Labour's renewal and the battle to oust the Tories (abridged from AWL Conference 2017)

Submitted by SJW on 30 November, 2017 - 5:04

The result of the June 2017 General Election was decisive in cementing, at least for a time, the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. 

We argued at the time of the election being called that; “We think it is a mistake for Labour to vote in Parliament for an election now. No democratic principle obliges us to accept the Tories calling a snap election at a moment chosen to suit them – before things get sticky with Brexit – and when Labour still needs time to do the necessary job of re-educating a public trained for decades now in bleak, no-hope, no-options conservative thinking.”

With the available information at the time, when the Labour leadership had subsided to mumbling and triangulating for some months, that was a reasonable surmise. However, the leadership rallied and produced a manifesto with the bold and attractive policies which they should have been campaigning for in the previous months, and thus, we are glad to say, it turns out we mis-judged. The Corbyn current proved to have deeper resources than we thought.

The result a Tory Minority Government backed by the DUP leaves the Tories in a fairly parlous state. There is growing disquiet about the leadership of Theresa May and although the prospects of an early general election are not immediate growing tensions on Brexit and public-sector pay are highlighting major differences within the Government.

The Government chose not to oppose Labour’s motions on lifting the pay cap for NHS workers, knowing the DUP would vote against it. As far as parliamentary norms go, their decision to abstain is unusual and means they know how vulnerable they are.

“Force the Tories Out” has a real resonance, people know what it would mean to replace the Tories with a Labour Government. Demonstrations and actions organised on this basis are likely to draw people into activity. The demonstration on 1 October will tell us about the possible scale of mobilisations and who is drawn into this activity.

We will continue to argue that Labour organise demonstrations and mobilise on the streets to oppose the Government particularly around set piece events like the budget.

We will also argue that within parliament the Labour Party withdraws all co-operation from the Tories, i.e. twinning MPs etc. making the case that the government is illegitimate and doing everything within our power to bring the government down, hasten a new general election and win it. We will loudly and clearly denounce and fight against any cross-party cooperation to get Brexit through.

The Labour Party now has 575,000 members with another boost since the election. There is growing evidence that there has been a marked increase in active membership – turnout at ward and CLP AGMs, campaign days etc. These have shown that there is a re-engaged activist layer of Labour members, many of whom remained inactive in the earlier days of Corbyn’s leadership.

We are still presented with an opportunity to transform the Labour party and wider labour movement but this relies on a large section of this membership turning towards activity, and who want to consciously commit to work in the Labour Party and labour movement to become socialists.
Our role remains that of “permanent persuaders” working with both the re-energised and new members of the LP to fight not just for better and more left-wing policy but to take ownership of socialist ideas and fight vehemently for them.

We advocate a labour movement which fights for redistributive measures such as in the manifesto, and also goes on to secure those measures and change society thoroughly, by common ownership and democratic control of the chief means of production.

The election result opens up new chances to instill socialist purpose in the labour movement, in the full revolutionary sense of the word "socialist", but it is down to us to do the instilling: it is not happening automatically or organically.

That the time of the good election result was also the time when the worst decline in union membership since systematic records began is not a mere curiosity. It points up the urgency of turning electoral strength into systematically-organised strength.

We must educate all our members about the centrality of building a revolutionary Marxist force in the labour movement, and building AWL as the nucleus of that. We seek to convince less-defined Labour left-wingers that the new openings increase the urgency of organising with us on a revolutionary Marxist basis.

Young Labour
The building of self-sustaining, vibrant and active Young Labour groups is the key driver of this. Constituency young labour groups can in some ways play the role of the previous groups for Labour youth that existed from the 1950s into bringing a layer of activists into activity and for building a strong and committed left-wing of it. If we are to recruit systematically from work in the LP, a local group with attractive but not overbearing activity and a healthy internal culture will help us to do so.
The process of setting up a constituency Young Labour group is relatively simple but has not been on the agenda on the labour left since the Corbyn surge. We will be the pro-active advocates of doing so.

