Corbyn surge changes Labour conference

Submitted by Gemma_S on 26 September, 2017 - 8:09
Labour conference 2017

The Corbyn surge is starting to filter through the party and have an impact on Labour Party Conference.

Happening in Brighton on 24-27 September, this year's conference has over 1000 delegates, more than double the usual number. Around two-thirds of those delegates are on the left, or to be more specific support Corbyn's leadership. It was reported at a Campaign for Labour Party Democracy fringe meeting that the conference has had 13,000 people at in total: delegates, observers, visitors to Momentum's The World Transformed fringe festival, and other fringe events.

The huge potential of the Corbyn surge is clear. There is now a very large number of left-wing people who have organised themselves into the structures of the Labour Party. We now need to turn that potential into real democratic change in the party.

There is a definite change in atmosphere at conference this year. At a CLPD fringe NEC member Claudia Webbe described it as a "celebration conference". That is a good description of the atmosphere, but not necessarily a positive one. The general tone of the conference, even from the organised left in Momentum and CLPD, has been one of dismissing political debate in favour of "uniting" behind Corbyn.

Some aspects of conference have already changed for the better. Conference time has been rearranged to give MPs and other Labour dignitaries much less time for grandstanding speeches than usual, with even key speeches by Shadow Secretaries of State being reduced to ten minutes. Instead delegates have more time to speak. This is good.

But in other ways conference still very much looks like the pre-Corbyn conferences, the result of decades of squeezing the democracy out of conference and reducing its policy making role in the party. The number of contemporary motions discussed, and voted on, is still very small. This allowed those who did not want a motion on free movement discussed and voted on to argue that it was more important to give the limited space to discussion of issues that were not the subject of NEC statements elsewhere on the agenda. They were wrong, but this meant delegates that are not otherwise against free movement did not prioritise the free movement motion.

Free movement

Brexit has been a constant discussion at conference, and it is clear not only that there is disagreement in the party about it but that the leadership has no clear policy. Kier Starmer's speech was a great feat of using a lot of words to say absolutely nothing. As a result of motions on free movement and Brexit not being prioritised, conference has spent a lot of time discussing Brexit, and free movement, but not voted on anything. There has been no decision made by members about what Labour's policy should be on the biggest issue of the next year or more.

Both Momentum and CLPD, through Momentum's app and the CLPD's yellow pages bulletin, told delegates not to prioritise Brexit. This is shameful. Arguments that issues where there are disagreements should not be discussed for fear of disunity are wrong.

It is not clear that a majority of conference would not have been in favour of a motion defending free movement. Many delegates have made speeches in favour of free movement to much applause.

Right to strike

On Monday a composite motion on Trade Union rights was passed overwhelmingly by conference. This motion committed a Labour government to repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act and anti-union laws introduced in the 80s and 90s. This is an improvement from 2015 when unions argued in compositing to take out reference to repealing older anti-union laws. But this year's compositing process removed specific reference to the sort of right to strike we need: the right to solidarity action, workplace ballots, and political strikes.

The motion also supported the Picturehouse and McDonald's strikes, and called on CLPs and MPs to "support local action by workers".

Future

A variety of rule change motions have this year made it to conference, a result of finally working through the two-year wait to be heard, which would start to change some of the democratic-deficits in the party. Most of these rule changes will be remitted to an up coming "democracy review" to be headed up by Katy Clark.

This conference has proved that without a significant reorganisation and reclaiming of the party, not only will the right regain confidence and use the party structures to shut down the Corbyn-surge, but the debate needed on the left in order to hold the leadership to account will not happen.

We will have more coverage after conference ends on Wednesday 27 September.