A tale of two parties?

Photo: Steve Eason Celebrations at #TWT of Jeremy's election victory

Veronica Fagan reports:

Being in Liverpool during Labour Party conference was an extraordinary experience which I will struggle to adequately convey.

In terms of what happened on conference floor itself, there is more to report than the key note moments which have dominated media coverage.  First of course there was Corbyn’s re-election as party leader which Andy Stowe analyses on p?. I participated in those great moments from the Black-E, the site of the World Transformed. (#TWT)

Some media shots panned to seats in the conference hall during the announcement – because only delegates got tickets and many on the right chose not to go. There were other supporters watching in the complex and almost 1000 people crowded into the World Transformed centre up the road cheering loudly as the results came through – but that wasn’t on the TV.

Then during conference itself there were a series of crucial announcements in speeches from members of the shadow cabinet – a break from the practice where only the leader has anything of significance to say. Theresa Pearce, Shadow Housing Minister, told conference that Labour would abolish the Right to Buy in England (it’s already been abolished in Wales and Scotland), while Barry Gardiner at Environment pledged the abolition of fracking – even more desperately needed now the Tories have overruled Lancashire County Council.

Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, Debbie Abrahams, showed a trailer for Ken Loach’s amazing I am Daniel Blake in a graphic illustration of how Labour under Corbyn is changing significantly before her speech in which she promised to abolish the hated Work Capability Assessment. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner reiterated Labour’s opposition to new Grammar schools, launching a campaign for Education not segregation, as well as announcing a new taskforce on childcare.

John McDonnell’s speech to conference was hugely important. The media focused inevitably on the question of borrowing and the national and regional investment banks, but also highlighted the national living wage of over £10 per hour which is clearly popular with the unions. He also talked about further clamping down on tax avoidance including in public sector contracts – important as it relates to dodgy contractors in the care sector which employ large number of black women workers. What had less exposure is the plan to scrap the Trade Union act within first 100 days of a Labour government – which in my view is as crucial as any other measure he put forward. And the most significant part was the end, met with rapturous applause in the hall – that socialism is no longer something we have to whisper.

There were things I’m critical of, especially as an ecosocialist – the continued support for the unnecessary and destructive HS2 – the fact that though sustainability is mentioned its accompanied by talk of growth – but they are I hope debates amongst friends working for similar goals rather than the all too familiar frustrations that key Labour figures are driving forward attacks on the working class whether at home or abroad.

Right manoeuvres

But Liverpool also demonstrated that the right, or the moderates as they prefer to be called, have not gone away. Before Corbyn’s re-election, most people predicted that there wouldn’t be a significant split and that’s been borne out. One peer few had heard of and a couple of councilors don’t count. But that doesn’t mean they are resigned to Corbyn’s mandate – far from it.

Progress and Labour First had a meeting of 600+ which was their main focus on the fringe. The left had dozens of meetings – and theirs wasn’t significantly bigger than a number of ours – though of course they got the media exposure

There were other more worrying things. The Labour Party NEC had met on September 20 in an 8.5 hour marathon. The most extraordinary thing about this meeting was that it received a massive paper from Tom Watson. Pete Willsman explains it like this:

“This made a whole series of fundamental proposals, mostly involving putting rule changes to annual conference in 5 days time. In all my 36 years on and off of all four of the Party’s national committees, I have never seen one paper making so many far reaching proposals. The first time some of us saw Tom’s paper was when we sat down at the table, although we were told that it had been emailed out late on the eve of the NEC.”

The meeting deferred most of the proposals in Watson’s paper to an NEC away day scheduled for November. However it then agreed two extremely problematic proposals to be put to conference for decision. The first, for additional voting seats on the NEC for nominees by the leaders of Scottish and Welsh Labour was a blatant attempt to tip the balance on the NEC away from Corbyn. It was agreed 16-15 with Anne Black voting for. The second, which has had much less coverage, says that no Labour councilor shall vote for an illegal budget and may face disciplinary action if they do so.  As has been pointed out this would mean George Lansbury would be facing disciplinary action.

