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Reflections on the Left Platform meeting

Left PlatformFew on the left can doubt the need for greater unity of the large number of left groups and unattached lefties. The organisation of the Left Platform meeting in London on 7th February was both a recognition of that need and an effort to do something about it.

The event ran from 11.00 am to 4.00 pm with a half hour lunch-break. It was attended by several hundred people and, despite evident differences, was conducted, mainly, in a friendly manner. The general theme for the event was stated in the agenda notes by John McDonnell MP:

… increasingly people are beginning to challenge the old orthodoxies and question the old order. Now is the time to demonstrate practically what a Labour government could do in office. What is needed is to consolidate a common Left policy platform that can give people hope.”

After a short introduction the day consisted of four sessions: (1) Alternatives to Austerity; (2) Public Ownership not Private Profit; (3) Ending Poverty Pay and Benefits, Restoring Trade Union Rights; (4) Next Steps. The sessions opened with clear and compact key presentations. I regret, though, that that none were supported by papers – I cannot be alone in having less than total recall of four and a half hours of debate.

The main theme of Alternatives to Austerity were: (1) There is an alternative to austerity; (2) there is not a lack of moncy but the crisis has been used to funnel money to the already rich; (3) the need to combat tax injustice (e.g. VAT has gone up, corporation tax has gone down massively) which is syphoning billions away from the public sphere; (4) Austerity is reducing living standards and worsening the deficit while increasing with public and private debt; (5) the need for quantitative easing that by-passes the banks. (Various specific proposals, such as the need for a maximum wage and a ban on zero hours contracts, were floated. There were informative talks by Richard Murphy (tax policy) and Prem Sikka (corporate fraud and predatory practices).

The Public Ownership not Private Profit session was opened by Jeremy Corbyn MP and covered: (1) the impact of foreign policy decisions on UK affairs (vast cost of failed policies, restrictions on personal liberty, strengthened role of corporations); (2) the case for rail nationalisation – supported by a majority of voters; (3) the critical nature of the privatisation crises in the NHS needs to be understood if we are to save it; (4) the innovatory and efficient nature of public enterprise in railways and health; (5) the threat of TTIP to our public services and Labour’s regrettable support for it; (6) opposing the fragmentation of our schools into independent academies and free schools and to making the NUT election manifesto widely available.

In the session on Ending Poverty Pay and Benefits, Restoring Trade Union Rights was opened by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka. The main topics were: (1) the need for higher union membership and for stronger/better trade union leadership; (2) collective bargaining coverage has slumped from 80% to 20% of the work force and trade union membership has halved; (3) benefit system being used to humiliate and impoverish the unemployed; (4) Restoration of the legal rights of trade unionists; (5) the plight of disabled people due to the impact of cuts; (6) the developing culture of US-style union busting both in government and business.

The final session on Next Steps was short (seven minutes). John McDonnall spoke of the difficulty of organising the meeting. He explained that the event had been filmed and that the result would be put on online as soon as possible. He talked of the need to approach all Labour candidates with the alternative policies articulated during the day: “out there, people want to see a real Labour government. … We could save the Labour Party from being destroyed at this election, if people understand that there is a Labour left alive and kicking and fighting for these policies”. He added, that the Left Platform will be reconvened shortly after the next election, whatever the outcome. The left needs to publish its ideas and fight for its policies to be in a position to resist “the austerity measures that Labour might try to introduce. He did not say, however, that the key contributions of the day would be published on-line to enable the many who could not get to the meeting to benefit from them.

Immense energy went into organising the event and it was good to bring so many people from so many organisations together to discuss how the left can opposed austerity politics and the austerity mindset. It was also welcome that the day was relatively clear of the shouty, finger-jabbing approach to political debate – although a few contributions of this type were well received. However, despite the considerable organisation behind the meeting and the many high-quality contributions, the day was, for me, a strange affair.

