Despite harbouring some doubts, I spent last weekend at the National Left Renewal Conference, organised by the SEARCH Foundation.
The stated aim of the conference was to build greater unity amongst the broader Left and there were participants were from a broad range of groups including left-wing unions, parts of the environmental movement, the Labor Left, the Greens as well as some far left groups.
While there were some good sessions (hearing from Kosta Isychos of SYRIZA was a highlight) something bugged me throughout the Conference. No one actually addressed the biggest obstacle to any Left unity: a lack of trust.
During the final plenary, many speakers spoke about how “the Left” could agree on a programme and that we needed to create framework to unify the Left against Abbott and the Coalition. The proposal of a network to help create an alliance to co-ordinate the Left was raised. Personally I am sceptical that a network will emerge, let alone co-ordination, without addressing this fundamental issue of trust.
Trust is the starting point for unity. If you do not trust someone, it is hard to work with them, even if you agree on many things. Without trust, the Left cannot be united and there was no evidence of any trust during the Conference. There were digs at the Greens, an inference that it would be great if the ALP collapsed like PASOK, shopping lists about how terrible Labor is and how they were barely any difference from the Liberals. My impression was that many participants seemed more interested in talking at each other than having any honest and uncomfortable conversations.
A major cause of the lack of trust between Left groups is electoral. Doug Cameron pointed out the difficulties in creating unity when growth either comes at the expense of Labor or the Greens. It is a zero sum game that fuels a lot of the tensions. Anything less than greater proportional representation is unlikely to change this situation. However, even where proportional representation does exist, such as in local councils, it is no guarantee that the antagonism will disappear.
Trust does not happen overnight and will not happen in six months. There are, however, some hopeful signs for the longer term, most notably co-operation between Labor Left, Greens and broader Left activists on campuses. It is those kinds of working relationships that will be the basis of any future Left unity, not some framework that an outside organisation tries to establish.
I haven’t yet concluded whether the Conference was a wasted opportunity or at least the beginning of a conversation that many need to have about pluralism on the Left. I guess only time will tell.