It is noticeable even in the largest local parties like Hornsey & Wood Green with over 4000 members and an AGM of 160+ GC delegates that young people were in a small minority. Without a sustained push to build these groups a longer lasting opportunity to transform the Labour Party and build our organisation will be squandered.

Trade Unions
We will undertake a renewed drive to advocate and push for Labour Party affiliation/reaffiliation in unaffiliated trade unions.

This will be supported by a drive for active and ongoing union involvement including delegates to local Labour parties. At the moment, many CLPs have a tiny minority of local union branches affiliated to them and those that have more are often used by the right to guarantee places on GCs now being won by left wing delegates in branches.

The unions all differ in how they get motions and policy sent to local parties but we will in so far as is possible treat them the same as ward meetings.

This means calling for union branches to hold meetings of labour delegates to decide on motions and policy for meetings as well as turning outwards and recruiting union members to the Labour Party.

Labour Party Conference
By the end of its conference 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 build on the 2017 manifesto and are from a combination of contemporary motions and announcements from the leadership.

Other than a nod to the McDonalds strikers from John McDonnell there was not a commitment to a class-struggle socialism that looks to workers’ struggle as the lever to change society. Neither was support more generally for strikes mentioned by any top table speaker. 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 supporters were dominant.
Unlike last year the vote for the left candidates in the NCC elections were overwhelming.

Despite greater participation and some real if limited debate the prevailing Blairite model of conference remained intact. In its last deaththrows the right dominated CAC ruled multiple contemporary motions out of order and rejected all but two emergency resolutions.

The tone of almost all the delegate 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. The political level remains low as could be seen from contradictory speeches given equal acclaim on conference floor.

We must also recognise that on the one area of major controversy among the left, debate was shut down. Conference to prioritise Brexit as an area to discuss. There was a coordinated effort from Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Leader’s Office to ensure only areas where there was broad agreement were discussed.

The leadership may think it is being clever by remaining evasive on the issue but members have now had no say on what Labour’s policy should be on one of the biggest issues in politics. A motion defending free movement might well have passed. Speeches in favour received strong support and there is potential to build on and maximise the interventions of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement both locally and nationally.

Local parties who submitted rule change motions were asked to remit. All local parties agreed to remit their rule changes apart from Brighton Pavilion who insisted on pushing forward with their rule change to remove the “contemporary” restrictions on motions that can be submitted to conference.

That rule change was voted down despite being backed by a majority of local party delegates. We do not know what the remit of the democracy review into Labour Party democracy, chaired by Katy Clark will entail. While it has potential to be significant it's immediate effect has been to delay rule changes that probably would have been voted on and implemented at next years conference.
We will put forward a charter of democratic rights, not dissimilar to that proposed by the Labour Party Democracy Taskforce in 2011.

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.” 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.

A Labour Government
The prospect of a Labour Government will more sharply focus the question to activists of what will a Corbyn Government do? And what is the type of Labour government we want?

The 2017 Labour manifesto is so far, the only clear statement of principles as to the priorities and method of a Corbyn Government. Ongoing tension and disagreement about Brexit continues to highlight sharp differences both within the PLP and throughout the party membership.

A Labour government winning office on the basis of this manifesto would, in one way or another, at one pace or another - unless the labour movement had previously been transformed, with revolutionary Marxists making an essential contribution - crumble in the face of capitalist resistance and capitalist crises. The lessons from Syriza in Greece, the Workers' Party in Brazil, and the French SP-CP alliance in 1981-3, are unambiguous. We fight to get Labour returned to office, but also to transform the labour movement.

In 2016, we proposed three distinctive positions are central to the kind of politics we want to put across.

- The ideas of class and class struggle, including the centrality of strikes and working-class direct action; and working-class political representation, including candidates committed to workers’ independent interests and struggles, with a recent history of trade union or community activism, and who if elected take only a worker’s wage and give the rest to the movement.
- Public ownership (with democratic and workers’ control), in particular nationalisation of the banks and high finance to create a unified public banking, pensions and mortgage system.
- Migrants’ rights, freedom of movement and working-class unity across divisions and borders.
These remain relevant and have been bolstered by the work we have undertaken in the Picturehouse and McDonalds disputes, alongside the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, in which we play a leading role.

