In his keynote speech to the Labour Representation Committee conference on 14 November, John McDonnell’s general assessment was that we are in a “difficult period”. We have “got to keep the Tories out”, but we know how bad New Labour is. “Our job is to act as beacons in the darkness”.
In the coming general election, he urged LRC supporters to focus all their efforts on getting left Labour MPs re-elected. It is “not about alternative manifestos, or getting expelled”, he said, but “the same as every other grouping in the Labour Party, we will be setting out our programme, a platform for change”.
Although McDonnell stressed that he is not writing off the general election yet as a Tory victory, he was downbeat. Half of the members of the 25-strong caucus of left Labour MPs, the Campaign Group, are retiring at this general election. Others may well lose their seats through a general swing against Labour. “We could be down to two or three socialist MPs in the next Parliament”.
However, he said, if a dozen or so left Labour MPs can be returned, there is also the possibility that in a hung parliament, or one with a small Labour majority, those left MPs could “hold the balance of power” and be able to negotiate large concessions.
McDonnell also said that if he is does not get on the ballot paper in a new leadership election, he will not support any soft “centre-left” candidate. “We have to keep our hands clean for the future”. He said that the LRC will call an emergency conference after the general election to debate next steps.
The LRC conference’s closing speech, from Katy Clark MP, struck a very different note. Arriving only just in time to make her speech, Clark declared that “there is a battle in the labour movement and the Labour Party, and we are on the verge of winning”.
She pointed to “some small victories” already visible — Brown’s talk of a Tobin Tax, the small retreat on Trident, the slight moves on Labour Party democracy, the climbdown on Royal Mail privatisation” — and declared that “they”, the Blair-Brownites, “are the old guard now”.
Where McDonnell had emphasised left Labour MPs retiring, Clark emphasised that many right-wing “New Labour” MPs are withdrawing and can be replaced by more left-wing candidates.
A motion from CWU Central London branch called for the LRC to “approach Labour candidates, CLPs, and trade union bodies to come together for a socialist campaign at the General Election”, advancing socialist ideas as well as campaigning to keep the Tories out.
It was passed, but many even of the speakers in favour of it evidently thought in terms only of the “backstop” activity of LRC members getting on trains and buses to go and canvass for left Labour MPs at the general election. They seemed not to believe it possible for local Trades Councils or trade union branches to make a political intervention at the election in that majority of constituencies where the choice will be between a New Labour candidate and a Tory or Lib-Dem.
Labour bigwigs claimed a “thumping victory” in the 12 November Glasgow North East by-election. But 60% of votes casts translates into just 19% support from the electorate as a whole (because of the 70% abstention rate). The SNP did poorly, but at an all-Scottish level the SNP’s share of the vote remains relatively stable.