  1. Before attending the event I re-read the only detailed statement of Labour Policy currently available: the Report of the NPF to Annual Conference 2014. I assumed that a day largely devoted to considering how best to influence Labour policy would start from some sort of critique of that policy to find what, if anything, in it can be used for policy development. In fact, there was no more than a passing reference to the document through the whole day. Moreover, it was clear that many, if not most, speakers had not even read it. Thus one speaker called for the setting up of regional banks but when I asked in the lunch-break if she was aware that this was already Labour Policy she excused herself, apparently to her own satisfaction, by saying that the was not a Labour Party member. Similarly there were several calls for Labour to repeal the Health and Social Care Act but when one speaker pointed out that this was already Labour policy there were shouts of “the whole Act” which I guess was a reference to the call for the restoration of the old NHS act, but the objection was hardly clear or explicit.
  2. Several speakers spoke of the obvious and common sense nature of the left’s anti-austerity arguments. One even referred to them as a “no-brainer”. They wondered why Ed Balls and other Labour leaders didn’t get it. It seems, following this line, that the left just has to make its case (assuming that it has just one) on any given issue even clearer to get through to those who don’t yet get it. The naivety of both assuming that one’s own case is obvious while any other view is just plain wrong and that it just needs to be made clearer to convince the unconvinced is not worthy of serious politics.
  3. I found myself wondering how it was that with so many people with so much to say there was so much silence when some of us tried to get on-line discussion of Labour policies going from the onset of the Labour Party discussion period leading up to the final NPF meeting last July. That meeting determined the basis for Labour’s election manifesto. I wrote again and again about the education policy statement and other materials feeding into that document on Left Futures. The response was a handful of comments. Other discussions on left websites fared no better and overall there was a complete failure of the left to make a detailed critique of the NPF materials or final document. Those who had so much to say about Labour policy when the die has been cast and there is no realistic possibility of changing Labour Policy in the lead-up to the election need, in my view, to consider when and where it is most effective to make their contributions in future.
  4. While the Labour left continues to work in the amateurish manner described above the right has little to fear. Detailed policies, however poor, and contradictory, will not be defeated by speeches however fiery and however radical the rhetoric. Bad policies need to be replaced by better ones. No one following Labour’s policy formation process leading up to the July NPF meeting could come away with the impression that the left was pressing the right hard with its detailed critiques and counter-policies.The empty rhetoric which still passes for meaningful contributions on the left was typified by the speaker whose contribution consisted of a string of statements like.

We must build the movement. That is what is going to determine what happens tomorrow in this country and in the world generally

The faith in the power of such vacuous evangelical declarations shows how far many on the left are from engaging in real political debate. The same speaker told those attending that it was necessary to break the law and that those who were not prepared to do so were “not bloody serious”. By contrast the right is rather more sure-footed. Just look at the way Progress organises its work, the materials it produces, the meetings it organises. When I suggest to left-wing friends that they spend time on the Progress website they say that they have better things to do. Big mistake. Trying to discuss future Labour policy without close reference to its existing policy is an even bigger one.

17 Comments

  1. David Ellis says:

    It’s a start because the left whilst big on propaganda and empty rhetoric almost invariably defer to the right on matters of actual policy. Even the most shouty left sect is devoid of any programme for transition to socialism and I don’t think the left reformists have ever launched a serious challenge to the cynical realists of the right. Let’s see how it develops.

    1. Robert says:

      Sorry have non idea what happened.

      Rubbish.. leaders and small numbers of left leaning MP’s has been labour’s problem for years look at Cruddas and his policy on the railways to bring it back in house. he was shot down and told to go back and get a plan B, lets be honest Cruddas came up with a number of policy ideas most have now been dumped by the Progress right wing and the fact is Miliband is way to weak.

      The left ahs the idea we have to bloody fight the right wingers within labour.

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    Thanks to David Pavett for the concise and informative account he gives of the ‘Left Platform’ conference and the telling points he makes about it which I would like to add to.
    Yes, there seems to be a lot of ignorance of Labour policy, including breaking up the big banks, a British Investment Bank, building 200,000 houses a year,greater security for tenants via longer leases, ending ‘zero hours’ contracts abuses and democratic reform of the House of Lords.These things are not enough, but they should be recognised as advances from the Blair years. Yes of course Balls understands Keynesianism, it is a question of promoting growth and at the same time winning the election, about which the party is divided, although an anti austerity line must still be pushed.Yes, there was an inadequate response to the NPF documents. I and others submitted some suggested amendments through this and other blogs, and later so did CLPD and LRC, but there was no concerted attempt to promote detailed left policies. On anti austerity it is only Michael Meacher and others in Left Futures and Richard Murphy and the Green New Deal group in Tax Research who are promoting credible policies , and time is running out.

