Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

ULA: What kind of party do we need 2

with 7 comments

ULA: What kind of party do we need? 2

A guest post

It matters less what word is used to describe the ULA than that it is allowed become an organisation in its own right. There is no point falling out over whether to designate the organisation a ‘party’, an organisation, a network, a league, a bloc, an alliance, as long as it has sufficient political coherence and presence, pooled resources and coordinated activity.

Language does have its effect though, or its expressive power. For example to stay with the term ‘alliance’ could underpin a notion of the ULA as a coalition of existing organisations rather than a complete and transcendent force embodying a new politics, a new left, which people who have not been, or would not be, members of the founding organisations can identify with, work within and feel ownership and control of. It’s too soon after Bloomsday to lose our imaginative way with words. Or we could emulate broad formations elsewhere by avoiding organisational handles altogether and adopting general names like ‘Respect’ or simply ‘Die Linke’ (The Left).

The fin de siècle protest and anti-capitalist movements threw up new christening styles: Social Forums, Grassroot Gatherings, Real Democracy, The Indignant, Reclaiming Our Future. Even trade unions fused as ‘Unite’ or, a lamer name, ‘SIPTU’. One of the best generic, non jargonistic, signatures is ‘People Before Profit’. Can I in passing ask for consideration for a modest proposal? That even though ‘People Before Profit’ is identified with one particular current, that its great brand and message-bearing value not be lost, that it be incorporated in some way into a new name for the new organisation, maybe as a subheading, or slogan, beneath the main masthead, like ‘XXX: for people before profit’.

Besides terminology, if significant sections of the ULA are reticent about an immediate move up to a party it is not necessary to adopt the whole kit and caboodle of a political party. Some definite structural steps would suffice for the time being. The ULA should become, as widely promised, a membership organisation. That way each activist, especially those not in one of the founding organisations, can feel part of the new formation. That way the organisation receives a signal of commitment from each individual participant, all members are of equal stature and a certain structure and democratic order is established in which the rights and obligations of members and sections and the decision-making process is clear and predictable.

At the first regular meeting of the new Dublin Central group of the ULA it was a bit surreal to hear from members of political organisations quite sustained resistance to alacrity in getting even the people already around to take out membership. The argument was for openness and welcome for all. I do not see a contradiction between those virtues towards the novice and registered membership, and a definite register of members, for the many who are turning up to the ULA because they know full well and like what the ULA is. Some of these are re-activating old political hands. It can only raise a bemused eyebrow to hear folks who jump on prospective recruits ‘on the first date’ to offer membership, and a membership card, of their organisation plead for easy-going informality when it comes to the ULA. The ULA is a political organisation and not a campaign where large, loose activist gatherings of all possible supporters are only to encouraged. Actually even in a trade union the first act of organisation is often, and these days mainly, an urging to join the organisation; besides which if you want to get active in it you will not get as far as a general meeting without having membership. Maybe ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ by Jo Freeman, first published in 1970 and reprinted by our very own WSM in 2000 (http://struggle.ws/pdfs/tyranny.pdf ) should be added to our bibliography.

What goes for individuals goes for the basic units of the ULA be they called branches or groups. If not on Saturday then let’s hope the ULA decides soon that the groups that came out of the largely successful local public meetings establish themselves as branches. Members should belong to a branch if they are nearby. These branches should be both centres of activity and political development and of accountability and representation.  The members should know how and where the action is and where it’s decided. Branches should be registered as such. The proliferation of ULA candidates in the election produced mixed results (and no one has bothered to really discuss the overall outcome of  the ‘utterly butterly’ policy of spreading ourselves around) and may have been justified in some cases, but an accidental and disorientating effect accompanied it. Some PBPA candidates materialised where there had been no PBPA branches. It was a mystery where these pop-up PBPA branches came from or who picked the candidate and after a while you just accepted that anything could happen. If the ULA is to keep its recruits they will have to feel they have a handle on what is happening and a regular local structure through which they can influence other members. Two last things about branches; take minutes of meetings and circulate them to everyone; fix on a regular time and place for meetings.

Continuation of all decision making by a small steering group is not an option. It was, and may remain for a while, necessary given the need to reach consensus among the sometimes delicately related organisations in a pure alliance of parties but it cannot become the norm as, unfortunately, it was in the People Before Profit Alliance. As far as I am aware the PBPA has never held a national decision making conference since its foundation. The demotion of the projected post-election ULA Convention to a rallies and workshops Forum is disappointing though I have every confidence it will still move things along and that it’s a prelude to a full national conference.

