Doing conferences differently

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Our conference has been and gone, but our commitment to a new kind of politics should be as strong as the fire from whence it came. It is great we have made it to our one year mark but the journey we set out on is far from complete, the masterpiece we are carving out on the political landscape still needs plenty of chiseling.

Ideally it will never be finished as the party adapts and changes along with the rest of society. We need to adapt to the challenges we face, discard what is useless while promoting that which is useful.

Politics needs to be open, it needs to be inclusive but most importantly, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. I could only attend Sunday and after being there for the first hour I felt like I wanted to walk out. It felt like a big waste of my time, and it shouldn’t be that way.

So how can we improve on our conference format? Where can we take our inspiration from? Podemos regardless of their politics held their conference in a football stadium with 20k people, with many more taking part online. We are calling for delegate conferences at 2000 members, is that the sum of our ambition and inventiveness?

We can implement these four things to improve our conferences:

  1. Conference should signal the start of a voting period which takes place online and via post.
  2. Greater use of social media i.e tweeting and facebook discussions so there is online participation
  3. Skype or video conference software in use to allow those watching online a way to interact with the conference
  4. A mechanism for internal referendums needs to come into existence

Conference should be where we have discussions, debates, workshops – a place to feel plugged into the wider LU machine. Debates it seems were rushed at times, large swathes of votes get pushed off the agenda. How we are doing things now is not only impractical in this day and age, it isn’t working.

If we were to have two day conferences which used multiple rooms and fulfilled multiple purposes, we could not only accomplish more, we would have a better experience.

As it stands conference exists for those with the funds, time and capability to participate. This creates less internal democracy, where we have the tyranny of the attendee and it just doesn’t have to be that way in the 21st century.

We are really starting to utilisize modern techniques of media, the website is coming on and the Facebook page is doing great. The more effective and inclusive we are at this during conference, the more people we can include in our debates.

This could be something as simple as a few words describing the topic we are currently discussing, or detailing a specific workshop. To more time consumed infographs, detailed information, pictures and videos.

The more people we can engage in our debates, whether they are members or not – the better they will be and to this end we should utilise video conferencing software. We have less spare time, but more things to do – we are overworked and should have the luxury of engaging with politics how we choose.

If you suffer from anxiety the conference atmosphere might not be for you, but why should you then be excluded from having a voice? If you are a single mother working two jobs, why should you then be excluded from having a voice? If you cannot get to the conference without physical support and are unable to get it, why then should you be excluded from having a political voice?

We have a great part in our constitution which allows us to have e-conferences on specific issues, this is great and needs to be expanded so there is a mechanism for members to call party-wide referendums.

This will ensure that if an important event takes place, we can react to it quickly and with the backing of the majority of the party. The greater power the membership can have over the decision making process, and more importantly the easier it is for us to wield that power, the more inclined we will be to do so.

We need to digest our politics how we digest everything else in the 21st century, that is at our convenience and quickly. Political participation needs to be brought dragging and screaming into the 21st century, and if we are to be doing politics differently, we need to be doing it with more than just words.

Left Unity Northampton: Yearly report

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Our year anniversary approaches and what a year it has been! A massive thank you is in order to everyone that has supported us this far. We are new to the Northampton political scene but we have been at its forefront, and we may still be finding our feet but it is safe to say we have had an impact.

In this article I will briefly mention some of the great things we have took part in, and how we are running as a branch of Left Unity, so that we can reflect on how far we have come and look at where we may be heading. Strictly speaking we have been running for over a year but we became a political party in November, some of the things mentioned will have took place beforehand.

We really hit the ground running in Northampton and things are really coming together and it just wouldn’t of been possible without the hard work and dedication of our members, approaching everything with enthusiasm and dedication week after week and while it has not all been plain sailing it is safe to say we have come along way.

The article shall be split into three sections, branch development, local and national as these are the three main areas of interest. Before I start however I think Bianca Todd deserves a massive shout out for all the hard work she has put in to Northampton branch and representing us on a national side as well, she has worked tirelessly for little reward this past year and a bit, so thank you Bianca!

