26
Jun
11

My report on the National Forum

Starting with the attendance, it was reported in the afternoon that there had been 320 registrations which coincided with a rough head count I did during the initial plenary session, however a reliable source informs me that her headcount in the afternoon was just over 400 which could well be more accurate as many would have arrived late and the registration desk system was more than a little chaotic so not everyone will have chosen to register, especially if they were not ULA members or wannabe members already.

We can however safely assume that there were at least 300 odd members of the ULA present which probably gives a breakdown of roughly 1/3 SWP, 1/3 SP 1/3 individual members and members of constituent groups not in the SWP or SP.

First plenary

The initial plenary session was most noticeable for the presence of Terrence McDonough (Professor of Economics in National University of Ireland, Galway – see http://www.progressive-economy.ie/search/label/Terrence%20McDonough for some articles outlining his general approach) who presented a 5-point plan for dealing with Ireland’s economic problems.

  • 1. Default on the debt
  • 2. Leave the Euro and create new punt currency
  • 3. Build a good public bank
  • 4. Guarantee a job for all (new jobs to be on, or about, the minimum wage)
  • 5. Nationalise the Corrib gas fields with a compulsory purchase order

He claimed to also be for socialism as a long term goal but was explicit that this was a plan for resolving the current capitalist economic crisis – a plan that could apparently be implemented in 48 hours and would minimise the pain for working people.

Kieran Allen for the SWP and Kevin McLoughlin for the SP both outlined the need for the ULA to have a realistic alternative to give in response to questions about what our answer to the economic crisis is. They both gave positive support to Professor McDonough’s 5-point plan as providing the basis for that alternative. But bizarrely they both seemed to think that it was consistent with having a programme that “challenged the logic of capitalism” – when Professor McDonough had been quite explicit that this was a workable programme within the confines of capitalism.

That this is quite blatant old-style reformist social democratic stagism seemed to pass our two “revolutionary socialist” speakers by. I spoke second from the floor and directly confronted this and argued that surely socialists should be presenting a programme for socialism, rather than a radical reform of capitalism, as “the alternative”. None of the speakers chose to deal with this in their summaries and it wasn’t directly responded to during the discussion from the floor either.

The main substantive discussion from the floor was over whether Professor McDonough’s plan was in fact workable or not and what the consequences of it might be – all explicitly taking the context of capitalism as a given.

The other thing of interest in this session was a bit of low-level sniping between the SWP & SP over whether the aim of “socialism” should be an explicit part of our programme.

So I’ve got to say not a particularly positive start for anyone, like myself, who is interested in building an organisation with a clear programme for socialism rather than a programme for the reform of capitalism with socialism as some distant aim for a future stage in the struggle.

Second plenary

I’ll now jump to the second plenary session and come back to a few points about the two workshops I attended after that.

The second plenary was on the topic of “What kind of party do we need?” with speakers Declan Bree, Richard Boyd Barrett (SWP), Seamus Healy (WUAG) & Joe Higgins (SP).

Declan Bree argued in favour of an explicitly socialist party to be created as soon as was reasonably possible. We need structures now that will stimulate development towards that party, becoming a membership-led organisation with equal participation based on democratic structures involving all members.

Joe Higgins also argued in favour of a party with explicitly socialist policies, highlighting in particular opposition to entering coalition governments with capitalist parties and for a “rigorous and honest appraisal” of other parties, such as exposing the reality of Sinn Fein’s role in the North as compared to their pro-worker posture in the South. He explicitly criticised the SWP’s call for having LP representatives on campaign platforms arguing instead that this should only be the case if they have clearly shown they have broken with the government’s attacks. Regarding the pace of movement towards the new party he was more cautious than Bree arguing that we have to wait the development of an upsurge in the class struggle, we are only at the very beginning of the process.

Richard Boyd Barrett argued for stressing the “90-95% that unites us” rather than differences. He agreed with the aim of the socialist transformation of society but disagreed with using the term “socialism” as part of a “war on jargon” that we need to undertake. We need to build the alliance as fast as we can as a “party of action”.

