Left Unity is an Opportunity Greens Can’t Afford to Ignore
By Josiah Mortimer
It’s a question many Greens are asking themselves – whether to put their names to the Left Unity project, the nascent party which has thus far seen nearly 10,000 people sign up in its first few months, a figure not all that far off Green Party 11,000 membership. It’s a choice that’s becoming all the more urgent given that Left Unity’s founding conference is coming up this November.
Although ‘it’s much easier to fill out a short form than it is to hit the streets week in week out campaigning’, as Salman Shaheen from the National Coordinating Group told me, the project’s rapid growth (with around 100 local groups set up already) is nonetheless both impressive and unprecedented in recent years. Yet so far it doesn’t seem like the Green Party has been too keen on engaging with the initiative, bar a few honourable exceptions like Sean Thompson’s and David Smith’s pieces on the Left Unity site here and here. Both are Green Left activists. So where’s the rest of the party?
Some Green responses to the project have been understandably annoyed at the emergence of a new force on the left, adding to the already frustrating alphabet soup that is Britain’s radical smorgasbord. ‘There’s no need for another party of the left. The most pressing need is instead to strengthen the largest left party – the Greens’, writes my University of York Green Party friend and comrade Nick Devlin. The Green Party ‘are showing in words and action that there already is a vibrant, radical force in Britain’. Deputy Leader Will Duckworth made similar remarks commenting on the Left Unity website.
The points are valid. And yet we’ve obviously failed to win the whole left over, as LU’s surprising rise, and the Greens’ still rather small size demonstrate. We don’t have a monopoly on the political truth, and though the largest ‘sect’ (in Thompson’s words) on the left, we have to face the fact that there are 57 other varieties of radical party, many of which are explicitly socialist, who haven’t joined the Greens en masse, and obviously for important reasons of their own – the betrayals of pro-austerity Green Parties in Europe, the perceived failure of the Greens to overtly define as socialist – and most of all perhaps, the Brighton debacle.
Yes, Brighton. The refuse worker dispute earlier this year, and the shambles that was the Green administration’s handling of it, had a fair few considering jumping ship to LU, including at least two members of national Green committees (others such as Young Green executive member Robert Eagleton had already flown the nest for Ken Loach’s project before the dispute broke out).
One of the founders of Left Unity itself is ex-Green James Youd, who quit the party in February 2012 over Brighton & Hove council voting for cuts. Brighton, therefore, is an issue that cannot be ignored, not just to stem the periodic flow of resignations, but because no one else on the left is ignoring it – indeed, the former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker chooses it as the core of his article ‘Just How Left Wing is the Green Party’.
But on the whole, within both the Greens and Left Unity, there seems to be growing support for mutual critical engagement. Such cooperation could prevent the ‘rightwards drift’ Green Parties in other countries have seen ‘when the whiff of government entry filled their noses’, one straw-poll respondent noted. ‘I don’t see what we have to lose’ writes Bright Green’s own Adam Ramsay. There’s widespread demand for a Portuguese or French-style electoral bloc, provided the party is firmly environmentalist. ‘Let them contest a few elections and see if they can match our vote in seats’. If they can, and they are willing to work on a friendly basis with the Greens, ‘we can give them valuable election organising help’. Otherwise, ‘I don’t want to risk activism time building a movement that will collapse in a few years when that time could be spent solidifying a local party’, a Young Greens national committee member wrote.
Though paid-up membership figures aren’t yet publicly known, it’s obvious that Left Unity already has ‘a significant number of activists building the soon-to-be party from the bottom up’, including several high profile figures such as RMT President Peter Pinkney. ‘We are committed to founding ourselves as a democratic one member one vote organisation’, says Salman Shaheen. As well as preventing any partisan takeovers, this offers a fresh start for a divided left. Shaheen himself is a former Green, and says there are ‘quite a few’ others like him in Left Unity. ‘For the most part I have only seen friendly words exchanged between Greens and Left Unity people. The Greens and Left Unity have a lot in common’ he tells me.
Let’s be clear. I think the Greens are the best chance those who oppose the current economic system have got, and the best chance for the planet. But with the serious possibly of a sizeable and pluralist eco-socialist party (environmentalism, alongside feminism in the wake of the SWP’s Comrade Delta scandal, has been stressed at every point) breaking through, we have to be a part of it, or at least cooperating with it, not least if we want to avoid having three or four radical candidates – TUSC, Respect, LU, Green and so on – standing against each other in every election. An electoral pact has to be on the cards, with the appropriate safeguards, and Greens need to be talking about this with (and within) Left Unity at both grassroots and executive levels. At the moment this isn’t happening, except for a few in Green Left turning up to the odd meeting.
With the ‘end of the beginning’ on the horizon – the 1,000-strong founding conference in November – it is not yet too late for Greens to engage with Left Unity. And although the party is already in talks with TUSC, no decisions about elections and pacts will be taken until after the November launch. Speaking personally however, Shaheen says he ‘sincerely hopes’ Left Unity and the Greens will be able to come to an electoral arrangement, along the lines of past Green/Respect cooperation – ‘I would not like to see Left Unity standing against Caroline Lucas’ and ‘would be strongly pushing for mutually beneficial electoral pacts as I think the Greens are our natural ally’ he says.
Greens need to engage with Left Unity, sooner rather than later, if we take coherently tackling austerity and free-market capitalism (or indeed capitalism more generally) seriously. This is a rare moment for unity that the left – including and especially the Greens if we are indeed the party of social justice – can’t afford to ignore. Natalie Bennett has spoken a lot about the need for a UK-version of Syriza, Greece’s anti-austerity coalition. Now’s our chance.
I’ll be signing up today, as a Green Party member hoping for a united eco-socialist movement in Britain. Go on. Join me.
@josiahmortimer is a student, writer and activist based in York.