David Shearer of Labour Party Marxists reports on last weekend’s LRC conference.
The February 20 ‘special general meeting’ of the Labour Representation Committee was a strange affair, not least because of the poor attendance of only around 150 comrades. The leadership had gone out of its way to insist that there could be no annual general meeting – the 2015 AGM should have been called in November – because of the election of Jeremy Corbyn.
The new circumstances apparently meant that no motions from members or affiliates could be entertained, and there could be no elections for the executive or national committee. But, apart from that, the meeting had all the features of an AGM – officers’ reports and constitutional amendments, for instance.
The reason why only the leadership’s own motions were permitted was obvious. You and I might propose an ‘extremist’ policy or course of action that might embarrass comrade Corbyn and his number two, John McDonnell, at a time when they are under constant scrutiny and attack in the media. So the membership was permitted only to move amendments to the leadership’s own motions.
Having said that, however, the NC’s statement – ‘After Corbyn’s victory – building the movement’ – contained some useful points. For example, it correctly stated: “While participating in, and encouraging, industrial and social struggles, at the present time the LRC has to emphasise the internal battles in the movement.” It also declared: “… we need to work at every level in the unions to encourage participation, democracy and transparency …” Once again, quite correct – although the leadership was not best pleased by the attempt of Labour Party Marxists to add some meat to the bones when it came to union democracy (see below).
However, there was certainly some ambiguity over the LRC’s original and continued purpose. The statement claimed that, unlike others on the left, the LRC had always accepted that “the radicalisation of working people will at some point attempt to create a mass left wing within Labour”.
However, NC member Mike Phipps usefully pointed out that the “origin” of the LRC actually lay in the possibility of an “alternative to Labour” during the days when the right was firmly in control. In fact I seem to recall comrade McDonnell himself hinting on more than one occasion that such a possibility was not ruled out. But let’s not talk about that!
Nevertheless, taking into account such an “origin”, what today is the LRC’s purpose, now that the mass-membership Momentum has come into being? The statement read: “There is no contradiction between the LRC participating fully in the creation of a national network of local and internet-based Momentum groups and maintaining the existence of our own organisation – for the time being.” Indeed it foresaw a time when the LRC “has outlived its usefulness”. This point was also made by comrade McDonnell himself in his address to the conference. He thought that “maybe in the future” there will be “just one organisation”, but apparently we are “not ready for that yet”.
Mick Brooks, in presenting the leadership’s statement, said that Momentum was a “genuine mass movement” and we “have got to be in there”. The LRC has a “critical political role to play”, he continued – it is our job to help shape Momentum’s politics, it seems (even though the NC wants to keep those politics within safe bounds – ie, bounds determined by the rightwing media and its eagerness to blacken the name of the new Labour leadership in whatever way it can).
As the statement put it, our aim is to “advance the Corbyn agenda in the party as a whole” (my emphasis). The overwhelming majority at the meeting favoured more or less uncritical support for Corbyn – there was a clear consensus that the most important thing was to get him into No10 in 2020. According to Jackie Walker, speaking for the NC in the afternoon session on Momentum, we should “go to meetings, knock on doors” to “get Jeremy elected as prime minister”. There were several other such comments. Many were couched in the language of socialism – including the Labourite ‘socialism’ of the 1945 Attlee government.
Despite this, the meeting accepted an amendment to the statement, moved by Sacha Ismail of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which called on Corbyn and McDonnell to be “politically bolder” – it specified “taxing the rich, nationalising the banks, reversing all cuts” and explaining how such demands fit into a vision of a “different society from capitalism”. Within Momentum, the amendment proposed, the LRC should fight to go “beyond ‘progressive’ and ‘new politics’ towards a clearer political programme based on class politics, working class political representation and socialism”.
One comrade said the amendment “misunderstands where we are” – Corbyn and McDonnell are in a “precarious position”. We shouldn’t tell them “we know better”, that “they’re not being bold enough”. Our task is not to advise – “our task is to build”.
While there were guest speakers from the junior doctors and Heathrow 13 campaigns, the star speaker was undoubtedly the shadow chancellor. John McDonnell was pleased to bring a message of “solidarity and thanks” from Jeremy Corbyn – who had, after all, been a “founder member” of the LRC.
Comrade McDonnell stated that the shadow cabinet was an example of the Labour “left, right and centre working together” – the implication being that this can only be a good thing. But the left was gaining ground: “When they realised we had momentum, they started taking some of our ideas.” According to him, most of the Labour right had now “bought into our idea of Labour becoming a social movement again”.
So Labour as a whole, it seems, is now attempting to “transform the social and economic system” and establish a “radically fairer and more equal economy”. And the LRC’s role should be “to the fore” – that of “campaigning to develop policy”. We should “aim for the election of a socialist government” in 2020. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime” – what he had been waiting for all these years: “Now it’s here, let’s grab it with both hands.”
Following a standing ovation, it was announced there would be questions from the floor, although only three were taken. In response, comrade McDonnell stated, among other things, that if there was a challenge to the Corbyn leadership, the left would “organise just as hard” as last time – but it would “do it in a way that holds the party together”. Answering a question from Pete Firmin on the party’s attitude to the European Union and the coming referendum, comrade McDonnell said that Labour should be “working with socialist and social democratic parties across Europe” in order to achieve “a workers’ Europe, a social Europe”. Otherwise we would be left with a “capitalist club”.
He ended by saying: “Now we are the Labour Party. We’re the mainstream!” Which earned him a second standing ovation.
