Clive Dean of Labour Party Marxists reports on a conference characterised by the struggle between Marxism and left reformism
August 22-23 saw the second conference of the Labour Left Alliance. Like most things these days, it took place online, but over 120 delegates and observers were officially present (as things progressed some fell away).
Arguably, the LLA had arrived a year too late. It was conceived at the end of the 2018 Labour Party conference, when activists realised that a leftwing coordinating organisation was urgently needed, fulfilling the role abdicated by Momentum. Labour’s annual conference had just rejected open selection of MPs, but had revised the trigger ballot mechanism instead, as a route for Constituency Labour Parties to remove wayward Westminster careerists. Success for the Corbyn project required a major clear-out of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and that needed a clued-up campaign. But then nothing happened for nearly a year.
Following protracted negotiations between the Labour Representation Committee, Red Labour and Labour Against the Witchhunt, the appeal for a Labour Left Alliance was finally launched in July 2019. Very quickly the 1,000-signature target was achieved, and local groups began to affiliate.
But it was not plain sailing. The different approaches of the LRC and LAW became apparent as the organisation became active, and at the end of October 2019 the LRC decided to withdraw its backing, stating that “serious disagreements exist around both the political orientation of the LLA and the character of what should be built in the short term”. For the LRC, the LLA was moving too fast and was doing too much. Incidentally, recently the LRC and Red Labour have set up the rather more sedate ‘Don’t Leave, Organise’, which has not organised much at all. Perhaps that is the model they had in mind for the LLA.
The LLA pressed ahead with its first conference in the shadow of the general election defeat and Corbyn’s resignation, and on February 22 130 delegates met in Sheffield to agree on the constitution and political orientation of the new organisation. The conference structure was problematic, the approved constitution was hopelessly flawed and the policies adopted were contradictory.Clement Attlee But the conference provided the LLA with legitimacy and identity.
The months that followed have been difficult for everyone engaged in politics as a result of the pandemic lockdown. The LLA responded by organising a series of online educational discussions and some debates too. It has been actively encouraging left participation in the forthcoming NEC elections, and has organised online hustings. It has also facilitated online meetings of local groups in the run-up to the second conference.
This conference was divided into four sessions. Session one covered the report of work from the steering committee and organising group (OG). It also passed emergency resolutions condemning the latest round of suspensions and the attempt by new Labour general secretary, David Evans, to ban CLPs and branches from discussing key issues.
The only controversial item in session one was a motion from Dulwich LLA to commit the LLA to supporting only Centre Left Grassroots Alliance candidates in the elections for Labour’s national executive committee. This was the equivalent of flat-earthers warning us that we will fall off if we dare to venture over the horizon. Supposedly with the single transferable vote system the maths works against us, and, if we vote for anyone but the CLGA six, then we could end up with no left candidates being elected at all. This innumerate nonsense was heavily defeated, and the LLA continues to promote those candidates prepared to stand against the witch-hunt of the left and for rejection of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance misdefinition of anti-Semitism.
The second session was all about amendments to the LLA constitution. On behalf of Labour Party Marxists Andrew Kirkland moved a change which would transform the LLA into a membership organisation based on active branches, rather than a loose federation of affiliates and a petition-list list of supporters. It would also abolish the Organising Group, which is not elected by or accountable to conference. The result would be a democratic LLA, with conference deciding policy and electing the leadership, and a structure able to organise serious political interventions in Starmer’s Labour Party.
In the discussion that followed it was clear that some OG members were unhappy about losing their role if it was abolished. More than one delegate used the ‘yes – but not yet’ argument against our proposals, similar to the LRC’s opposition to an active LLA referred to above. But there were also sinister contributions of the red-baiting variety. The movers were accused of trying to turn the LLA into a separate political party, or indeed a clone of Labour Party Marxists. In the vote our proposal was defeated with 22 votes for and 54 votes against.
Next came a debate around the introduction of disciplinary procedures, as previously adopted by the LLA steering committee. This hefty document is over twice as long as the constitution itself, and creates a raft of bodies and processes to deal with anticipated unacceptable behaviour within the LLA. Many of the definitions it contains are subjective and could be used as bureaucratic tools to silence political opposition. Worse than that, any punishment appears to be unenforceable, because, as the previous vote established, there are no LLA members, just supporters. Presumably affiliated groups will have their own arrangements and so will not be covered by these rules either. In spite of all this, conference endorsed the procedures by 46 votes to 19.
