It won’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;
A £10 minimum wage, from age 16;
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.
1) 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 more recently tending to undermine it): to abolish the post of deputy leader. The dismissal of the current holder of that position Tom Watson would have been accepted enthusiastically by most of the delegates and the active party membership, due to his systematic disloyalty; 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 legitimate grounds for his removal.
2) There was only one serious policy difference at the conference, over Brexit. There was substantial support, especially among some of the younger delegates, for committing Labour unconditionally to Remain in advance of a renegotiation, rather than adopt a policy which might transcend the current artificial divide and reunite the working class: to support neither the 52% nor the 48%, but the 99%, as Corbyn and others put it. The Remain proposal 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.
3) A speech had been scheduled for the penultimate day of the conference by Tom Watson. There had already been widespread talk among delegates of staging a mass walkout at this point. Even without that, once it became clear from media reports that Watson had intended to use his speech to dredge up yet again allegations that Jeremy Corbyn had acquiesced in anti-semitic activity within the Labour Party, it is clear that this would have provoked a storm of heckling and furious protests – providing, 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 same day, declaring Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament illegal. Parliament was summoned to reconvene on the following day, and Jeremy’s conference speech was rescheduled for that day. That being so, Watson’s spot was miraculously squeezed off the agenda. The trade union delegations, wielding their block votes over the heads of their member activists, as usual played a conservative role. It was their votes which upheld a draconic new 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.
The constituency delegates were an inspiration. Most were members who had only joined or rejoined the Labour Party in the surge following the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. The conference almost had the feel of the left Labour Party Young Socialists conferences of the 1970s. Labour now has an enthusiastic and determined mass membership genuinely committed to radical socialist policies. And since each of the 13,000 members in attendance surely represented maybe fifty local party activists, that could mean more than 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.
Having said that, we must face the sober reality: that the prospect of a Labour majority in the coming election is to say the least by no means 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 will be exerted to frustrate, sabotage and wreck it. We now have a democratically agreed programme, and we expect every MP elected on the Labour ticket to give it full and unqualified support.
What this truly inspiring conference proved beyond doubt is that there is a mass socialist working-class movement coming into being that is determined to put all its energies into promoting Labour’s cause and changing forever the lives of the 99%.