Branch

Our branch meets on a weekly basis at the same place and on the same time, 7pm Cafe Del Sol and every Wednesday. It took us a while to find this format but it works well for us, as we get to keep each other up to date with any developments, react quickly to anything and can discuss what we would like to do, the majority of these meetings are more like a coffee with friends than a political party meeting.

Our meetings started off being less frequent and in the back room of a pub, which is all well and good if like me you enjoy a drink but we realised that this was not the most inviting of places for non-members, which led us to the cafe and it is working better.

We have been wrestling with how to make our meetings more inclusive and accessible, and to this end we have set up a Skype account. We text our members when ever we are meeting, on top of the standard e-mail, as well as provide lifts for people if getting there is a problem or the weather is a bit rubbish.

The most interesting thing for me at least, is we are not sticking to a rigid model, we are adapting as we grow, we are adapting as people come and join in, we are not looking for definite answers but are trying to shape our branch around the realities we are facing at any time, so if I had to sum it up in one word, I think our branch development has been flexible.

All in all we seem to have fell into a good groove, attendance figures go up and down as people are unable to attend every week, our rationale behind weekly meetings however is that if you go to a martial art class or a night class it will be every week.

There are some new and interesting developments coming out, we want to have a meeting in the day, as we believe night time meetings are excluding certain groups (single mothers), and we want to carry out a “ttt” – tea, toast and talk to remedy that.

On top of all this we also have a student society, the first in the country and this has helped give us a little bit of a headway into the student union, it has provided us with some funds which we sorely needed and means our branch is supported by a university contingent.

Local

Each local area is different so a little bit of info on shoe town needs to be said, Northampton doesn’t have any strong left wing groups, meaning there is a big gap for a political party like Left Unity to fill and we have been busy trying to fill it. We are very big on localism in Northampton and are doing everything we can to lay the foundations for a strong and active left wing political movement within the town.

We have taken part in national protests but instead of heading to the big ones, we have held our own little ones, we have taken part in local campaigns and will be standing a few local councillors, as well as supporting strikers as when needed. We have regularly featured in the local rags and Bianca now has her very own blog on one of their websites.

In terms of actions, we have led some, while taking part in others. We organised the national Atos Demo’s I and II, as well as #BootOutBoots. We organised the 999 March for the NHS Northampton leg (with help from Left Unity Milton Keynes). We also held our own homesnotspikes protest against a shop that uses them in our town. We also took part in the Bedroom Tax Sleepout and the bedroom tax demo.

On top of that we have been active with the People’s Assembly and Reclaim NHS, as well as supporting the Fbu strikes, the pathologists #lockedout and national strike action. Finally we supported the campaign for independent pcc and had a LU stall at freshers fair, these are the traditional work we have engaged in with the town and as you can see we have been fairly busy.

I’m pretty certain there are things I have forgotten as well, It seems that a month doesn’t go by where we haven’t took part in some form of local action or held some event.

We have been trying to think of more fun and inventive ways to engage the town and carry out politics in a new and exciting way, one of our most successful actions being a thing called BooksWithBenefits. We handed out free books to the public, while chatting to them about politics and publicised anti-cuts meetings while doing so.

We have took the approach locally to carry out solidarity actions with those fighting cuts, one of these was going around the town and handing out food to some of our homeless people, as we feel we should not be talking about ourselves about these issues but be on the streets where it matters most.

Finally we have begun a monthly speakerscafe, where we invite people to come and have a chat with us one week about a certain topic and depending on the issue being raised can be fairly successful.

National

It is a wonder with how busy we are at a local level how we have any time to do the same nationally, and again Bianca has been tireless on this front. I don’t think a month has gone by where she hasn’t had to travel to this place or that, and a day hasn’t gone by where she hasn’t had to either give an interview over the phone or speak to this person or that.