Seamus Healy talked about the history of the WUAG coming out of campaigns in defence of working people and that should be the priority of the ULA. He also emphasised the need to create the ULA as a truly national organisation. He called for default on the debt and a wealth and assets tax as the key elements of the programme we should put forward.

Representatives of the Collins, Conlon & Connolly non-SWP PBP grouping spoke a couple of times in favour of their proposals on the way forward (http://tomasoflatharta.com/2011/06/24/build-the-ula/) and it seemed to find something of a resonance with speakers from the floor, particularly the parts about creating more inclusive structures, by those describing themselves as individual members.

Shane got to speak in favour of his proposal for an email list for individual members (http://weareragbags.wordpress.com/) – I would encourage all individual members to contact him and ask to join this list.

The other main issue in the discussion was over whether to be explicitly for “socialism” with the low level dispute between the SP & SWP continuing though compensated for by their agreement on the need for activity as the key element in building the ULA.

The other issue of interest was over gender balance when Joe Higgins responded to a question about the low number of women speakers by brusquely arguing against quotas but without really presenting an alternative to the problem of the low level of participation by women in the ULA.

I was of course disappointed not to get to speak but as I’d spoken in the first plenary session it wasn’t unreasonable that others were taken this time.

From the point of view of taking some concrete steps to start moving the ULA from an alliance towards a party this session was more positive, at least in terms of rhetoric, as there were repeated references to making the ULA, “membership-led”, being a “bottom-up” organisation, having structures that “encourage diversity” etc but this must be seen in the context of nothing concrete actually being proposed for how this might come about.

This was also mostly perceived in terms of facilitating activity and the central question of needing to set up structures for political discussion about the programme was pretty much secondary. Given that there is apparently significant work being done by the ULA’s Dáil research teams on policy questions there must be a big worry that the membership will be presented with a programme as a more-or-less fait accompli with little ability for individual members to be part of the process of discussion about that programme.

Workshops

So to the workshop on trade unions that I attended in the morning where there was lots of discussion on the need to build networks of activists at rank-and-file level with the meeting on 1 October on this topic being seen as a major focus for ULA trade union activists. There was a small spread of opinion between those who wanted to put pressure on the trade union leaders to stop dithering and take action and those, such as myself, who saw them as actually being in active collusion with the attacks and while they might respond to a strong rank-and-file this shouldn’t be seen as a strategy.

I suggested that the activists in different unions should set up contact between themselves but other than the 3 IMPACT members I exchanged email addresses with this didn’t happen. I was a bit disappointed with this but realised afterwards that as most of the participants were members of the SP & SWP they already had their own contact networks set up so presumably didn’t see the need – just another example of the problems with fully integrating the individual members.

I attended the “What is Socialism?” workshop in the afternoon. Mick Barry (SP) and John Molyneux (SWP) presented a very similar understanding of socialism – being a combination of public ownership and democratic control through workers’ council type organisations. They both agreed that it was not a question of reforming or taking over the existing capitalist state structures and instead we need to create our own working class organisations to replace those of capitalism. They both also agreed that this is not an abstract issue but relates to our concrete struggles now.

There was some discussion over the question of the place demands for nationalisation under workers control should have in our programme in response to a comrade from the Socialist Democracy group arguing that having it as an immediate demand, as the ULA does, necessarily implies that the capitalist state can be made to act in our interests.

I agreed with the speakers’ emphasis on socialism being based on our own working class organisations rather than those of capitalism and that this should be related to our practical policies now. I said this should also be reflected in the programme of the ULA and that we therefore should reject policies like the SP’s “community control of the police” which implies that the existing capitalist state apparatus can be controlled and made to work in the interests of working people and points away from the building of our own organisations in opposition to the capitalist state. This point was not responded to. On the question of use of the nationalisation slogan I said I was aware of the potential problems with it and therefore preferred to talk about expropriation.