It is not easy to fashion a structure which accommodates both affiliated organisations and individual non-aligned members. The acceptance that the ULA is really, or should really be, a party, even if by another name, would allow a membership of equal individuals who can organise themselves into platforms, factions, currents, tendencies or, again, whatever terminology is appropriate. That is working from a common base from the bottom up. But the ULA has not originated like that. It is an alliance of long established organisations and some of these will want to enter the new formation organisationally undiminished. The glory of the ULA is its diversity in unity, its support for those who differ to be allowed organise and criticise. But because of the strength of the founding organisations the weakness will be, by a strange twist, in the overarching structure, in the induction of new non-aligned activists and the erection of a new, visible, unitary and viable left alternative presence on the political stage, a presence which is the precise reason for initiation of the ULA.

The ULA has to develop a life of its own. A clear face to the outside world and an internal political life. A political identity and a political identification of its members with it. Which is not to start another perpetual structure which cannot be superseded when the times come. But that time is some time away and the need now is for a new left which will be – already is beginning to be – bigger than the sum of its parts.

A subsiding of the ULA’s initial impact has many causes besides organisational ones. Ireland is the one among the PIIGS that hasn’t barked (and that has to be the worst mixed metaphor you will see this month). No big protests and, on the contrary, there are indications the establishment are winning the arguments – and what energy ‘Morning Ireland’ and the ‘Irish Times’ are putting into it – to date. Better not put too much store in one opinion poll but Fine Gael going up by six points to 42%, while ‘independents and others’ drop four to 13% is not something we expected at this stage. It’s not just one poll either. A Red C poll at the end of May indicated that nearly two thirds of voters would support the two Government parties in an election. In it ‘independents and others’ also dropped to 13%. I did hear one comment at the Dublin Central ULA meeting that people were asking ‘where is the ULA?’. The ULA, or at least its TDs, have been very active indeed. But maybe too much of this activity has gone to highlight other entities besides the ULA as such. The separate groups have every right to their own activities but the investment of boundless energy in a campaign based on fairly generalised and mobilising politics (now anti IMF, now defending the JLCs) not unlike the ULA’s politics, at a tangent to the ULA and just when the ULA should be building a similar campaign in the aftermath of the election, does nothing for the profile and presence of the ULA. Enough already. Will there be voices raised on Saturday to plead that all this effort be brought into the ULA or an initiative more closely associated with the ULA itself.

The related question of a publication for the ULA is best left for another day.

A case of the productivity of combination over rivalry, and of politics preceding grassroots necessity , was the success of the trade union forum in Dublin on 7th May, now dubbed the Trade Union Activists Network and aiming for a major conference in October. This gathering was given impetus by the political gathering which was the ULA and was greatly helped by being a joint initiative by new allies. So it wasn’t seen, like many a predecessor,  as leaning on one leg or another of the left and therefore spurned by the rest.

The weakness at the ‘centre’ of the ULA rather than in the caucuses gives rise to a hard saying as difficult as that for the rich young man called to give up all things and follow Jesus: the founding organisations will have to self-limit themselves. We have to learn to disagree without falling out, to lose votes and still stay on, to be content to be in a minority, not to use a majority as force majeure, to train ourselves out of rivalry, one-upmanship, jostling and denunciation; learn to not always present a pre-cooked phalanx at meetings and to allow wide scope for free public speech even in the platforms and tendencies. And, indeed, if according to the Bolshevik principle (there goes Eddie Conlon’s bell again) marxists should maintain their political independence, is there a need for more than one independent platform or tendency of marxists in a combined formation of the ‘revolutionary’ and radical left?

Des Derwin

Written by tomasoflatharta

June 22, 2011 at 2:54 am

7 Responses

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  1. […] tomasoflatharta.com/2011/06/22/ula-what-kind-of-party-do-we-need-2/ […]

  2. Of interest might be my report of the recent Cork branch of the ULA where the two constituent groups unfortunately combined to squash any attempt to move beyond a very formal view of the structures appropriate to an alliance – http://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/%E2%80%9Cthe-ula-is-not-an-organisation%E2%80%9D-says-sp-leader/

    Also there is an initiative by another ULA independent to set up an email list for independents/non-aligned ULA members – http://weareragbags.wordpress.com/ which might be of interest

    Alan Gibson

    June 22, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  3. A thoughtful and principled contribution to the ULA debate – Has been linked and quoted in our discussions at Politicalworld.org.

