Platitudes and priorities

David Shearer of Labour Party Marxists reports on the October 29 LRC conference

The annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee was a very strange affair indeed. Though it was entitled “Transforming our party to transform our society”, we did not get round to discussing Labour until mid-afternoon in a session that was scheduled to last just 90 minutes.

The pre-conference publicity stated that, despite the title, there would be “sessions around the LRC’s founding principles of peace, equality, socialism and environment” - nothing specifically on the internal Labour battle - and, sure enough, the whole morning was taken up with restating opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia, and expressing concerns about climate change. Guest speakers like Ellen Clifford of Disabled People Against the Cuts told us that the “most important thing” is to “get the Tories out as quickly as possible”, while Graham Thompson of Plane Stupid was much more concerned that there should be no new runway at Heathrow airport.

Things were no better in the first afternoon session, when Carol Turner of Labour CND said that we should be opposed to Trident because, amongst other things, it “won’t be able to stop people-trafficking”, while Ryvka Barnard of War on Want complained that there was “no regulation on the use of armed drones”.

Yet the day had started out so promisingly with the speech of Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who correctly focused on the shortcomings of Momentum in the battle to defeat the Labour right. His excellent conference address is published alongside this report - apart from the very beginning of what he said, which was not recorded.1

He began by referring to the “fantastic opportunity” for socialists following Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader. But he warned that there would be “no let-up” in the attacks of the right, which is “far better organised than the left” and actually “ran rings around” the Corbyn wing at Labour’s annual conference. In these circumstances the left should not, in comrade Wrack’s view, be calling for a general election, which would be “disastrous” for Labour.

This was in total contrast to the contribution of John McDonnell, who addressed us later in the day. McDonnell was pleased to “welcome back” those rightwing MPs who have returned to the shadow cabinet - after all, Labour is a “broad church” - and he claimed that the spirit in the PLP had now been “transformed”. Which meant that “if there are differences, they can be accommodated and debated out”. He called on the LRC to take note - “We have got to unite” and “start gearing up for the election”, which he thought could well happen next year.


McDonnell claimed that neoliberalism had “collapsed” and Labour had to present an “alternative”. But his version of what this should be seemed to centre on a “fair taxation system” in order to tackle evasion and avoidance. We could then invest, so as to “create jobs and markets”. True, Labour would also “end all privatisation in the NHS”, build one million council houses (“maybe double that”), defend living standards and restore trade union rights. In other words, create a society that was “radically more equal” and “based on prosperity”. Totally dishonestly he ended by saying: “That’s what I call socialism” - he knows full well that capitalism would still be alive and kicking even if Labour was in a position to implement the policies he is now promising.

McDonnell did at least mention the “purge” of Labour members, whose victims should, he said, enjoy “natural justice”. However, he added: “I can’t say too much.” The best he could do was assure comrades that “we’re on the case”.

His whole speech was pretty much in line with the tone of the LRC national committee in its conference statement. After putting forward a reasonable assessment of the current state of affairs in the Labour Party, the NC contended: “The LRC wants to see a Corbyn-led Labour government committed to socialist policies.” And: “The priority of the left over the next period must be to take the battle for policy out into society, to win the hearts and minds of voters, and create a majority which will elect a socialist Labour government.”

Does the NC seriously believe that Labour, with its current deep divisions and the huge anti-Corbyn majority among MPs, will (a) stand a chance in a 2017 or even 2020 general election and (b), assuming it actually did get elected, form a socialist government? Or does the LRC leadership share the same, rather loose definition of socialism as John McDonnell?

Unfortunately it does, as can be seen from the following:

With global capitalism in control of the political agenda, there is an urgent need for a major shift of wealth and power in favour of ordinary people. This is what we mean when we say the LRC stands for the socialist transformation of society. The LRC believes that the most direct route to achieving this is through collective struggle and the election of a Labour government with a socialist programme.

True, the NC’s document went on to imply that “socialist transformation” meant rather more than “a major shift of wealth and power”:

Our aim is a society where the essential sectors of the economy are held in social ownership for everyone’s benefit. To this end we support the renationalisation of the railways and the big utility companies within an economy transformed at a local level, with community-run energy generation projects, for example, and public participation, not bureaucratic state control.

So socialism equals large-scale nationalisation and presumably can be implemented in a single country, thanks to “a Labour government with a socialist programme”.

The NC used that unfortunate phrase, “the 99%”, to describe those Labour should seek to represent. That is far broader than the working class obviously, so perhaps it was no surprise to read (under ‘Preparing for 2020 - or 2017?’) that “On some core issues there will be strong supporters among other progressive parties, and informal, non-electoral alliances may need to be considered in individual circumstances.” Do those “core issues” include the NC/McDonnell version of socialism?

The NC was, however, a little more specific than the shadow chancellor on ‘Fighting the purge’, although it did not go so far as to demand the reinstatement of its victims. It talked in general terms about “democratisation” and called for “rule changes” - but these do not include “mandatory reselection”, because it is “not necessarily appropriate for the party leadership to lead a campaign” for that.


Ironically McDonnell’s speech ushered in the start of the final session, on ‘Socialism’. But it was actually about the current struggle within Labour and featured NEC member Claudia Webbe and Ronnie Draper of the bakers union on the platform.