We have continued to call for the nationalisation of the energy industry, nationalise the big 6, continuing to link these ideas with ongoing class-struggle and give them a transitional dynamic.
We neither fall into passive acceptance of John McDonnell’s fudge around public ownership nor dismissive of the potential these demands have opened up for a more wide-ranging debate in the wider labour movement.

The headline policies of the 2017 Labour manifesto, nationalisation of the railways, £10 an hour minimum wage, banning zero hour contracts, stopping school cuts helped to reintroduce pro- working class demands back into politics and popularised a set of policies that were sufficiently clear to enthuse a large labour vote from an electorate that the right had painted as fixed and unable to accept “left wing” demands.

The 2017 manifesto buried the myth of 1983 that left-wing ideas or suggestions of more radical distribution of wealth are unable to win people to voting Labour.

Nonetheless all these demands are not incompatible with mainstream social democracy. The fact there would have to be a big fight and strong denunciation from the right-wing press to have some of these policies implemented does not contradict this. Such a fight over any of these policies would be likely to harden a layer of activists, and build confidence. If this was backed by an upsurge in industrial struggle from both the established sections and newly organised sections of the labour movement, the parameters of what are viewed as appropriate policies for the electorate would shift dramatically.

Labour's attempt to position itself as the More Police And Border Guards Party was also deeply problematic. Much of the Labour left went along uncritically with the idea that cuts to the police (and the military) are straightforwardly politically equivalent to other cuts to public services, positing "more police", "more soldiers", "more border guards" as the fundamental answer to the security issues posed by the Manchester and London attacks. We will use our newspaper to critique these ideas, and explain our position on the state.

The McDonalds strike has raised the end of zero-hour contracts and a ÂŁ10 an hour minimum wage as a core demand. As we noted in our NC document on 17 June 2017, strikes explicitly for Labour Party policy would increase the pressure for not just the leadership but the entire party to come out in favour of industrial action. Support from several new Labour MPs and left-wing members of the shadow cabinet stands in contrast to the attitude towards disputes like Southern Rail or the Birmingham bin strike and that there remains no explicit strike backing from the party nationally in its own name.

In 2017 Labour Councils will again pass on hundreds of millions of cuts unless a combative labour movement including councillors is prepared to challenge them. Since Corbyn and McDonnell retreated on this issue from previous public stances there has been a lack of proper discussion on what the Corbyn movement means for local government. Many Councillors are now openly pro-Corbyn with some playing leading roles in Momentum and often doing substantially good work. However most of them will go along with the Labour whip and vote for cuts even while protesting against them.

Our experience with Councillors Against Cuts shows that only a tiny and insignificant minority of councillors are prepared to defy the whip. We need to continue to educate people on what kind of strategy is needed to defeat the cuts and argue for local labour movement mobilisations to fight them. While the major local government unions all have anti-cuts policies and criticise individual labour councillors none of them will at a national level back those that refuse to vote for cuts.

There is an increasing danger that many of the left keen to replace Blairite and pro-cuts councillors will divert energy into themselves getting selected or helping others to do so. Without a strong, organised and aware movement that knows its history and is confident in its ideas these activists no matter how decent are liable to be diverted into making accommodations and compromises that betray the values they think they are fighting for.

Again, it remains our policy that members of the AWL will not seek selection as councillors as in addition to the reasons given above it is likely to mean less time for consistent public AWL activity.
Councillors will uphold the 2017 manifesto which is to be consistently anti-austerity. The Bristol Mayor, Marvin Rees is absolutely right to call on linking up other cities and fighting the cuts. Although his version is limited and amounts to raising an alarm against the cuts he himself is likely to put forward, it is possible to build on this idea and prepare councils to band together to fight and uphold a commitment against further austerity.

The Labour Party now should advocate budgets based on the needs of the local population which at a minimum should be a restoration of all money cut since 2010.

We will not limit ourselves to general calls for no-cuts budgets. Any sizeable take-up for such calls is likely to develop from a substantial expansion of active grass-roots campaigns against specific cuts or other anti-working class measures, usually highly-visible ones.

