There are big barriers to overcome
Jim Grant of Labour Party Marxists looks forward to the Liverpool conference
Whatever else may turn out to be the legacy of the Labour Party’s Corbynite leadership, it has at least made conferences interesting again.
Though Labour’s annual gatherings early on lost even the nominal power to discipline the parliamentary party, they remained dramatic pieces of theatre, with cabinet ministers booed and complicated machinations between the union barons and party bosses, not to say the occasional leftwing rebellion. Plenty of policy could get through from the floor, against the wishes of the leadership - the latter would act in contempt, sometimes open contempt, of such insolence. The Blair years saw no end of attacks on conference, however, until it was reduced to the sort of tedious media circus more associated with the Tories - with all the interest, such as it was, taking place in fringe events.
That was the situation down to 2015 - and how long ago it all seems! This year’s event looks set to see fierce controversy, in the hall and the hallways. It is now the job of an outsider-left leadership to keep the whole show on the road.
This is no small matter. Even allowing for the fact that the standard method for the right to roll back the gains of the left in this period is to keep the atmosphere at a perpetual level of crisis, it is a particularly fraught moment for a conference. Many contradictions are coming to a head, and it is to be hoped that the decisive questions will make it to the agenda, with the true fault lines laid out for all to see.
The conference comes hot on the heels of the national executive committee’s disastrous decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, together with all its ‘examples’, in the hope presumably that it would make the confected hoo-ha about ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Labour Party go away - and in the knowledge, of course, that the support was not there in the main affiliated unions to make a fight of it. No doubt there will be contemporary motions on the agenda on the subject; whether any will make it to a vote is a very different matter.
Less dramatic, but no less important, is the fate of the ‘democracy review’, headed by Katy Clark. Submissions were collected in the spring, and the final proposals were discussed at this week’s NEC meeting. According to NEC member Darren Williams, a number of small changes were accepted, but most of the more radical proposals (like the abolition of the three-year rule, which means that a subject voted upon at conference cannot be revisited for another three years, even if it just deals with the issue tangentially) were “either kicked into the long grass or killed off altogether”, as he laments on Facebook. “I’m sorry to say that the majority of the NEC - including much of the so-called left - has proven itself too cautious and conservative to grasp the opportunity that the democracy review presented.” Two of the key issues will be revisited once more by the NEC before conference on September 22, writes comrade Williams: namely the “leadership nomination rules and the NEC’s “position on parliamentary selection procedures”.
How we got from the submissions to the final shape of things - which amount to extremely modest changes for the better, and (according, at least, to Momentum), significant changes for the worse made to placate union tops by giving the largest unions an effective veto on candidates - is an important matter. An anonymous source described the change regarding future leadership elections to The Guardian as a “purge of the Chrises” - Williamson and Leslie, leftwing and rightwing troublemakers respectively - and the same paper described a last-minute flurry of negotiations between the leader’s office and various union headquarters, which has led to a suggested compromise, where 10% of individual party members plus 5% of MPs/MEPs plus 5% of union affiliates would be needed to get a candidate on the ballot. Currently, 10% of MPs/MEPs are needed and party members and affiliates play no role. (Funnily enough, it seems the conference arrangements committee is happy to ignore the three-year rule for this issue - after all, the threshold was reduced from 15% to 10% only last year). This new proposal makes it slightly easier for a leftwinger to get on the ballot, but, of course, it is still hugely difficult. In our view, there should not be a barrier at all - it should be up to members to decide.
It is partly in this context that we should frame the recent rumours of a plot to replace Jeremy Corbyn with John McDonnell, in what would truly be an act of treachery to remember. The Sunday Times (September 16) took it upon itself to interpret McDonnell’s excruciating acts of accommodation to rightwing MPs as evidence of an Ides of March situation brewing in the shadows. Rather hopeful-sounding anonymous MPs reacted to the later leak of a proposal to make an acting leader answerable to the NEC in the event of the sudden indisposition of the leader with the thought that the current leader might, indeed, himself become indisposed. We cannot know either way, but frankly we doubt it. The horse-trading is to secure the leadership, and nothing else.
That is not to say that the leadership camp - or, at least, the leadership camp as it was constituted a year ago - has no divisions. Particularly obvious is the cooling of relations between the leader’s office and Momentum, with the outlines of a sharp disagreement discernible during the fiasco of John Lansman’s abortive tilt at the general secretary’s job. That in the end went to Jennie Formby, a Unite official and an ally of Len McCluskey, as they seek to get a firmer grip on the head office. Thus, in the current context, Momentum has donned its tribune-of-the-membership costume. The higher leadership threshold is vigorously opposed - clicktivists were urged, on September 18, to lobby the NEC to drop it.
Lansman has also rediscovered his interest in mandatory reselection, which had previously been achieved, but overturned by Neil Kinnock; and deemed impolitic by the Corbyn leadership, as it sought, with boundless appetite for futility, to placate its opponents in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Lansman and Momentum have evidently lost patience with all this, leading to Chuka Umunna’s hissy fit about “attack dogs” and suchlike.
