The argument “we must have complete unity – and we will get there on the basis of everybody agreeing with me” will be futile, whether it is made by Alan Johnson, Brendan Barber, Caroline Lucas, Sunder Katwala, Laurie Penny or indeed SWP-style perspectives, perhaps captured by the passionately anti-Labour speaker from the floor, who lambasted Labour as a complete sell-out over Iraq and everything else, before saying “Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us”.
Now, a few clarifications:
1. I am not a member of the SWP. I am not affiliated with any political party. Nor do I think being a member of the SWP should be a put-down.
2. I have advocated the need to respect our differences in my post today, in my previous blog post, to anyone who has spoken to me throughout the duration of the movement, and I will continue to do so until the end. This is because I believe in pluralism.
3. In the plenary, it seemed to me like everyone was singing from the same hymn-sheet, ‘join Labour.’ As Sunder has pointed out in his reply to Guy Aitchson, his approach was more nuanced than this (you can read his response here).
However, I wasn’t directly replying to Sunder’s comments. I was replying to someone in the audience who stood up and said ‘we should all join the Labour party,’ after someone else in the audience had said we should join Labour. I challenged this statement because I don’t agree that is the way forward. I don’t want to go into the ins-and-outs of what I think about Labour here, as I will reflect more thoughtfully on that in another post. The point I want to make here is that we should be given the space and support to hold different views. I was perfectly entitled to stand up and question the assertion that we should join Labour. The round of applause I got (the loudest in the plenary) suggested many others agreed with me.
Sunder’s argument is that he accepts difference and he writes, “disagreement with respect is going to work better where we can disagree on the basis of what people are actually arguing, rather than to caricature or misrepresent arguments.” So why try to dismiss my views as incoherent, SWP-type rhetoric? However, Sunder has admitted that characterising me as an SWP member was a mistake. I’m glad he has recognised that it’s inconsistent to advocate pluralism whilst trying to dismiss my comments in this way. He has argued instead that his issue is with the content of my comment. So…
4. This is what I actually said (although I’m basing this on my poor memory so if there is video footage and someone can send me the link that would be great): “Why should we vote Labour? All of us here marched against the war on Iraq and they completely ignored us. And it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but child detention and the 10p tax… And where is Ed Miliband? He’s shown no support for the student movement and he hasn’t provided any kind of opposition in Parliament. Left unity is important. But Labour doesn’t represent us. We are representing ourselves. We have our own campaign and if Labour want a piece of it, they can come to us.”
5. This is what I meant – On Iraq, I meant that Labour ignored popular opinion, so why should we trust them to listen to and represent protest movements now? I brought in child detention and the 10p tax to highlight Labour’s anti-left-wing policies (I should have also mentioned tuition fees). I questioned what Ed Miliband is doing because he hasn’t shown any support to the movement and hasn’t represented our views in Parliament at all. I said that left unity is important because I believe that factionalisation could be the death of the movement, as I have stated elsewhere. But unity doesn’t mean joining the Labour party. If Labour wants that to be what unity means they have to show some interest in the protests, show that they care about what we’re saying and doing, recognise us, support us, and prove to us we can trust them to actually take our anti-cuts stance onboard rather than to co-opt and dilute it. And I stand by all of this.
Sunder has pointed out that he wants to reject two types of view: ‘everyone must get behind Labour and Labour’s plan’ or ‘anybody who joins Labour is part of the problem, not the solution.’ I agree. I’m not saying that anyone who joins Labour is part of the problem. But in that meeting no-one was saying anything about Labour’s mistakes and short-comings. It was part of the debate that needed to be brought to the group’s attention. I’m not going to dismiss anyone out-of-hand that joins Labour, but equally they shouldn’t dismiss me for not wanting to join Labour.
One final point… Many people came up to me during the conference and thanked me for what I said because it was exactly what they were thinking, and they were glad I had the confidence to say it. We talked in the session on gender equality about the intimidation women activists receive online just for daring to speak out. I am not suggesting any of Sunder’s comments were intimidating, but I want to point out to everyone that if we are going to encourage more women, people from disadvantaged groups and people who are under-confident for whatever reason to get involved, singling individuals out for critique is not the way to do it. I think we should all bear this in mind.