Britain: Labour Right's conference manoeuvres show need to organise

Labour Party conferences have become very interesting all of a sudden. For years they have been notoriously stage-managed, and the few decisions that were taken were routinely ignored by the party leadership, which was in total control. Now things look very different. Without question, the left of the party have reason to celebrate, following the resounding second victory of Corbyn. But this year’s conference has served as a stark reminder and warning that the battle is very far from over and there remains a great deal of work to be done.

Party within a party

The right wing’s forcing of a second leadership election has without question proved a huge blunder on their part. Corbyn’s popularity with the membership is beyond question now, and the right wing is despondent. However, one unforeseen side-effect of this election campaign may have been to cause the left to take its eye off the ball vis-a-vis the party conference. It is clear that the right wing did not make the same mistake.

As a leaked Labour First email gloated, this right wing ‘party within a party’ spent months organising to win as many delegates as possible to conference, an operation which largely proved a success. According to the Independent, this hidden campaign was led by “a group of MPs and key officials”. The same article quotes an unnamed MP boasting that “it was all pretty well organised. The parliamentary party had an MP who acted as a sort of sergeant major, keeping an eye on the delegates that all the MPs’ constituency parties were choosing to come to conference. There was an effort between people to encourage the adoption of delegates that were moderate.”

Both Labour First and Progress, the two main right-wing, big-business funded factions, continued this mobilisation into the conference itself, instructing their supporters to arrive early on key times to make sure they were all present to vote. Nothing was left to chance - Progress even urged its supporters to “have fewer drinks this evening and arrive at conference on time tomorrow”, and to make sure that they were present and ‘cheering’ and ‘whooping’ for Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan, who “deserve our support...in these heart-breaking [!!!] times”.

Watson and Khan

This last instruction underlines the tactic the right-wing has now settled on: to promote and use Watson and Khan as much as possible. Their right-wing factionalising was brazenly displayed in their speeches, with sour-faced Khan ridiculously using the word ‘power’ 38 times. He is being promoted as more legitimate a leader than Corbyn, for he has actually won ‘power’ in London and in doing so received even more votes than Corbyn.

This argument demonstrates the disloyalty to the party of the right-wing. Resoundingly beaten, humiliated even, in the leadership election, they now argue that the votes of non-party members are more valid in determining the legitimacy of Labour leaders than the formal leadership election itself. It would be interesting to see how the likes of Watson and Khan would fare if the public were given two Labour candidates in elections - a Blairite and a Corbynista. But since this isn’t the case, we can only assume that constituents votes are more for Labour as a party than for the MP as a person.

Watson’s capitalist love-in of a speech shows how the class struggle being fought out within the Labour Party has polarised and transformed MPs, forcing them to take sides. Previously, Watson was seen as relatively left-wing, unafraid of taking on powerful vested interests like Rupert Murdoch. Now, he is the poster-boy for the Blairites and capitalism.

Other right-wingers, such as general secretary Iain McNicol, helped draw the battle lines by relentlessly praising party staff and MPs, advertising himself as their protector in these ‘heart-breaking times’, “The PLP - Labour through and through, and deserving our whole-hearted gratitude and support. I value [the party staff], I respect them, and I stand in solidarity with them whenever they come under attack.” It couldn’t be clearer: the party bureaucracy versus the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members.

Hands tied by bureaucracy

Why does this matter, now we’ve confirmed Corbyn as leader? Because Corbyn’s leadership can only be real, effective, and ‘electable’ if the party actually moves with him. Many who agree with Corbyn’s policies would be disinclined to elect Labour to government if they feel the MPs and cabinet members are waging a personal war against this programme and leader.

The restrictions the right-wing party bureaucracy place on Corbyn are very real, as was demonstrated when the conference voted to support a constitutional change that obliges all councillors not to vote against cuts. It is now against the party constitution for any councillor to vote against a Labour council’s budget. This same rule change bars Labour councils from approving anti-austerity, illegal budgets, guaranteeing that Labour councils will be nothing but the administrators of Tory austerity. This in turn means that any Labour councillors opposing their colleagues’ inevitable austerity budgets will be immediately expelled from the party for doing so. In this way, Corbyn’s anti-austerity hands are now tied by the party.

This rule change was scandalously forced through by the chair, who insisted that all the rule changes proposed be voted on together, as one. This was opposed by many in the conference, but the chair refused to call a card vote and simply declared a clear majority for voting en-bloc. This then forced Unite, who stand to the left of the bureaucracy, to abstain on this vote, since there were some rule changes (such as confirming that the incumbent leader be automatically on the ballot in a leadership election) that they supported. Such are the bureaucratic tricks of the right-wing. GMB and Unison, the two biggest unions after Unite, voted for these pro-austerity changes. Clearly activists in these unions must transform them just as Labour is being transformed.

Deselection

Perhaps the most important consequence of this lost battle concerns the coming struggle to deselect right-wing MPs and councillors. After this summer’s backstabbing, the need to democratically transform the party and bring its representatives into line with the membership and leader is increasingly undeniable. Deselection is in the air and everyone knows it. But the stitching up of the NEC so that it is once again majority anti-Corbyn now makes this battle harder.

This rebalancing of the NEC was pushed through by right-winger Joanna Baxter, still smarting from recently losing her NEC position to the left wing, under the pretext of giving the Scottish and Welsh party leaders an automatic appointment to the NEC. Since these leaders are openly anti-Corbyn, everyone knows their appointees will be too. Baxter’s argument was that this is a democratic rule change, giving these important regions more of a say. It is anything but that, since these NEC positions are not to be voted on by Welsh and Scottish members, but by their unpopular leaders.

Momentum: transform the Labour Party

All of these anti-Corbyn changes went through because the delegates voted for them. The right wing can therefore claim that they were won democratically, fair and square. And yet we know the vast majority of the party membership is pro-Corbyn and left wing.

The blame for this can only fall therefore on the organised left. It has been naive and caught napping. In particular, Momentum made some mistakes from which it must learn. It did very little to organise for the conference, instead concentrating all its efforts on the World Transformed fringe festival. Whereas Labour First and Progress maximised their delegate count by months of organising, Momentum did little. Where Labour First and Progress clearly explained the timetable of conference to their supporters, and made sure they were there for key votes, Momentum failed to inform attendees at The World Transformed when they should return to conference for these votes, and which way they needed to vote.

In general, Momentum meetings over the past year have given too little time and attention to discussing how to transform the Labour Party, and have done too little to propose a clear socialist programme for it. Local Momentum groups should plan systematically their intervention in the branches and the CLPs, in order to ensure that pro-Corbyn delegates and officers are elected. Every month it should draft good resolutions for the CLP meeting. It should be the local centre for transforming the party, step by step, into a vehicle for the working class and the socialist programme it needs.

It is understandable that Momentum, and the Corbyn movement in general, would be disorganised and naive. It is a very new movement that has been put through a baptism of fire. Unfortunately the right wing are not forgiving of this and will not give us the time we need. Over the experience of the summer, our movement has certainly toughened up and learnt a great deal thanks to the whip of counter-revolution. This conference was another harsh lesson.

But there is no doubt that the winds of change are very strong and are blowing firmly in our favour. We are many; they are few. The task now is to take this numerical advantage into every part of Labour’s structure to transform it into a real socialist party worthy of the working class.