  3. Mike Phipps says:

    Thanks for this report and indeed it would be good if more of the opening contributions were available on line. Andrew Fisher’s is here http://leapeconomics.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/beating-austerity-shifting-labour-left.html
    Regarding the general criticism that too many on the left emphasise movement-building activism over policy work, I would say three things: firstly, it does not have to be an either / or; secondly, activism has a key impact on policy, for example the popularity of campaigns like UK Uncut in opposing tax avoidance has helped shape policy; thirdly, as left events go, this one was very much centred on policy alternatives on a range of fronts, but it is equally true that there are too few comrades with an eye for detail dogged pushing this through the Party structures, perhaps because in the past we see programmatic gains ripped up all too quickly once the Party takes office. The feedback I have had from this event was overwhelmingly positive and I hope that a more long-term regroupment of the Labour left might develop from it – we certainly need one.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Did I give the impression that I thought that movement-building and policy work is an either/or choice? That is certainly not what I think. I agree that the two must always go together. My concern about this meeting was precisely that it failed to connect the two. The Labour Party has policies and the connection between movement and policy should start with activists presenting a clear critique of those policies to both reveal their weaknesses and to point the movement in a more radical direction. Making alternative proposals without analysing existing policies is bound to lack traction with people who are inclined to think that those policies are broadly going in the right sense.

  4. Mhairi says:

    This is a very interesting article, and I’m sure that there is a lot to learn here: but one or two things raise unanswered questions for me. Most pertinently, beyond being more informed (which I couldn’t agree with more – I subscribe to Progress to keep an eye on what’s going on as it goes – its common sense) there has to be more to this transition to ‘serious politics’, if I am reading this right, so what are the possible solutions, then?

    1. David Pavett says:

      Good question. There can be no solution to the large-scale problems of UK politics which is based on more or less random meetings which leave little trace outside of those who are able to attend them. A permanent organisation is required which will develop detailed analyses and policy based on those analyses and which subjects its own proposals to constant examination and revision. The question is whether the Labour Party can conceivably become such an organisation or, failing that, whether an organisation within it can play that role (as Progress does for the right) or whether a new political party is required (as has been found necessary in Greece and Spain)? That is something all of us on the left need to discuss in as non-sectarian a way as possible.

      1. Robert says:

        It will be difficult because the left within labour is now small, look at Wales we have four areas of selection for new MP’s coming up. Progress had put forward a Progress candidate within all three areas, money will be pumped in so I’ve no doubt they will win, the Unions cannot now put up a counter candidate that was the deal done to allow Unions to stay within labour.

        we are seeing the right wing Progress group actually mounting a take over of the party.

        Progress is a right wing group which is a Blair-rite faction and with the money the power it has, how long before they actually mount a silent take over.

  5. events, (Dear Boy, as Harold MacMillan once said) are decisive and are about to kick in. The Left has no theory and no base in the population, but this will not last much longer. Nicola Sturgeon said on Radio 4 this morning the SNP would not prop up a Labour coalition committed to austerity. Outflanking New Labour to the left again, she has exposed the Achilles heel of the Project.

    David is quite right that the Project has been based on a very acute strategy and tight organization, and for a small bunch of people New Labour has done remarkably well with some initial electoral success. But that is long since gone – Bogdanor in Prospect says it was gone by 2001 – and they are now out of touch with the population.

    While the SNP are showing the strategic sense that New Labour lost under late Blairism, they too are exposed. They cannot carry their strategy if there is a UK wide anti austerity movement which the polls indicate is out there.
    Question is now whether a Britain Rejects Austerity movement like the anti Poll tax movement can emerge, but without the riots. After the election one of two possibilities will happen. Miliband will reject austerity, or he will lead Labour into a Grand Coalition. Either way, the opening now exists for a Britain REjects Austerity Movement.

