British Labour reaffirms radical turn at conference

Corbyn-led Labour is a confident party with ideas and imagination.

The British Labour Party took a radical, anti-austerity manifesto to last year’s general elections — and despite polls and media commentators expecting an unprecedented disaster, came close to winning, denying the ruling Conservatives a majority.

Despite this success, attempts to attack and sabotage Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the ranks that support his vision, have continued.

Backed by the media, the party’s establishment and many MPs have sought to undermine attempts to transform the party into a true voice for working people. Many of these debates played out Labour’s September 23-28 conference in Liverpool. Michael Calderbank takes a look at what took place and what it means for the party’s future.

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After a campaign calling for Labour to commit to a “People’s Vote” (new referendum) on Brexit, with the option of remaining of the European Union, opinions are split over the extent to which Labour’s Brexit position (of managing a “jobs-first exit”) has shifted. 

After an exhausting six hour compositing meeting, a united position was thrashed out leaving all options “on the table”. Yet, there was general unity of purpose around the argument that “the People’s Vote we really want is a General Election”. 

Labour MP Laura Smith’s call for a “general strike” in the event that the Tories denied a new election provoked a predictably over-wrought reaction from the press. But it indicates the strength of feeling building up on the issue.

Corbyn’s leaders’ speech was clear that while Labour will not support a bad Tory deal, “we aim to get the best Brexit deal for jobs and living standards to underpin our plans to upgrade the economy and invest in every community and region”.

Labour’s shadow chancellor (and close Corbyn ally) John McDonnell and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey argued the referendum result had to be respected. They believe any future vote on the deal ought to be limited to the terms of Brexit, not over-riding the outcome of the referendum.    

Democracy review

The major development on internal Labour Party rule changes was over reform of the existing “trigger ballot” process for determining whether sitting Labour MPs are reselected without facing a contest.

Barely anyone defended the existing process, where in some cases branches of a single affiliated union could outvote every Constituency Labour Party (CLP) branch put together. However, the unions clearly feared the proposal for Open Selection in every constituency. They opted to pre-empt a vote on such a rule change proposed by Labour International, with a National Executive Committee (NEC) backed proposal to reform the existing system.

From now on, 33% of CLP branches or affiliates (trade unions or affiliated socialist societies such as the Co-Op or Fabians) can trigger such a process. This lowers the hurdle for MPs to be challenged, but still requires a negative campaign to trigger an open contest.

In some ways, this is much more likely to spark destablising internal feuding than simply requiring all MPs to re-contest the nomination alongside other candidates. This reform might well need to be revisited in favour of open selection.

The rest of the Democracy Review — set up at last year’s conference under the stewardship of Corbyn lieutenant Katy Clark — delivered little real meat.

The change to the process for leadership candidates getting on the ballot paper spurned the opportunity to cut the Parliamentary Party’s ability to act as gatekeeper, merely introducing the additional need for 10% of either CLPs or affiliates. Again this passed as an NEC proposal which meant more radical rule changes from the membership fell.

Other key changes — not least over democratising Labour structures at the local government level, or the overhaul of the party’s policy making process, have been kicked into next year. The balance of the NEC has now become more favourable to the left, and it is hoped that more of Katy Clark’s original Review proposals can be resurrected in time for next year’s Conference.

On anti-Semitism

Corbyn dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism, which has dominated the media in recent months, head-on. He forcibly reasserted that “this party, this movement, will always be implacable campaigners against anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms … We will work with Jewish communities to eradicate anti-Semitism, both from our party and wider society.

“And with your help I will fight for that with every breath I possess.”

At the same time, it was equally clear that accusations of anti-Semitism would not be allowed to stifle legitimate criticisms of Israel over the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Some on the fringes tried to argue that the sea of Palestinian flags waved on the conference floor indicated Labour is not a “safe space” for Jews. But in reality, this display of international solidarity called for human rights and democratic freedoms for everyone in the region.

Labour recommitted itself to a two-state solution with a secure Israel alongside a viable and secure Palestinian State, and to formally recognise Palestine as a state.    

Tensions continued to surface around the conference fringe, with pro-Israel Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger claiming she required a police escort for her security. A film-showing about suspended pro-Palestine Jewish Labour member Jackie Walker was cancelled after a bomb threat.

Radical platform

It now seems clear that, if anything, the manifesto at the next general election will be even bolder than the previous one.

McDonnell’s commitment to introducing worker ownership funds, handing 10% of company shares to a collective pot owned by the employees, is an eye-catching initiative and one which rubs against the grain of private profiteering.

Corbyn’s embrace of the “green jobs” agenda, coupled with a robust commitment to a regional investment strategy, points to a modern, transformative agenda of environmentally-sustainable growth.

The radical expansion of free childcare for all, combined with Labour’s shadow secretary of state for women Dawn Butler’s announcement of a right to paid leave for women who are the victim of domestic violence, were part of a bold program on equality.  

There is more work to be done. Outstanding challenges include setting out a new strategy for social security for all; rebuilding local government; mapping the return to a publicly-owned and democratically accountable education system.

But Corbyn-led Labour is a confident party with ideas and imagination. It emerged stronger from its conference, and is serious about an agenda for government.

[Reprinted from Red Pepper.]

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