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It was Derek Wall who best summed up the Convention of the Left’s opening session, and he did it by quoting Chumbawamba. ‘Even though we disagree,’ they sang, ‘we share a common enemy’.
It was a call for non-sectarianism that echoed through almost every contribution, whether from the speakers or from the floor.
‘The convention is a brilliant idea because sectarianism gets you nowhere,’ was how Tony Benn put it. ‘Socialism should be a mosaic, not a monolith.’
‘How do they control us? They keep us divided, they keep us demoralised, they keep us cynical. We have to be more confident – when people understand the world they have the confidence to change it.’
‘When history comes to be written it will look on this conference as very important.’
Benn wasn’t the only one to speak in such terms. John McDonnell called the convention ‘an opportunity to refound the left that we haven’t had for a generation’.
Of course, there were some discordant notes. Speakers from the floor were given lots of time to speak in between the ‘big names’, and they made the most of it.
Workers’ Power called on McDonnell to ‘break with the Labour Party and create a new party with all the trends here represented’, right there and then (and no, McDonnell didn’t). The Socialist Party’s Campaign for a New Workers’ Party made a similar call for a complete break with Labour and a few sideswipes at each speaker, while seeming a little mystified at why the left would set up this convention when it could be joining their fine organisation.
A contributor from Permanent Revolution caused even more consternation when he said: ‘the elephant in the room … [pause for dramatic effect] … is Respect. It collapsed, that’s the truth of the matter. And before that we had the Socialist Alliance.’
‘Why did they fail? We need to ask the question or we risk repeating their mistakes.’
Then Lindsey German was up, doing a decent job of tranquilising that elephant. ‘We can all put our hands up to what we’ve done wrong,’ she said, ‘but there’s no point in sitting here and saying 20 years ago we fell out over this question or two years ago we fell out over that question. We have to find a method of working that unites us and doesn’t divide us.’
Nick Wrack, from the other wing of Respect, shared the sentiment. ‘I’m prepared to debate and discuss what went wrong,’ he said, ‘but what is far more important is that there is more that unites us than separates us.’
‘The working class out there is facing a terrible situation and it’s going to worsen. We don’t need to make differences over tactical issues a dividing line at this moment.’
So despite the occasional spanner in the works, the left was on its best behaviour – speakers seemed to be genuinely looking to agree with each other instead of starting pointless sectarian bun-fights. At this rate, the good mood might even last the full five days.