This is on top of regular attendance to the standard NC and EC meetings, so on a national front Bianca has been our main champion but she hasn’t been our only one! Jade who recently moved to Abu Dhabi was an integral member of the womans caucus, while I was instrumental in the formation of the youth caucus. We have also taken part in a few of the national rallies in London, as well as People’s Assembly meetings.

Jade travelled to My Belly Is Mine demo and various woman caucus’s meetings, as well as representing them on the NC and EC, with the great work she was doing it was a loss for us when she left to pastures anew. We travelled to support the Birmingham Occupation, where Bianca gave a talk, which can be found online.

We also attended the Homes Not Spikes protest outside of Tesco, which successful saw the removal of the spikes. On top of this we have attended various festivals around the country, and Bianca got down to support the Focus15 Mothers. On top of organising the 999 March in Northampton, we met them in London and carried the NHS banner through central London.

We attended conference, founding and 1 year on and are always keeping an eye out for new national protests which grab our attention, but local comes first.

Looking to the future….

We are always learning and adapting to how we can change and grow to be more inclusive and how we can improve the party, the movement and our branch. Looking for new ideas and new opportunities, I think the over riding philosophy of the branch is solidarity not charity, in that we want to help people who are struggling with their lives and believe fundamentally that this is how the movement will grow in our town and beyond.

We have set up a Skype account so people unable to attend our meetings and events can take part, this has been a big hit with parents unable to get child care and has allowed greater level of participation.

We still have quite a lot of areas of improvement, and are standing a few councillors in the local elections but all in all it has been a positive year, and if we continue like we have been doing this next one will be to. Things are coming together slowly, but steadily.

Thanks once again for everyone that has made it possible, lets make 2015 be our year. We are also looking to support our comrades on a regional level in any way possible, so that we can have a strong and active region of friends and comrades.

All power to the regions!

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The Left Unity project is as ambitious as they come, a work in progress that will never be completed as long as there are those willing to fight for a new kind of politics. Our party is attempting to do away with the outdated and the archaic defunct structures of the past, structures which ultimately have existed to keep power in the hands of a few while at the same time robbing it from the many. In this past year we have come along way, we have had many ups and downs but the relentless assault on the people continues, regardless of what we do and in that vein we shall continue marching on! We can only operate on trial and error, if we wait for the perfect party or the perfect structure or the perfect time, then we will be waiting in vain.

Our greatest strength are the people, it is how we organise on the ground which is key to our success, and this is why it is my belief we should be doing everything possible to empower our existing organisation and expanding our structures to accommodate a bottom up power model. These things do exist in some capacity, but as with all things they can always be improved, as we are attempting to create an atmosphere where a social movement can spring up much in the vein of Greece and Spain we should be doing everything possible to achieve this. Within the article I will discuss how we can empower regions and branches so that we are more accountability and doing politics in a less hierarchical and thus in a more open way.

Here are a list of suggestions

  • One principal speaker per region (elected by that region)
  • Region specific policy making
  • policies which are detrimental to a region or branch can be adapted or in some cases removed from that specific region/branch (regional veto)
  • Disputes handled at regional level, appeal handled at national
  • Regional NC reps being from throughout the region (no branch concentration of power)
  • Remove all form of delegate based conferences and meetings
  • Conference and regional votes should follow direct democracy with region and nation (end to the tyranny of the attendee, party-wide referendums)
  • Branches have further autonomy enshrined in the constitution

Some of these things are a lot easier to implement than others, and arguably some exist in theory or on paper, but have yet to be implemented. It is my belief that Left Unity national should exist as a mediator, facilitator and promoter for regional and branch development, as we work at building a network which forms our national identity. If we are to have any hope of creating a mass movement, it is imperative it comes from below, the top down approach has failed many a time, and it is my concern we are in danger of sliding back into the traditional methods of organisation which have a proven record of failure. Our main aim should be giving the tools to party members and the public to shape our party as they see fit.

