Labour’ annual conference (Manchester, September 21-24) confirmed once again that the union tops work hand in glove with the party bureaucracy. Charles Gradnitzer reports
This year’s Labour Party conference got off to a democratic start, with 65 out of the 132 contemporary motions being ruled out of order before it had even begun.
At least seven of these motions noted the August Care UK strike in Doncaster and committed a future Labour government to implementing a living wage for NHS workers. One might be forgiven for thinking that these motions were ruled out of order due to the machinations of New Labour or Progress types. However, there are five union officials on the seven-member conference arrangements committee (CAC).
Obviously the majority of the CAC’s members do not think a motion that commits the Labour Party to a living wage for Unison members in Doncaster, who are currently staging “one of the longest strikes in the history of the NHS”,1 should even be allowed on the priorities ballot (although, of course, even if it had been timetabled for discussion, it would likely have been gutted during a compositing meeting).
This depressing beginning set the tone for the conference, which, as most people on the left will be aware, is a well choreographed, stage-managed spectacle. Carefully crafted speeches, bereft of political content, are delivered by shadow cabinet ministers; prospective parliamentary candidates are called to speak, one after the other, by a chair who pretends not to know their name; and on those rare occasions when one of the plebs is allowed to go to the podium the regional director is on hand to help write their speech.
On the first day of conference the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had organised a lobby to highlight the arbitrary rejection of motions on the national health service and to demand that the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy model motion2 was included in the priorities ballot.
The NHS, having come out on top in the ballot, was scheduled for debate and the CLPD model motion emerged from the compositing meeting totally unscathed, with all its demands left in place. Unfortunately, however, the motion was quite unambitious, aiming to “end extortionate PFI charges” rather than abolishing PFI altogether and writing off PFI debt, as other motions on the NHS aimed to do. What exactly constitutes an “extortionate” charge is left open to interpretation.
The health and care composite was carried, but, as with the NHS motion that was passed unanimously in 2012,3 it is likely that the motion will be ignored by the Labour leaders, who have no intention of taking privatised services back into public ownership unless they are “failing”.
All three of the CLPD’s rule changes received the backing of the NEC and so were approved by conference. The first ensures that no member of parliament and no shadow minister can be elected to the CAC, the second stipulates that two of the CAC members should be directly elected by the membership of the party, and the third lays down that the ‘three-year rule’, which has historically been used to stop CLPs submitting rule changes, now only applies to rules that have the same purpose rather than the entire section of the rule book.
While these are small victories, compared to the mammoth task the CLPD has set itself of restoring Labour Party democracy and handing power to the members, they nonetheless put the left in a better position to make further democratic gains in the future – you never know, we might actually get to debate leftwing policy at conference.
These gains were more than outweighed by the speeches of various shadow ministers. Ed Balls was booed and jeered by some when he announced that he would be raising the retirement age, means-testing winter fuel allowance and capping child benefit, but this soon gave way to rapturous applause when he announced that a Labour government would restore the 50p top rate of tax and introduce a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth over £2 million.
Most of these announcements were nothing new – they were contained in the ‘final year policy’ document, which had not only been available online from the end of July and had been physically mailed to delegates, but, just to make absolutely sure, was handed out during delegates’ regional briefings at the start of conference. However, while the FYP document pledged to raise the retirement age, what was new in Balls’ speech was the announcement on winter fuel allowance and child benefits. In this way the policy-making process, which had been going on for the last five years, was totally bypassed and the proposals could not be voted on.
By far the most sick-making speech of conference was delivered by the shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker.4 Coaker began by telling conference that Britain stood for progressive values, such as humanitarianism and internationalism, before thanking his team for campaigning for our “successful and developing” defence industry. He cited the occupation of Afghanistan (responsible for the deaths of some 21,000 civilians) as an example of the UK’s progressive, humanitarian and internationalist role in the world. Britain, he claimed, had helped to improve women’s rights and bring stability to Afghanistan. Other examples of Britain’s humanitarian role included dropping aid in Iraq “alongside US air strikes” to stop Islamic State – “a brutal terrorist organisation which poses a threat to Britain”.
Taking identity politics to the point of absurdity, he confirmed that Labour would introduce an Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill in the first parliament after its election. This would make “discrimination against” or “abuse” of members of the armed forces a crime on a par with racism and sexism. He ended by informing us that Labour is “the patriotic party, the party of Britain”.
He was followed by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, who implicitly compared Russia to Nazi Germany by claiming that “no country had seized the territory of another European country by force since 1945”.
Awkwardly delivered, full of cringe-inducing anecdotes about various people he had met and containing very little we did not already know, Ed Miliband’s speech was inoffensive and unsurprising. With the exception of the windfall tax on tobacco companies, it did not reveal any policy that had not been included in the NPF document, which had been publicly available for two months.
As readers will know, the leader was widely criticised for forgetting to talk about immigration and the economy, although these subjects were covered by Ed Balls, who also promised “fair movement of labour, not free movement of labour”, and reiterated the 2013 policy that, for every skilled foreign worker a big firm hires, they must also take on an apprentice.
What was more telling, though, was what he failed to mention about the policy on immigration contained in the NPF document. While wrapped in empty platitudes about immigration being good for the economy and promises not to engage in a rhetorical “arms race” with Ukip, Labour’s policy is to “bring it under control” by introducing a “cap on workers from outside of the EU” and prioritising “reducing illegal and low-skilled immigration”. Moreover, Labour plans to do “more to tackle illegal immigration” by introducing “new powers for border staff”. At present, the “situation is getting worse, with fewer illegal immigrants stopped, more absconding, fewer deported and backlogs of information on cases not pursued”.
Neither Miliband nor any of his shadow ministers talked about this aspect – hopefully they would have been booed off the stage had they done so. Mind you, since the policy document runs to some 218 pages, few people would have actually read it.
This parody of a conference is not just an indictment of the Labour Party, but reflects the dire state of the unions and the wider labour movement.
The unions have 30 representatives on the national policy forum – which, among other things, pledged to increase the retirement age, give more powers to the UK Borders Agency, make being rude to members of the armed forces a crime, and continue to spend billions of pounds on Trident. They also comprise more than 70% of the CAC, which, as I have already noted, blocked more than half the motions submitted by constituency Labour parties. Finally, the unions have half of the votes at conference and typically vote en bloc, meaning that they could, if they wanted to, prevent a lot of this policy from going through.
This demonstrates the futility of any strategy that calls on the unions to break from Labour in order to … forge a second Labour Party. The unions are not simply complicit in passing reactionary policy through conference: they sit on the committees that produce these policies in the first place and act as enforcers for the party bureaucracy to prevent even moderately leftwing policy from being discussed.
Without a thoroughgoing, democratic transformation of the unions, combined with a programme of political education, any attempt to split the unions from Labour would either fail or produce something similar to the current Labour Party, which is not and never was a vehicle for socialism.
1. The Guardian August 9.