Jeremy Corbyn got a bigger and renewed mandate. How did conference respond? David Lister reports on Corbyn’s speech, mixed messages and unity calls
I attended Conference last year as an observer but this was my first conference as a delegate after 39 years of Labour Party membership.
I arrived in Liverpool on the Saturday afternoon, unfortunately missing the meeting to announce the outcome of the leadership contest. However I soon picked up the mood of euphoria among Corbyn supporters. On the Saturday evening there was a reception for London delegates with a whistle-stop visit and speech by Jeremy Corbyn (with delicious food, sponsored by Canary Wharf Ltd, believe it or not).
You quickly realise as a delegate that there is a lot of routine stuff at conference. Reports of not huge interest and on Sunday the most interesting highlight for me was a fringe meeting on Israel/Palestine organised by Free Speech on Israel, in the evening.
On Monday there was more solid fare with the economics debate closed by John McDonnell. Much applause for his pledges that Labour would introduce a real living wage of at least £10 an hour and would become an interventionist government with a comprehensive industrial strategy to invest in Britain’s future. Following Prem Sikka’s review, McDonnell also promised to double the number of HMRC staff working on tax avoidance and to ban tax avoiding companies from winning public sector contracts. His concluding comment was “In this party you no longer have to whisper it – it’s called socialism”.
The following day Tom Watson countered this by saying ”Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy”. So there you have it. He also brought some delegates to their feet by celebrating the achievements of the Blair/Brown governments. When one delegate shouted “what about Chilcot?”, he riposted that she clearly had not heard the call for unity.
Conference climaxed with the Leader’s speech on Wednesday afternoon. Corbyn expressed his conviction that Labour could climb an “electoral mountain” to general election success by focusing on “the needs and aspirations of middle and lower income voters”. Hopefully he is right but many of his MPS remain unconvinced of this. At least he recognises that there is a mountain to climb, given the need to win back swathes of Labour voters from the Tories in the context of Tory gerrymandering to reduce the number of seats and voters.
Corbyn also made the important commitment to end the ban on Council borrowing to invest in social housing. Further, Labour would not aim to reduce immigration but would put the emphasis on increased funding for areas of high immigration. He urged colleagues to end “trench warfare”, take on the Tories and prepare for a general election, which he warned could come soon. In a strong passage he condemned all anti-Semitism as “evil” and attacked the “so-called free market system” for producing “grotesque inequality”.
Jeremy Corbyn received a standing ovation for promising to repeal the Trade Union Act and, in a stinging attack, portrayed the Tories as a party “funded by the privileged few for the benefit of the privileged few”. In a rather tamer conclusion he promised to build a fairer Britain in a peaceful world.
It was interesting to note the differences in the responses of delegates. There were clearly many hard core Corbyn supporters there, who responded in an extremely enthusiastic way to his speech. There were also a significant number of delegates who were of the other persuasion, who got to their feet when converse views were put. I probably reflected the Chartist line of critical support for Corbyn in that I was on my feet applauding him on a number of occasions but not with the wild abandon of many delegates.
There were also debates on some key areas voted for by CLP delegates: housing, the NHS, grammar schools and child refugees, as well as four areas selected by the unions. The only real controversy regarding the latter resolutions was in the debate on energy, where the GMB proposed motion focused on climate change but included a commitment to nuclear power. Despite a strong speech opposing this, the motion as carried.
The big issue of Brexit was discussed tangentially in the TSSA proposed composite on employment rights. It included the recognition that ‘the final settlement should be subject to approval, through Parliament, and potentially through a general election, or a referendum’. It resolved that ‘Our party leader, PLP and EPLP work with the Party of European Socialists and other progressive forces in Europe to ensure the terms of our exit are concluded before Article 50 is triggered’. Now we know the Tories plan this action by the end of March 2017, we have our work cut out.
The other motions were also carried. The one on grammar schools included opposition to any expansion of selective education and the establishment in all areas of a genuinely comprehensive and inclusive secondary education system. I experienced in this debate the fate of many delegates. I had written what I believed to be a good speech but a plethora of hands went up when speakers were called for and I, like many others was disappointed not to be called.
There seemed to be a formula for stirring speeches, which was to raise your voice as you concluded with your strongest points, which Tom Watson and Richard Burgon were particularly good at. Burgon, Cat Smith and Yvette Cooper all contributed to the Home Affairs debate on the final day when a commitment to bring over child refugees to Britain was agreed and the debate finished with a stirring speech by Andy Burnham, focusing on Hillsborough and Orgreave.
A leitmotif throughout the conference was the wrangling over rule changes. East Devon had had their proposed rule change, which would have allowed local parties and trade unions to interview prospective candidates ahead of the parliamentary long list, ruled out of order. They protested but to no avail. At the same time conference was being asked to endorse a package of rule changes from the NEC, although there was some dispute over whether the NEC had actually agreed this procedure. The package included some important positive steps, such as ensuring that the leader’s name was automatically included on any future leadership ballot and strengthening the role of the women’s conference, allowing it to feed into policy making. But it also included a proposal to expand the NEC to include the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties, which the Left saw as a move to counter the election of two additional Left members of the NEC. Requests for a card vote rather than a show of hands were rejected by the Chair, Paddy Lillis, apparently in breach of Party rules. In the end the package was comfortably passed by Conference.
Various other rule changes put forward by CLPs were defeated, except for an important change allowing future conferences to vote for documents in part, rather than having to endorse or reject them as a whole.
And what of the future? There were calls for unity from both wings of the Party throughout conference. We do not yet have any indication of what this will mean in practice as we do not know if and how far Progress and Labour First supporters will accept Corbyn’s second victory. But it is absolutely vital that unity takes place with the widening of the shadow cabinet to include some of those who left it. McDonnell in particular has acknowledged that mistakes were made over the last year and it is surely incumbent on the party leadership to ensure that a more inclusive approach is taken in the future and that more joined up work takes place around policy formulation. It is equally incumbent on Corbyn’s critics to accept the verdict of the members and return to the fold.
The threat of de-selection was referred to a number of times at conference and it seems to me that the wholesale de-selection of MPs would be destabilising and unhelpful, although there may well be a case for it in some constituencies. On the other hand, with boundaries being redrawn, selection contests are going to be unavoidable in places.
Labour First leafleted conference daily and it is worth noting what they said on their future role in the Party: “We will work in a spirit of unity with comrades from across the party to fight this pernicious Tory government. But we will also speak up proudly and openly for our vision of democratic socialism, our policy areas, our candidates…”
Chartist’s position remains one of critical support for Corbyn and a commitment to party unity. Maybe Labour can do a Leicester City, confound the commentators and win in 2020. It cannot possibly do so however if large-scale infighting continues. What also needs to be considered is how a Corbynite Labour Government could implement his “socialist” programme. We have heard what Corbyn and McDonnell propose to do but we have not heard how they propose to deal with the neo-liberal response. It is difficult to believe that the extremely rich will meekly accept measures to make them significantly less rich. Harold Wilson’s “gnomes of Zurich” were actually located rather nearer home, in the City of London. Watch this space!