The NEC did not agree proposals on the question of the Shadow Cabinet but deferred them further discussion. They did not come to conference.

Disgrace

More maneuvering was to follow. In its report to Conference on Sunday, the right dominated Conference Arrangements Committee proposed that all rule changes from the NEC be voted on as a single package. Getting reference back agreed, particularly on the first day of a conference, is always hard going. And it was made harder because CAC told conference – incorrectly – that the proposal for a single package came from the NEC itself. Attempts were made on Sunday and Monday to raise this but to no avail.

What happened on Tuesday was a complete disgrace. Manuel Cortes for transport union TSSA moved an emergency motion that the rule changes should be voted on individually – wanting, as many did, to be able to support the positive changes e.g. that the incumbent leader and deputy leader don’t need PLP nominations if challenged and giving Women’s Conference decision making status. He called for a card vote.

The left won the debate. Paddy Lillis in the chair went to move to a hand vote. NEC member Christine Shawcroft raised a point of order and was ignored. Lillis said the vote was overwhelming – which it certainly didn’t seem to me, but those changes went through. It was a serious setback.

That morning on the Today programme, John McDonnell had raised the idea of a rules revision conference – an idea Corbyn had floated last year. This is even more necessary given what happened with this debate.

There were other problems for the left. Tom Watson, whose machinations to undermine Corbyn have become more and more obvious with each passing week since the attempted coup in July, used his speech[1]to defend Blair and New Labour. It was an outrage. Sadiq Khan’s address also provided a rallying point for the right.

And there was also the deeply problematic speech by Clive Lewis[2] in which he defended NATO and failed to defend unilateralism – and side stepped the question of the existing defence review. There have been rumours for a while that Lewis, who is a Corbyn supporter, is trying to set himself up as Corbyn’s successor. This felt like another step on that road.

I was therefore pleased later to see Lewis moved from Defence (and replaced with unilateralist Nia Griffiths) in the subsequent shadow cabinet reshuffle. That reshuffle showed that Corbyn was stronger after his re-election and the experience of conference than before, though that doesn’t leave any room for complacency.

Liverpool was buzzing

What happened on conference floor was only part of the story – there were countless fringe events across the city.

The World Transformed (#TWF)[3], which describes itself as a celebration of politics, art, music, culture and community, hosted by a coalition of grassroots groups and powered by Momentum, got a fair bit of media attention. The spin was that it was an alternative conference whereas really it was a complementary event. Thousands participated in over 200 hours of discussion and culture with daily queues for the evening sessions.

I went to an excellent session on young workers in revolt hosted by Momentum Youth and Students which talked about the nuts and bolts of organising precarious workers with contributions from the Ritzy – back on strike two years on, the Bakers Fast Food campaign and Unite New Zealand which have been doing similar work there. The shame was that it was quite small – I talked to one person who thought it was only for young people which was definitely a misapprehension.

I attended a session on the Rise of Corbyn, essentially a conversation between Richard Seymour and Alex Nunns, both authors of recent books about Corbyn. I disagreed less with what Seymour said from the platform than I thought I would, being half way through the book. And if the meeting had an overall message it was that we need to be prepared for the right to hit back in unexpected ways at any moment – a key lesson from the whole week

Like any event of this kind #TWT was uneven but definitely a success. Labour Party members were the organisers – but there were members of the Green Party, of Left Unity, of far left groups and of many single issue campaigns participating too and a comradely atmosphere in most of the events I got to.

And not all the events organised by the left were part of the World Transformed[4].

