Pam Currie reports on the Convention of the Left that took place in Manchester in September.
Manchester played host to two very different political conventions in September 2008. Visitors to the city could not help but notice the Labour Party Conference - most of the city centre was sealed off, complete with metal detectors and armed police, to ensure that the GMEX gathering went smoothly. Across the road in the Friends’ Meeting House, however, was a smaller but far more interesting, energetic and political function – the Convention of the Left.
Convention of the Left was organised by socialists and environmentalists in Greater Manchester; some aligned with existing Left groups, some not. The Convention was ambitious, creating a week-long space for discussion and debate about the way forward for the Left, around four themes of ‘politics’, ‘people’, ‘planet’ and ‘peace’. Sessions, held mainly in the Friends’ Meeting House and the Mechanics Institute, were as participatory as the crowded rooms would allow – the weekend sessions attracting several hundred participants, many of whom were also able to stay on for all or part of the week.
The weekend got off to a promising start with a noisy, colourful Stop the War march through Manchester city centre, several thousand strong. While the banners on the march suggested a predominantly local, North-West turnout, the Convention itself had drawn activists from across the UK. The Convention opened on the Saturday afternoon with the question ‘What unites us?’, sparking discussion on the relationship between the Left and the Labour Party, questions of whether Left regroupment was possible, and what form this might take.
While the Convention drew activists in numbers – including many who had become disillusioned with the factionalism and sectarianism of the Trotskyist Left – it became clear early on that there is a great deal of difference between bringing the Left together physically, and bringing the Left together politically. Many of the contributors felt the need to establish their particular brand of socialist credentials before speaking – and while it’s useful to know who people are, the delineations of the Left were clearly evident. Several groups – most notably the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (the CWI) – seemed to be participating somewhat grudgingly, maintaining their own agendas and making ‘interventions’ rather than entering into the spirit of regroupment and creating a genuine basis for unity.
The organised ‘revolutionary’ Left accounted for quite a number of contributions, yet when talking to activists between sessions it was clear that many, if not yet a majority, of those attending were ‘non-aligned’. The experience of the SSP in moving from the Scottish Socialist Alliance to a unified party was that this ‘non-aligned’ group, who quickly became the majority, were the life blood of successful regroupment. While they were at the Convention, their voices were not easily heard, and many were understandably distrustful of the organised groups.
Over the course of the weekend, this disparity was more obvious in some sessions than others; in the trade union session, for example, addressed, by Matt Wrack of the FBU and trade unionists from PCS and CWU, contributions from the floor came primarily from the organised Left, mostly arguing their ‘line’ in relation to trade union strategy. This session had been preceded, however, by a session on Women and Equality, with around 150 participants, where a wide-ranging discussion attracted several contributions from newer and non-aligned activists.
A number of the sessions attracted left wing Labour delegates, including MPs and MSPs, as well as local activists drawn in on particular issues, and this was the case with the SSP’s session on the political situation in Scotland – held on the Sunday night in the aptly-named Briton’s Protection pub – with a lively debate on the prospects for an independent socialist Scotland and the likely outcome of an independence referendum in the wake of the Glasgow East by-election. SSP members also contributed to sessions during the week on the break up of the UK, trade unionism and on free public transport, with Colin Fox addressing the closing plenary, ‘Question Time for the Left’.
The overall mood of the Convention, despite the belligerence of a minority of the groups involved, was positive, open and forward-looking. This attempt to regroup the Left is particularly interesting in the context of other recent Conferences and events in England, suggesting a resurgence in grassroots feminist activism as well as environmental activism; the Fem08 Conference in Sheffield attracted over 400 predominantly young women activists, and grassroots feminist groups have sprung up in London and other English cities in the last year or two, as they have in Glasgow and Edinburgh. These activists share a broadly anti-capitalist and radical outlook, and challenge the ‘top-down’ orders traditionally favoured by the Left in the UK – something which the Convention of the Left organisers have had to take on board, as we have in Scotland, and something which unsettles and challenges those who would seek to impose a ‘line’ and control a movement.
Reflecting on the Convention from the perspective of the SSP, and the difficult period that the Left in Scotland has experienced since 2006, it is clear that the problems facing us in Scotland are substantially different to those in England. While the Left in Scotland is once again divided, the SSP could not, even if we wanted to, split into the constituent parts which came together in the mid 1990s; the process of realignment and regroupment is too far advanced. Moreover, the events of the last few years have taken the party in a direction of democracy, accountability and participatory education and decision making which seems to be shared by the organisers of Convention of the Left, but which still presents a challenge to some of the groups which attended.
The Convention will meet again in January (a planned November recall meeting has had to be postponed), and SSP members plan to attend this meeting to offer our support, and to build fraternal links with comrades in England and further afield. The Convention of the Left offered an inspiring and exciting weekend which can contribute to discussions about the potential for future left regroupment in Scotland, and which offers hope of a more fruitful period ahead for the English Left.