to be a ‘recall conference’ on 29 November to hear reports back from the local forums, so we’ll soon know whether we’re getting anywhere.

Summing up, Serwotka said: ‘If movements like this are to mean anything they’ve got to be linked to action. We need some victories.’

So, after five days of discussions, the job of the left suddenly appears much clearer than before. All we have to do now is get started.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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