The bureaucratic right is still running the show, but by 2017 all that could change, says Charles Gradnitzer of Labour Party Marxists.
Conference was a mixed bag this year; it was slightly more democratic than in previous years and noticeably less stage-managed. A regional organiser joked to me over a few drinks that those doing his job could relax this year, because the new leadership was not getting them to stitch up votes, so at least Jeremy Corbyn is upholding his promise of running a more democratic party.
Though comrade Corbyn won the leadership election on a massive 76% turnout, this was not reflected in the election for the conference arrangements committee, where Labour First’s last-minute candidates – former Eastenders actor Mike Cashman and former GMTV presenter Gloria De Piero – were elected on a much lower (less than 40%) turnout.
In May, Labour First pulled Tulip Siddiq and Ruth Smeeth as their candidates for the CAC in favour of De Piero and Cashman. De Piero sent out an email to all CLP secretaries at the beginning of June and within two months the slate managed to rack up nearly 140 nominations. In comparison Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance candidates Katy Clark and Jon Lansman received only 93 and 66 nominations respectively, even though they had been campaigning since February.
Gloria De Piero should not have been eligible to stand. In 2014 a rule change was passed which meant that when the Labour Party is in opposition members of the shadow cabinet are ineligible to stand for the constituency section of the CAC (Rulebook 2015: chapter 4, clause III, section B, subsection i). However, the term used in the rule change was “parliamentary committee”, which previously referred to members of the shadow cabinet, but now refers to the backbench liaison committee and so Gloria De Piero’s nomination was accepted.
Although many of us feared the worst, Labour First’s control of the CAC was not a complete disaster. The ‘four and four’ rule was properly observed, whereby there are four contemporary subjects chosen by the unions and four from the constituency delegates tabled for debate.
Of the 103 contemporary motions submitted to conference from constituencies, 68 made it to the priorities ballot and 35 were deemed not contemporary. This is in contrast to 2014, when around half were ruled out in this way. While more contemporary motions made it through this year, the CAC recommended that all the motions submitted on Trident were not contemporary, although some of them made it through on appeal and Trident itself went to the priorities ballot.
But the CAC had one more trick up its sleeve to exclude Trident from debate. Normally one would expect mental health and the NHS to be grouped together under the subject heading Health and social care, as they have been for the past several years, but the CAC decided they were two different subjects this year – obviously so as to maximise the pool of potential subject headings in the priorities ballot and prevent Trident from being debated. This was made more infuriating by the fact that only one CLP, Nottingham South, had actually submitted a motion on mental health, which led to the bizarre spectacle of a motion being debated with only one proposer and no seconder.
Though more contemporary motions were accepted this year, the same cannot be said of rule changes. Nine rule changes submitted by 17 constituencies were ruled out of order. The only one that was not was the Labour First rule change submitted by Colne Valley and Huddersfield CLPs.
Two were ruled out of order on particularly dubious grounds: the first would have allowed conference to refer back sections of the national policy forum documents and the second would have allowed Constituency Labour Parties to submit both a rule change and a contemporary motion.
The first was important, as it would have returned some sovereign powers to conference over Labour Party policy, which were taken away during the Blair years after the Partnership into power ‘consultation’. The national policy forum meets to consider submissions from the policy commissions. The NPF then presents a report to conference, which is almost always accepted unanimously without being read and forms the rolling programme of the Labour Party. Currently conference either accepts or rejects these documents in toto, which makes it impossible to remove bad policy from the documents by moving reference back of particular sections.
These rule changes were deemed out of order because of the three-year rule, which states that “when party conference has made a decision on a constitutional amendment, no resolution to amend the constitution or rules of the party having the same or a similar primary objective shall appear on the agenda of the three following annual party conferences” (2015 Rulebook: chapter 3, clause III, section 3, subsection B).
.The three-year rule was successfully amended in 2014 to add in the ‘no primary objective’ proviso to stop precisely this sort of vague interpretation of the rule book. In any case that point is moot, as Refounding Labour was voted on in 2011, four conferences before this one, not three.
Saturday saw the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s ‘Conference lift-off’ fringe. At this meeting Jon Lansman urged people to support the CLPD emergency motion on Syria, which sought to undermine the contemporary motion from Labour First by requiring any intervention in Syria to have a mandate from the United Nations. Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists pointed out that the motion did not really oppose intervention, but simply placed conditions on it. Lansman retorted that the motion de facto ruled out intervention and had been drafted to ensure the widest possible support.
On the first day of conference an amusing addition to the raft of leafleters outside conference was Luke Akehurst and friends, who were distributing the Labour First bulletin. This featured the baffling headline, “Unite and fight the Tories – but say no to rule fixes”. Labour Party Marxists commends Comrade Akehurst for braving the scorching Brighton sun to puzzle delegates with his non-sequiturs.
Conference started with Harry Donaldson (GMB) moving the CAC report, after which delegates from Islington North and Mid-Bedfordshire CLPs took to the rostrum to refer the report back to the CAC on the grounds that the rule changes were unfairly ruled out of order. A point of order was also made that the chair – Jim Kennedy (Ucatt) – should take each reference-back separately. Yet again the chair chose to ignore procedure and took a vote on the CAC report as a whole. A card vote was called, but in the end the report was narrowly accepted by 57% to 43%.
In the priorities ballot Trident, masquerading under the name Britain’s defence capability, was not selected. Trident was edged out both because Health and social care had been split into two, as explained above, and because of the Becta/Musicians Union motion on the BBC licence fee, which was supported by the GMB precisely to stop the debate on Trident taking place.
