Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sectarianism, 'left unity' and leadership

One of the striking features of Sunny Hundal's article criticising calls for 'no confidence' in Aaron Porter as NUS president (see HERE) - and also his comments in the thread HERE - is the recurring sectarianism.

As much as being criticism of proposals he disagrees with, it is an attack on the radical left - not for any serious or substantial reasons, but simply for being the radical left. The proposals for 'no confidence' must be wrong because of who is (allegedly) behind them - and isn't it just typical of these far left types? etc

It's a curious thing that sectarianism is associated with the radical left, while those further to the right mysteriously avoid this charge. But of course it's sectarian for those on what might be termed by the 'moderate left' to attack people to their left simply for being who they are, rather than addressing the issues.

It is sectarian to call for 'unity' when what you really mean is that everyone else must accept unity on your terms - or you will denounce them as 'divisive'.

When Aaron Porter, president of NUS, ignored a demonstration of 30,000+ people, and instead went ahead with a lobby that attracted reportedly as few as 200 people (many of them NUS, student union or UCU full-timers), it was a divisive act. It was a sectarian approach to the mass movement. He and other NUS leaders should have been with the students and school students marching on Parliament.

What student activists say is that Porter has, due to a series of specific actions (or inactions), failed in leading the student movement at a  critical time. His leadership is an obstacle to the movement, which will be better off with him leaving his position and elections for a new president.

Accusing those who want the removal of Porter as president of sectarianism is to completely misrepresent what sectarianism is. It implies that any grassroots demands for accountability of leaders is divisive or sectarian. It is a way for people who support those who hold office to de-legitimise criticisms from those who don't.

This will be familiar to anyone on the left, but it's worth repeating: whenever people talk of unity you have to ask two questions, 'Unity with whom?' and 'Unity on what terms?' Unity only means anything if it is concrete and active, if it delivers something. It has to be unity in action.

In the Labour Party, for example, there's a rich history of the right attacking the left for being 'divisive'. This is because left-wingers dare to raise demands or propose policies that the right disagree with (or agree with, but fear they would "alienate Middle England"). They want everyone to unite in passive acquiescence to those who are most moderate.

This is a notion of unity as something dictated by the weakest or most conservative. What it really means is the radical and militant being pulled in the wrong direction, or being held back, by the conservative and passive. It is a phenomenon in the Labour Party, trade unions, NUS and elsewhere.

Real unity therefore means the radical and active grassroots placing serious demands on their leaders, or on those they seek to build alliances with. They have to demand their leaders fight with them. If they don't, it's entirely reasonable to demand new leaders who will.


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