We need to bolster and improve regional powers so that there is more accountability, more variety and ultimately more power in the hands of members. We want an environment which promotes participation and interest through having an atmosphere where people, their actions and their beliefs actually matter, where they have an impact. These things have been lacking from mainstream politics and unless we start looking at ways to engage, people will switch off with us too. Hence region specific policy making, regional principal speakers, regional veto and regional disputes as all these measures can act as the fertilizer for a more robust political party and in turn movement. We are trying to reshape society, we cannot do that if we cannot reshape ourselves.

Regional NC Representation at present can be concentrated into one branch, regional reps should be representative of the region and not only a single or a select few branches. This ensures regular communication and co-operation between regional areas but it protects against a single branch representing a region in an unaccountable fashion. We have a pretty autonomous branch structure as it stands, the worrying part however is a lack of branch rights included in the constitution. Just what, how and when can our branch act, what rights do we have in case of disputes? I think how we have it at the moment in terms of branch autonomy is pretty good, but we need to be enshrining it in the constitution and working out how we can ensure branch autonomy is here to stay, how national can support it and where we can improve it.

Delegate conferences are a thing of the past, we should be looking at how Podemos conducted their conference and seek to emulate that. This means internet participation and utilizing all forms of technology available to us, but more than that it means an end to the tyranny of the attendee – why should the pressure be on members to get themselves to this place or that when voting can be done online? We need to be as accessible and as open as possible, this means accommodating people and their busy stress filled lives. Fact is if you’re a single mother living in York it is going to be very difficult for you to attend something taking place in London. All members votes are equal, that single mothers vote is worth just as much as someone who lives there and can attend easily. Our party does not represent its members views if the majority of them cannot vote on our policies.

To conclude the kind of party we should be building is one that is adaptable, varied, representative, accountable to the lowest level and one that empowers all its members. In my opinion the best way to achieve that is to empower structures like the regional assembles and branches so that we can improve the bottom-up model we are trying to build. This should not end there and should include conferences, members from all over the country should be included and we should be looking at ways to be as inclusive as we possibly can. The debate on what kind of party we are building should never end, we should never stop looking at how we can improve what we have and how we can empower people, because our party like the universe is always in motion. When we have groups like Podemos, Occupy and Anon who have radically different approaches for our inspiration, there is just no excuse.

Members over Money

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A new kind of politics and doing politics differently, two slogans we have been using within Left Unity, but as the saying goes: actions speak louder than words. In Left Unity Northampton we put a motion to the NC for allowing free membership to young people and homeless people, this is only just the beginning as we believe we need to radically change how we interact with the wider public. We are attempting to build a party that is for the downtrodden, that is run by the oppressed and we are trying to do that during hard economic times, where the people are suffering untold amounts. Ultimately If your benefit gets sanctioned, do you want the added stress of party contributions? Within this article I am going to explain why the kind of party we need has to change how members contribute if we are going to have long lasting success. The benefits of having a more inclusive membership process is self evident, more people will be open to committing time and energy to the party if they do not have to submit to a monetary commitment right off the bat, people who are weary of politics will be able to dip their toe in the water and membership will inevitable rise.

Austerity Britain, a slogan we hear on a daily basis, while we recognise that there is money available because the rich continue to grow their wealth off the hardships of the poor, the suffering of the people is something however which is very real. Money is tight for us all and as a party we should not be adding to the financial burdens of our members, we should not be putting pressure or in some cases shame on them in the form of monetary obligations. Members are not cash cows to be milked for the expenses of the party, this way of thinking belongs in the 20th century, it is not a new kind of politics. Ultimately the party we want to build will be choc-a-block full of the oppressed masses, why should they give up the limited amount of money they have in order to pay fees for an organisation where they get nothing in return. Do we feed or cloth our members, do we provide them with shelter, electricity, gas? All these things are far more important to someone struggling to get by than paying a membership fee, however these people unable to financially commit still deserve a political voice.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” is a saying that needs no introduction to the majority of the left, well how about we have: “from each according to his circumstance, to each according to his contribution.” Take Podemos for example, a party which in a short space of time has reached out to hundreds of thousands of people. Podemos has no membership fees at all, it crowdfunds for the money it needs and all receipts are made public. While I am not suggesting this is why they have grew so fast and so quickly, I believe it is however a factor. We are asking people to give us something for nothing, this is in a climate where people don’t have a lot to give, but even worse than that, it is in a climate where politics is a dirty word. We need to break out of this two dimensional way of thinking, where money Is more important than peoples time, dedication and commitment. If we want a party which is inclusive and accessible to the largest amount of people in the country, then we need to value and welcome them with open arms and say your contribution matters much more than the change in your back pocket.