The third session was entitled ‘The way forward for the Labour Left Alliance’ and offered delegates a choice between two political statements that emerged from two opposing positions within the OG. Both statements described the desperate political landscape and were critical of the Corbyn leadership’s failure to promote socialism. But statement 1, which secured the support of two-thirds of the OG, restricted the LLA’s immediate ambitions to reforms under capitalism. Statement 2, which was drafted by Labour Party Marxists, was supported by one third of the OG. This described in some detail the radical democratic demands we should be raising and the communist society we aspire to.
The two positions had already been aired in an online debate a week earlier, and it was clear that both deserved lengthier scrutiny by delegates before one of them was chosen as the LLA’s formal political platform.
LPM delegates had approached the conference arrangements committee regarding the method of speaker selection for this session. It was obvious that a more informed debate would ensue if speakers with prepared contributions were selected, rather than those with spontaneous, off-the-cuff remarks. So the LPM fraction proposed a list of speakers for statement 2. This was strongly opposed by the organisers, even when their conflict of interest was identified – how could they be impartial, when the OG had already voted in support of statement 1? In the end the delegates were evenly split on this proposal – it was defeated by just four votes.
Statement 1 was moved by Dave Hill from Brighton LLA. He thought that his version would appeal to the many Corbynistas in the party, whereas statement 2 would repel them and was really just turning the LLA into Labour Party Marxists. He then identified the three political trends in socialism: (1) reformism, which was bad; (2) transitional demands, which were good, because they appealed to workers, but were beyond what capitalism could afford; (3) “communism by 9 o’clock tomorrow”, which was useless, because it only appealed to ourselves.
Statement 1 was seconded by Daniel Platts from Rotherham LLA. He was convinced that the ideas in statement 2 are too abstract for the workers we want to influence in the Labour Party and the unions. Ideas like abolition of the monarchy and replacing the police are too revolutionary for the Labour left. He had a big problem with the call for a moneyless society – how could people with no money relate to that? He preferred to emphasise the progressive social measures in Corbyn’s manifestos. For him the fight for reforms is the priority: visions of socialism should be confined to educationals.
Statement 2 was moved by Kevin Bean from Merseyside Labour Left and Labour Party Marxists. He pointed out that capitalism was the cause of the crises we face, so we need to be clear on what our definition of socialism is and how we achieve it. He noted the failure of the Corbyn project over the last five years, a failure of strategy and of understanding how to achieve socialism. To win socialism will require radical democratic changes that challenge the capitalist state.
Stan Keable seconded statement 2. He condemned the dishonesty of the supporters of statement 1, who hid their real politics from the working class. It is an illusion to think there is a reformist route to a more friendly capitalism, and Labour governments that try it end up attacking the working class. To win socialism you need to be honest with the working class, present a democratic programme to tackle the capitalist state and provide a vision for the future: a classless, moneyless, stateless society.
In the debate that followed supporters of statement 1 continued to stress their belief that you can build a movement for socialism by limiting the struggle to economic demands and avoiding any talk of strategy to win a new, emancipatory order. A star proponent of this line was Alec Price, who told us that workers of today are unable to grasp the ideas in statement 2, such as abolishing the standing army. Instead the call for a 15% pay rise for NHS staff was far more likely to build revolutionary consciousness amongst the working class.
It was clear that the LPM position was opposed by comrades who identified with the Trotskyist tradition: they claimed to agree with the content, but could not stomach voting for something that went beyond their self-imposed limits of acceptable, soft-left, Labour economism. Clearly these comrades have gone native and completely lost their bearings. When it came to the vote, 52 favoured statement 1 and 30 statement 2.
The final session of conference attempted to deal with the 17 other motions submitted by local groups and affiliates. Despite the restricted debate, some of these suffered the dubious fate of reference back to the OG. Those that were discussed revealed just how shallow leftwing Labour politics can be.
