Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the NHS demonstration, June 2018 Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the NHS demonstration, June 2018. Photo: Jim Aindow

As Labour Party Conference commences, Sean Ledwith argues it is essential the left defends the Corbyn project against further retreats, as recent NEC decisions show us

The Labour conference beginning in Liverpool this Saturday could play a major role in deciding whether the dream of a Corbyn government comes to pass in the near future. The Corbyn project since his election to the leadership in 2015 has been driven by the desire on most parts of the left to see a dynamic synergy of the social movements that have flourished on the streets and in workplaces, with the revitalisation of the Labour Party symbolised by his defeat of the Blairites in two successive leadership races.

Part of this new agenda has been the attempt by Corbyn supporters inside and outside the party to transform it into an effective vehicle for transmitting grassroots anger against neoliberalism into mainstream politics. 

There is no shortage of evidence that this goal is making headway and giving renewed hope to the victims of eight years of Tory rule. The exponential growth of the party to almost 600,000 members, its biggest share of the vote in a general election since 2001 and the largest increase in the share of the vote since 1945 are all signs the Corbyn project has the potential to put a left-wing government into Downing Street after last year’s near miss.

As the prospect of seeing Corbyn standing on the steps gets closer, however, the temptation for some is to draw back from the radicalism that has carried him this far. On the eve of conference, there are worrying signs that his supporters in the battle for the soul of the party are giving ground to those who are not fully on board with the push to the left. 

This week Corbyn has been defeated on two key votes in Labour’s ruling body, the NEC, to deepen the democratisation of the party. A proposal to ensure Labour councillors submit their manifestos to a committee of party members before publication has been shelved for one year. Similarly, a move to strengthen the national policy forum was replaced by a vaguer commitment to conduct a wide-ranging review of how policy is formulated.

Huda Elmi, one of the (pro-Corbyn) #JC9 elected to the NEC at the start of September ago rightly identifies what is stake over the next few days:

By demoralising activists and members, abusing the trust of those who placed changes on hold at last year’s conference and preserving the power of insider groups over policy and procedure, the NEC’s tinkering makes it that bit more difficult for Labour to win the next general election. The next coming days will determine whether we’ll be effective when we get into government and whether socialist leadership of the party can be preserved.

The people driving the conciliation are mainly in the union bureaucracy. They are not Corbyn supporters in any serious sense. Nor are they backers of the right. They want to blunt the more radical impulses of Corbynism and keep Labour within safe social democratic parameters. They would prefer a successor like Emily Thornberry and they’re not keen on sweeping deselections of sitting MPs. 

That’s who is behind the massive weakening of the Democracy Review. It’s not about undermining Corbyn’s position totally, but rather clipping his wings. The union leaders dovetail in this respect with a layer of centre ground MPs – willing to work with Corbyn but not wanting things to go too far (and keen to retain a large degree of PLP power and autonomy). 

These defeats for the Corbyn supporters on the NEC are skirmishes before the bigger battles at conference over mandatory reselections of MPs and the threshold for the leadership nomination. The unreconstructed Blairite faction in the Parliamentary Labour Party have been emboldened recently by forcing the party to swallow the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the intensification of their disastrous plan to reverse Brexit through a so-called People’s Vote.

Further defeats over party democracy for the Labour left at conference can only serve to demoralise activists up and down the country who been inspired by three years of Corbyn’s vision of anti-austerity, anti-war and pro-Palestinian politics.

The triumph of ‘business as usual’ politics managed from inside the Westminster bubble only undermines the chances of seeing Corbyn standing outside Number Ten. Socialists inside and outside the party need to create the loudest noise possible in Liverpool to hold the line against further retreats.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters