'Save our party' conference: concrete action required

Graham Bash is on the editorial board of Labour Left Briefing

For all the obvious presentational faults - like having an all-male platform, or no speakers from the floor in the plenary session - today’s conference is a real development.

It reflects the growing alliance between the left of the constituencies and the parliamentary party and the emerging left in the trade unions, expressed through people like Woodley. What we’ve seen here is a sizeable increase from last year’s conference, probably because of New Labour’s weakening hold on the party.

We’ve had a lot of good speeches today - I say that without any cynicism. It’s a start, but I do think it’s got to be translated into a more organised resistance. The embryonic alliance we are seeing here today now has to be organised. People are sometimes afraid of organisation - a ‘party within a party’ and all those sorts of phrases leap to mind. But I don’t see that there’s any alternative. Unless we organise, we just remain at the level of speeches and words.

It is heartening that there seems to be a real commitment amongst the trade unions to fight for the basic trade union and Labour programme against New Labour and to call their representatives in the party to account. However, we need to organise not only at the trade union leadership, but at the rank and file level - in the trade unions and the party.

This is not easy, but it must be done. The organisational form of that I can’t foresee, but we can’t avoid the process. What we are talking about is building an alliance as broad as the party itself, excluding New Labour.

This will have the result either of saving the party - the preferable option - or building a new Labour Party, if the Blairites succeed in destroying it. And what we are talking about is rebuilding or saving a Labour party, not a narrow sect.

That is what this conference is about - saving it if possible, rebuilding it if necessary. This needs not only the embryonic alliances and programme discussions we are seeing here today. It needs the trade union to put the funds into building real structures and think tanks that can develop an alternative Labour programme.

At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate New Labour. Yes, its hold is diminishing. Yes, on a whole number of issues the people at today’s conference speak for a majority for the first time for a generation. But New Labour still has an enormous organisational stronghold which can’t be just wished away. We have to organise to reclaim the party - as John McDonnell said at the Labour Against the War conference, ward by ward, constituency by constituency and trade union by trade union. That needs cementing the embryonic alliances we have seen here with organisation and funds.

Today’s conference is excellent, but it’s a question of what we do from here.

For the moment, I am appreciating the words that are coming from Tony Woodley and others about the ‘awkward squad’ becoming more proactive in the fight. But we must ensure that this is actually put into practice. The way we do that is not to attack the people coming out with these statements, but to build at the base of the trade unions an organisation that will ensure that these words are carried out and these leaders are held to account - to encourage them to translate their fine words into concrete action.