Did Labour’s conference change anything?

Veronica Fagan provides an in depth analysis of the recent Labour Party Conference.


There is a bad tradition on the British left that those who write articles or speak at meetings have to present the most optimistic view of any political situation in order to keep up morale amongst our audience. This is nonsense. It might work for a short time but in the long term it’s profoundly demoralising because you promised victories – or at least the absence of defeat – when in fact our people are being kicked in the teeth. 

So I will be brutally honest. Labour conference was a disaster for the left and there is an urgent need to discuss what it means and how to most effectively respond. But in order to do that it’s also critical not to bend the stick too far in the other direction and conclude that there is no appetite for radical action within local Labour parties – let alone in the majority of unions that remain affiliated.

Didn’t the electoral college get dropped?

As I argued before conference, there was a good deal of spin that Starmer wanted to reintroduce the electoral college. I suggested this could be a diversion and pointed out that the NEC could bring rule changes they agreed the day before. That’s pretty much what unfolded. Starmer had a not very agreeable meeting with the trade unions so the college disappeared – but instead a rule changed was proposed – and agreed – which means any candidate for leader needs 20 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party to nominate them.

This means that it will be very, very unlikely that a left candidate would even get on the ballot. It’s not credible to argue, as some do, that because there are 36 members of the Campaign Group (SCG), only another 4 need to be found. That suggests that group acts in a disciplined way whereas you can’t find a single statement issued by the Socialist Campaign Group since the 2019 election defeat that has many more than 20 names on it – others have been keeping their heads down.

Most of the other dangerous rule changes I flagged up went through as predicted – but there were a number of proposals I failed to mention. Under Jeremy Corbyn, conference devoted more time to debating motions that came from the membership and less to staged set pieces aimed at the media. This was reversed so that conference will only discuss 12 rather than 20 topics. Also the registered supporters’ scheme has been scrapped and the threshold for trigger ballots for MPs has increased. Then of course there were the changes allegedly brought in to comply with the EHRC report – few of which were actually legally necessary and all of which are in contradiction with other court rulings – as well as with the principles of natural justice.

There was one tiny glimmer of light when one single rule change proposed by the left – in this case by City of Durham CLP – which means that local parties will have a majority on the body that decides who the Labour candidate will be in the case of snap elections.

But apart from that the picture is bleak and studying the voting doesn’t make it more cheery. Yes many of the votes were close – but the right controlled the majority of the CLPs as well as of the trade unions in all of the bundles of votes other than card vote 19 (which included the threshold for a leadership election). From this point of view, as well as others, Elaine Bolton’s conference report from the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CPLD) is unconvincing in its optimism.

All of this happened after the vote to endorse David Evans as General Secretary. It’s true as various commentators have pointed out that it is unprecedented to give conference such a vote, let alone a card vote – and also worth noting that the result had to be recalculated (final result 57 per cent for to 43 per cent against). Nevertheless it showed that the left did not have a majority. Furthermore, while some argued that this only happened because Unison broke their mandate, the reality is much more complex. It relates to the way that the structures of that union – along with the majority of others – mean that decisions in relation to the Labour Party are often ossified.

Didn’t conference pass good policy?

Bolton, along with many others, has pointed out that conference passed a number of extremely radical policy resolutions. This is absolutely correct as is the fact that many delegates spoke powerfully and passionately in the debates. But this does not tell us everything we need to know by a long shot.

Let’s look at some examples.

On Climate, the most urgent issue facing not only the whole labour movement, but anyone wanting to see a future in which people can have confidence, there were inspirational moments. Such as this speech from the FBU’s Matt Wrack moving the Socialist Green New Deal or the one from Young Labour activist, Aden Harris,  passionately opposing the other motion promoting ‘green gas’ and nuclear.

While it was good to see that support for the reactionary motion from the GMB was not strong enough to go through without a card vote and was only passed by 59.21 per cent overall, this indicates the deep problem that remains within the trade unions in winning real support for a Just Transition. It is not supposed techofixes like ‘green’ gas – clearly a contradiction in terms – that will guarantee the sort of future we want for ourselves and generations to come – but the sort of policies in the Socialist Green New Deal. It is also worth noting that the narrow and reactionary nature of the GMB’s politics was underlined by their attack on other unions for supporting the emergency motion opposing AUKUS (the new alliance between the US, Britain and Australia targeting the so called Chinese ‘threat’).

But there were major kicks in the teeth for the left from Starmer on the Andrew Marr show and from Rachel Reeves who claimed she would be Britain’s first green chancellor and promised a budget of £28 billion per year on climate.  But both still argued that Labour had no intention of nationalising the Big Six energy companies. You might have thought that the fuel crisis would have offered the umpteenth open goal by the Tories to make such a proposal.  Tragically you would be wrong – according to Starmer that’s being ideological, and Reeves thinks we need to be pragmatic. This has rightly awakened fury – We Own It’s Cat Hobbs pointing out here that this implication that privatisation is the neutral default is not a useful starting point. Critical responses  also came from Labour for a Green New Deal  on social media on TV and at their packed fringe meetings. As Chris Saltmarsh points out this is a hugely popular policy amongst young people.

Meanwhile the Shadow Energy Minister Alan Whitehead, who is also the Parliamentary Representative for SERA, Labour’s Environmental affiliate, was showing where his priorities lay – getting close to the polluters not to the grass roots activists and trade unionists, prompting this comment from Momentum.

On the NHS

But climate was far from the only issue on which the leadership distanced itself from the sentiment and votes in conference hall. In the session where the NHS was discussed, Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, made a speech in which he failed to even mention the Tory Health and Care Bill currently in committee. This legislation, with its so called Integrated Care Systems, poses another major threat to the health of our NHS. The fury at Ashworth’s failure to confront the Tories was compounded by the fact that he then immediately left the stage. He did not stay to even listen to, let alone applaud the contributions of delegates from local parties and trade unions about the policies he and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet ought to be promoting to defend the most popular public service Labour has ever created.

That sense of extreme frustration was compounded by one of the passages in Starmer’s speech to conference on Wednesday in which he said; ‘We would shift the priority in the NHS away from emergency care, towards prevention’, which has already been pointed out happens to coincide with the Government’s proposals to massively reduce the number of major acute hospitals in England.

On the minimum wage

It was on the question of the minimum wage that Starmer couldn’t even hold his own Shadow Cabinet together. Andy McDonald resigned as Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections after he was instructed to go into a meeting and argue against a minimum wage of £15 per hour – as well as to oppose a decent level of sick pay. This is from the same party leadership which is currently arguing, in cahoots with Boris Johnson, that we don’t want a low wage economy!! This is the the same leadership that claims that they don’t want to put anything in the way of winning the next election – when polls show that 65 per cent of people support the fight for £15.

On Palestine

The first victory on Palestine happened before conference itself as I previously reported, as Labour First’s motion did not get the support of even a single CLP as their motion to conference. Instead a brilliant composite moved by Young Labour nails the apartheid nature of the Israeli state and calls for sanctions.

But hang on a minute, wasn’t this the same conference that passed rule changes supposedly mandated by the EHRC which suggests such views are anti-Semitic? That’s certainly the view of Ruth Smeeth, like Margaret Hodge on the platform for that ‘debate’.  Once again a front bench spokesperson, this time Lisa Nandy, was quick to repudiate conference’s democratic decisions.

I could go on, taking debate after debate and paying tribute to the powerful speakers from delegates , including a notable number of young members, speaking with passion against Tory attacks and for radical change.  However all this was to be undermined by a leadership very determined to present a party fit for capital. Despite the massive gerrymandering that took place in the run up to – and even during conference -(a subject to which I will return) they were entirely unable to extinguish a fighting spirit amongst a high proportion of delegates.

But we need to be clear that the radical policies agreed by conference will not even be referenced, let alone promoted, by the national leadership. If parts of the Labour Left are going to build on the gains that were made we need to do so on the ground – in the streets, workplaces and communities. At the same time we must do so together with people outside the Labour Party but prepared to organise around these issues.

