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When Ken Loach launched an appeal to discuss founding a new party to the left of Labour in March, it sparked a wave of enthusiasm. Within a few weeks, more than 8,000 people signed up and around 100 local groups were established across the country.
It isn’t hard to see why. Austerity is devastating Britain. While the Conservative-led government is giving tax breaks to the richest individuals and biggest corporations, it is driving the most vulnerable people in the country deeper into poverty with public service cuts and the bedroom tax, which tragically claimed its first victim when Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide because she could not afford the £80 a month charge. Labour’s response to the Tories’ ideological assault on the poor has been weak, and its abstention on workfare a betrayal. The need for a new party to represent the interests of the working class, which have been ignored far too long by the three main parties, has never been greater.
On Saturday, Left Unity held its first national meeting, bringing together around 100 elected delegates from many of the local groups that have sprung up over the last few weeks in answer to Loach’s call. Some came from small towns where groups had only a handful of members. Others, such as the delegates from Brighton, spoke of vibrant and big meetings – Brighton already has a signed-up membership of more than 200 people.
Sitting in the same room together, these were no longer names on a signature sheet, but passionate activists from a vast range of left-wing traditions. Many of the familiar old alphabet soup far-left groups were represented. But there were also young campaigners from Occupy and UK Uncut, anarchists, Greens, trade unionists, disaffected Labour supporters and dozens who had never been involved in any party before, but wanted to change the world all the same.
With such a diverse group coming together for the first time, there were inevitably going to be disagreements. It proved too difficult to agree a statement of principles in such a short space of time, for example. But the meeting voted to move towards a founding conference in November and overwhelmingly supported the idea that a new party of the left should not be a patchwork coalition of far-left groups hastily thrown up as a temporary electoral front, but should be an active campaigning organisation built around the basic democratic principle of one member one vote.
‘We have been through some bitter experiences and we need to learn from the past,’ Loach said to the meeting. ‘We absolutely need to be a democratic party and I support the principle of one member, one vote. We’ve had groups trying to take projects over, we’ve had manipulations behind closed doors and we don’t want that again.’
‘Just like we don’t want one dominating group, we don’t want any charismatic leaders,’ he added, clearly expressing his desire not to be an unaccountable figurehead for the new party. Indeed, despite Loach’s appeal, much of the hard work has been done by the local groups, which have grown organically with their own ideas and ways of working, and Left Unity has been built from the bottom up. This must continue over the coming months as Left Unity moves towards its founding conference and the beginning of a vital new party of the left.
For too long the left has been divided and weak, its energies exhausted on sectarian splits. And absolutely no one in the real world cared. If, as Loach said, Left Unity is to learn from the mistakes of the past, it must be transparent, open, inclusive and democratic. If, as so many people at Saturday’s meeting said, we want to make a difference, we must first put aside our own differences.
The time for Left Unity is now.