    Whether this can come from the left is an open question. But as Gramsci said, every crisis is a possibility and with a PASOK style Labour party fumbling its lines, the Party is not the only show in town. Certainly it has to get into Number 10. After that, the game moves into the communities and thinking of ordinary people. Who connects with them will seize the moment.

    Trevor Fisher.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I broadly agree. I heard the Sturgeon interview. It was really striking how easy the Labour Party has made it for her to snipe at it from an apparently left position.

      Yes, the conditions for a successful anti-austerity movement are rapidly forming. What is required is effective leadership for such a movement. It is not going to come from the trade unions as was shown when they crapped on their own anti-austerity campaign at the July meeting of Labour’s NPF.

      I do not understand the idea that once in No.10 ‘the game moves to the communities …’. Any radical turn would face massive problems at both a national and international level. Dealing with local matters is one way of ‘thinking of ordinary people’ but so, properly approached, is dealing with national and international issues (e.g. like spending billions on Trident replacement).

  6. Peter Rowlands says:

    Sturgeon is pursuing the duplicitous path of her mentor that duped the Scottish left and now apparently Trevor and David. Their scenarios, uncharacteristically in David’s case, are incoherent, but that is basically because they have both written off Labour as incapable of moving against neo liberal austerity.
    If the Tories win, an anti austerity movement will develop, probably trade union led and possibly based on a left breakaway from Labour . If Labour wins, even in a coalition there is sufficient room for reflation of the economy and halting the cuts, which could isolate ‘Progress’ and allow Labour to make progress. It might all end in tears – the economies of Europe and the rest of the world are not in good shape. But we should remember that the success of Syriza and now Podemos only happened after years of an austerity far worse than anything experienced here so far, although the Tories threaten it if they win again.Whatever happens Labour’s role and that of the left within it will be decisive in the next two years.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I am unclear as to what I said that might have been the basis for Petter’s view that I have been duped by Sturgeon’s tactics. What I wrote was “It was really striking how easy the Labour Party has made it for her to snipe at it from an apparently left position”. I thought that the word “apparently” was sufficient to indicate that I am far from taking what she says at face value.

      As for what Labour would or wouldn’t do in government I suggest the following exercise: write down the names of everyone in the Shadow Cabinet, along with the their corresponding areas of responsibility. Then check on the views of each one of them (insofar as this is even possible, some of them have a very low profile). The results are not encouraging. I don’t doubt at all that there is room to reflate the economy. I have extreme doubts as to whether the present Labour leadership could be brought to question its own deeply entrenched neo-liberal assumptions sufficiently to face the challenges that would be put in the way of any attempt to take a radical path. Just consider the question of inequality. The word “inequality” has returned to Labour rhetoric after disappearing in the Blair years. But what does it mean? As soon as you try to go from rhetoric to the corresponding reality the links are missing. Would Labour change the tidal movement towards the concentration of economic power in the hands of a tiny minority? I don’t see any sign of that.

      I am not duped by Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric but I am not taken in by Labour’s rhetoric either.

      Finally, I hope that any anti-austerity movement that might develop is not led by the trade unions which. It needs political leadership. The trade unions should play a part by they have demonstrated their political unreliability by voting down anti-austerity views at Labour’s National Policy Forum.

  7. Peter Rowlands says:

    Fair comment on Sturgeon. Labour is divided at all levels, but the Blairites are less strong than two years ago and Progress were wiped out in the NEC elections.
    The trade unions obviously did a deal to not contest austerity at the conference, but they have developed an anti austerity position and post election will probably push it. If not, and you have written off the Labour Party, who is going to provide political leadership? Respect, Left Unity, the SWP, the Greens? I doubt it.Whether Labour in office can pursue the policies needed remains to be seen, but their role will be decisive.

    1. Robert says:

      I think Progress is still the power within labour and the left is now the SNP whether it’s real or not, it’s more real then labour’s offer.