What did conference feel like?

Was the choice of a colour gradient from red on the left to blue on the right, as a backdrop to the Labour logo an attempt to suggest being a “broad church”, or is it a simple message to say that the party is turning from red to blue? Either way it seemed designed to make the left feel highly uncomfortable and even more importantly send a signal to the media.

In the days leading up to conference, delegate after delegate received suspension or expulsion letters.  According to the Conference Arrangements Committee, who were forced to finally report back by a stream of points of order, there were 30 overall, but all from CLPs that had other delegates. We can only speculate as to whether such energy would have been expended if in many cases this did not change the balance of delegations. At the same time the stress and the wasted money for the individuals are dismissed in this stampeding purge.

The expulsion of Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) co-chair Leah Levane was probably the most reported on – but nevertheless bears repeating. Leah had received notice of possible auto exclusion back in August but her notice of expulsion was received on Saturday evening followed by a letter a few minutes later saying that ‘her application to be a delegate was denied’! So on Saturday she was able to attend as a delegate but on Sunday morning her conference pass didn’t work! Like many other comrades Leah has been convicted in retrospect – for support of organisations before they were banned. The fact that this is a travesty of natural justice seems to be of no concern at all to Starmer and his apparatus.

There was another more dramatic incident where Leeds Central delegate Jonathan Lees was physically dragged out of conference for the ‘crime’ of wearing a Starmer out tee-shirt. Watch him below explain what happened.

The behaviour of conference chairs, apparently dripping with contempt for delegates especially, but not only, those raising points of order, was unconscionable. Conference was warm in its support for Emma Whitby from Sefton Central CLP asking : “I’d like to know why the CAC has allowed Murdoch’s lying Tory rag to come to this conference” but Margaret Beckett in the chair was certainly not.

Throughout conference, left delegates reported being tutted at or worse by men in suits if they did not applaud platform speakers. The atmosphere was particularly tense during the rule change sessions on Saturday afternoon and for those arising from the EHRC report on Sunday. I mentioned earlier that Smeeth and Hodge addressed conference during that session, which opened with Unison’s Mark Ferguson in the chair apologising to Jewish members for the discrimination he alleged the EHRC report had revealed. Not of course an apology to those Jewish members of Jewish Voice for Labour(JVL) who he and his ilk are trying to hound out of the party for being the ‘wrong kind of Jews.’ A large number of men in suits filled parts of the balcony for this tense session. The welcoming of Louise Ellman back ‘home’ was part of this nauseating scenario. Ellman resigned from Labour in October 2019, saying the then leader Jeremy Corbyn was “not fit” to be prime minister and that antisemitism had become “mainstream” within the party.

Before Starmer’s speech on Wednesday afternoon, lots of left delegates departed and visitors were then allowed in to fill the hall. That much has been common practice going back many years – including during Corbyn’s tenure. What I certainly don’t remember ever happening before was stalls holders, with their blue passes, being shepherded in too. Delegates from London reported that the majority in their block during the speech were non-delegates. 

Glove wearing police officers checked under everybody seats and in everybody’s bags. Waggy tailed sniffer dogs were making circuits with their handlers. Some of the police were clearly armed. But the way the checks were conducted made it clear their presence was an exercise in intimidation rather than an actual security check.

Starmer is introduced by Doreen Lawrence (a clever piece of manipulation I thought). The suits cheer as their leader appears.  A woman is escorted from the hall for chanting ‘O Jeremy Corbyn‘ seconds into the speech. She is saved the tedium of 90 minutes of forgettable Starmer which Dave Kellaway reported on previously.

I won’t repeat what he said in detail but some things are worth emphasising. Watching the recording there was a lot of heckling throughout –  most of which you could only hear as a rumble. The clearest shouts were for a £15 minimum wage. Starmer’s planned response – the leak of which had led Momentum foolishly to advise delegates to remain silent – was the feeble ‘shouting slogans or changing lives’. But his speech, like the whole of his leadership, offered nothing to change lives when £15 an hour would materially make a difference to many thousands of lives. The red cards distributed by Defend the Left were also visible in many camera pans despite the intimidation.

