Michael Calderbank

Labour Conference 2016: Unite to fight the Tories

Michael Calderbank

JUST HOURS AFTER DELEGATES ARRIVED IN LIVERPOOL for the eve-of- Conference leadership announcement, a wave of euphoria engulfed the left, as Corbyn managed not only to survive the PLP’s attempted coup but even to surpass the vote share received twelve months previously. Sadly, there were empty spaces in the Conference Centre itself, despite thousands being unable to obtain tickets - clearly the party machinery wanted to keep a lid on the celebrations. However, over in Momentum’s ‘The World Transformed’ hub, people were punching the air in delight. Corbyn’s speech emphasising the need for the PLP to unite and take the fight to the Tories hit just the right note.

However, as the Conference proper got underway in Liverpool it came as no surprise that the anti-Corbynite forces would continue to put up stiff rearguard resistance, managing successfully to outmanoeuvre the left in some key respects. Perhaps most significantly, they were able to force through the creation of two new NEC positions which would be appointed directly by the leaders in Scotland and Wales respectively, both hostile to the national leadership. This was a transparent attempt to offset the impact of the democratic election of the CLP representatives, where a clean-sweep for the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance slate produced a nominally Corbynite majority.

Sadly, however, one candidate from this slate - Ann Black - chose to vote with the right on this critical vote, and also voted for the right wing candidate for the NEC Chair Glenis Wilmott, over CWU’s Tony Kearns. A packed meeting of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy heard a barnstorming speech from new NEC member Claudia Webbe, who made a passionate defence of the left’s need to stand united on grounds of democratic principle against the shabby tricks of the party machine. This provided a stark contrast with Black’s stumbling, semiapologetic explanation of her voting record. Some of the votes from delegates representing ostensibly Corbyn-supporting unions like Unison also assisted the manoeuvres of the right, and it is clear that the left must up its game in demanding proper democratic accountability.

Outrageously, the NEC bundled all the contentious rule changes together with proposals no one could object to, like the commitment to have a national Women's Conference on an annual basis - offering the package on a ‘take it leave it’ basis. When TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes moved to refer back the changes to the NEC and specifically called for a card vote, Paddy Lillis from the right wing USDAW simply ignored the rule book and allowed the vote to proceed on a show of hands. Several speakers including NEC member Christine Shawcroft and Max Shanley protested, but Lillis stubbornly refused to exercise his constitutional duty.

Out on the main Conference platform, Tom Watson made a dreadful speech, notable for its failure to give Corbyn a single mention despite his overwhelming victory. Watson made a point of saying “capitalism is not the enemy”, while mounting a robust defence of NATO. The media went to town on the apparent discontent of then Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis, following a last-gasp intervention to the text of his speech. Lewis effectively sold the pass on the attempt to reverse party policy over Trident, signalling what appeared to be a further reverse for the left.

As Jeremy came to deliver his closing speech on Wednesday, It had been feared that the party machine was deliberately refusing people access to the hall, to create the impression of a lack of interest. It is rumoured that Jeremy refused to take to the stage unless all those seeking access were admitted. In the end, Corbyn’s speech was well received even in the mainstream press, as he argued against divisive Tory policies on education, immigration and the economy. Now after Conference, the Party must unite and turn our fire outwards.  

is Secretary of Brent Central Constituency Labour Party