    Cass Flower

    June 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm

  4. There’s something a little odd about a member of the International Bolshevik Tendency advertising an email list for “independents” to people who are members of People Before Profit. It’s a strange use of the term “independent”.

    Mark P

    June 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    • My reading of this post indicates that it speaks to the concerns being raised by various independent/non-affiliated/non-aligned (whatever phrase you want to use to describe those of us who aren’t members of the constituent groups) ULA members even if the writer is a member of PBPA.

      This blog post is being read by any number of independents/non-affiliated/non-aligned and as CF mentions is being discussed in various online forums and no doubt in real world discussions as well. It is of general interest to all ULA members but particularly so for those of us independents/non-affilaited/non-aligned who share some of the concerns Des is raising.

      I therefore shared the proposal of unspecific715 as his blog and idea for an email list has a similar motivation and anyone interested in the post by Des could well be interested in unspecific715’s post and email list proposal.

      Despite your implication there is nothing particularly sinister about doing that as far as I can see.

      And as an aside I am no longer a member of the IBT – the only political organisation I am a member of at this moment is the ULA. Which is not to say that I don’t still have a strong affinity for the politics of the IBT.

      Alan Gibson

      June 22, 2011 at 9:59 pm

  5. There’s a lot to digest in this piece. Parts of it I agree with, parts of it I don’t.

    I disagree with the attempt to sidestep the discussion about whether the ULA is an alliance or a party, particularly as this is resolved by advocating that the ULA should be a party regardless of the terminology used.

    From the Socialist Party’s perspective, as I understand it, our medium term aim is the creation of a new mass party of the working class. The ULA as it is currently constituted is a step on the road to such a party, but it isn’t such a party and it shouldn’t try to behave as if it is such a party in miniature. The ULA is an alliance. It started out as an alliance of small existing organisations. It is now moving towards an alliance of organisations and individuals. This is a welcome step forward and it should involving developing appropriate structures: individual membership, branches, a decision making conference which chooses a leadership and sets policies, etc. However, at its current stage of development it should remain federal and be relatively loose in structure.

    This is quite distinct from a perspective which favours merging the existing left organisations and those individuals who are already around into a single new small “broad left” party and then trying to build that party. It is distinct again from a perspective of “revolutionary regroupment’, in which, for instance, the Socialist Party and SWP merge to form a single Marxist party (or single Marxist current within the broad left party). We should try to be clear on the distinctions between these three things, or we risk talking past each other.

    I do not disagree that the ULA should develop ‘a life of its own. A clear face to the outside world and an internal political life”. But this can be done within the context of alliance structures. A tighter alliance structure than the one which immediately followed the creation of the ULA, and certainly a democratic alliance structure, which allows for the full involvement of people outside the main affilates (SP, PBPA, WUAG) at every level. In fact, involving such people should be a key purpose of the alliance. I do not believe that the ULA should make the mistakes you describe the PBPA having made.

    I believe that moving beyond an alliance entirely is something which can only come when there are significant numbers of new activists willing to get involved and to bring their energy and ideas. And to be clear, I think that it is likely that many such activists will step forward in the struggles against austerity we are facing into.

    Finally, I remain as baffled as you are by the Enough campaign.

    Mark P

    June 22, 2011 at 8:36 pm

  6. The SP make sensible comments about not wanting to rush headlong into a party before there is a reality to that. And it may surprise them that I agree about that.

    However what is being projected by them, if the Cork branch is anything to go by, is trenchent opposition to taking any steps at all in the direction of becoming a democratic and inclusive organisation that is membership led. Including using old-style tactics of stacking meetings to make sure votes are won and making personalist attacks to disguise political points.

    If the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the Greek and Spanish movements are anything to go by when the Irish working people do start to move they will be looking for organisations with structures that facilitate a political culture tilted heavily towards discussion and debate. The type of organisation being projected in Cork (and given this perspective was led by SP central leader Stephen Boyd I think it is safe to say it represents the thinking of the SP) of being heavily focussed on activity for activity’s sake is not going to be attractive and the ULA will run the very great risk of being sidelinded as irrelevant.

    Changing political culture of organisations is not an easy thing and I believe it is essential that the ULA as an “alliance on the way to becoming a party” must have this completely integrated into the way we operate right from the beginning.

    Alan Gibson

    June 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm


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