Pete Firmin

Brilliant Conference, lots to do

Pete Firmin
Brilliant Conference, lots to do

WHAT AN EXHILARATING CONFERENCE! The largest number of delegates in years, a mood of excitement and impatience, and the most left wing in decades.

Policy decisions went beyond the manifesto and beyond expectations. Decisions were almost unanimous, but they were far from bland – including a commitment to repeal all Tory antiunion laws and a commitment not to hand council property over to developers and for binding ballots of residents before regeneration schemes go ahead. Haringey council was quick to say it would ignore that decision.

Sections of the National Policy Forum report were referred back – on the NHS, the section which banned only excess profits for the private sector; on education, the part which opposed only future academisation; on welfare, the section that didn’t reverse all Tory cuts.

One policy victory took place before conference started – the section of the manifesto critical of Israeli settlements and for the recognition of Palestine was reinstated.

These developments were reinforced by the speeches of shadow ministers (available online), such as John McDonnell’s commitment, not only not to enter into any new PFI agreements, but to scrap existing ones. Corbyn repeated the housing commitments in his speech.

All the many standing ovations felt spontaneous, not forced.

The ones that meant most to me were those given to Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Leah Levane when they spoke up for the right to criticise Israel without being deemed antisemitic. It was great to see conference standing with them. It will have been this response, together with reports of the success of the Jewish Voice for Labour meeting, which would have emboldened Jeremy to speak out for justice for the Palestinians, for which conference rose.

Unfortunately, it will also have been these successes which caused the right yet again to throw around accusations of antisemitism, and the Labour leader of Brighton council to go to the local paper saying Labour would not be welcome in the city again if it didn’t “sort out its antisemitism problem”.

There is no doubt that this backlash caused the party’s Compliance Unit - that unaccountable party within a party - to go hunting for scapegoats, its eventual victims being Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists and Mosh Machover.

The massive increase in numbers attending conference brought its own problems. Access to the conference building was incredibly slow and especially difficult for disabled members. Fringe meetings venues were also too small for the numbers wanting to attend.

Much of conference wanted to go further than the National Executive on rule changes. And if anyone argues rule changes don’t matter, we won the right to refer back sections of the National Policy Forum report through a rule change. The NEC recommended that all proposed rule changes, except their own, be referred to the review of party democracy. So CLPs submitting rule changes felt pressured to agree rather than see their motions lose and disappear.

The good news was that a lacklustre attempt by a right wing delegate to oppose any reduction in the number of MPs necessary to nominate a leadership candidate fell completely flat.

Our delegation agonised over how to vote on the NEC-proposed rule change on hate speech, drawn up by Shami Chakrabarti in close consultation with the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and no one else. One of our delegates pointed out that there had been no consultation with black, LGBT or Jewish organisations other than the JLM in drawing up this proposal. We, together with a small number of others, voted against this rule change, and I feel vindicated by the way the Compliance Unit has acted since.

Strange goings on still happened. Those CLPs which submitted resolutions on housing found the draft composite drawn up by staff excluded all the significant political points contained in the resolutions. We spent two hours arguing to get pretty much back to what we wanted. John Healy, shadow housing minister, clearly saw it as his job to tell us that “John and Jeremy” wouldn’t like our proposals, something rather contradicted by Jeremy repeating our proposals in his speech.

This use of Corbyn’s name for nefarious purposes crept into conference too, with both Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan praising him in completely OTT fashion, as if we had forgotten their role in attempting to undermine him. To old cynics like me, such Damascene conversion should be taken with a barrel of salt.

Elsewhere, less than democratic and transparent manoeuvres persisted. Labour International’s emergency resolution on the police attack on those voting in Catalunya (a few days before conference) was ruled out of order, for example. The Policy Forums need re-examining - they are talking shops with no decisions taken, and many delegates aren’t interested in attending them.

Despite the number of shadow ministers addressing conference being drastically cut this year, there was still too little time for discussion by delegates. Which isn’t to say platform speeches weren’t interesting and often inspiring. Guest speaker Naomi Klein was particularly well received.

The right complained that it was a `Momentum fix’ not to prioritise resolutions on Brexit, yet they put out their own leaflets calling for their priorities, so the objection is not to organising, but to losing!

There was a discussion and vote on Brexit, but the intention of the right was to hope to use it as a stick to beat the leadership. They were disappointed.

Momentum at conference was mixed. Regional delegates meetings on the Saturday were poorly attended, and different views on the contentious `hate speech’ rule change not conveyed in their material.

Delegates broadly supported Momentum’s guidance on the priorities ballot, the election of the National Constitutional Committee (a great success for the left) and votes on the floor of conference. However, Momentum did not actively seek references back, though it did support those made by the floor from the left.

Conference showed the upbeat mood in the Party following the June election. But it also showed how much more there is to do, in achieving electoral victory and transforming the Party, both in terms of democracy and policy.

CWU and Hampstead & Kilburn CLP