This weekend saw Left Unity hold its first national conference. Well, not really. It was preceded by its foundation back in November last year, and a further national gathering in Manchester last March, but who's counting right? So 12 months down the line, where do things stand with Britain's newest leftist unity initiatives? Should Labour be worried another potential rival stands poised to bleed its voter base, or is that prospect remote?
You can tell something about a party by the character of its conference. Braving adverts for cruises, Netflix and the Murdoch press, the intermittent live feed showed a meeting much smaller than its predecessors. Though, to be fair, as a conference it was clearly they were operating a branch delegation system - a practice itself quite alien to standard far left procedure of mobilising ordinary members to attend and labelling them delegates in reports. Another major departure was public and, at times, heated debates. However, while it is scrupulously democratic to allow for debates that soft soap the so-called Islamic State terror outfit in the name of "anti-imperialism" and to hear another calling on Left Unity to not condemn ISIS and its co-mediaevalists as such, smart politics it definitely is not. That three or four votes were cast in favour matters not, valuable conference time was hijacked by a tiny, Spartoid fringe. Meanwhile, weightier issues were allowed to fall off the agenda.
On other occasions arguments brewed up about the order of the agenda, standing orders, procedure, chair's actions and the like. One of the most astonishing challenges to the running order came from a delegate who noted that the debate on LU's election strategy was near the back of the agenda and might not be covered if other reports and debates dragged on. He therefore requested it be moved up as a priority debate first thing Sunday morning. Amazingly, John Pearson for the Standing Orders Committee opposed the move on the grounds that "electoral strategy isn't a priority". Even more baffling was that conference backed his position by a large margin. Hello? What's happening six months from now? The debate however did take place but it goes to show that the far left's desire to create an electoral alternative to Labour isn't matched by their willingness to take such a project seriously.
Other points of note, unsurprisingly LU adopted the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel movement, voted against austerity and for scrapping the disgusting work capability assessment and, on elections, has chosen to buddy up with TUSC and rule out a blank arrangement with the Greens. Though, I'm sure LU branches will make local pacts with Greens where they deem it appropriate.
All this considered, is it fair to say LU has made discernible progress? As I'm a Labour lackey, you might expect me to say no. And you'd be right. Since the March conference I've occasionally glanced at the development of the organisation (hat tip the Weekly Worker for following these things so you don't have to) and it's been a really weird experience. People suspended for "misreporting" meetings in the WW, for using intemperate language and saying unkind things on the internets, and - creepiest of all - one idiot for circulating a photo of national secretary Kate Hudson in her swimming costume. What is up with some people? And that's not to mention allegations about payments withheld to workers employed at a social enterprise run by an ex-principal speaker.
Sure, all organisations - especially new organisations - have teething troubles, but the biggest problem LU have is the approach it has taken to building itself. Quite understandably, a lot of the comrades involved have had fingers burned by the petty tyrannies that litter the left. A few might have suffered a proscription at the hands of the Labour Party too. Therefore the desire to build something that has nothing in common with toy town democratic centralism or bureaucratism is a noble one. The efforts to accommodate awkwards, the long-winded debates and equally long documents put before members, the tetchyness about personal conduct and whether the organisation requires safe spaces are attempts to refound a radical left on a wholly new basis. From the outside, however, LU appears little more than a Facebook group with conferences. I have no doubt many of its comrades are up to their necks in activity, but not, it appears, LU work. Branch meetings, yes. An occasional outing for the local group's banner, yes. But consistent work campaigning as Left Unity in a campaign or solidarity action? It would appear not. Take a look at the last year's worth of local council by-elections - no LU. It's as if they are trying to incubate the perfect organisation via resolutionary socialism and rounds of national gatherings before placing LU before the consideration of the wider public.
Nevertheless, LU do have luck on their side. The small political space for a left alternative to Labour is still going begging in England and Wales. The Greens might be putting membership and voter weight on if the polls and local by-election results are anything to go by, but there is a constituency of leftish ex-Labour anti-politics people they will never appeal to. LU - despite the indulgent 'in-group' name - can go places other radicalisms cannot reach. But to do so it needs to hang up its hang-ups and start organising as a party serious about being a party. Its window of opportunity for securing 2-3% of the national vote won't stay open forever.