Corbyn triumphant at Labour Conference

After a summer in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faced endless vitriol from the right in the party and the media, Labour’s conference was a triumph, writes Veronica Fagan. Commitments from the platform and the decisions of delegates on crucial areas will lead to an even more radical manifesto for the next General election than that which had such a positive impact in 2017.

On heath, housing, education, welfare benefits, nationalisations, opposition to racism, closure of two immigration detention centres, solidarity with Palestinian state and much more conference set out an impressive anti-austerity, antiracist and internationalist agenda. Labour’s economic programme included a programme of investment swivelling away from London and the South East towards the ‘left behind’ areas of Britain.

Sometimes the proposals came from the Shadow Cabinet – such as with Margaret Greenwood’s welcome pledge to completely overhaul the social security system when we win a Labour government – a commitment made after delegate after delegate had called for Universal Credit to be stopped and scrapped.  On other occasions, conference referred back weak formulas coming from the National Policy Forum (NPF) – for example to demand that Labour should abolish Grammar Schools not just freeze them. The other context was the reiteration of left victories at last year’s conference – for example that tenants must be consulted over regeneration proposals – which were not reflected in the report.

While the environment was not debated, Corbyn’s speech saw key commitments to lead by example on climate change; with a pledge to transform Britain’s energy sources and the introduction of over 400,000 skilled green jobs on union rates to achieve at 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and going further with plans to reduce emissions to zero by the middle of the century.

The right was noticeable by their absence – their fringe meetings were thin, they had no impact on conference floor and there was no mass exit for Corbyn’s speech as there has been in the preceding years since he was elected

Momentum presided over another extremely successful fringe festival – The World Transformed – attended by over 6000 people – overwhelmingly young. Their impact at conference itself was more contradictory – they failed to make recommendations on some key questions such as a slate for one division of the National Constitutional Committee and rules for the election of the future leader. They only supported a minority of reference backs that conference overwhelming supported. This poor showing as well as their lack of genuine democracy leads some on the left to question whether they deserve continued support. But they remain an effective electoral machine, the banner under which the left organises in many localities and the one to which most of the new generations that have flocked to Labour continue to look. The question should be rather how to build stronger links between activists who are building on the ground as Camden Momentum did over the summer by calling an open meeting to build for the NEC lobby against the false accusations of antisemitism.

Delegations from the CLPs in particular were impressively diverse with a significant number of passionate speeches from black women and disabled delegates contributing to an electric atmosphere. The sea of Palestinian flags, waved by the overwhelming majority of delegates when that motion was moved, was a particular high point. Overall conference heard time and again tales of the cruel reality of Tory Britain and people’s urgent determination to get Corbyn elected Prime Minister.

Deepening Democracy

Under Tony Blair, Labour promoted reactionary policies on most issues. British involvement in the Iraq war was the nadir but went alongside a domestic policy accommodating to neoliberalism. This was partly achieved by changing party structures; destroying the sovereignty of conference – it became a media show not a place for the membership to make policy.

Labour Party conference 2017 set up a democracy review, taking submissions and organising discussions across Britain with the intention of bringing back proposals to this conference. The context was clear – to codify the shift to the left made under Corbyn, in particular the massive increase in membership, by deepening democracy.

The review was extremely wide ranging and conference took a series of crucial decisions. Proposals to set up or strengthen democratic structures for women, black members, disabled members, LGBT+ members and young members were overwhelmingly passed. Conference itself will in future be structured primarily around resolutions from members and affiliates rather than MPs, councillors and the Shadow Cabinet having all the power.

There were some limits to this progress. Proposals to change the way decisions about local government – as much a bastion of the right wing as the Parliamentary Labour Party – were thrown into the long grass by the NEC for some unknown reason.

Parliamentary selections were not part of the review, but due to be dealt with through rule changes including  one which would have introduced a system of ‘open selection’ by which the members in every constituency would have the right to decide on their prospective candidate once in a parliament. However the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) brought forward a weaker proposal which was discussed and voted through first – thus blocking a formal debate on the more radical idea. What was agreed is a step forward; and almost certainly would not have happened without a vibrant campaign for open selection – but it’s not as good as it could have been,

Most puzzlingly, the NEC brought forward a rule change for the election of future leaders which actually makes the current situation worse in terms of the ability of MPs to block a successor to Corbyn from the left. It was a needless own goal.

Brexit

It was inevitable that Brexit would be a major discussion at conference. The issue is a complex one for the party and the leadership. The great majority of Labour members supported remaining in the EU in the referendum but there was a strong leave majority in many traditionally Labour constituencies, especially those that have suffered most from the ravages of deindustrialisation. Corbyn has been rightly cautious about not seeming dismissive of them by backing a second referendum too precipitately.

But with increasing divisions inside the Tory Party and the strong possibility of a constitutional crisis if Parliament votes against the options on the table, conference moved the party closer to this commitment than ever before by overwhelmingly agreeing a motion on the subject. A General election is still the preferred option, but a further referendum – and the option of remaining – is not excluded.