Save the Women’s

I spent much of Sunday demonstrating to save Liverpool Women’s Hospital[5], organised by a campaign launched by nine women only a few short months ago. Over 1000 people threaded – and danced – their way through Liverpool’s streets as many horns tooted in support, through driving rain interspersed by strong sunshine. Maybe three quarters of the march was local but there were also groups from Chorley hospital, from Leeds Keep our NHS Public (KONP), from the anti-fracking group the Lancashire Mamas and people attending Labour Party Conference or the World Transformed. Rallies at both ends heard included a health worker and a patient from the women’s’, a  campaigner from Chorley, MEP Julie Ward, Wendy Savage from KONP and Louise Harrison campaigner for Doncaster Women’s Aid and Hillsborough campaigner Shelia Coleman. Strong speeches from Ken Loach, Dianne Abbot and Left Unity principal speaker – and key campaigner for the Women’s – Felicity Dowling rounded off the final rally.

It was the best demonstration I have been on for a very long time – an enormous feeling of solidarity and determination to save this vital service. Someone who knew nothing about the campaign when they arrived would have gone away knowing not only why the Women’s is so important to women and communities across Merseyside, but how this attack relates to the catastrophic dismantling of the NHS taking place across Britain.

On Tuesday evening, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers organised its first ever fringe meeting at Labour Party conference at the Casa, the Dockers pub: The state and political policing, Hillsborough, Orgreave and Shrewsbury 24. I could hardly get into the building when I arrived just as the meeting was due to start, so many had turned up. I eventually managed to squeeze into the back to hear powerful speech from Richard Burgon MP, talking about the way these cases Orgreave Hillsborough and Shrewsbury are orchestrated by and covered up by the state. QC Michael Mansfield argued that the families, struggling to expose these injustices over decades, have shown that working class communities united have to power to effect real change.

Margaret Aspinall from the Hillsborough campaign, who was cheered before she started, gave testimony of the 27 year long fight for justice for the 96, making clear their battle is far from over. The Orgreave campaigner spoke about the evolution of their campaign, set up long after the police rout on the day and the links with Hillsborough given the role of the South Yorkshire police in both. Then there was Ricky Tomlinson -on his 77th birthday -talking about Shrewsbury, wearing a t shirt for Dezzie Warren who died as a result of being charged and imprisoned five months after the end of the strike. The tension in the packed room was palpable -many there knew firsthand the way the state operates.

On Wednesday evening I attended a meeting of 500+ organised by CLPD attended billed as a conference assessment. Matt Wrack gave his usual incisive analysis of the shenanigans on conference floor. The final speeches from the platform were from Ann Black – who defended her voting on the NEC but said she was sad the party seemed to be polarized between Corbyn supporters and others – and then Jon Lansman who was very critical of Anne, said he hadn’t voted for her personally but then defended the existence of the Centre Grass Roots Alliance slate on which she has stood for many years. There needs to be far more discussion of the left’s approach as to who to put forward and who to support for the NEC.

Antisemitism weaponised

Another theme of my week in Liverpool was campaigning around the weaponisation of antisemitism. T first was in #TWT, essentially a debate between Jackie Walker (then Vice Chair of Momentum subsequently the focus of subsequent attacks from different directions – which we cover in more detail on pps) , Rhea Wolfson Labour NEC member, Johnathan Rosenhead from Free Speech on Israel and Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Labour Movement.

The Jewish labour movement seem to me to be more interventionist today than Poale Zion were (their former name) were in in the 70s and 80s, in line with the Brand Israel stuff coming from Tel Aviv.[6] The myth of left antisemitism has been used by them since Jeremy was first elected – it’s of course a complete co-incidence that he is the first leader of the Labour Party that has consistently supported the rights of the Palestinians! But they sow confusion on the left too, so I think it’s useful to debate them (though this is very contentious) but on our terms. Jackie Walker gave a very powerful speech and was attacked disgracefully by Jeremy Newmark. I was disappointed that in her response Rhea Wolfson did not defend Jackie. In the debate, in front of an audience of over 250 I think the antizionists had the majority of speakers and the majority of the audience with us.

