Palestine flags at Labour Conference, September 2018. Photo: James Thomas Griffiths Palestine flags at Labour Conference, September 2018. Photo: James Thomas Griffiths

The left surge at Labour conference was impressive – now, if we want to win, we need to mobilise the whole movement

This year’s Labour Conference saw real success for the left. However much the media wanted to play up divisions and doubts, they are finding it hard to deny the party is now posing a real challenge to the policies that have dominated for decades.

This was partly due to the grassroots. The constituency delegations were far more left wing than in previous years. Whereas two years ago there was an awkward, sometimes confrontational atmosphere in the conference centre, this year the left was dominant and after initial anxiety, the mood was upbeat. Radical speeches and proposals got the most enthusiastic reception. The right of the PLP were marginalised, and barely featured. 

One of the striking things was the huge audience for political discussion and left wing ideas. Left fringe meetings were packed and The World Transformed conference was at least as big as last year in Brighton. The discussion has moved on – there were some serious debates about what it would really mean to try and transform society. But the answers to this, in particular how to deal with establishment opposition to Corbynism, remain hazy and undeveloped.

In particular, whatever some on the left might think about the foreign policy discussions being niche or difficult, conference and the surrounding events proved anti-war sentiment is an essential element of the appeal of Corbynism.

Support for the Palestinians was clearly massive, as the success of Tuesday’s day for Palestine showed. Support for an arms embargo on Israel suggested that the delegates were in no mood for the kind of compromises over the IHRA that the NEC thought necessary at their September meeting. Fringe meetings put on by Stop the War Coalition, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and others were packed and enthusiastic. In his final speech, Corbyn was cheered to the rafters when he called for an end to the war on Yemen, criticised arms sales to Saudi and promised to recognise Palestine. 

There are of course big divisions over Europe. The media is trying to spin that pressure from the rank and file bounced the leadership into backing a second referendum. In fact, this was not the position conference took. What was interesting was that the argument put by many from the leadership and the conference floor that a second referendum would be perceived as a denial of democracy had an impact. Surveys showed that the EU was not the main question for most delegates, despite the media’s obsession with it, the big push around it from some on the left and attempts by some on the Labour right to use it against Corbyn.

There was a strong feeling that the key thing is to get on with challenging the Tories and fighting for an alternative set of economic and social policies. The issue will keep on being contested but the People’s Brexit approach has traction.

The democratic deficit

It’s important to be honest that despite all this, the left was pushed back some way on the democracy reforms that it wanted.

Open selection for local candidates was dropped in favour of a trigger ballot system which is less democratic than what CLPs were pushing for and will make it harder to reselect MPs. What is worse, under the new system of selecting a leader, candidates have to get 10% of PLP backing and 5% of affiliates or CLPs. Given the makeup of the PLP, this will make getting another leader as left wing as Corbyn hard. The problem is compounded by the failure to win open selection of MPs. This result showed that many of the union leaders are resistant to opening up the party and still have huge power in the organisation.

Corbyn and McDonnell’s economic proposals, while not wildly radical in historical terms, were enough to mark a break with the free market nightmare we have been living through for decades. No surprises that they got big cheers in the conference hall, on the fringe and at the Liverpool Pierhead rally on Saturday night. They are going to resonate around the country. Even some mainstream commentators are starting to recognise that the Labour leadership is winning the argument on the economy. 

The pressure of power

After conference, the Corbyn project looks more electable than ever, mainly because it was shaped by the left and the right was effectively faced down.

Given the state of the Tory party an early election is conceivable. But big business remains unhappy about many of Labour’s economic proposals, as the CBI has recently reported. And much of Corbyn’s foreign policy is unacceptable to the elites. There will be huge pressure to moderate policy, especially now power looks possible.

The repeated calls for party unity at conference were an expression of this pressure. Unity is a good thing in general, but it depends who with and what the price is. It is important to insist that Labour stays radical if it is to continue to inspire. Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to argue that if Labour can’t convince people it is going to make fundamental changes, then other forces will fill the political vacuum.

We should also be clear that the establishment will continue to try and sabotage and derail the Corbyn leadership, helped no doubt by hostile MPs. The origins of Corbynism in the wider movements and struggles was obvious at conference. The buzz at the Labour Party fringe proved there is still a big overlap between party members and the movements. This needs to be developed. If Corbyn does get elected it is going to take a massive effort to push through a radical agenda in the face of a business elite and a state still committed to a neoliberal economic model. It can’t be done through parliament alone. 

We are going to need the active mobilisation of the unions, the protest movements and even wider communities to have a chance of success. Building the strength of the movements and increasing their purchase and support within Labour has to be a big priority, partly to keep pushing back against the right, partly to prepare for the moment of government.