Focus group goop
Left treated with blatant contempt. Right relishes its witch-hunt triumph. Andrew Kirkland of Labour Party Marxists reports from the Brighton conference hall
Braving the Covid risk, 1,300 delegates attended the five-day conference.
In her opening remarks the chair for the first session, Margaret Beckett, enthusiastically referenced Labour politicians from the pre-Corbyn era - by omission implying that the recent period was one best forgotten. This set the scene for conference, where various chairs would display an obvious bias in favour of pro-Starmer speakers, and treat the left delegates with a patronising contempt that was so blatant that it offended the few neutrals present.
Every day proceedings began with a short report from the conference arrangements committee (CAC). On the first day the question was asked: would there be a vote to approve the report to conference provided by the national executive committee? The reply appeared to be affirmative - more on this later.
The first big speaker was deputy leader Angela Rayner - one-time senior figure in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, now equally at home in the new regime. Her speech was all about Labour’s new green paper on employment rights, which she acknowledged was the work of Andy MacDonald - the same Andy who resigned from the shadow cabinet later during conference. As is the custom for Labour politicians, she raided the history of left struggles to appropriate convenient heroes for her speech. This time it was the Shrewsbury pickets. (Obviously she failed to mention the shameful record of previous Labour governments, which refused to intervene on their behalf.)
Next we had the report from the general secretary, David Evans. He pre-empted left attempts to force a vote on endorsement of his appointment by announcing that he wanted to be approved by a card vote. He gave us a few biographical details, and then asked the rhetorical question: “Everyone remembers why they joined Labour - what was it for you?” Before he could answer his own question, he received a barrage of replies from the floor: “Jeremy Corbyn!” Although clearly rattled by this intervention, he carried on, knowing that the arithmetic was on his side - pledged support from most unions, along with his own gerrymandering of constituency delegations, would see to that. With no regard for irony he went on to praise the dedication of those who work full time for the Labour Party, despite his own plan to abolish 90 positions.
After Evans we heard from Anneliese Dodds, the party chairperson, reporting on the ‘Stronger Together’ policy initiative that she has been fronting. I must admit this was a new one on me - yet another vehicle for bypassing the democratic policymaking structures of conference. All the emphasis is on ‘Labour is delivering now’. Apparently implementing the Tory government’s austerity at the local level is a real vote winner.
After the report from the treasurer, who managed to present the complete meltdown of the party’s finances as “remaining on target”, we witnessed a most dictatorial abuse of power by the chair, Margaret Beckett, that was to be challenged over and over during the rest of the conference. She bundled the finance report and the NEC report together and asked for “formal acceptance”.
Ignoring shouts from the floor, she moved on to the next item - merit awards - thus avoiding any debate or vote on the NEC report. This was highly significant, because it was the only opportunity conference would have to challenge the bans and proscriptions recently re-introduced and used for the latest wave in the witch-hunt against the left. Despite all the well-argued challenges that referenced the particular clauses in the rules requiring such a vote, none of the conference chairs were prepared to overturn this ruling.
Dodds was soon back on her feet presenting the ‘Equalities Report’. This gives an indication of where the new leadership intend to move the party: namely identity politics. The shift away from the traditional class-based paradigm was also reflected in a large swathe of rule changes from the NEC. These introduced whole new chapters laying out party structures for women, BAME (that awkward combination of all people of colour, together with multiple white minorities) and disabled members. These rule changes were greeted enthusiastically by both left and right.
The NEC recommended that all the rule changes submitted by Constituency Labour Parties should be rejected. It was a major surprise then to learn that one of these changes had passed. This requires that for snap elections and by-elections there must be a local majority on the committee supervising the candidate selection process. It will be a welcome spanner thrown into the works of the now regular parachuting process used by the NEC to foist outside candidates on CLPs. However, in another session on the second day of conference, the CAC chair advised conference that, when the NEC proposes rule changes, they are allowed to bundle them up as they see fit, giving the NEC even more say over how conference is run, when in theory conference should be the highest body.
Ed Miliband returned to the big stage to tell us how to fight climate change, repeating the usual capitalist calls for Britain to “lead the world” in green technology - with the green industrial revolution generating a “people’s dividend”, however that works. He also called for offshored jobs to be brought back to Britain. Clearly he thinks we can fix the global crisis with a British solution.
As at the last conference, sectionalism within the unions led to two conflicting composite motions on the green industrial revolution. Delegates strongly argued in favour of one and against the other, but, in line with the new fashion for consensus, the delegates managed to pass both, which obviously devalues the whole exercise.
Composite one contains some very radical proposals, including a ban on fracking, free bus travel, rewilding of the countryside and introducing a right to asylum for climate refugees. Composite two, on the other hand, insists that policies must be developed with workers and trade unions, not imposed on them, and a future energy mix should include nuclear generation and ‘green gas’.
Other groupings of motions were able to agree a single composite text, but that does not mean there was any ideological unity. Pro-capitalist motions on “community wealth” and “business recovery” sat uncomfortably alongside demands for more public ownership and radical solutions to the housing crisis, but all were backed by most delegates.