I have to say that comrade Webbe, a close supporter of Corbyn, has not learnt from him. She sounds as though she has attended some third-rate course on public speaking, judging from her staccato phrasing and dramatic pauses. But amongst it all she had very little to say, except that we must organise “on the ground” in order to win the entire party to support the leader. However, that seemed to me to contradict her statement that “The real enemy is not within. The real enemy are the Tories.” In fact she thought that Labour had “a fantastic shadow cabinet” and what now exists is a “democratic, socialist Labour Party”. She was against targeting Iain McNicol - “It’s not about the general secretary, who’s following the rules. We need to change those rules.”

Comrade Draper was rather better. He concentrated on the purge - after all, he himself had been a victim. He had simply retweeted a message that used terms like ‘Blairites’, ‘traitors’ and ‘scum’ and was suspended from the party. But, it seems, the compliance unit had not realised he was not just a nobody and, as a union general secretary, he was given a number to ring and was immediately reinstated - “special treatment” is what he called it.

There were, of course, rather fewer motions and amendments than in previous years, partly as a result of the decision of the leadership to suddenly disaffiliate supporting organisations, such as Labour Party Marxists and Socialist Fight, together with the Irish Republican Prisoners Support Group and the Grass Roots Left. There was a picket of SF comrades and others at the start of the conference, complaining about the exclusion of their motions.

So it was the NC’s own statement and motions that dominated proceedings. These tended to give us a list of evils that had to be opposed and another of good things we ought to campaign for. All very well and good, but surely it would have been better to focus on the central question of the Labour Party. And when the NC did connect its chosen themes to the fight within Labour, there were some major flaws.

On ‘equality’, for instance, while the NC correctly stated that “Labour’s right wing is exploiting issues of prejudice, intolerance and hatred” and we must “persist in exposing the sickening and dangerous misuse of hate issues as weapons against us”, it preceded this by saying: “We must be careful not to deny that people on the left can ever be guilty of abuse or downplay the vital and decisive importance of challenging sexism, homophobia, disabilism and all racism in the Labour Party ...”

The problem with this is that it concedes ground to the right by implying that its witch-hunt in some cases might have had justification. The actual ‘hate issue’ that the right chose as its ‘weapon’ was, of course, anti-Semitism - but strangely this term was absent from both the pre-conference material and from Jackie Walker’s own speech (on ‘equality’).

Comrade Walker did start by pointing out that her words had previously been distorted and so she would be very careful in what she said on this occasion. So perhaps that is why she did not mention either anti-Semitism or Zionism (the real target of many of those falsely accused of the former). While comrade Walker admitted that the media and the right were “happy to run with” anti-racism, she claimed that “people of colour” continue to be “discriminated against” in every way - racism does not just consist of opposition to immigration, she told us.

Unlike her, Pete Firmin, of the LRC NC, did not claim that the consensus that “immigration is a problem” is purely and simply ‘racist’ (opposition to the presence of, say, Polish workers has little to do with their nationality, let alone their ‘race’). But comrade Firmin’s point was that we need to “fight for freedom of movement and no borders”. Quite right.

Returning to the question of Momentum, it was comrade Firmin who had taken the lead in moving an amendment on behalf of Brent Trades Council. The amendment was critical of the Momentum leadership for its “lack of internal democracy”, and it was greatly strengthened by an emergency motion/amendment, reading: “The LRC AGM condemns the decision of yesterday’s Momentum SC to cancel the scheduled NC for November 5 and its decision to abandon a delegate conference in February.”

It would have been very useful if Jon Lansman had turned up to address us, as advertised, but earlier chair Claire Wadey had announced that he was not able to come after all. There was an audible reaction, including ironic expressions of disappointment, but I am not sure that comrade Wadey herself was being ironic when she said there must be “no uncomradely or potentially abusive remarks” in response to her announcement.

A couple of comrades were less than happy with the last-minute amendment criticising the Momentum leadership. Mike Phipps, a member of the LRC’s NC, was against it, as we ought to realise that “Momentum is not the enemy”. After all, as the NC had pointed out, Momentum is a “work in progress”. Another comrade said it was “very dangerous at this stage” to express criticisms. He admitted that he himself was “not happy about Momentum”, only to add: “I’ll say it here, but not publicly.” I’m afraid your thoughts are now public, comrade. Then there were the usual calls for action rather than debating our differences. “Let’s come together,” said a comrade. “Don’t shoot ourselves in the foot.” We should “stop thinking about this or that matter - think about the people out there”.

But others took the opposite view - “Comradely criticism should not be seen as an attack”; “We are part of Momentum and have a right to put our point of view”. Pete Firmin was correctly scathing about the Lansman leadership: Momentum “hasn’t prioritised opposing the right”, it “didn’t campaign against the purge” and in fact, when it came to the Jackie Walker case, it had “completely capitulated to it”.

I am pleased to report that, despite the reticence on the part of some on the LRC leadership, both the Brent amendment and the emergency addendum were passed overwhelmingly.


1. The video of his speech - apart from the first few minutes is available at https://vimeo.com/189493808.