By the end of its conference (22-26, September) Labour had agreed to take all PFI contracts back “in house” across the public services, to ballot tenants on regeneration schemes and to repeal all the anti-union laws.
These policies are great starts, taking Labour towards have bold pro-working class policies but they are not enough without a commitment to a class-struggle socialism that looks to workers’ struggle as the lever to change society.
Without that orientation Labour will have no “social movements” outside Parliament which are strong enough able to build support and pressure against the Tories and to mobilise the labour movement and working class communities.
There was revolt against the blandness and lack of anything radical in the National Policy Forum reports. There were four attempts to refer back specific areas of the reports, on welfare and benefit cuts, NHS privatisation, on education and on Brexit. All other than Brexit were successful even with some of the major unions voting against. This is a small but not insignificant step and could foster healthy spirit of revolt against the old bureaucreatised policy-making, in favour of genuine participation and radicalism.
Over 1,000 delegates and 13,000 visitors attended the conference. In contrast to the muted and right-wing conference of 2016, from the outset it was clear that Corbyn’s supporters were dominant..
More delegates were able to speak and there was real debate at conference. However overall the structure of the conference remained that of previous years, one designed to limit discussion. And there was the usual over representation of councillors and union big-wigs speaking.
If Labour is to take on the power of the rich and oppose austerity they will have to be much bolder. Motions that committed Labour to a more radical and anti-capitalist strategy were put forward but were ruled out of order. For example, Leeds West’s motion to nationalise the banks.
Labour’s conference is not like those of the major unions, the TUC, or even the National Union of Students. During any one session you could be discussing two separate National Policy Forum reports plus a couple of composited motions. The debate structure is a mess. Currently there are no standing orders. Delegates will have to wait till the 2018 conference, when a motion from Islington North, arguing for the principle of Standing Orders, will be discussed.
The tone of almost all the speeches was broadly left wing, and the reception for most of those speeches was incredibly enthusiastic. Multiple standing ovations were made; there were long gaps in the debates for rapturous applause, whatever the politics of topic being discussed.
Contradictory speeches were vigorously applauded. In one session one delegate called for the abolition of all detention centres and an end to inhumane treatment of migrants, while another said that MI5 and MI6 and the rest of the secret services were the real heroes in the fight against terrorism. Both speeches were very popular. That was not untypical.
The lack of structure causes problems of democracy. There is a farcical culture surrounding the process of delegates being called to speak. With a notable exception in Claudia Webbe, the chairs had their own lists of who they would call supplemented, it appeared, by whoever could stand on a chair, have a crowd surrounding them asking them to be picked, or wave increasingly ludicrous items (inflatable dragons, parrots, flashing LED portraits of Jeremy Corbyn, flags etc.). One chair openly admitted they could not see any of the delegates from the Eastern and Yorkshire and Humber Regions located in the tiered seating. Another chair had to be forced to take people only after mass uproar… this was followed by another round of rapturous applause.
While important motions and policy were discussed and passed, some of the better contributions came from questions to the treasurer.
Delegates from Bristol North West, South East Cornwall and Newark argued that the central party office is not sending money where it is needed or given to local parties to run effective campaigns. The current balance of funding within the Labour Party is indeed skewed, with 95% of funds going to the central party. If we want local parties to become hubs of effective and bold campaigning, to foster Young Labour groups and other activities, a review of the funding is needed.
Conference 2017 was a big step forward in many ways, but there are two things that members must urgently fight to change.
One is the way conference is run. We need to push for a much more open and democratic conference that takes the time to debate big issues, we should end the rally-like speeches and stitched up votes.
That includes getting better delegations from the unions as well as the local parties. For instance left wing rule changes and moves, such as referring back the Conference Arrangement Committee report, were defeated because the major unions dominated the block vote.
Sixty emergency resolutions were ruled out of order, and the only ones allowed onto the agenda came from Unite and the GMB, because both the CAC and TULO (the umbrella group for affiliated unions) wanted to stop important issues coming to conference floor.
There is growing pressure from the left in the party to do something more than just say how bad the cuts are, the majority of which are being made in local government. Yet there was no discussion on the cuts at conference.
At the same time as more new activists are drawn in, many will be push forward to stand in council elections, especially where right wing councillors can be deselected. But if the Labour’s strategy is to be vocal against the cuts while swinging the axe on behalf of the Government, instead of building a strong coalition against the cuts, many of these activists will be sucked into making bad decisions. Their support for Corbyn will be mere gloss on making the exact same cuts as their right-wing predecessors.
The debate on the rule change over “conduct prejudicial to the party” was largely focused on antisemitism.
The rule change that caused the most controversy was proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement. It made changes to the conditions of membership that would provide the National Executive Committee with additional powers to deal with “conduct prejudicial to the party”, e.g .racism, homophobia, misogyny, disability discrimination, and antisemitism.
It was clear the motion would be passed, but a vocal bloc denounced the JLM as a hostile element seeking to disparage ordinary members of the party and provide cover for an attack on the right to “free speech on Israel.”
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of the Jewish Voice for Labour group said that Labour does not have a problem with Jews, implying that the rule’s mention of antisemitism alongside racism is an unnecessary addition designed to damage criticism of Israel.
If antisemitism in the Labour Party is no more prevalent than in wider society that is hardly cause for celebration or dismissal. As on every other issue of discrimination it is perfectly logical and correct for Labour members and the party to hold itself to a much higher standard.
In fact there is a problem with antisemitism on the left and in the labour movement, and we agree with the JLM that this should be tackled. This has got to be through rational discussion and education on the core issues. We have done more then any organisation on the left to write about and uncover the roots of left antisemitism, the Stalinist and other influences which have allowed it to spread.
Our issue with the JLM is that we are not happy with loosely-worded new disciplinary rules to deal with the issue, especially when there is a culture in the Labour Party of suspensions and expulsions often without hearing or appeal.