Certainly the horrors of conference floor were to some extent alleviated by the positive experiences of attending left fringe meetings, whether they were one off events organised by parts of the left, by the trade unions, at The World Transformed or the Resist event. Those events, hearing inspirational speeches and being able to discuss with those who share all or many of our principles are undoubtedly important to give people renewed energy for the struggle ahead. However they don’t change the poor relationship of forces with those who are our  implacable opponents. It would be a mistake to forget that.

What about the unions?

The big news in terms of the unions was the decision of the Baker’s union (BAFWU) to disaffiliate from Labour –no small matter when they were one of the unions that came together to form the party. While they are a small union they also punch above their weight it terms of fighting for a decent minimum wage, against Zero hour contacts, against discriminatory youth rates, for the ‘Right to Food’ and much more.

General Secretary Sarah Woolley argued:

“we will become more political and we will ensure our members’ political voice is heard as we did when we started the campaign for £10 per hour in 2014. Today we want to see £15 per hour for all workers, the abolition of zero hours’ contracts and ending discrimination against young people by dispensing with youth rates”.

Interesting stuff, but as yet it is  quite vague. How precisely will that be expressed and organised? It’s certainly true that political parties don’t have a monopoly on politics – even if too often the latter is defined in a parliamentary framework.

But the precedents are not auspicious. The rail union RMT broke its affiliation with Labour in 2004 in order to support Scottish branches affiliating to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) – which at the time had six MSPs at Holyrood. While that made sense at the time in my view, with the subsequent decline of the SSP, it had less purchase and also meant that branches in England and in Wales had no meaningful political expression – and neither did the union at a UK level. The union debated the issue again in 2018 after Corbyn became Labour leader, a move which they strongly supported – but narrowly decided not to reaffiliate.

It’s true that there are a number of unions that have never affiliated to Labour which do campaign on a series of issues – the Civil Service union PCS and the education union NEU are probably the best examples. If the Baker’s decision stimulates a broader debate in the unions about their relationship with Labour then that’s a good thing – but this needs also to look at how political funding by trade unions is organised.

There are two problems on this front. The way unions collect and use money politically is significantly constrained – as is so much else they are allowed to do – by Britain’s highly repressive anti-union laws.  But the second is that unions police themselves – even prior to the antiunion laws in most unions the way decisions are made about political funding didn’t take place at a branch, let alone a workplace level, but through regional structures remote from the concerns of the majority of members. Every radical trade unionist has had the argument flung at them time and time again that demands for better pay or conditions, let alone the right to decent housing or for international solidarity, should be subordinated to the key task of getting a Labour government. Despite such a government appearing  a distant prospect and being based on flimsy commitments to improve working class lives. These are political challenges activists face in the unions, whether or not they are in the Labour Party.

What next?

Starmer’s speech and conference as a whole did not deliver even a temporary bounce. Labour and its leader continue to do very badly in the polls. It’s clearer than it was before – and it was pretty evident then – that the project of making Labour safe for capital is both the heart of his mission and a difficult one for him to achieve.

Despite having a successful conference brought about my months of gerrymandering, local Labour branches and constituencies have more activists still than before Corbyn’s election. We understand that membership has fallen by around 150,000 – a small number through expulsions and a much higher one as a result of fury and demoralisation with the leadership. Starmer hopes that conference will lead to an escalation of this exodus – and he is almost certainly right. Moreover there is no place to hide in that the same political questions are posed in the trade unions as in the Labour Party itself. 

For myself, I intend to stay in the party as long as I can – but I think two things are key in doing that. It’s essential to fight politically inside the party for radical political ideas. There is no point in being there if I am silenced. I agree with Ken Loach in his characterisation of the Labour right as people who operate in the interests of the ruling class – and with his challenge to the Socialist Campaign group to show political leadership. At the same time that’s why I will be putting as much energy as possible in organising in my trade union, in my community and on the streets – and trying to persuade other Labour activists to do likewise.

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