It was clear in the discussion that significant differences still remain but the motion was passed overwhelmingly and most are claiming it as a victory.

And the leader’s speech, with which conference now concludes, was the most self-assured Corbyn has given. With a confident leader and an exhilarated membership, there is a strong sense that getting a Corbyn government is really within touching distance.

1 Comment

  1. The 2018 Labour Party Conference certainly marked a significant change in policies, tone and style compared to those of the Blair/Brown/Miliband era. The left is clearly in the ascendant and many of the policies will chime with those in the population bearing the brunt of the Tories, especially younger people.

    However, there is an ‘elephant in the room’ concerning the prospect of a Labour government and that is the issue of Scotland and the performance of current Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Leonard made a widely publicised speech to conference that Labour would have a manifesto commitment to veto and reject a second independence referendum, even if it was clear a majority of the Scottish electorate wanted it. This contrasted sharply with an interview given by Jeremy Corbyn in the week before conference, where he stated that a future Labour government would have “decide at the time” on another referendum if it was clear that the Scottish electorate wanted it. Leonard’s speech at conference was clearly intended as a rebuke to Corbyn, even though Leonard largely owes his comparatively narrow election as Scottish Labour leader last November to his endorsement of Corbyn as Labour leader. Previously Scottish membership was the only part of the Labour membership that voted for Owen Smith against Corbyn in 2016 and has seen a long procession of awful leaders over the last decade.

    The reality is that since its unionist ‘Better Together’ alliance with the Tories and LibDems in the 2014 Scottish referendum, the Labour Party has declined massively in Scotland while the SNP presents itself as the party of modern social democracy has grown. As soon as the unionist card is played, Labour plummets in the Scottish polls as its working class base and the young people for whom it owes much of its support to in England are increasingly drawn to independence north of the border. The last Labour Party bastion of the UK’s third largest city, Glasgow – a cradle of the working class and labour movement for 100 years – was completely lost in last year’s local elections, and while there was a small improvement in 2017 from the 2015 Westminster virtual wipeout on the back of Corbyn this was insufficient to lead to the widespread gains Labour is likely to need to form a UK majority government.

    It’s not just about independence either. The SNP’s rhetoric and policies may be a very pale version of social democracy in a time of austerity, the point is that there are tangible differences between the SNP and the even paler pink version that Scots are used to from Scottish Labour. For example, the more Corbyn raised the issue of tuition fees for university students in England and gained support for it from millions of young people, the more it reminded people in Scotland that it was Labour who introduced them in both England and Scotland, and it was the SNP who abolished them in Scotland. And this is replicated in other policy areas, where the SNP have clearly shown that in practice they are just as much a limited social democratic offer as Labour is. The allegations of racism and anti-semitism raised by mainstream media are clearly part of a concerted attack by the establishment on Corbyn, but in Scotland there is very real evidence of more than a grain of racism in the utterances of various Labour councillors and representatives that the Party has utterly failed to take on and combat.

    Talk of ‘radical federalism’ from Leonard is clearly a fig leaf. No one believes that a federal UK can really be created so long as 80% of the population are in England. And no one believes that there is a clamour for ‘regionalism’ in England from working class populations as John Prescot discovered a decade ago.

    A BMG poll taken at the end of Labour Party conference for the Huffington Post showed a clear Labour lead across Britain of 5 percentage points – 40% to 35% for the Tories. Post conference this was good sign for supporters of Corbyn, though we should be wary of polls taken during the party conference season. But drill down into the detailed tables and you will find that this includes a Labour vote in Scotland actually falling to a potentially disastrous 17%, compared to 31% for the Tories and an increase to 42% for the SNP. Corbyn may have set people alight in England but Leonard is killing it in Scotland.

    We have the SNP conference this weekend in Glasgow which will be preceded by a massive independence demo of an expected 50,000 people (equivalent to half a million in London), one of 5 such massive demos already this year. Membership of the SNP looked like it may have faltered after the loss of seats in the Westminster election but appears to have gone back to a high spot of around 125,000 people, overtaking the UK wide Tory membership, compared to just 25-30,000 in Scottish Labour hardly any change at all despite the massive growth of Labour membership in England.

    The challenges of this situation are many. In Scotland, the left, including the Scottish Socialist Party, needs to take very seriously the rise of Corbyn support in England and work with fellow socialists south of the border on a common united front around working class struggles. But in England, the left in the Labour Party needs to reject the unionism of the British establishment, and take seriously the demand for Scottish independence. The Corbyn leadership needs to wake up to the prospect that they may only be able to form a UK government if they work with the SNP rather than attack them more vigorously than the Tories. The inadequacy of the Scottish Labour Party and its leadership is clear for all to see. The downward spiral will continue unless they abandon unionism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*