By ANN MONTAGUE
The annual British Labour Party Conference was held in Brighton on Sept. 24-27. It is the party’s main decision-making body. Going into the conference, infused with young Labour Party members and a visible union presence, the word on many members’ lips was “democratization” of the party.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s so-called “New Labour Party” had been characterized by a fear of the party members. This dominant attitude was vividly described before this year’s conference by Owen Jones in The Guardian. He said that the party members “were seen as a delusional rabble, a hotbed of dangerously unelectable ideas. They had to be neutralized, penned in, institutionally ostracized, reduced to an army of leaflet deliverers and voter ID collectors. Labour’s annual conference was stripped of many of its powers and functions. Parliamentary selections were stitched up: the role of unions choosing candidates was stripped back, favored special advisors were parachuted into safe seats, and dangerous lefties … were forbidden from standing as MPs.”
When Tony Blair spoke at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, he said, “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than to reverse them.” In 2004 the BBC stated, “Tony Blair did not change the Labour Party—he created a totally new party.”
In the last two years, Labour has not only been winning elections; previously non-functioning local parties have been infused by young workers as they see the possibility of transformative change within their grasp. The Labour Party more than doubled its membership of 200,000 from 2015 until the general election of June 2017. The membership surged again during the election campaign.
In the last election the Tories, the BBC, and most newspapers refused to cover the Corbyn campaign, and when they did, they reviled the new young members. They claimed that the new recruits would never be bothered to come out to vote in the election. Those opinions proved incorrect.
The rise of Momentum
Momentum, a pro-Corbyn movement of Labor Party members, was organized in October 2015, a month after Jeremy Corbyn had won the leadership race. It is credited with mobilizing support for Corbyn and his Manifesto both on-line and in the streets during the election campaign this year. It has more than 31,000 members, 15 full-time staff, and 170 local groups across the country.
Co-founder Adam Klug claims, “Over the last two years Momentum has become one of the most significant organizations in British politics. Our members have breathed life into the Labour Party by getting involved at a local level, running educational events, getting out into the community and supporting workers’ struggles across the country.”
Critics cry that Momentum has “taken over” constituency Labour Parties and agitated against sitting MPs who are critical of Jeremy Corbyn. Momentum members are expected to run for the three new rank-and-file positions on the National Executive Committee (NEC).
Changing the rules
Before the September conference started, the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) agreed to changes to the way that Labour elects its leader. Previously, for a candidate to get on the leadership ballot it was necessary for 15% of the Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) to support the nominee. The proposal to change this to 10% was overwhelmingly approved by the conference as a whole.
There were also changes to the ruling executive committee. They added three members from the grassroots (to be elected by the rank-and-file members of the local Constituency Labour Parties), and a new place was opened for one of Britain’s largest trade unions, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW). Also, Jennie Formby of UNITE was elected Vice Chair instead of the centrist MP Margaret Beckett. Two more positions also went to UNITE.
The annual conference voted to ratify these changes. Jeremy Corbyn supported the action of the NEC as an “expansion of democracy and participation in the party.” But the “New Labour” pressure group Progress criticized the changes as “undermining the role of the MPs.
Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, told the Independent, “In the NEC of thirty five members, half a million members have just six representatives. It’s absurd.” After the new members are elected there will be a wider review of party structures, including, “strengthening the links between the party and its trade-union affiliates locally” and “gender representation throughout the party and the role of the Labour Party’s Women’s Conference”
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is preparing to return to the Labour Party. They were expelled under Tony Blair when some of their branches endorsed the Scottish Socialist Party. Their ruling national executive committee backed a Labour vote in the last election on June 8. When Corbyn addressed the RMT national executive meeting, one delegate said that he received a “hero’s welcome and the General Secretary told the assembly that he has been the union’s ‘long-term friend and comrade.’ He said they will make a decision after they have ‘consulted fully and democratically with our members.’”
Inside the Labour Party Conference
Every local party elects delegates to attend and vote on policy. There were 1300 delegates, many for the first time, making the conference the largest that anyone could remember. The number of speakers’ slots for senior politicians was cut in order to allow more speaking time for the rank-and-file members who attended this year. Estimates, based on the voting, were that over 3/4 of the delegates were from constituency parties that supported Corbyn’s leadership.
