Report of FBU-sponsored “Unite the Left” rally

By Mohan Sen

500 people attended the 15 May rally under the slogan “Unite the Left: for a democratic and socialist Labour Party”, organised by the Fire Brigades Union.

The blurb said:

“Discussions will explore big issues for the left post-COVID-19 including workplace democracy, the role of public services, the transition to a socialist green economy, political education and democratic reforms within the Labour Party, as well as socialist and internationalist foreign policy… The time has come for the Labour left to unite around a modern, socialist policy agenda.”

Well done to the FBU for organising the event and bringing so many people together. The general political tone was left-wing, a lot of good things were said, and hopefully it provided people with inspiration and encouragement as well launching a process of discussion and debate.

I don’t know if further “Unite the Left” events are planned (it would be good), but from the point of taking this process further, here are some comments and suggestions, both positive and critical.

Discussion and debate

Firstly, the absence of discussion. There were eleven speakers (list below), plus intermittent comment from FBU General Secretary and meeting chair Matt Wrack, plus music and a few remarks from Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers. It would have been better to have fewer speakers and some opportunity for questions and contributions. In addition, the chat function was disabled so attendees couldn’t post comments and interact with each other.

Socialist policies

Secondly, in terms of a socialist policy agenda, things were kept much vaguer than they should have been – with some exceptions discussed below.

All the speakers were generically left-wing but many of them included few specific ideas or policies or proposals, some of them virtually none. A lot of what was said sounded pretty good but when you broke it down there was relatively little content.

I’m not saying there had to be a single unified, clear, detailed agenda which all the speakers pushed. I’m saying that more advocacy of specific ideas and policies, as opposed to generally left-wing rhetoric, would have helped progress the discussion that is needed further.

Without that the “vision for a socialist future” which publicity for the event talked about will remain inadequate.

John McDonnell argued that “the pandemic has demonstrated the solutions we need are radical. People have seen we need radical change”; and that “we need an alternative vision of the sort of society we want to create post-pandemic, as well as ideas for the next general election”. But he said nothing, really, about what that vision or those ideas should be.

Importantly, Claudia Webbe emphasised migrants’ rights, including the demand to close detention centres. Ian Hodson talked about the pro-migrants’ rights, pro-free movement policy passed at Labour conference last year and called for it to be implemented. (Bell Ribeiro-Addy, previously Shadow Minister for Immigration, may also have talked about migrants’ rights – unfortunately I had to step out just as she started speaking and missed her.)

NEC Young Labour rep Lara McNeill called for “all parts of the health system, from pharmaceuticals, to training and educating staff, to social care” to be publicly owned and provided, and for a determined fight for a public national care system.

I thought the best speech was from Sophie Wilson, an FBU member in Sheffield who stood as the Labour candidate in Rother Valley last year. Sophie said:

“The left needs to get organised and unite on policy. We as a left need to get much better at talking about, exploring and organising for policy. Running candidates inside the Labour Party is important, but the key thing is to win radical policies, campaign for them and make them popular among working-class people.”

That is, of course, similar to what The Clarion has been arguing and trying to practice (on the anti-union laws and other issues) since we began in 2016.

In particular Sophie talked about housing policy, which is her main campaigning work, and Labour’s growing weaknesses on it. She called for, among other things, the cancellation of rents and a ban on evictions during the crisis. Matt Wrack talked about the need for a big council house-building program.

The FBU has been central to pushing various radical policies in the labour movement and Labour Party – from repealing all anti-union laws to public ownership of the banks to a wider Socialist Green New Deal. However, I felt that agenda was not promoted very well at the rally. Both Matt Wrack and FBU President Ian Murray kept things pretty general.

For instance, Matt talked about “restoring trade union rights”, “the centrality of workers’ rights” and so on several times. Why not be clear about repealing all the anti-trade union laws and establishing a strong right to strike, as Matt has been elsewhere and in line with the policy the FBU has helped win at Labour conference – particularly when we know much of the Labour left has been so unclear and reticent about this?

There was a lot of talk from various people about the Green New Deal, but relatively little about its actual content, either in terms of what we’ve passed at Labour conference or what the FBU and others proposed to it.

Obviously a rally like this couldn’t go into everything in lots of detail, but that seems to me a different argument. I hope future events will explore policy more sharply and concretely.

Democracy, socialism, class

There was talk about democratising the party, but again few specifics beyond mention of open parliamentary selections. Matt did mention wanting radical policies passed by conference to be carried out, but this crucial point was not developed.

John McDonnell admitted the Corbyn regime became “a bit bureaucratised” but argued this was because “we couldn’t built a rank-and-file movement quickly enough to keep up”. There may be some truth to that, but it also seems a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that the Corbyn leadership never did much to push for structural democratisation, and even less for rank-and-file control.

Lara McNeill claimed that Young Labour is a beacon in the party, but that she didn’t have time to explain why. In fact Young Labour is a politically toxic, remarkably inactive shell of an organisation because of the way that she and her allies have run it since taking over, largely squandering the immense potential of the Corbyn surge to build a genuine democratic youth movement.

Ian Murray rightly argued that “not everything was rosy in the leadership’s garden” in terms of democracy, mentioning open selections, but didn’t take this point any further.

The missed opportunities for democratising the party are something the left needs to get to grips with.

The word socialism was used a fair amount but mainly in a way that confused it with more social democracy. (For an explanation of why this is wrong, from Matt Wrack in fact, see here.) Ian Hodson said that in the 2019 general election ten million people had voted for socialism. Ali Milani had the crudest version, saying: “We need a fairer and more equal society. And that is called socialism”.

However, there was some solid class politics and language from many of the speakers. There was a strong emphasis throughout the meeting on support for workers’ struggles and the central importance of trade unions in any meaningful political labour movement.

Sophie Wilson’s speech had a strong class message. Claudie Webbe quoted Bernie Sanders and said: “If there’s going to be a class war in this country, it’s about the time the working class own that war”.

Zarah Sultana talked about class very well and also got much closer to what socialism is:

“A society run by and for our class, in all its diversity. We need to build better than we did before, to put power in the hands of the working class. To win a future worthy of the working class after the crisis, we will need to ‘Build a new world from the ashes of the old’.”


Speakers (they weren’t in this order):

John McDonnell, Labour MP and former Shadow Chancellor
Laura Pidcock, former Labour MP for Durham North West
Ian Murray, FBU President and Labour NEC vice-chair
Zarah Sultana, Labour MP Coventry South
Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour MP for Streatham and co-chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs
Ali Milani, Labour Councillor and former Labour PPC for Uxbridge and South Ruislip
Sophie Wilson, Labour Councillor and former Labour PPC for Rother Valley
Claudia Webbe, Labour MP for Leicester East
Ian Hodson, BFAWU National President
Lauren Townsend, Labour for a Green New Deal
Lara McNeill, Labour Youth Representative NEC

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