It has become obvious, in recent weeks, that any progress with electoral left unity will be tentative, uneven, dotted with false starts. A major national project is, as I see it, off the agenda entirely. There are numerous factors behind this, including the history of distrust and political differences between different strands of the radical left. It is also a consequence, though, of the broader political context.
Compare with the founding of Respect in January 2004. The same disillusionment with New Labour, and mainstream politics, is there. The same democratic deficit, the gulf between official politics and the aspirations and ideas of the people, remains. But there's no escaping the important difference, which is the lack of a mass movement on the scale of the anti-war movement from which Respect emerged. Respect was formed out of co-operation and unity in mobilising against the war in Iraq, a movement which tapped into a whole range of other, related, issues.
Whatever partial struggles take place now, there isn't the basis for a national electoral organisation in the same way. This shouldn't, however, be cause for despair - it merely means a re-thinking of expectations, time frame and approach. The simple truth is that it's the local and ad hoc alliances which will matter in the coming months, not grand schemes involving open letters, conferences and the involvement of national union leaders. In the longer term these localised initiatives have potential to become something more.
One hopeful example is the Newcastle meeting above. Around 50 socialists, some belonging to groups like the SWP but a great many of them non-aligned, attended the first meeting on left unity in July. This is a follow-up open organising meeting, designed to see if anything firmer, more practical, can be developed. It isn't solely about elections, but concerned with bringing leftwingers locally into greater co-operation on a number of issues, from Stop the War to Vestas solidarity to campaigning against privatisation of the Metro transport system.
It probably helps that July's launch was initiated by a small number of non-aligned socialists. It isn't driven by any particular organisation - something that, in the current climate of the left, can kill an initiative before it gets going - but is connected to real campaigns in which people already work together.
I'm aware of positive developments in Preston and Wigan too - and I'm sure there are other areas where something similar is happening. The campaign for Tom Woodcock in Cambridge earlier in the year - rooted in local campaigns, mobilising everyone who wanted to help regardless of 'affiliation' - offers a useful model, as do the campaigns in Ireland under the 'People before Profit' banner.
Uniting the Left
Thursday 3 September, 7pm
St John's Church Hall, Newcastle