Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Need for an Unconvention of the Left ?

by Peter Allen

Five years ago I was part of a small group of activists in Manchester who came together on an occasional basis to moan about the state of the world and the state of the British Left. In order to do something about the former we resolved to try and do something about the state of the latter.

In particular we were anxious to try and improve the chronic and debilitating disunity on the left which we had all observed during our years of political activity (most of us had been politically active for more than 25! ) Aware that the Labour Party was holding its annual conference in Manchester later that year (2008) we decided to try and do something ambitious- to attempt to organise a parallel conference of genuine socialist debate . The whole of the Friends Meeting House (located across the road from where the Labour Party Conference would take place) was booked for the entire week and we resolved to meet as regularly as we needed to to organise the event, which we decided to call The Convention of The Left.

I can’t remember the precise make up of the political allegiances of those involved at the outset but the dozen or so of us included  members of a number of political organisations ( The Green Party, The Labour Party, Respect, The Communist Party of Britain, Workers Power, The SWP) and (probably significantly) a number of independent socialists. The “organising committee” grew in size and diversity and by the time of the conference (September 2008) we had (somehow) put together a whole week of evening and lunchtime events on a wide range of subjects. The emphasis was on discussion and debate. “Platform speeches” were kept to a minimum.

The Convention of the Left was a great success, attracting considerable numbers of local people ( from Greater Manchester and surrounds) as well as significant numbers of Labour Party Conference  delegates. Tony Benn had more or less taken up residence on the steps of the Friends meeting House by the end of the week, where he engaged in conversation with passers by  as well as those attending our event. The week (5 days) of activity culminated in a lively and fraternal “Question Time” event with Hilary Wainwright ( Red Pepper), Clive Searle  (Respect- George Galloway intended to come but had to pull out at the last minute), Lindsay German (then in the SWP) John McDonnell ( Labour MP and leading member of the LRC), Mark Serwotka (leader of PCS union), Rob Griffiths ( the leader of the CPB), and Derek Wall ( Green Party), in front of an audience of well over 100 people (on  Wednesday night). Somewhere between 200 and 300 people in total  had participated in at least some part of the event.

The back drop to the event was the financial crash! Capitalism was in deep crisis and exposed as being based on crookery and incompetence. We left (or stayed in !) Manchester resolved to working together in a spirit of unity, electing a steering committee to carry on the initiative (which included representatives of all of the above organisations plus several independents) and .....

The Steering Group continued to meet, but rapidly shrank to its Manchester core, a reasonably successful one day event was held in Brighton the following September, to coincide with the labour Party Conference ( opening address by Caroline Lucas) and a less successful (100 or so attending ?) one day event in Manchester ( Labour Party Conference again) in September 2010.  A “recall” conference had been held in Manchester in Spring 2009 but by then the “spirit of unity” was already fast disappearing, with comrades making set piece speeches on behalf of their own organisations and a major dispute about whether what we needed was a new “workers party”.

Five years on any “ left unity” appears to have entirely disappeared, the efforts of the Coalition of Resistance not withstanding. The LRC influenced Councillors against Cuts campaign even appears unwilling to allow Green party councillors to sign their petition. It is all very depressing. The need for the left to work together, focussing on what we have in common rather than what separates us-an Unconvention of the Left, has never been greater and its absence never more apparent. 

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