Proving that many journalists do not know how a ballot works, this was reported in the news as 93% of conference voting to “reject” a debate on Trident, but if this is the case 93% of conference also voted to reject a debate on mental health, given that it came down to less than 1% between the two.
On Monday the CLPD’s Gary Heather was beaten onto the national constitutional committee by incumbent Judith Blake. The NCC deals with disciplinary hearings, so it is important for the left to win. Not so much to “purge” rightwingers, as media darling Simon Danczuk MP suggested, but for the left to protect itself when the inevitable rightwing backlash occurs.
Monday also saw the trade union section of the NEC elected. This year Community – the union that rightwing members of Labour Students join (and not because they fancy a career in the steel industry) – lost its place and the more radical and leftwing Bakers Union (BFAWU) saw their candidate, Pauline McCarthy, elected.
Progress complained that this was unfair, given the news of the Redcar steel plant liquidation – which seems a little cynical, as its members seem to have no problem crossing picket lines, particularly when it comes to delivering lectures on the life of Friedrich Engels.
Unfortunately Aslef ’s Tosh McDonald did not make it onto the NEC. Tosh, whose golden locks had Keith Vaz perennially referring to him as ‘Richard Branson’ from the chair, would have made a strong leftwing addition to the NEC.
Eight rule changes were voted on, two of which were quite important.
The first was Labour First’s proposal, which would have expanded the constituency section of the NEC from six members to 11, with each representing a region in England, plus one from Wales and one from Scotland. In order to preserve gender balance this rule change allowed the NEC to determine which regions would have to nominate women on a rolling basis. This was an attempt by Labour First to stitch up the NEC in its favour and change its composition to give CLPs parity with the unions. The rule change was defeated by 85% to 15%, with the unions block-voting 98% against.
The second was an NEC rule change, which expanded the leadership nomination process to the European Parliamentary Party. This means that any leadership candidate now needs 15% of the PLP and the EPLP to nominate them and any challenger to an incumbent leader needs 20%, so any challenger to Jeremy Corbyn now needs 50 Labour Party MPs or MEPs to nominate them rather than 46.
Tuesday saw the NEC statement on the railways passed. The NEC statement went one step further than Miliband’s policy of setting up a public operator to bid for rail franchises, instead promising to bring private franchises back into public ownership when they expire and accelerating the process using break clauses.
Tuesday also saw conference debate the vital issue of the BBC being responsible for free licence fees for the over-75s. It is obviously essential issues like these that the Labour Party really ought to be debating rather than trivial questions, such as the £100 billion doomsday device sitting off the coast of Scotland.
Though Trident was not debated, it did get an honourable mention in the leader’s speech. Comrade Corbyn said that he did not believe that spending £100 billion on nuclear weapons was the right way forward, that Britain should honour its obligations under the Non- Proliferation Treaty, but he also sought to protect jobs in the defence industry in order to reassure the GMB. This can likely be taken to mean that defence workers should be redeployed to socially useful industries. Corbyn also claimed that his victory was a mandate from the party for such a position.
Wednesday saw the motion on the refugee crisis debated. Twenty-two CLPs had submitted motions on the refugee crisis, and the bureaucracy – proving that it has a sense of humour – cobbled together a confusing, War and peace-length composite. There was also the completely redundant motion on the NHS, which was almost identical to the composites that have been passed every year since the beginning of the decade. In fact the motion was almost identical to the NPF final year policy document passed in 2014, not to mention the 2015 manifesto, from which entire paragraphs appear to have been lifted verbatim.
Emergency resolutions on Colombia and Syria were also debated. Both motions passed, which means that it is now Labour Party policy to oppose intervention in Syria unless there is a UN mandate to bomb only Islamic State targets, which is unlikely to happen. While Labour Party Marxists would have rather seen a more explicitly anti-war and anti-imperialist motion passed, this victory is still to be welcomed.
It is clear that if conference is to be more democratic the left needs to win the two constituency places on the conference arrangements committee, which will be up for election again in 2017. This will mean that conference will be able to debate rule changes and the priorities ballot will not be stitched up by the right to stop contentious issues like Trident being debated.
This is important because, although Corbyn has a mandate from the party, he is vehemently opposed by the Parliamentary Labour Party, who would like to get rid of him as soon as they can. We need to be able to pass rule changes that give conference more teeth, so that it can debate leftwing contemporary resolutions to give Corbyn a mandate that the PLP cannot ignore and block any rightwing policy coming from the national policy forum.
If the left does take the CAC in 2017, then rule changes can be submitted and tabled for the 2018 conference. Most importantly we must get rid of trigger ballots in favour of mandatory reselection. The current trigger ballot system is almost identical to Augusto Pinochet’s referenda and acts as a barrier to the party finding and electing new talent.
It is worth mentioning that the left (CLGA) won 25 seats on the NPF, as did the right (Labour First), along with five unaligned candidates. This means that the left performed no better than average in these elections and cannot really stop the NPF from producing the drivel we saw in 2014 – which led directly to the ‘Controls on immigration’ mugs and that ghastly plinth.
However, though the left is far from ready, it is beginning to get its act together. The 50,000-plus people who have flooded into the party since Corbyn’s victory did not do so because they were enthused by the Liz Kendall campaign. They joined to support the new leader. The left must mobilise to provide concrete, democratic structures for them to get involved in.