For the final part of Sunday afternoon’s session, a sudden chilled atmosphere descended. The visitors’ gallery was invaded by triumphalist strangers appearing from nowhere.
The chair, Unison’s Mark Ferguson, made it clear he was taking no prisoners (or points of order). The second wave of rule changes from the NEC were to be considered by conference, and these would achieve two objectives. First, to comply with the state’s interference in the Labour Party - as enshrined in the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on anti-Semitism - we saw rule changes to introduce the external handling of disciplinary cases. And, second, changes to roll back some of the democratic reforms introduced when Corbyn was leader, and ensure that the threshold of Parliamentary Labour Party support required for a leadership candidate is immediately out of reach for a leftwinger.
After the details of the EHRC rule changes were outlined, the horror show began. The chair ‘randomly’ selected the first two speakers: Ruth Smeeth and Margaret Hodge. The left sat in stunned silence, as the Jewish Labour Movement Zionists formally declared the end of Corbynism and the ‘anti-Jew racism’ associated with it.
When the session moved to the other changes, the left could breathe again. Dave Ward of the CWU spoke first and made it clear that the trade unions were not consulted over the changes. As he called on Starmer to withdraw the new leadership threshold, so that a consensus could be agreed, the left delegates once again cheered out loud. But Starmer was unmoved. He may have retreated over reintroducing the electoral college for leadership elections, but he was happy to move forward on the other changes despite opposition from some unions.
Speakers opposing the changes homed in on the new 20% PLP requirement for leadership nominations. The case was forcefully made, with one delegate directly confronting Starmer, who sat just a few metres from the podium. However, it was all to no avail - all the rule changes were approved. The state was once more fully in control of its alternative party of government. Actually there was some truth in the final summing up from NEC member Shabana Mahmood, when she declared that a candidate who was unable to assemble nominations from 20% of the PLP would be unlikely to command the support of the PLP in the House of Commons.
The CAC was asked by a delegate to provide details of how many approved conference delegates had been suspended or expelled from the party during the course of the conference. I never expected them to reply, but on Tuesday the figure of 20 was furnished. To this should be added all those excluded during the approval process before credentials were issued. Starmer had left nothing to chance.
A portent of things to come was slipped into the agenda for late Tuesday afternoon - the return of the platform panel discussion. Billed as ‘Metro mayors in conversation’, a private media ‘facilitator’ questioned three of Labour’s northern stars. This can only be viewed as another step backwards, appropriating precious time from conference policy debates.
In the international session the conference once again revealed the political confusion of most of the CLPs and affiliates. Delegates proudly passed a motion on Palestine that went much further in criticising Israel than those passed when Corbyn was leader. Was this the same conference that only hours earlier had condemned such views as anti-Semitic poison? Not only that, but the same session heard from John Healy, shadow defence minister, who promised Labour would deliver a powerful new role for Britain in the world, and pledged total loyalty to Nato and our “essential ally”, the USA. Add to this the motion on Afghanistan: no, Labour was not condemning the imperialist intervention - this motion was all about criticising the government’s role in the emergency evacuation, and praising the British occupying troops and their Afghan collaborators.
End of dream?
Wednesday saw Sir Keir’s big moment. Ninety minutes of focus group-scripted family background goop; how his father was a humble factory worker; how his mother got ill; how, unlike that trickster, Boris Johnson, he was not a privileged posh boy. All designed to show his emotional side. Nothing about his Pabloite past, of course. The deep entry strategy of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency and his role as one of the editors of Socialist Alternatives. That would hardly fit with the banning of Labour Against the Witchhunt, Socialist Appeal, etc, and the round after round of expulsions.
There was a sprinkle of much expected policy announcements: mental health, green jobs, combating climate change and retrofitting houses. All properly costed. Naturally.
Amongst the delegates there were those who bravely waved red cards and dared to heckle. Sir Keir was more than well prepared: “shouting slogans or changing lives conference”, he snapped back to wide applause. A line that must have been readied by a whole committee of advisors. Like Brecht’s Arturo Ui he doubtless practised the line in front of a professional acting coach time and time again.
But it worked. And not only for those in the conference hall ... those who want a Labour government, any damn kind of Labour government. No, more importantly, much more importantly, it showed the capitalist media that Sir Keir’s Labour is now a different party. It can be trusted by the capitalist class and the state machine. That, of course, is what the completely unnecessary rule changes were all about, what the high profile welcoming back of Louise Ellman, the nonsense about seeing the back of anti-Semitism and the law and order promises were all about.
Yes, there were a few votes where the left scored victories, but overall, this conference was the logical outcome of Starmer’s leadership win in April 2020. For many comrades this marks the end of their dream. For others it points to the need to find a better strategy for transforming Labour and winning socialism. A key issue here is the twin-track approach advocated by LPM: build a mass Marxist party, while at the same time fighting in Labour and the trade unions.