When the Convention of the Left’s organisers decided to put their ‘statement of intent’ to the vote, John McDonnell knew what would happen. ‘It’s always dangerous to put a statement up,’ he joked, ‘because there’s always some tosser who wants to amend it.’
And his prediction proved accurate: Diana Raby of Respect went ahead and tried to propose an amendment. ‘We aren’t taking amendments, comrade,’ the chair told her. ‘Then I’ll read out the text of the amendment I would have put,’ she replied, to applause.
She wanted to insert a call for the creation of ‘a viable electoral alternative, to the left of New Labour’ that would stand candidates in the next general election (a move that would force McDonnell to either drop his support for the convention or break with Labour, because of Labour’s rules on support for opposition parties).
‘Enough of elections already!’ a heckler shouted – and I couldn’t help but agree.
Many of the groups present at the convention are keen to set up a new electoral party (the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, Workers’ Power and remnants of the Socialist Alliance were the most vocal about it), and they’re not afraid to badger McDonnell and the left union leaders about it endlessly. It’s as if they think there’s some great shortage of political parties and coalitions – as if the years since the dawn of New Labour weren’t littered with the corpses of the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect and the rest. They seem to think that all we need to do is to get the Labour left and a few unions on board and all our electoral problems will be solved.
After a speaker told Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union that if he believed in a new party he should ‘put his name to it and do something about it’, Wrack spelled out his objection: ‘There have been too many false starts and I don’t want to see another. It’s not as straightforward as union leaders putting their name to something.’
One of the signs of madness is that you do the same thing over and over again but expect a different result – and setting up yet another socialist(ish) party to stand in elections would fall right into that trap. Much as I’d support this hypothetical Union Party if it did somehow come into being, I wouldn’t want to see the Convention of the Left hijacked to that end. The statement as written contains a far more worthwhile proposal that hasn’t already been tried a dozen times: to set up local left forums across the country.
Bill Jefferies, moving the statement, said: ‘We want to create an open forum where people are free to express their opinions and ideas. We’ve moved away from the top table telling people the line.’
These forums would be open to the broadest left possible – from the Labour left and the Greens all the way to Marxists and anarchists – to allow people from all the different traditions to work together and link up their campaigns. They could do everything from coordinating strikes to giving grass-roots activists the chance to share their stories and tactics. Some contributors pointed to similar local initiatives that have already had some success, such as the Cardiff Radical Socialist Forum, while others drew inspiration from the united strikes on 24 April that saw teachers, lecturers and civil servants take to the streets together.
I think the local left forums idea is one that has to be given a chance, without being loaded down with the expense and heartbreak of fighting unwinnable election campaigns – and in the end, the room seemed to agree with that sentiment. Remarkably, the statement of intent passed near-unanimously, with no-one voting against and only three abstentions. There also appeared to be consensus that we should try to unify the many disparate ‘ten-point charters’ the left has produced over the past few months into one, and organise a united campaign on the increases in fuel prices as autumn turns into winter.
A speaker from Huddersfield put it this way: ‘I’ve come to this today and I feel it’s different. There’s no platform, no central committee. The power I feel here today is the power of ordinary people.’
As John McDonnell said: ‘There’s real potential, but we’ve been here before. Let’s not fuck it up again.’
You can read the convention’s statement of intent at http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Convention-of-the-left-statement