      We have always had leaders who went to the center but they tool most people with them today all you get is we are the party of working people it’s in the name, Miliband is the weakest leader I’ve seen in my life time.

      calling the SNP names when you have somebody like Murphy now offering a center left ideology but you know it all bull he’s a Blair-rite progress right winger.

      I do not think labour will win the next election, I do think the Tories will, not by much granted but I do think the people see Cameron as a better leader then Miliband

    2. David Pavett says:

      @Peter.

      The personalisation (‘Blairite’) can be unhelpful. The question is Labour today (1) less beholden to the neo-liberal mindset or (2) in any way more connected with anti-capitalist traditions than under the last Labour Governments? The answer seems to me to be clearly “no” in both cases. In fact, I suggest that the abandonment of any sort of critique of capitalism is now so complete in the Labour Party that questioning capitalist society would sound distinctly odd. Labour conceptual horizons are entirely limited by the objective of “responsible capitalism”.

      Of course there is the rhetoric against excessive inequality and against rich exploiters is there, but we should remember that such rhetoric unaccompanied by a critique of capitalism, has some pretty unsavoury precedents.

      If the NEC has turned to the left then what impact has this had on Labour Policy? What do you imagine may be the consequence of this turn in the next year or in the next five years? How do you think it will play in the writing of the next election manifesto? Where are the policy analyses emanating from the NEC? I follow education pretty closely and I can only say that I can see no NEC impact whatsoever on Labour’s failure to provide an alternative to the fragmentation of our school system into state-funded independent schools of a number of different forms engineered by Gove (on the basis of innovations of the previous Labour governments).

      It is time for the left to stop hoping that political leadership will come from the trade unions. Trade unions have a central function of looking after the working conditions and wages of their members. This clearly brings them into the political sphere on a number of counts but it does not provide them with a basis for political leadership and that is why they have always been unreliable, at best, in that regard. As I already said, it was the trade unions that crapped on their own anti-austerity stance at the July NPF.

      Let’s be honest about this. The political side of trade union activity is of interest only to a tiny fraction of the union membership, often organised in more or less sectarian cliques. Is this the way we should want a mass party to determine its policies. I am very keen to see trade unions grow again. I believe that they are of fundamental importance to democracy but the hope of many on the left that they will be the source of political leadership is an expression of the weakness of the left and its inability to imagine ways in which a genuine political leadership can be developed. That leadership will have to be organised at a directly political level. The Left Platform meeting was an effort to do this but fell far short of such an objective for the reasons I explained above. But at least it was an attempt and now we need to reflect on that and propose how it could be improved (which I also tried to do).

      You say that “it remains to be seen” if Labour in office can “pursue the policies needed”. I suggest that even a quick perusal of the Shadow Cabinet will demonstrate that it is already clear that Labour will not do this. What kind of turn-around from the current line-up is conceivable before May 2015? The question only has to be asked …

      P.S. I think that the hallowed tradition of trying to change Labour by electing left-wing slates which are based on little more than a general left disposition (i.e. with virtually no analytical or policy basis apart from a few headlines) has proved its ineffectiveness. The recent election stance of the left in the leadership challenge for the leadership of Scottish Labour was a classic example of this. The anti-theoretical and empiricist traditions of the British Labour movement are a dead weight which will continue to hold us back until it is overcome.

  8. Peter Rowlands says:

    To briefly respond:
    The 2007-8 crisis meant that Blairism, which was dominant before, lost that but remains powerful. The party is divided.
    The NEC. Some, see Ann Black’s reports, but agreed little likely until the power of the NEC is enhanced.
    The trade unions. It is not a question of elevating them, it is just that some of their leaders are able left wingers who have helped to develop serious critiques of austerity, and should have a part to play, but first we have to win the election!

    1. David Pavett says:

      Also briefly.
      The idea that capitalism is the only game in town + a batch of neo-liberal concepts is as deeply entrenched as ever.
      Where is the proposal to put give the NEC real control?
      Being dependent on a few “able left wingers” at the head of TUs is no basis for a political movement.
      TU Keynesian recipes do not amount to a serious critique.

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