By Roger Silverman, delegate
It shouldn’t surprise many of us to learn that the recent Labour Party conference was nothing remotely like the press and media reports. For them, it was a disaster: rival factions were tearing the party to pieces over Brexit and anti-semitism, and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was finished. This was not the conference I attended, as delegate from my constituency party.
The first thing the media reports omitted to mention was the programme put forward in an advance preview of the coming election manifesto, in successive speeches by Labour shadow ministers including John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. These were the most radical policies by far since 1945, including…
A comprehensive programme for a green industrial revolution; zero emissions by 2030;
The introduction over ten years of a 32-hour working week;
Renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, railways and the post office;
The National Health Service brought back entirely in house; free prescriptions for all; state manufacture of generic medications to end profiteering by the pharmaceutical companies;
Free lifelong education; an end to student tuition charges; integration of private schools into the state education system;
Free lifelong social care;
A guaranteed universal right to justice; restoration of legal aid; an end to privatisation of prisons; drastic penal reform;
… and much more besides.
In addition, it was especially encouraging that a conference motion from the floor on immigration was overwhelmingly carried, calling for unlimited freedom of movement and voting rights for all residents.
Labour managed to avoid three deadly traps designed to wreck the conference.
A clumsy and provocative proposal – almost certainly a deliberate attempt at sabotage –
was made on the eve of the conference by Lansman, the leader of the unofficial movement Momentum (originally formed to support Corbyn’s leadership, but in Lansman’s hands now systematically undermining him): to abolish the post of deputy leader. The dismissal of the current holder of that position, Tom Watson – a hated tool of the right-wing – would have been received enthusiastically by the overwhelming majority of the membership; but to deploy devious constitutional quibbles to arbitrarily abolish his job rather than challenge him honestly on political grounds would have been a gift to Labour’s enemies and shamefully overshadowed the real legitimate reasons to remove him.
There was just one sole serious policy difference at the conference, over Brexit. There was substantial support, especially among younger delegates, for committing Labour unconditionally to Remain in advance of a renegotiation, rather than adopt a policy which might overcome the current artificial divide and reunite the working class. This was rejected in favour of Corbyn’s policy of trying first to negotiate an agreement upholding at least the existing bare safeguards of workers’ rights, consumer protection and environmental standards, and then submitting the outcome to a new referendum in which voters would have the option of voting either for ratification or to remain in the EU. A special conference would then be held to determine Labour’s attitude.
A speech had been scheduled for the penultimate day of the conference by Tom Watson, in
which he had planned to dredge up yet again the smear of anti-semitism. This would have provoked a storm of heckling, furious protests, and a mass walkout – once again, an ideal diversion from Labour’s political appeal. Luckily, this disaster was averted by the fortuitous intervention of the Supreme Court on the previous day, declaring Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament illegal. Parliament was summoned to reconvene on the following day, and Watson’s spot was miraculously squeezed off the agenda.
Trade union delegations
The trade union delegations, wielding their block votes over the heads of their member activists, as usual played a very conservative role. It was their votes which upheld a draconic new bureaucratic rule providing for fast-track expulsions, and which defeated a proposal to restore Clause Four, the historic socialist clause in Labour’s constitution expunged by Tony Blair in 1994. In both cases, the constituency party delegates had voted overwhelmingly the other way. It was significant that some 60% of constituency delegates voted in favour of restoring Clause Four, compared to less than 1% of the trade union delegations.
Constituency delegates an inspiration
The constituency delegates were an inspiration. The conference almost had the feel of a 1970s Labour Party Young Socialists conference. Labour has a genuinely radical mass membership. And since each of the 10,000+ members in attendance represented maybe up to fifty local activists, that could mean half a million people ready to go out on the streets campaigning for a Labour victory on a programme that would not just change Britain but transform the mood throughout Europe.
Prospect for LP majority doubtful but mass socialist movement coming
Having said that, we must face the sober reality: that the prospect of a Labour majority in the coming election is still far from guaranteed; that the ruling class will move heaven and earth to prevent the formation of a Labour government under Corbyn; and that even in that event overwhelming pressure would be exerted to frustrate, sabotage and wreck its programme. What this conference proved beyond doubt, though, is that there is a mass socialist working-class movement coming into being that will be ready to defend its interests.