“The ULA is not an organisation” says SP leader

This bizarre comment was made by SP leader Stephen Boyd during the discussion at the second branch meeting of the Cork ULA on the evening of Tuesday 14 June. But before we get to the context of this amazing outburst let’s start at the beginning.

First there is the numbers attending the meeting. The first branch meeting 3 weeks ago (see https://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/report-on-cork-ula-branch-meeting-on-24-may/ for my report) had seen a good turnout of 20 people but that was nothing compared to last night when I counted 36 present. At first glance this might seem like positive signs that the Cork ULA is on a real upward turn but the reality is sadly somewhat different as almost the entire increase can be explained by a full mobilisation of the SP and SWP membership and their close supporters. Of course this could just represent an increased commitment to building the ULA but as the meeting developed it became fairly clear why they had chosen to mobilise for this particular meeting.

It started over procedure. The previous branch meeting had decided to make a discussion of the branch organisation the central topic for this meeting (https://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/report-on-cork-ula-branch-meeting-on-24-may/) but the draft agenda circulated by the interim steering committee had this as just a part of the second item on a two item agenda. Anne and I proposed an alternative agenda putting the discussion on branch organisation as a separate and first point to better reflect the decision of the previous branch meeting.

The SP chair was at first reluctant to even countenance any discussion, as if the idea of discussion on the proposed agenda was in-of-itself a bad idea, but when we persisted the SP leadership moved to quickly quash the idea, with the reassurance that it was on the agenda and there would be plenty of time to discuss it. But of course being the second part of the second agenda item by the time we actually got to it there wasn’t so much time available and we were, for the first time in the meeting, to see time limits on speakers being put into place.

The meeting started with a fairly non-controversial presentation by Stephen Boyd on the general political context with a call for everyone to attend the ULA “National Forum” on 25 June in Dublin. There was some discussion from the floor about how to deal with the problem of ULA spokespeople speaking on issues which the ULA has no agreed policy on without making it clear they weren’t representing the ULA – the concrete example being Richard Boyd-Barrett’s endorsement on the Vincent Browne tv show of David Norris and/or Michael D. Higgins for the Presidency.

Then Mick Barry outlined a programme of activity for the coming period arguing, with the support of the meeting, for a change in emphasis on the privatisation of refuse and water services to opposing the attacks on low-paid workers covered by the JLCs. By the end of the meeting we had decided on the following draft outline of activity:

Saturday 18 June – Day of action on JLCs with a couple of stalls on Patrick St.
Saturday 2 July – Day of action on JLCs in response to expected presentation of the bill to the Dáil on Friday 1 July.
Saturday 9 July – Day of action on JLCs not only stalls but going out to leaflet and talk to workers in some of the larger department stores directly affected
Tuesday 12 July – Public meeting on JLCs with ULA TD and Cork trade union speakers – in place of the branch meeting

As well as these dates there are also at least two other events in July. A public event in support of the ULA TD’s motion in the Dáil and a protest at the Cork Council against privatisation.

Then we finally got to the discussion on branch organisation. Mick began by presenting a slate of himself (SP), Mick O’Sullivan (SWP/PBPA) and Brian Gould (non-affiliated) for election as a new steering committee. He gave no explanation of why his proposal at the previous branch meeting in favour of a 6-person steering committee (2 SP, 2 SWP/PBPA, 2 non-affiliated) had changed to now just a 3 person body.

Mick then referred to Anne’s and my motion deferred from the previous meeting saying that the outgoing steering committee (himself and Mick O’Sullivan) were recommending voting against it as although they supported some parts there were other parts they completely disagreed with.

Mick was about to go on with an explanation of why they opposed it when Anne interjected to argue that usually proposers of motions got to speak to them first – which the meeting accepted. So Anne outlined our reasons for the proposals (as per the motivation we circulated with the motion https://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/report-on-cork-ula-branch-meeting-on-24-may/#comments) and then the onslaught began.

Mick spoke first arguing that fortnightly meetings would be inappropriate at this stage because we were about to enter the summer period when political activity usually decreased significantly and working people had less time. He then went on to why they opposed having an email list. His reason was put exclusively in terms of myself. Because I have been active on some web boards and blogs discussing the ULA (see other posts on this blog for links to these discussions) there was a fear that I would overly dominate any such email list with my own idiosyncratic views and this would only disrupt the functioning of the branch. He did not give any clear reasoning for why I might want to do that but the implication was that either I was some kind of political crazy who couldn’t help myself from posting or that I had some project to disrupt the building of the ULA.