A party however much like an army, marches on its stomach. We need money if we are to have shiny meeting areas, challenge elections and fight it out with the big boys, but money isn’t our only resource and arguably not even our most important, that would be people. Membership fees are not the only way to raise funds, there are an untold amount of ways to raise money and the only limit to how we get revenue is our imagination. We could crowdfund like Podemos, which seems to be working fine for them. We could say to members they can contribute whatever they can in a more voluntary system, or operate off of donations alone, paying as and when able. Branches could be charged an operating fee, instead of the contribution falling on individuals. We could also operate using traditional fundraising methods. Each one of these has pros and cons, and the suggestions are by no means extensive, we could even just tweak our current membership rules to exempt certain groups of people. The more inventive the way we can be inclusive and still operate effectively, the better and the only thing stopping us is the limit of the debate we have.

State of the enslaved

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We look to states steeped in sacrifice
built with the blood of countless millions
we look to them for our security
if you ask me that is utter lunacy

All that they protect is our suffering
while enforcing our inequality
all that they protect is their own interests
remember kids they know best

If I’m free why am i bound in servitude
enslaved to the kings of cash
If I’m free why am i locked in routine
our future is foreseen

Our shouts are seen in the silence
We doth protest too much!
Our shouts are met with violence
In this land of surveillance

Left Unity: In Principle & In Practice

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Left Unity was and still is a very ambitious initiative which sought to not only unite various strands of the left but to spread the left message to the massive chunk of people not engaging with the left, or politics in general. We have had some degree of success in this regard, bringing in members from ex-Labour, the far left, and general activists. What do we do now to move the project of Left Unity forward, where do we go from here?

As it stands presently Left Unity has members who are involved in other political projects and other political organisations, these people have put their toe into the water but have yet to take the plunge. We should be looking at why, and how we can assimilate not only them, but their organisations within our ranks. This is imperative not only for the success of Left Unity but for the success of the left in general.

The system we have in place now was fine prior to our becoming a party and standing in elections, but the organisation has moved forward, we cannot have such an overlap between groups, not only is it confusing but it leaves Left Unity open to infiltration and a situation could arise where we are left with mud on our face, we can be brought into disrepute. At the moment groups can freely take part in Left Unity, with all the benefits going to their organisation but what do we get in return? Absolutely nothing.

There are various ways how we can remedy this situation, I will list them here before going into more detail, these are:

  • LU can open up talks with organisations and groups to discuss what we can get out of allowing their members to organise within our ranks.
  • We can expand on our internal structure to allow these groups to come within the Left Unity structure and operate officially as extensions of Left Unity, in a similar fashion to tendencies.
  • These groups can become amalgamated into Left Unity ceasing to exist.
  • Becoming a member of Left Unity means members have to renounce membership to previous groups/organisations

As a member of Left Unity and only Left Unity, I feel like our internal democracy can be subverted by outside organisations who can all lump together to impose their organisations will on our organisation. As a member of Left Unity, I have no say, or knowledge of what their organisation gets up to, yet they know everything about us. Even worse than this, as a member I have no say over what organisations can do this, there is no policy in place to ensure this process is two way. At the moment we are giving everything, and getting nothing in return, that is why we could open up talks with the groups involved with Left Unity and work at how they can organise within our party, and how the membership can hold these organisations and their representatives within Left Unity to account. This could range from something as simple as a democratically agreed list of “affiliate organisations” to something much more in depth.