Final rally

That just leaves the final rally which was of the usual rah-rah kind and I found of interest only for two reasons. First was the emphasis by Brid Smith for everyone to participate in the activities being organised by the Enough campaign against the EU/IMF visit in July. Given that I understood this not to be an agreed ULA campaign (the SWP had not been allowed to put Enough campaign leaflets on the ULA stall in Cork the previous weekend) I was somewhat surprised by this. Certainly it seems that in the coming period the SWP dominated parts of the ULA will be concentrating on the Enough campaign’s opposition to EU/IMF visit while the SP dominated parts will be concentrating on the campaign against the changes to the JLCs/REAs.

The other thing of interest in the final rally was Joan Collin’s direct call on the Steering Committee to look at the question of the lack of structures facilitating involvement by individual members “within the next 4 to 6 weeks”. My heart hopes for something substantive but my head remains sceptical we will see anything beyond token changes.

Conclusion

So my overall feelings about the national forum are mixed. It is good to see the individual members expressing the strong desire for structures which will facilitate our equal involvement and ending the situation of effectively being second-class members and the constituent groups having to recognise the strength of that desire, in word at least.

But the apparent commitment of the SP & SWP to a stagist strategy of presenting a programme of reforms of capitalism as “the alternative” with the socialist transformation of society therefore relegated to an unknown future stage is a major disappointment. This points in the direction of an organisation set up by professed “revolutionary socialists” having a concrete programme that is not even “socialist” let alone “revolutionary”. In the absence of any structures for this to be effectively challenged we are likely to see this presented very much as a fait accompli and to the extent that happens the project, from the point of view of furthering the politics of revolutionary socialism, would have gone down the road of a complete dead-end.

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4 Responses to “My report on the National Forum”


  1. June 27, 2011 at 10:33

    Very good report.
    Wouldn’t agree on all points: lots yet to be done, and we can intend and expect that it will be done. A strong active membership and an accountable but decisive leadership will see that the ULA takes on a democratic, effective form.
    Neither Allen nor McLoughlin explicitly endorsed McDonagh’s programme, as I saw it, but as it is progressive and definitely pro-working class, neither did they criticize it too obviously. McLoughlin in particular emphasized that only a revolutionary uprising could put such a plan into practise in any case.

    Thanks for that

    • June 27, 2011 at 12:22

      My memory, and notes, of the first session are a bit different than yours but I stand to be corrected. I do remember McLoughlin saying something on the need for a revolutionary uprising but it was far from clear to me whether he was posing that as necessarily having to be linked to the 5 point plan – certainly this was not McDonough’s own view of the “realistic” nature of his programme.

      Hopefully the video of the sessions is going to be made available in some form so clarity on this, and other issues, can be achieved.

      Certainly I would find it difficult to argue that McDonough’s programme was “definitely pro-working class” except in a completely reformist sense. And even in those terms his confidence that his programme would mean less pain for working people than other capitalist alternatives was questioned from the floor.

      I would argue that it is far from clear whether any particular plan for reorganising Irish capitalism will result in less pain for working people than any other. And more importantly it surely isn’t the job of an “anti-capitalist” or “socialist” organisation to be presenting plans for how capitalism as a system might be better run. Our job is to show that only overthrowing capitalism is “definitely pro-working class”.

    • 3 socialist feminist
      June 29, 2011 at 12:41

      The pbp endorsed McDonagh’s programme by giving him a platform during their morning plenary session, (they were choosing who would be allowed speak in the morning and the socialist party had that privelige in the afternoon) obviously it’s endorsed by Sir Allen or it wouldn’t be in the swp official statement. I would be strongly against sharing a platform with the Labour Party as I would find insulting to the poor. The pbp should have more confidence in it’s own politics then to need validating by Labour.

  2. June 29, 2011 at 23:30

    I attended the forum as an independent , not a member of any political party but would be looking for something different from what is on offer. While I found food for thought at the forum, I did find as a non party member that it was difficult to penetrate the discussion, fr example I went to a breakout session and even though I had my hand up to make a valid point and one which rather than bitching about the subject would have been a useful point for the ULA as a policy point, I found myself frozen out by the chair, who appeared to know each of the ‘randomly’ chosen people to make points of questions by name. I was pretty annoyed by that as I had come all the way from Galway and it left me asking serious questions about the alliance. That said I am still willing to give the ULA another look in regards to joining and contributing to a new political, and much needed, party.


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