I of course defended myself and explained it was true that I do participate in internet discussions on the programme of the ULA but that flooding an internal ULA list would be pointless and counter-productive both in terms of making the ULA function and convincing anyone of my views. My only concern was in facilitating the functioning of the organisation and helping the process of its transformation from an alliance into the kind of party which I thought we all agreed on. Having fortnightly meetings and an email list would seem to be basic necessities for any organisation claiming to be “member led” and representing “a new type of politics”. Also if we were to actually carry out the quite extensive list of activities planned for the coming period a monthly meeting schedule would mean that the proposed 3 person steering committee would be making virtually all the decisions and this seemed at odds with the kind of collaborative working among the members we should be encouraging. Mick’s proposal that the July branch meeting take the form of a public meeting actually makes this even worse as the branch won’t meet again until sometime in August.

I suggested that perhaps to allay their fears about an email list being abused by myself, or anyone else, we could restrict it to discussion of purely organisational points. This would not be as good as a general discussion list but in terms of at least the functioning of the branch it seemed sensible.

This was interpreted as an amendment by the chair who ruled it out of order on the grounds that a proposer or seconder of a motion is apparently not allowed to make amendments to that original motion. I challenged this saying this was not my experience of meetings. The chair, and others, countered with their experience of trade union and other political meetings. My challenge to the ruling was not accepted and we went forward with the original proposal for a standard email discussion list.

Then we had various speakers who reported that fortnightly meetings would be far too much for them to commit to.

It was during the course of this discussion that Stephen Boyd made his comment that forms the subject of this post. He said that I was wrong to be talking about “this organisation” as it was an alliance not an organisation and what I was talking about was not the kind of group he wanted the ULA to be. He also forthrightly opposed any kind of email list as they only caused trouble in his experience.

Stephen’s point about what the ULA should be like was picked up on by various SP & SWP/PBPA members and supporters a number of whom used the phrase “we want to be outward, not inward, looking” coupled with a lot of talk about wanting to do activity rather than have discussion at meetings which supposedly only puts “ordinary workers” off.

The ridiculousness of Boyd’s “not an organisation” comment was picked up on by Anne and one of the other independents who asked why we then had membership cards if they didn’t signify membership of some kind of organisation?

A further insight into the semi-bureaucratic mind-set of the SP/SWP was when Brian Gould (soon to be our new steering committee member) indicated that he was unhappy with voting against a motion when he agreed with ½ of it. I attempted to make a procedural point that it would make sense to split the motion into 4 constituent parts as this would better represent the reality of the discussion and the will of the meeting. This was not accepted by the chair (who other than his formalistic trade union based understanding of meeting procedure did a pretty good job) so we just had to vote on it all as a whole. The motion was lost 4 – 22

The meeting then finished with the election of the new steering committee even though a motion including a proposal to have such an election had just been voted down – though I think the irony will have been lost on the comrades.

I suggested that given the decision of the branch to go for monthly branch meetings the reality was that the steering committee would have to make many decisions in-between those meetings so we should have a larger committee to make it more representative of the membership. I concretely proposed Mick’s proposal from the previous meeting of a 6-person steering committee. I also proposed myself for the steering committee.

The larger steering committee was opposed as being unnecessary and out of keeping with the current needs of the branch. Once again why it made sense for Mick Barry to propose this only 3 weeks ago, but it was not sensible now was not explained. The proposal to enlarge the steering committee was lost 4 – 18.
In the course of the discussion the low level of participation of women in the meeting (5 out of the 36 this time only being slightly better than the 1 out of 20 at the previous meeting) and their absence from nominations for the steering committee was noted and after some discussion Anne was proposed. Despite my strategic political differences with Anne I am in close accordance with her views on the functioning of the branch in the next period, so to maximise her chances of getting elected I withdrew making it a straight vote between Brian and Anne for the non-affiliated position. Brian won 17 – 9.

A observations about what can be learnt from the meeting.

It is clear that the SP/SWP are not interested in beginning the process of transforming the ULA into a party. Stephen Boyd is one of their central leaders and he made it absolutely crystal clear that the ULA is an alliance and it should function as exactly that. Any steps towards that transformation can only be considered for discussion in the future at such time as there is an upsurge in class struggle by the mass of working people.

This misses the vital point that the political culture of a party can’t be switched on and off like a switch. If we create an organisation that devalues political discussion and critical debate along the lines of where the SP/SWP seem to want to take the Cork branch of the ULA (and presumably the organisation as a whole) then that organisation will not be able to simply transform itself overnight into a party when the SP/SWP leaders deem it is finally time to do so. Political cultures of organisations can be quite difficult to change, especially when they have been enforced in this kind of heavy-handed way. I fear that the lessons learnt about organisational culture at the meeting yesterday will be very damaging when/if the decision to move towards a party is finally taken.