In many places attacks on services, privately-financed regeneration schemes, library closures and increased service charges have continued to generate substantial opposition, the StopHDV campaign in Haringey and Save our Libraries Lambeth are obvious examples of where our comrades have been involved. We also note and support campaigns for safe, affordable Council housing, particularly in light of the Grenfell Tower fire.

The most likely next stage is a multiplication and strengthening of such specific campaigns. A big take-up for the call for no-cuts budgets, or the growth of a contingent of no-cuts Labour councillors, is likely to come from that rather than before it.

We will argue and organise vigorously for those specific campaigns fight within the Labour Party. We continue to argue the perspective of no-cuts budgets, but we do not counterpose that argument to supporting and developing the specific campaigns around specific cuts, attacks and demands.

Our perspectives for Momentum
Momentum came out of the election buoyed by its own success. It ran a successful election campaign, mobilising thousands of activists into targeted seats. Alongside a strong social media and online presence, the lack of democracy on a national level and the witch-hunting of the left took a back-seat.

As a result of this many newer activists whose first experience of Momentum was through the election campaign have a positive outlook as to how it operates. Since the election it has focused on encouraging people to vote in the CAC election and some slightly confused and opaque organisation around Labour conference.

Following the coup in January 2017, there has been no way currently for momentum groups or individual members to exercise any control as to what the organisation does. The promise of online votes, or even a method of online votes has failed to materialise. This should mean that is a greater dissatisfaction by those who were strongly in favour of Momentum operating by OMOV. This has yet to materialise, and the tendency of the Momentum leadership is to be explicitly anti votes.

Both the National Coordinating Group and it appears the Momentum Members Council will not hold votes but have broad discussions and not take decisions. Jon Lansman has been explicit that he is against any public reports of NCG meetings, it is likely this extends to the Members Council.
Momentum’s own promoted motions and rule changes for the Labour Party conference were not formally advertised as their motions and were not shared with the wider membership. Similarly, its organisation for conference is devoid of a political platform but just seeks to get Momentum members acting together under the guidance of those who apparently know best.

The rules for Momentum groups now mean that those who are not members of the Labour Party are unable to hold officer positions in the group. This has extended to Lansman requesting that one of our comrades resigns from Momentum so that they can say to the press in the event of some conflict or other that this person is no longer a member.

This attitude that Momentum must present itself as meek and mild has meant that much of what it does is informed almost solely by how it is viewed by the press and the unions that it wants to affiliate to it (notably Unite). The offices “compromise” is that AWL members and others who have been excluded from the Labour Party can still attend meetings and that Momentum nationally will not seek to remove them.

We will not allow ourselves to be excluded from Momentum in order for it to appear more respectable to the media. Where we can we will get local groups to push back against these anti-democratic policies and find ways around any attempts to derecognise or exclude groups from the wider organisation.

Local Momentum groups have taken a step backwards in the last year. Some have cancelled all meetings, others meet very infrequently and then not to have discussion but to act as training meetings on campaigning or how to be a councillor.

This does not mean that Momentum has no useful role to play. It is still the most recognisable and largest at 25,000+ members organisation of the Labour left. It does have an ability to mobilise people remotely but has seemingly little interest in coordinating them into having fights in the Labour Party itself.

Local groups can and still do put forward left wing policies, motions and candidates and coordinate across CLPs and areas and support the left in fighting these battles. Where Momentum groups have ground to a halt or are beset by personal fighting, as with Young Labour we will seek to form groups on a constituency basis that can help provide both an educative and practical campaigning focus for members.*

Officially Momentum does not want to put any pressure on Jeremy Corbyn from the left and instead is now geared towards the status of a permanent electoral machine. Without an imminent election, the ground it stands on is shaky.

The re-launching of regional networks bringing local groups together to discuss their activity and ongoing work appears to be a more attractive prospect to groups who were both hostile to Grassroots Momentum and those who were more sympathetic.

There are prospects to revitalise these networks in London and to strengthen the existing network in the North East. Opportunities in other regions will be explored.

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