Now the real work begins
The left made limited, but real, gains at conference, reports Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists
Labour conference 2017 was certainly historic: almost 1,200 delegates and 13,000 visitors made this officially the “largest conference ever”, as national executive committee member Pete Willsman says. It was also very leftwing, at least in its composition.
And there are many things the left can and should celebrate about this year’s gathering:
- We defeated attempts by the right to portray Corbyn supporters as anti-Semites. Clearly designed to shut up the left and make it fearful to speak out on the injustices committed by the Israeli state, they achieved exactly the opposite effect: dozens of podium speakers condemned the right’s vile witch-hunt and in favour of the rights of Palestinians. This ran like a red thread throughout the conference.
- Pressure from below (and perhaps Corbyn himself?) forced the conference arrangements committee to reinsert Labour’s support for the Palestinian cause in the national policy forum’s report.
- The right in Labour First and Progress were totally marginalised. And they were visibly upset about it: Labour First’s dismissal of the majority of new members as “naive” “John Lennonists” and its rants against the Marxist “bullies” - who apparently are fans of “secret police goons”, fetishists for “the violence of the Russian Revolution” and South American “authoritarianism” - show that LF and Progress have their backs against the wall: it is a sign of their weakness.
But conference business itself - while slightly less stage-managed than under Tony Blair - was still firmly in the hands of the right wing: to be precise, the conference arrangements committee (CAC). For example:
- There were no real, focused debates on anything. The documents produced by the NPF (the national policy forum, to which Tony Blair outsourced policy-making) are full of waffle and without any concrete policies. Contemporary motions were distributed way too late and, once merged, were too vague and non-committal.
- The NEC exercised a lot of pressure on delegates to remit all their rule change proposals in favour of the ‘Party democracy review’ - even those that do not fall in the review’s remit. Conference should have had a chance to properly debate and vote on, say, the McDonnell amendment (which would have lowered the number of nominations required from Labour MPs/MEPs in a leadership election); the need to abolish the 12 months delay affecting rule changes proposed by Constituency Labour Parties; and the fight to democratise Young Labour.
- About a third of contemporary motions were ruled out of order by the CAC, including a dozen that wanted to end British weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, because one of the NPF documents already touched on the issue (without giving any clear commitment, of course). That is a travesty of democracy.
Clearly, the left still has a long way to go in its fight to transform the Labour Party. For a start, conference really must become the sole, sovereign decision-making body and to that end the NPF should be abolished immediately. It is an instrument designed to stop members shaping party policy.
The next 12 months are going to be very important in our fight to democratise and transform Labour and take it out of the hands of people like Iain McNicol, the compliance unit and the unaccountable ex-officios, who were seen hobnobbing at various fringe events. But though Corbyn is leader and the CLPs are ever more in the hands of the left, the right is far from finished. It dominates the PLP, the councillors are overwhelmingly on the right, under McNicol it controls the bureaucracy and there are more than a few of them in the shadow cabinet. But the left is making inroads:
- With the addition of three more members chosen by CLPs, the NEC now has a (slim) leftwing majority.
- The new CAC (which will come into office in October and remains in charge for two years), will have a pro-Corbyn majority: Seema Chandwani and Billy Hayes were elected by the membership and two more seats will be taken up by the Unite union. This might lead one to think that the 2018 and 2019 conferences will be a lot more democratic. But, on the other hand, we do have the terrible example of what happened to Momentum’s democracy at the hands of Corbyn’s close allies.
- The so-called ‘Corbyn review’, which will examine party democracy, will be run by Katy Clarke, Claudia Webbe and Andy Kerr - all firmly in the Corbyn camp. Not that we should to rely on Corbyn and his allies to sort everything out. Corbyn himself has relented to pressure from the right on too many issues - be it the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign, Trident or free movement. Corbyn et al seem to believe that the saboteurs on the right can be pacified and ‘party unity’ consolidated by giving ground on these issues. This is dangerously naive. The outcome of the Chakrabarti enquiry shows the opposite to be true. The witch-hunters’ appetites grow in the eating. Nonetheless, this gives us an unprecedented, historic opportunity to begin the transformation of the party.
What about the left? Most of them, including Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour Representation Committee, are so concerned about uncritically supporting Corbyn that they have voluntarily downed tools on a number of important questions: for example, the fight for mandatory reselection of MPs. So we cannot rely on them either.
We believe that members need to exercise as much pressure as possible over two concrete issues arising from conference:
1. The Corbyn review must be as democratic and wide-ranging as possible. Clearly, the Labour Party is ripe for top to bottom reform, but this must not be conducted behind the backs of the members. Branches and CLPs must be invited to put their views - and genuinely democratising changes must then be implemented. The review could easily become a pseudo-democratic exercise, where thousands of people send in their blue-sky thoughts and we end up with another compromise between left and right. This is, of course, the way the NPF currently works.
2. The NEC compromise on ‘prejudice’ in the membership conditions is a fudge. Yes, the worst excesses of the Jewish Labour Movement’s rule change have been removed. But the fingerprints of this pro-Zionist organisation are all over the compromise - we hear that the JLM is lobbying Corbyn and the NEC to be allowed to help write the new code of conduct. They hope this will enshrine in our rulebook the controversial ‘Working definition of anti-Semitism’, produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This conflates anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and has been widely criticised. The JLM must not be allowed to continue to exercise pressure way beyond its numerical size. Conference has shown clearly that the membership has no interest in appeasing those determined to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.