Tuesday, October 17, 2017

‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’- Report from 2017 Labour Party Conference

The dangers from the right wing and the state will increase as the re-energized  Labor Party moves from opposition to leading force.  The British capitalist state will undermine a Labor government at all times if one is elected. Socialists in the LP must be prepared to take on the right. Admin.
Carel Buxton, Forest Gate Ward and West Ham CLP

This year’s Labour Party conference was very different from that of 2016. Both years I have attended as a visitor and avidly listened to the debates both in the conference hall and at the fringe events, participated in discussions and heated arguments with delegates and fellow visitors and attended the Momentum organised The World Transformed (TWT) ‘alternative’ conference/festival. This year was different because, for the first time in a very long time, the power of the membership exerted itself and it was a heady feeling after so many years of dominance from the right wing.

1,200 delegates attended, a huge increase on the previous year and said to be the biggest conference in living memory. Most delegates, about two thirds, were Corbynistas. At the 2016 conference the bureaucrats were able to out manoeuvre the left on the conference floor through a better understanding and application, including misapplication, of the party rules.  This often spilled over into shouting matches and acrimony from the conference floor. This year the shouting matches continued but the left was far more successful because we had learned the ropes and had had training in procedures from Momentum. Still it is clear that we have a long way to go yet to fully restore democracy to our party.

Some examples of where the left triumphed over the right: Firstly, the left won the ballot by 71% for the two seats on the National Constitutional Committee, Labour’s key disciplinary committee, electing Emina Ibrahim from Haringey and Anna Dyer, a Glasgow activist. These two Momentum supporter, Emina Ibrahim Vice-Chair of Momentum, decisively beat Rose Burley from Labour First and Kevin Hepwork from Progress. This victory for Corby supporters over the right comes hard on the heels of the victory of Seema Chandwani and Billy Hayes in the election for the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC). They will have a central role in framing the conference agenda for 2018. The right wing is certainly deflated but far from beaten. Indeed, I am reliably informed that at a Progress fringe meeting their leader ,Richard Angell , lamented the rise of the so called hard left; words echoed by their speakers Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper.

Secondly, a rule change from the 2016 conference gave delegates the power to ‘reference back’ and this was used by Corbyn supporting delegates to extend democracy in the party. Prior to 2016 delegates could only accept or reject policy from the National Policy Forum. Now delegates can say to the leadership we are only giving you a C+ so go away and come back with better next time. In a debate on Welfare Policy a soft left delegate from ‘Open Labour ‘called for a reference back because LP policy did not include the intention of scrapping all welfare cuts. Momentum immediately supported this unplanned intervention and sent mobile messages around to all Momentum supporting delegates using its M-APP  mobile App calling for them to support this. Crucially Unison also supported the reference back and it was won. The way the conference works is for 50% of the votes go the CLP delegates and a further 50% to affiliated organisations such as the trade unions. Because this intervention was unplanned by the left it illustrates the fight for democracy in the party is not yet concerted or organised enough. There is a huge appetite for socialist ideas in the party. We have a huge membership of about 650,000 members but we have not yet driven the right out.

Whilst the left is dismantling the bureaucratic blockages on democracy we are not a coherent enough force; this is illustrated by the compromise over the so-called McDonnell Amendment. The amendment was a move to reduce the number of Labour MPs needed to nominate candidates in a LP leadership contest and ensure a left winger can get onto the ballot. Originally McDonnell called for 5% of MPs but a deal was struck behind the scenes with the NEC and the threshold was lowered from 15% to 10%. This was greeted with dismay from many of the delegates who felt they could have won the 5% putting the new leadership at odds with the grassroots. This is an interesting turn and shows the membership’s appetite for radical change. A further illustration of the leadership’s top down approach to democratisation has been in the new review of party structures under Katy Clark, Corbyn’s political secretary. Many activists fear this will not go nearly far enough and call for the membership to be able reselect their MPs and recall their MPs, holding them to account. The leadership has refused this and the battle is on.

One of the most heartening aspects to conference itself was the lack of deference shown to those who had been openly disloyal or, at best, lukewarm about Corbyn’s decisive leadership victory in 2016. Both Tom Watson and Saddique Khan were received politely although one delegate followed Watson’s speech with a question to the chair about why he was allocated 5 minutes but actually allowed to speak for over 20 minutes. Khan’s speech was mediocre at best. Contrast this to the standing ovations given to Corbyn, McDonnell, Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and to Len McCluskey just for walking on to the stage! It was empowering to hear chants of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ around the conference hall at almost every opportunity but it’s not enough to just elect the leader. We must campaign in our communities and work hard building Momentum and the Labour Party so we can ensure there is a radical socialist programme for our party. The Manifesto is the best for half a century but it needs to go much further. In fairness, it was written in a matter of a few weeks and, at TWT, I heard both McDonnell and Corbyn explain that they know they have to flesh it out and asked for CLPs and individual members to contribute to this.

While the LP conference played out, another whole new consciousness was being born in The World Transformed. This was the second year running that Momentum organised this splendid festival to galvanise the left. Held over four days in nine different venues across Brighton, TWT was brilliantly organised and drew huge crowds to over 100 meetings around topics ranging from Art and Politics to How to Run a Successful Momentum Group. It was quite usual for hundreds to queue for a couple of hours to hear the well-known speakers. I queued alongside about 800 comrades to hear Jeremy Corby one evening. In the queue with me were all generations and ethnicities and there was an infectious enthusiasm for socialism. It felt like another world was possible and on the verge of being born.

At TWT there was real emphasis was on technology, how to use it to organise and mobilise members. The M-APP was used as an organising tool with frequent updates on events. Speakers such as Owen Jones, George Monbiot and Paul Mason were listened to with enthusiasm but were, at times, out of step with their audience who were often more radical than the speakers. The best contributions were from the floor with workers such as the McDonald strikers and Picturehouse workers giving examples of their struggles. The most exciting meeting of TWT I attended was entitled The Left in Power with speakers, Costas Lapavistas former Syriza MP, Guillame Long, Former Equadorian Foreign Minister and Catarina Principe from Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda Committee. This meeting focused on what happens once we gain power and drew on experiences of how the ruling class will attempt to sabotage the economy through capital flight for example. This was followed up on the last evening with a Labour Co-ordinating Committee rally with passionate speeches from McDonnell, Matt Wrack FBU, Dave Ward CWU and Ronnie Draper leader of the Baker’s Union. McDonnell explained what steps the ruling class will take to undermine a Corbyn led Labour government and how the leadership have plans to deal with this attack. He was not specific and probably that was wise. The union leaders talked about concerted unified action to bring May’s government down; a general strike in all but name. The audience of about 200 were electrified by the analysis of capitalism and the socialist solutions the speakers put forward.

Momentum have played a central role up to this point in democratisation of the Labour Party. Events such as TWT show they have huge pulling power. Crucially they have shown the way in terms of organisation for the conference and not just with the application of technology but with the training sessions offered to delegates prior to conference and early morning briefing sessions on conference procedures and how to vote. Many delegates were new and Momentum gave them guidance and support to work through the procedural minefield laid out by the bureaucrats. 2017 conference was uplifting and exciting. Now we need to be organised for round two of the battle with the right and reclaim the Labour Party to its grassroots.

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