More than 12,000 people attended Labour Party conference 2018, with local parties sending noticeably larger delegations then in previous years. There was less of a focus on Corbyn as “a celebrity”, an improvement, and proceedings involved less political grandstanding. But the level of political debate was still, overall, quite low.
We were told that Corbynism has matured into something that is now “mainstream”. The leadership wants Labour to have profile as a serious “party of government” who can capture the “national mood”. Press coverage seems to agree that Corbyn has partially succeeded in this. The Tory press now talks of Corbyn’s ideas as either being dangerously near to being implemented or “reveals” how moderate they really are.
At a Trade Union Co-ordinating Group fringe, John McDonnell said that an incoming Labour government will have to work with the unions on a list of priorities, a plan for what we want to achieve and how we want to get there. The audience could certainly interpet this as a call to lower expectations on some big ticket issues such as the repeal of all the anti-union laws (which is conference policy but never promoted by the Leader’s Office).
This year Momentum's presence was more low-key then in 2017, both on conference floor and around the venue. Momentum produced an app with advice on how to vote, but there were far fewer Momentum badges and t-shirts on display and the Momentum stand was small and less visible. CLPD also had a weaken presence, and despite known tensions appeared as a sidekick to Momentum rather than a critic. Apart from regrettably small groups like the Clarion and Workers’ Liberty, there wasn’t much profile for a left independent of Momentum.
Most of the real political debate came up at The World Transformed (TWT). It is welcome that TWT continues to provide a forum, but intensive debate and discussion really needs to be brought onto conference floor. On conference floor, in the fringe meetings and outside, Brexit was the single biggest political issue.
Some analysis and reports following the conference argued Labour took a decisive decision to campaign for a People’s Vote and move towards an anti-Brexit position. Sadly, this is not the case.
The mood around conference was very clearly against Brexit and the majority of local parties that submitted “People’s Vote” motions wanted an explicit commitment from Labour to campaign against Brexit. However the composited motion which conference passed was a fudge that should please no one but the Labour leadership. While Keir Starmer clearly had the room when he announced that Labour would not rule out a second referendum, there is no solid commitment in the motion's text.
The reality is that if Labour were unable, and this is very likely, to get a general election, and there was a public vote, then Labour would be campaigning against remain. Keir Starmer’s announcement at the beginning of the compositing meeting that he wanted one single motion to come out of the meeting set off alarm bells for more experienced delegates. This stopped delegates from exercising their right to submit text as separate motions or to have an agreed preamble with extra text submitted as amendments, in order to give conference a clear choice of policy alternatives. But no alternative was moved, and Labour can once again get away with saying nothing new on Brexit, other than that theyhave negotiating skills better than the Tories.
As with the Democracy Review, the unions played a conservative role, but the visibility of this role would have come as a jolt to many activists, who may have understood the unions to be embodied as key allies of Corbyn. But the supposed betrayal of union leaders is not an argument to downgrade the trade union link. Instead we propose the democratic transformation of the unions, to make them more radical and responsive to the day-to-day struggles of their members at work, and also to democratise their relationship with the Labour Party, while staunchly defending the Labour link as key to bringing class struggle into the Labour Party.
Labour left members need to use the enthusiasm, the expanded level of engagement to push for conference to be a true parliament of the party. When policy is voted for it should be carried out by the leadership. The Brexit debate did prove this year that it is possible on to be defenders of the Corbyn leadership against the right and remain critical thinkers. Blind deference for the leadership is both inoperable and bad politics.
The Labour left we advocate is one of pluralism and open debate, to be critical of the leadership when necessary and to fight for maximum democracy across the movement. There is a space for such an approach. A more critical Labour left must also seek to address the democratic deficit within “Corbynism”, which has largely retained the top-down, Blairite approach to policy making. Policies are formulated by technocratic specialists in shadow ministers’ offices and handed down to the party membership fully formed, with no opportunity for scrutiny or revision.