The development of a new workers party worthy of the name will be a learning experience for all those involved. We all have our ideas on programme and organisational structure but it will only be through a process of political struggle in terms of both discussion about programme and reflection on the results of our participation in concrete activity. The balance between being “outward” and “inward” looking is dependent on the tasks facing any organisation. The transformation of the ULA from alliance to party will necessarily involve a significant amount of “inward” looking if that process of transformation is to be real.

This leads of course to a more general point about what kind of party the SP/SWP are thinking of building. Perhaps they are not interested in building a membership led party with a vibrant internal political life so the concerns I am raising are not of any interest to them anyway. Perhaps they actually want a party with a passive and docile membership without the temerity to challenge the leadership for fear of being accused of “disrupting the meeting”, even over such minor issues as meeting frequency.

But whatever the subjective motivations of the SP/SWP the reality is that the organisation they are building is one that will not be attractive to working people when/if that upsurge in class struggle does occur. If the examples from Spain and Greece are anything to go by then when our class does start to move it will be looking for answers with openness to discussion and debate about political tactics and strategy that the organisation built by the conservative control freaks of the SP/SWP will be entirely unsuitable for.

Given the personal animosity shown towards me during the meeting it might be possible to interpret this as just being about their fear of my revolutionary political ideas contaminating other participants in the ULA, especially their own members. While my ego may want to believe it was all about me (and Anne), there is at best only a grain of truth in that.

Looking at the bigger picture the real reasons for this trenchant refusal to even begin to take the very smallest of steps in the process of transformation of the ULA from alliance to party must have much more to do with the tensions between the SP & the SWP as they compete over the political direction and, probably more importantly, control of the project. That they were able to slap down a couple of leftist critics in a local branch was just a nice bonus.

But whatever the reasons it seems clear that the ULA party project runs the very great danger of being still-born if the SP/SWP continues down this path.


7 Responses to ““The ULA is not an organisation” says SP leader”

  1. June 16, 2011 at 06:38

    Regarding the seasonal aspect. If indeed this is true then why has the branch decided on so much activity? If making two 2 1/2 hour meetings in a month is really too much for people how can weekly stalls be achievable?

    If there really is this slow period why are we prioritisng activity over the political discussions which are necessary for moving towards becoming a political party? If the wider workers movement really is going to be even less interested in politics over the next couple of months then why are we, the ones who for whatever reason have chosen to be more active, not using the time more sensibly on political discussion?

    What we have is the creation of a political culture of a prioritisation of activity for activity’s sake over political discussion. And that sets a very bad precedent in my opinion.

    And as far as I know it is not like the constituent groups will be stopping their own weekly schedules during this so-called slow period.

    • June 16, 2011 at 09:37

      Not sure how this article is related to my post on the Cork branch meeting but an interesting read in its own right. I do wonder however how an article by “revolutionary socialists” that discusses general questions of women’s oppression in Ireland can miss out the question of abortion rights.

  2. June 17, 2011 at 11:53

    Came across this thread on politics.ie that seems to indicate that the differences between the SP & SWP are increasing – thus making the future of the ULA look even more precarious – http://www.politics.ie/irish-presidential-election-2011/163138-socialist-party-unlikely-nominate-anyone-presidency.html

  3. 5 max
    June 25, 2011 at 18:37

    What is left of the socialist party and the re branded socialist workers party under the people before profit alliance joining under the ULA has been the biggest downfall of the left we have ever seen. Yes we won a few seats and most likely will not next time round, we were resoundingly destroyed in the north.

    Stalls don’t work we look like beggars, we have no direction Why? becuase we have no leadership all we have is dinosaurs who when they cannot get some power of their own go off on their own.

    We need rid of the likes of Boyd, Barret, and Mc Cann up north they have disgraced us time and time again, a new left should be led by new faces

  4. 6 D_D
    June 27, 2011 at 12:16

    I’ve not followed this thread very closely. But one thing strikes me. In Dublin there are more than one ULA branch/group. There is no reason why there cannot be more than one in Cork.

    • June 27, 2011 at 12:36

      I would imagine that will be the case as we grow but as it stands I think all of us would agree that it makes more sense to keep meeting as one group for the time being – certainly the idea of separate branches hasn’t be suggested by anyone at either of our two branch meetings so far as I remember.

      In terms of the concerns I am raising about having structures which facilitate the equal involvement of individual members the number of branches is somewhat secondary anyway. I wouldn’t like to see a situation where different branches had structures that encouraged more active involvement by individual members while others did not.

      We really need nation-wide consistency on this and I hope the steering committee responds positively to Joan Collins call on them at the end of the final rally to address this issue and that the rhetoric about the ULA being “membership-led”, being a “bottom-up” organisation, having structures that “encourage diversity” etc are able to be concretised in some way.

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