The second meeting, in a nearby hotel, with over 300 in attendance heard Jackie Walker, Glenn Sickert (FSOI) and British Palestinian lawyer Salma Karmi-Ayyoub. Salma’s contribution in particular detailed the potential damaging effect of the attempt to silence the anti-Zionist critique on the Palestinian struggle against injustice.

There were also things back at conference that many will have missed – unless they were there or watching assiduously on the parliament channel. Scott Courtney, organiser for  the fight for $15[7] is someone you would have found addressing fringe meetings at Labour’s previous conferences (and he did speak at the Labour Representation fringe meeting) but never in my memory has such a speaker made a major speech to Labour Party conference, talking about organising precarious workers In the fast food sector.  This also relates to another Corbyn initiative which has had little coverage, Workplace2020[8], an important attempt by Team Corbyn to begin to address the withering of trade union and workplace organisation we have seen over recent decades.

Defend free movement

Conference finished with Corbyn’s speech[9]. This was a break from previous practice – the leader’s speech used to be on the day before conference finished – so that there were decisions taken afterwards and this pressure on delegates to stay. There was concern that with this new timetabling, the right would ensure that again seats would be left empty and this, rather than what he said, would be the main story. But Team Corbyn ensured that everyone with a ticket for the complex was let in either to the main hall or to an overflow space to watch a livestream.

The leader’s speech was trailed by a powerful presentation from Shelia Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, followed by a video of Corbyn’s record as a campaigner and as party leader (cleverly making the link between the two – the very thing the so-called moderates seek to dislocate). By the time Corbyn himself entered the hall, the atmosphere was already electric, and was further animated by chants of Jez we can.

Then of course there was the speech itself.  From Corbyn’s appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme that morning, it was clear that Jeremy would focus on immigration as a positive benefit. He has a long history as an anti-racist campaigner and attended the Refugees Welcome demonstration when he was first elected – but this was the most robust defence of free movement yet.  And it brought one of eight standing ovations he received that afternoon.

Commentators have had to admit, some rather grudgingly that this was an outward facing, as well as a more confident speech than last year. While I’m not convinced that Corbyn is right to think there will be an early General Election, he is obviously right to fight to make sure the party is as prepared as possible should there be one.

So like most Corbyn supporters I came away from Liverpool convinced that the fight in the Labour Party is going to deepen over the next year. A lot has been achieved since Corbyn himself was elected. Corbyn himself is more combative and confident than he was a year ago. The right are not going away and the left need to be prepared for every manoeuvre like that about the NEC composition that they will pull at the least expected moment.

I started this piece saying I would struggle to adequately tell the story of Labour Party Conference, so Im going to close with the words of someone who is better at – and certainly better known for their story telling than I. At a meeting in September organised by Media Reform, Ken Loach summed up this attitude to the possibilities opened up by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party like this:

“ We can do it, but don’t underestimate the size of the task. It’s a historic moment, because we have a sliver of opportunity, to change the Labour Party, to make it the Labour Party the labour movement has always needed. It’s never happened in my life time, I don’t think it’s been there since the start of the Labour Representation Committee over a hundred years ago. It’s an extraordinary political moment, and we have to stick with it and we have to see it through. We can do it!”


[1] http://labourlist.org/2016/09/watson-party-wont-win-election-by-trashing-new-labour/

[2] http://labourlist.org/2016/09/terrorism-trident-and-veterans-place-in-labour-clive-lewis-speech/

[3] http://theworldtransformed.org/portfolio

[4] For a host of complicated reasons ranging from the organisational to the sectarian.

[5] https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-liverpool-women-s-hospital?

[6] Johnathan Rosenhead covers the history of PZ/JLM in rather more detail than I have space for here and with more knowledge than I have here:  https://www.opendemocracy.net/jonathan-rosenhead/jackie-walker-suspense-mystery

[7] http://fightfor15.org/

[8] http://www.workplace2020.org.uk/get-involved/

[9] http://labourlist.org/2016/09/united-we-can-shape-the-future-jeremy-corbyns-speech-to-conference/

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