Following this, Mick Brooks presented the leadership’s statement. He began by stating that we were attending a special general meeting, rather than an AGM, because it “was not a question of business as usual”. Since the 1980s Britain had been dominated by rightwing politics, where the situation for socialists was unfavourable. But now there is “radicalisation to the right and to the left”. In contradiction to McDonnell’s claim of a growing unity, comrade Brooks said that within Labour Corbyn is “surrounded by enemies”. Our job was to mobilise his potential support and “channel it into the Labour Party”.
Liz Davies spoke next from the platform. She was delighted to be “back in the Labour Party” after a couple of decades in organisations like the Socialist Alliance and Left Unity. Then she had thought that Blair and Brown had “changed Labour irrevocably”, but “I am delighted I was wrong.” Now Labour was once again opposed to the “wicked” Tory policies on welfare, housing, migration and so on.
The first amendment to the NC statement was moved by Pete Firmin representing Brent Trades Council. This mandated the NC to “call the overdue 2015 AGM within three months”. The last AGM had been in November 2014 – when comrade Firmin himself had been elected political secretary – and there was no real reason why we should not now have a proper conference, where a full range of motions are heard and the leadership is elected/re-elected.
The excuses given by a range of NC and EC speakers opposing this were truly abysmal. The intention was to “call an AGM as soon after the Labour Party conference as possible” – didn’t comrade Firmin know that an AGM “takes time and money to organise”? It had been “a difficult year” and now was not the time for “the usual resolution-passing” (unless they are resolutions from the leadership, of course). It would be “an enormous distraction” to organise a “second major event”.
But Graham Bash, LRC treasurer and editor of Labour Briefing, was the most embarrassing: “For goodness sake, in the next three months there are local elections”, plus lots of local Momentum meetings, he said. Organising the AGM would “take the LRC out of politics” and we shouldn’t let such things “get in the way of the struggle outside”!
Other comrades, including Andrew Berry, pointed out that democracy was not a “bolt-on extra” and there was no reason why we could not fully engage in politics while preparing for an AGM. Although the amendment was defeated, the vote was close enough to necessitate a count – there were 35 in favour and 57 against.
This was followed by the LPM amendment mentioned above. This stated: “The fight to democratise the Labour Party cannot be separated from the fight to democratise the trade unions.” It was essential to ensure that both Labour and union officers are fully accountable and recallable, and are paid only the average wage of a skilled worker. The amendment put forward several other concrete proposals – we should, for example, aim to abolish the Bonapartist post of Labour leader.
In introducing the amendment, Stan Keable insisted that democracy must be seen to be implemented. Democracy was our best weapon against the class enemy, in that it could help to transform our movement into a genuinely powerful force. That applies to the trade union movement as well as to the Labour Party.
Once again there were some very weak arguments against such a basic proposition. One comrade said that it was “not for us to tell our affiliates how they should organise”, while another said that at last we have our own leader and yet here we have Labour Party Marxists making the “mad” proposal to abolish the post! Surely everyone knew it was our job to “get behind Jeremy’s agenda”? And you would have to be “bonkers” to expect him to get by on a worker’s wage.
LPM’s Jim Grant argued that if it was wrong for us to tell the unions how to organise, presumably we should not ‘interfere’ in their affairs by calling on them to support the junior doctors, for example. But it was to no avail: the amendment was defeated, with about 25 comrades voting in favour.
After the lunch break NC members Michael Calderbank and Jackie Walker introduced the session on Momentum. Comrade Calderbank said that Momentum was “crucial to the Corbyn movement” and to “getting Labour elected” in 2020, while comrade Walker stated that the aim must be to double Momentum’s membership. She was very enthusiastic about her local Momentum group and its ‘consensus democracy’ – “and, you know, it works!” What is more, “If you say something unpleasant, we ask you to leave!”
Comrade Walker also thought it was better to have “more people who don’t have experience” coming into Momentum than members or ex-members of the organised left. But there were “too few blacks and too few women” – which was all down to people (like members of the experienced left, no doubt) “saying unpleasant things” and others (like herself, it seems) “being intimidated”.
In a similar vein Andrew Berry had raised a point of order in an earlier session objecting to the use of certain words – he specified “losers”, “mad” and “bonkers” – the last two having been directed against LPM. We don’t mind, Andrew, honestly!
The final session dealt with organisational matters, which revealed the poor state of the LRC. As Norrette Moore for the executive said, “Last August we got down to about £100 in the bank.” This was one of the reasons why the “very large national committee” had to be streamlined. The ‘streamlining’ consisted, amongst other things, of a constitutional change that would end the current two-tier structure, whereby the executive committee “takes proposals to a national committee”. Instead there would be a single national executive committee. The NC was proposing that the AGM (when it is eventually called) should elect not only the NEC, but eight individual officers (at least four of whom “should identify as female”), including a “treasurer”, “web manager” and “administrator”.
Our amendment called for all officers to be elected by the NEC itself, not the AGM. In moving it, I pointed out that very few LRC members knew which of those standing for election would make a good “web manager”, for instance. What is more, if the comrade elected turned out to be a total incompetent, then, under the current method of electing officers, there would be nothing anyone could do – they had been elected by the membership and could not be removed until the next AGM.
But comrade Moore said that if we elected the committee as a whole and gave them the job of allocating the various responsibilities from amongst themselves, that would make them a “clique”. No, I’m not sure how she worked that one out either. In any case, the amendment was lost, with, once more, around 25 voting for it.