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.
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.
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.