The NEC seems to be taking a middle road - proposing, according to the usually well-informed Skwawkbox, to hold two trigger ballots - one for affiliates and one for lay members - rather than just the one. The threshold would be reduced from the current 50% to 30%. In effect, even if the locally affiliated union branches vote in favour of the sitting MP, 30% of voting members in branches could vote ‘no’ and thereby trigger a full selection process (and vice versa, of course). In practice, this would likely threaten several rightwing MPs and would ruin the campaign by a number of rightwing unions and affiliated organisations to rig this process by affiliating to as many branches as possible in order to prop up rightwing MPs. Apparently, this “affirmative ballot” is one Jeremy Corbyn himself favours. But is clearly a far more modest measure than the mandatory reselection proposed by International Labour. It still favours sitting MPs, in that it requires a challenge before there is a chance of any change. It would be much more democratic to have a level playing field between all candidates.
We do not know yet how the discussion and voting around these proposals will be structured at conference. What we know is that on Sunday, ‘Party democracy’ will be debated, but it is unclear if conference will also vote on any of the recommendations at this stage. On Tuesday, the CAC has allocated a whopping 40 minutes to hear “NEC and CLP constitutional amendments” … and there are 33 coming from the CLPs alone.1 As democrats we would favour an open discussion, with a vote between competing proposals. In such a scenario, mandatory reselection might actually have a chance (it all depends on what system Len McCluskey is supporting). If there is a vote on Sunday, however, we fear the rule change by International Labour (as many others) will be removed from the agenda, as it will have been superseded by Sunday’s decisions.
In any case, renewed talk of a ‘new centre party’ seems to be blackmail aimed at circumventing either of the proposals. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader opened up a particular contradiction. On the one hand, the Labour left had long been characterised by - among other things - a vigorous dedication to improving the democratic norms of the party. One of its core organisations was, and is, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. The democratic self-image of the left found a very convincing foil in the obvious hatred of the right for control from below. There were ruling parties in the Soviet-led ‘eastern bloc’ with more room for dissent than Blair’s Labour. The ‘big idea’ behind the 2014-15 reforms to the leadership election process, meanwhile - the cheapo ‘registered supporters’ and all the rest - was that appealing to atomised reactionaries ‘out there’ would further reduce the leader’s accountability to lay members of the party.
So the democratising left’s candidate for leader was elected under the most Bonapartist system in Labour’s history. This gives a peculiar structure to the left’s power in the party. There is a very small number of people in the PLP who may be considered genuine lefts; there is a very even split on the NEC; and there is a large base of rank-and-file support. Protecting the current leadership is therefore paramount - but the leadership institution is odious, certainly in its current form.
Complicating matters further is the inherent political weakness of the Labour left - its nationalism and its constitutionalism (or rather its inability to break with those who will not countenance radical restructuring of political power). If, as hardly seems unlikely, there is a general election in the short term, and if Labour wins a majority in parliament - and if the queen appoints Corbyn prime minister - he will in reality be leading a minority government, twice over. Britain’s undemocratic electoral system will have given him more votes than his numerical share will deserve, and in any case he will not enjoy the enthusiastic support of his parliamentary colleagues. The ultimate result is that politics could be reduced once more to horse-trading, and a consequence would be the necessity of keeping one’s own side tightly under control.
Lansman, by ensuring Momentum developed merely into a factional machine under his own tight control, played this role in an earlier phase - a small matter which rather puts his sudden democratism in perspective. Yet his internet irregulars are small fry compared to the institutional power of the major unions, so Corbyn has good reason to shelter with them instead, if shelter is forthcoming. So much the worse for the rest of us.
It seems almost churlish, at this point, to mention that there are points of serious contention about general politics to deal with, which will be discussed at conference. All eyes, in this regard, are on Brexit - with the trade unions gesturing in favour of a second referendum, and Sadiq Khan surprising only the terminally unflappable by openly calling for one, it seems that attention will certainly alight on the issue. The leadership has the trump card, for once: with a general election probably looming, it is most prudent to wait before sticking a middle finger up to (by serious accounts) about a third of your voters at the last time of asking.
It is worth noting how odd a view of matters this is - that the electoral optics should supervene over whatever matters of political principle are at issue. Yet we must insist that this is what is going on. The anti-Brexit Labour right mutters that Corbyn is a closet ‘leaver’, as if that is an explanation; in reality, they are either deluded or are loyal to British state interests over and above Labour’s electoral returns. They really ought to know better, as this sort of genuflecting before psephological conjectures was brought to its purest expression by one Tony Blair. The corollary of dealing with this issue - or any other à la Blair - is that the massed ranks of the labour movement are excluded from mastering the issue, in both the epistemological and political senses. As with the matter of party democracy, our policy must apparently reflect merely the line of ceasefire, not the way forward for the working class - or even, should the Blairites emerge victorious, the way forward for the bourgeoisie.
The bottom line is that the struggle for the transformation of the Labour Party must escape the shackles of unconditional Corbyn-loyalism. We must remind people that Harold Wilson was a Bevanite, and Kinnock a leftwinger too - until they were not any more. A good Labour conference, within the bounds of the current arrangements, would see the rejection of the IHRA examples, mandatory reselection passed and substantial democratic change. That would be a tall order - but a tall order precisely because of the political weakness of the left.
It would still not be good enough, however, and a far more ambitious programme of democratisation - including the total subordination of the PLP to leading party bodies, the concomitant democratisation of the trade unions and other labour movement forces, and the abolition of the post of leader altogether - is needed to seriously guard against the danger of a return to rightwing control.
Under such a regime, high politics would not be subordinated to low politics - that is, the chittering of statistics in a party headquarters basement. Truly transformative political programmes - not least the programme of Marxism - would demand answers from their opponents, and defence from their advocates. That, well above any short-term change in parliamentary arithmetic, is the goal. No vote contrary to it at this year’s conference can be considered a victory.