The first motion had the obscure title, ‘Federation/coalition/grouping/type of United Front’, and the content was frankly embarrassing. The mover – Dave Hill again – envisaged a coming together of (nearly) all the left groups in Britain. This would include the LLA, once it has been proscribed by the Labour Party. He admitted that most of the groups he had in mind already saw themselves as the true Marxist organisation, but he wanted unity in a federation with no group dominating. Clearly the delegates did not buy into his dream of unprincipled unity or his inappropriate application of Comintern’s united front tactic. It was heavily defeated.
John Bridge moved the motion submitted by LPM, entitled ‘Against socialist participation in Starmer’s shadow cabinet’. This referred to Keir Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey and the LLA statement that demanded her reinstatement. A correct socialist position is to oppose taking ministerial positions in capitalist governments, as was established at a conference of the Socialist International back in 1904. Logically it applies to shadow cabinet posts too, so leftwing Labour MPs should remain on the back benches as tribunes of the struggle for socialism. The motion was opposed by Phil Newing, who complained that it was far too leftwing for socialists like him, who were not Marxists. Paul Henderson thought being in Labour meant taking part at all levels, whatever. Despite these weak objections, clearly enough delegates were spooked by the thought of criticising RLB, and the motion fell by 35 votes to 47.
‘Electoral reform’ was the title of a motion moved by Phil Pope from Bristol LLA. This claimed that ‘first past the post’ has a strong rightwing bias, whereas the world’s most equal and progressive societies use a form of proportional representation. Moreover FPTP has created one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, with some of the most restrictive trade union laws, whereas PR would prevent rule by a rightwing minority and lock in the hard-won victories of the labour movement. These clearly flawed arguments mask support for Labour participation in coalition capitalist governments, so should not have been advanced by socialists. Yes, PR should be part of a radical democratic programme that includes abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, annual elections and MP salaries set at the level of a skilled worker. But there can be no PR short cut to winning the majority of the working class to socialism. Despite reasoned arguments against the motion, it was carried by 48 votes to 24, exposing the delegates’ deep frustration at losing the last two general elections.
The last item discussed was the motion, ‘The Labour Party in Northern Ireland’, moved by Andrew Ward from Northern Ireland Labour Left Alliance. The motion called on Labour to stand candidates in the Six Counties. It maintained that voters there are being denied the democratic right to vote Labour, and that providing this opportunity will lead to the end of sectarian divisions in the north. Andrew Ward actually repeated the claim that a united Ireland now would lead to a bloodbath. A number of speakers opposed the motion, making the point that a united Ireland must be the cornerstone of any policy adopted by an organisation of the working class in Britain: anything else is support for British imperialism. The LLA says it aims to transform the Labour Party in a socialist direction. Instead of seeking to build a movement for socialism in Ireland (as part of the wider struggle for working class unity across mainland Europe), the movers were seeking to adopt the current pro-capitalist British Labour Party as a vehicle for participating in the UK state. Despite all this, the motion was carried by 36 votes to 26.
Outside the box
So, in the wake of this conference, how do we assess the future for the LLA? It voted to stick with a weak and internally contradictory structure. More importantly, politically it has defined itself as standing in the tried, tested and failed tradition of left reformism – pro-imperialist, slightly eccentric, sticking to bread-and-butter issues and the wonders of the ‘next Labour government’. Politically that means LLA is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
On the positive side, however, LLA has held two relatively open conferences within six months, and has staged debates not seen anywhere else in the Labour left. And, for the moment at least LLA is promoting NEC election candidates who reject the witch-hunt and the associated anti-Semitism narrative, so it is able distinguish itself from the rest of the Labour left. But even now there are doubts as to whether all the candidates will have the bottle to stay in the race, or negotiate some ‘left unity’ deal which amounts to withdrawal in favour of the CLGA slate.
Maybe its biggest problem will be the LLA’s connection to the party political establishment. We expect there to be massive social anger when the post-Covid recession kicks in. Will Starmer’s Labour Party and the traditional trade unions be up for organising a new wave of protestors, many of whom will not identify with ‘the system’ at all? The challenge of winning these fighters to working class consciousness and socialist revolution could prove to be just too ‘outside the box’ for the LLA.