Labour conference reflects cautious advance of Corbyn project
THE 2017 LABOUR CONFERENCE confirmed the newfound authority that Jeremy Corbyn had attained as a result of the party’s excellent showing in the general election a couple of months earlier. This year’s gathering in Liverpool showed that, despite the continued attempts to undermine him, Jeremy’s leadership remains secure, bolstered by the unflagging support of party members, and his political project continues to advance, albeit cautiously.
From the point of view of Labour’s standing in the public eye, arguably the greatest achievement in Liverpool was to unite the conference behind a position on Brexit that clarified (after a six-hour compositing meeting!), but did not substantially alter, the position taken by the leadership in recent months. The set-piece speeches by Jeremy, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and their frontbench colleagues were well-crafted and well-received and there were welcome policy pledges on everything from housing to workers’ rights and the fight against climate change. But perhaps most satisfying for left activists, after a summer dominated by the furore over antisemitism that threatened to stifle free speech on the Middle East, was to see Labour making, or renewing, clear commitments in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in opposition to the brutality and oppression meted out by the Israeli state.
The main area of controversy on the conference floor was, of course, the package of rule changes that emerged (for the most part) from the Democracy Review. While there were important advances, the overall package was a considerably watered-down version of what Katy Clark had originally proposed after considering 11,000 consultation responses and attending dozens of meetings.
The failure to prioritise open selections for parliamentary seats (which hadn’t been in the Democracy Review but had been the subject of several CLP motions) caused particular disaffection and led 91% of CLP reps to vote to reject the conference arrangements committee (CAC) report, only to be overruled by a 98% vote the other way in the trade union section.
While the profound disappointment of CLP reps over the loss of a clear, practicable and popular democratic reform is easy to understand, the agreed compromise, whereby an open selection can be triggered either by a third of ward branches or a third of local affiliates in a CLP, is at least a significant step forward, which would have been almost unimaginable in the pre-Corbyn era.
Concerns over the backwards step on the nominations threshold for leadership elections - even though this need not necessarily prove fatal to a credible left candidate in a future contest - are harder to dismiss. The fact that the major unions were pushing, at one point, for the requirement to be 5% of CLP nominations plus nominations representing 5% of affiliated supporters (not one or the other) as well as 10% of MPs, does not change the fact that the final position is still a serious democratic setback, compared to what was agreed in 2017.
Left-led unions have been party to a reassertion of the kind of constitutional conservatism that seemed to have receded a year ago - not only on this and on selections but on several other reforms that they effectively vetoed: OMOV (one member one vote) for various seats on the National Executive Committee (NEC); parity between union and CLP seats on the CAC and National Constitutional Committee; and abolition of the threeyear rule for conference motions.
Moreover, these important matters were, for the most part, not debated openly between ‘left’ union and CLP reps but were subject to mediated discussions behind closed doors, in advance of the formal decision-making meetings. While it is understandable that Unite et al would want to strive for the maximum trade union unity, this should surely not be at the expense of sacrificing reforms that could help to consolidate the Corbyn project.
Following the elections that took place over the summer, the left now has - on paper, at least - a clear majority on the NEC. But this will be translated into appreciable change within the party only if the unions that have backed Jeremy’s leadership thus far continue to do so. A concerted effort is now required to hold together the coalition for change that has underpinned the left’s advance over the last three years - and that will involve both lobbying at senior levels and sustained pressure from the grassroots.