As it stands we have a very rudimentary way to allow groups to form within the party in the form of tendencies, we could expand on this structure so that pre-existing groups can become part of Left Unity, retaining most of their individual identity. This can improve our internal democracy, it means that members of various organisations can be held accountable to the membership of Left Unity, it ensures that we cannot be put into disrepute by groups of people who are part of this group and that organisation. It will also promote lively debate within Left Unity, as various tendencies operate officially within our structure to promote their views, instead of doing this from the outside and from within. We could accommodate them expanding what rights tendencies have, fleshing out how they operate within the party while promoting healthy democratic debate.

Amalgamating the various organisations of those involved would be something similar to what historically happened to the Labour party, and would definitely make the left a lot stronger than it is. At the moment we are like a hundred people all pulling in different directions, if we united under one organisation, we would be one hundred people pulling in the same direction. However Left Unity are still the new kids on the block and how successful we are going to be is still being decided by the jury, one thing is for certain we will be as successful as those committed to Left Unity make us. There is that age old workers maxim, unity is strength and this holds as true today as it did one hundred years ago, the left is in a mess because of its disunity, Left Unity exists to remedy that. Everyone involved must want some form of left unity, or at least recognise the need for it.

Making members renounce political affiliation to other organisations, would cause a lot of work for Left Unity. First and foremost our membership would drop slightly, secondly we would come under attack by these organisations. All of which will distract us from our real concerns, fighting capitalism and helping those feel its effects. However it isn’t all negative, it would ensure that the people left are committed to Left Unity and Left Unity alone, we would be free from internal distractions brought about through various outside influences, and we would all be working towards the improvement and betterment of Left Unity. This would therefore empower the membership who are left to have full control over the organisation, the only problem would be just how many activists we lose and the danger of LU falling into the trap of sectarianism.

What path Left Unity should take, I am not one hundred percent sure, one thing is for certain though this debate needs to be had, and it needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. We are leaving ourselves open to attack from within and while this may not be a massive problem at the moment, as we grow it will become a much bigger possibility. We need people who are taking Left Unity seriously, and are committed to the project wholeheartedly, we need to work at improving our grassroots structure and our democracy, empowering the membership to take Left Unity on the journey they want it to. It is very bizarre that we can have people not involved with Left Unity at all, in a completely separate organisation influencing our policy through having their members in this position, or voting on that motion. In the long run this leaves us as members completely powerless over our own destinies. The first step in finding a resolution to this, is Left Unity having this debate and discussing what kind of party we truly want this to be. We can hold a meeting with all these organisations, get their input, get your input as a member, this is our party, lets ensure it succeeds.

Land of Hope and Misery

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There aint no great in Britain any more
but what was great about Britain?
Because I have my doubts

Was Britain great when it hungered for war and blood
instead of spreading peace and love?

Was Britain great when we had ladies and lords
when we were stopped by the sword?

Was Britain great when we used concentration camps
killing over 30,000 people?

Was Britain great when we brought and sold human life
enslaving whole nations at the point of a knife?

Was Britain great when it turned its guns on its own people
hungry and desperate for a fair deal?

Was Britain great when the majority of its people were poor
struggling to survive?

Was Britain great when surviving childhood was an achievement
with child labour being the norm?

Was Britain great when it worked its people’s fingers
to their bone?

Was Britain great in Northern Ireland where we
brought destitution to a whole nation?

Was Britain great when we killed and killed
all for the sake of the rich mans greed?

Was Britain great in Africa, India, China and beyond
when it murdered all who didn’t dance to their song?

Was Britain great when it drew lines on a map
that from past until present make war instead of peace?

Was Britain great when it was a racist nation
that spread fear and hatred?

Was Britain great when Alan Turing was persecuted
because he preferred men to having a wife?

Was Britain great under a Thatcher government
that destroyed our industry and community too?

So next time you repeat those hollow words with your
hand on your heart,
remember your history, remember it right from the start
for people like me and you have struggled with each day anew
We have never had it easy that has been a luxury reserved for a few
They may lie and sing Britain was once great
but you have to ask yourself great for who?

I will let you in on a little secret
It was never great for me or for you