Stuffed parrots and Momentum texts
There was a joyous, even jubilant mood, but the decision-making was opaque, writes first-time delegate Gerry Green
Good atmosphere, bewildering procedure
Ireally enjoyed my first time at conference. It was fantastic to see so many like-minded people - quite a few of whom were very happy to describe themselves openly as Marxists. I did not expect the mood to be so overwhelmingly pro-left, so clearly behind Corbyn and so visibly pro-Palestinian.
It is evident that the panic in the rightwing press over the ‘anti-Semitism’ scandal helped to consolidate the left. Of course, delegates were eating out of John McDonnell’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s hands. But I did not expect everybody around me to get up to whoop and cheer when Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi made her pro-Palestinian speech. I could not see anybody staying in their seat. Another speaker received loud applause for mentioning that she was a member of Momentum.
I also did not expect the right to be quite so small and useless. Apart from a handful of people handing out Labour First’s White Pages, I hardly came across them and they were almost invisible.
Having said all of that, I cannot say I really understood what was going on most of the time. I do not think delegates were really in control of things. Everything is left to the last moment, and because of the various NEC compromises it was difficult to prepare. You really have to study the daily update from the conference arrangements committee (CAC). For example, it was only by chance that I saw in the CAC report of September 24 the proposed change to the document on Israel/Palestine, submitted by the national policy forum (NPF).
This year’s agenda was designed, so we were told, to maximise the number of contributions from the floor, as opposed to just the party big-wigs. But the method of selecting these ordinary delegates was hard to believe. Speakers were selected by the chair in groups of three, from different parts of the floor. However, up to 50 would-be speakers attempting to catch the eye of the chair led to the employment of ever more bizarre theatrics: comrades were seen holding up hats, scarves, stuffed parrots, inflated bananas, open umbrellas … you get the picture. Those just raising their hand stood no chance!
But it was worse than that - in one session the chair admitted that she could only see the delegates in the front section of the audience, so anyone wanting to speak from the raised section at the rear would have a long wait. Delegates around me commented that often the randomly selected speakers seemed to be very well informed - their speeches must have taken quite a while to prepare - so perhaps it was not that random after all.
This chaotic method of speaker selection was matched by the incoherent structure of the sessions. In no way could they be called debates - there was no order to the contributions and many topics in the NPF documents were not covered at all.
It was not much better when it came to contemporary motions. We only got to see them in the CAC’s September 24 report issued on Sunday morning: a thick booklet with over 120 motions, which were grouped into different ‘themes’. And by 3.30pm we were supposed to have read them all and then decide in the ‘priorities ballot’ which four themes we would like to see debated at conference. It was impossible to do that thoroughly, of course. And, of course, it was meant to be impossible.
This is where the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy comes in. The CLPD had certainly worked through the conference agenda - and dragged Momentum along with it. (The two are linked, of course. As I understand it, Momentum owner Jon Lansman used to be a leading light in the CLPD back in the day.)
As the CLPD’s Pete Willsman has been off-and-on the NEC for decades, he gets prior access to material and so his comrades were able to read through all the motions in advance. The CLPD used its fringe meeting on the Saturday evening to instruct/suggest to delegates which themes to vote on. Its comrades already knew that the unions would go for growth and investment, public-sector pay, workers’ rights and Grenfell. So, in order to maximise the subjects discussed, delegates were urged to vote for social care, NHS, housing and railways. Lo and behold, these themes got the vast majority of CLP votes.
As a normal delegate, I felt pretty much out of the loop most of the time, so this attempt to coordinate and explain issues was most welcome. At their fringe meeting on Monday night, however, CLPD comrades urged CLP delegates to remit all their rule changes in order to get the ‘Corbyn review’ through unopposed. I must say I had my doubts about that tactic, as my own CLP was one of those which voted to support the ‘McDonnell amendment’: we wanted to see a dramatic reduction to five percent of the nominations needed from MPs and MEPs in order to get a leadership candidate on to the ballot paper. In the end, we were one of the many CLPs who “regretfully” remitted their rule change.
Momentum was a bit short on arguments, but better with technology. They were texting us throughout the conference, giving voting advice. The session on Monday afternoon in particular has to be regarded as a brilliant example of Momentum’s ability to issue voting instructions to delegates at very short notice. The very last speaker in the session moved a reference-back of a couple of paragraphs in the NPF document on ‘Work, pensions and equality’. As nobody else had commented either for or against, delegates really had no idea which way to vote.
But the Momentum organisers must have decided it was an important issue, because text messages were despatched to all their supporting delegates: “Please vote for the reference back to reverse cuts to social security!” The document only criticised the cuts, but the delegate wanted Labour to commit to reversing them. By the time the vote was taken a few minutes later, the message had got through. The reference-back was carried, with support from a huge majority of CLP delegates. The NPF will now have to look at it again - though, of course, ordinary members will have to wait to see if the 200 or so members of the NPF will actually enforce this in their next annual report.
This kind of decision-making is very much hit and miss. There were plenty of other issues in the very vacuous NPF reports that deserved to be referenced back, but I presume nobody was called in to make the point! In the end, I ended up abstaining on all of the documents, because they are really full of waffle, without any clear, coherent policy proposals. Ditto the composited contemporary motions. As has been common practice, they were merged into the most bland and uncontroversial ‘motherhood and apple pie’-type statements. Impossible to vote against.
The atmosphere of conference was joyous, even jubilant. It is just a shame that the membership has not yet got a hold on the running of the party. Conference really hammered home to me the need to change that!