Left candidates on the ballot for the two seats on the National Constitutional Committee won by a 71% vote of the delegates. The atmosphere and the ascendancy of the broad left in the party, including members of the social-democratic Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, was best expressed by the spontaneous standing ovations for the outspoken leftists who had long been maligned by Tony Blair and his New Labour.
Diane Abbott, who in 1987 became the first elected MP who is Black, received an ovation with just a mention of her name in the middle of Corbyn’s speech. Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union UNITE, received a raucous reception just for taking the stage. Delegates demanded that Dennis Skinner, a long-time member of the Socialist Campaign Group, be chosen to speak from the floor. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, also of the Socialist Campaign Group, received three standing ovations during his speech.
The left’s dominance in Brighton can be attributed to organization. The Campaign for Labour Democracy played its traditional role in assisting local parties and new delegates with the process, but this year it had a powerful ally in the very effective Momentum. They encouraged new delegates, and gave them confidence and technical assistance if they had questions while on the floor.
Alex Nunns commented that the new delegates became more assertive during the conference. They were not interested in just passing policies and positions as they came from the National Executive Committee (NEC). She noted that British journalist Nick Cohen was really off base when he referred to these delegates as “Corbyn cultists,’ only interested in pleasing the leader, “children who cannot handle the robust debates of a free society.”
They opposed structural proposals from the NEC and wanted them to be more democratic. Many addressed problems they saw within the schools, social care services, or the railroads. They succeeded in getting changes to the National Health Service (NHS) policy. One of the most popular policies was to reinstate the NHS fully and abolish the internal and external market forces “based on the American model.”
Calls were made to restore a universal, comprehensive and fully publicly funded health system, which would restore the NHS to its former vision. This proposal was brought to the floor and strengthened further by changing it from saying that the NHS is the preferred provider to saying it was to be the only provider.
The day before the conference started, Labour Party Chair Ian Lavery announced that Labour membership was now up to 569,500. Jeremy Corbyn told the press that he would restart his tour of marginal constituencies and that Labour is ready for a new election.
Challenges facing a Labour government
The conference was not all about standing ovations, voting to reaffirm the party’s Manifesto and looking toward preparations for another general election, which could mean the fall of the Tories.
Hilary Wainwright, the editor of Red Pepper magazine, wrote extensively about the packed meetings, discussing the challenges that a more radical Labour government would be up against. The conference heard from John McDonnell, who would become the chief financial officer of a Labour government. McDonnell related the hard facts of the possibility of sabotage by the capitalists, from a possible a run on the pound to capital flight and other forms of non-co-operation. These events were not political rallies but intense discussions about the future.
McDonnell called on everyone to organize, mobilize, educate, and build a popular movement that could build a counter-power to the pressures from Big Business, and to counter a hostile press that will try to divide and demoralize Labour supporters.
This call to resist after the election reminded the delegates that when they cheered those committed to taking back the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts into the public sector, it was a vindication for all those who fought to try to stop those PFI deals when they happened. Now with a determined working-class movement ready to fight austerity, there is a window of opportunity not seen in a very long time.
Although red-baiting had no apparent affect on the most recent election, it is once again being tried by the major newspapers in Britain.
Dame Stella Rimington, an author of spy novels and former director of MI5, Britain’s spy agency, revealed that she was in charge of investigating members of “communist and Trotskyist organizations” in the 1980s, and that some of them, who are now members of Momentum and “advising” Jeremy Corbyn, were on her list. This statement created a flood of newspaper articles speculating about which of Corbyn’s advisors were under suspicion. However, Paul Mason, writing in The Guardian, demanded that Rimington stop fueling “paranoid fantasies” about Corbyn.
The main attack is on shadow chancellor John McDonnell. McDonnell was elected Member of Parliament representing Hayes and Huntington in 1997 and has continued to win every election since. He has clearly stated that he is a Marxist and describes the current economic crisis as a classic capitalist crisis. The gutter-press tabloid, The Daily Mail, declared that McDonnell has advocated driving the Tories from office by means of a violent “insurrection.”
It is doubtful that these attacks will have a negative effect on Corbyn and the Labour Party. It generally illustrates the failure of the Tories, who, since they have nothing new to tell the British people, can only resort to their failed past. After the recent conference, it looks like Labour Party activists are more concerned about being prepared for the next election than worrying about red-baiting in the press.