The initial feeling on arriving at the conference venue was one of euphoria. The feeling that we had made it at last, that we were united and ready to defeat the Tories in what was hoped would be an imminent general election.
Another observation was the almost complete absence of the old “New Labour” remnants. This being my fourth successive conference visit in recent times, it was noticeable that the original open conflict between the two wings of the party (the “new” left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and the old “New Labour” right represented by Labour First and Progress, amongst others) had evolved into a united left/centre left alliance, with the old right nowhere in evidence.
Conflict and Confusion
All was not in harmony, however, as there were already signs of new disputes emerging:
There was dismay that a preferred motion by CLP delegates from the Women’s Conference on abortion was dropped in favour of an Affiliates (meaning trade union) motion.
Also, there was confusion over proposed rule changes submitted by the NEC (National Executive Committee). They had met on the previous evening to discuss the implications of the Democracy Review (recently published but not yet in printed form). Although delegates had available – shortly before conference – an electronic copy, most of us were taken by surprise by the emergence of a number of rule changes submitted by the NEC and only available as we entered the conference chamber. Some delegates were pre-warned by sympathetic members of the CAC (Conference Arrangements Committee) – who had met during the previous night to prepare the agenda, and advice had been circulated outside the conference hall as delegates arrived.
The NEC’s proposed rule changes were extremely complex, comprising 25 pages of detailed amendments. As a result, delegates-mainly from the CLP sections-proposed to reject the CAC’s report, in the hope that, firstly, delegates would have an opportunity to consider the rule changes (and hopefully refer back to their constituency parties for advice) and secondly, to enable the rule changes already submitted to conference to be debated first.
In the event, the CAC’s report was carried, with over 90% of votes from CLPs voting against, but over 97% of votes from Affiliates (i.e. unions) voting for. This stark contrast between CLP delegates and union delegates was unexpected, and presaged a conflict between the two sections of the party that was to re-emerge during further discussion regarding the constitutional implications of the proposed rule changes. In essence, it was beginning to look like the unions were uncomfortable about demands from the individual membership for greater influence over the running of the party, at the detriment not only of the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) but also of the unions.
In the event, all NEC rule changes were approved by conference, with all changes except for leadership elections and Westminster selections gaining over 90% of the overall vote. For the remaining two, the CLP delegates rejected these changes by over 65% .
One of the contentions rule changes, on leadership elections, changed the eligibility for nomination for leader and deputy leader—in addition to 10% of the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) and EPLP (European Parliamentary Labour Party)—either 5% of CLPs or 5% of affiliates (including unions).
The other, involving the selection of parliamentary candidates, was essentially a compromise between the current “trigger ballot” procedure and what is now being called “open selection” (removing the initial trigger ballot completely). It will now be possible, under the new rule for either a third of party branches or affiliated branches to separately trigger the reselection process. This at least prevents the discriminatory process by which defunct or undemocratic union branches could overrule the decision of the individual membership.
Anti-semitism and the Palestilian Struggle
The issue of the anti-semitism “witch-hunt” was raised at a number of fringe event meetings. Essentially, the origins of this dispute could be traced back to attempts by supporters of the Israeli Government within the Labour Party (notable the Jewish Labour Movement) to castigate critics of that government as anti-semitic in the hope of deflecting the party away from taking a stance against the Israeli Government—which can certainly now be characterised as institutionally racist after the recent enactment of the nationality law—and in defence of the indigenous Palestinian population.
Two consequences of this witch-hunt were the administrative problem of dealing with the influx of (mainly) false accusations of anti-semitism—appropriately dealt with by more than doubling the number of members of the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) which has to adjudicate on these accusations—and the near-unanimous adoption of a resolution on Palestine which, amongst other demands, called for “an independent international investigation into Israel's use of force against Palestinian demonstrators; a freeze of UK Government arms sales to Israel; and an immediate unconditional end to the illegal blockade and closure of Gaza”.
On the positive side were many excellent speeches from shadow ministers around a common campaigning theme of “Rebuilding Britain”, which presaged the hope for an early general election and the consequent return of a socialist Labour Government committed to taking power on behalf of the working people of Britain.