Chris Nineham speaks to activists in Brighton and reports on the Labour Party conference and discussions about the next steps for the left
Brighton 2021 is very different from Labour’s last in-person conference in 2019. The conference lacks the buzz and anticipation that the Corbyn project could still generate two years ago. It is of course Starmer’s right wing leadership that is making the running this time, but it’s clear from the votes on the floor and the discussions around the conference that the left still has considerable weight in the party.
The run up to conference was dominated by Keir Starmer’s last-minute, bungled attempt to restore pre-2014 methods of electing Labour’s leader. As delegate after delegate pointed out, this created a disastrous situation where the first two days of conference were dominated by an internal, constitutional row at a time when the country is being plunged into an unprecedented crisis by the Tories.
What is for certain is that the front bench spin from the likes of Steve Reed that ‘The party is rallying around Keir in a way I’ve never seen’ is just that, spin.
Delegates I spoke to felt the conference was deeply divided and the feeling on the conference floor was sometimes toxic. Jan Culley from Ceredigion in west Wales explained that on the first day delegates felt as if they were being treated as children, ‘constantly being warned about bad behaviour.’ A number of challenges to standing orders were ignored and the atmosphere was in her words ‘completely stultifying’. This plus the outcome of the many of the votes made the experience of the first couple of days of the conference ‘pretty demoralising.’
Other delegates were more outspoken. Bonnie and Julia from Sutton and Cheam both felt that ‘the chairing was horrible, particularly on the first day’. Bonnie felt that ‘the right was doing everything they have always wrongly accused the left of doing, stitching up the speakers list and refusing challenges to standing orders’. For Labour Grassroots founder Crispin Flintoff, the first two days felt like they were ‘stage managed from the start to finish, they must have been planning it for months, it felt like the left was the main enemy’.
Pre-conference opposition forced the leadership to retreat over plans to revert to the old electoral college system of leadership selection. They still managed to win their choice of David Evans as General Secretary and they also succeeded in getting a majority for a new minimum of 20 per cent of MPs needed to back any leadership candidate.
As Jenny from Sheffield explained, ‘this will make it very hard for a real left wing candidate to stand in a leadership election as it would be next to impossible to get enough MPs to back them.’ Ian, a delegate from Edinburgh, agreed that the outcome of the first two days was ‘pretty bad’ for the left. ‘Unfortunately, Peter Mandelson is right to say the vote will stop another Corbyn in the future.’
He also felt the conference was stitched up, partly by the massive number of expulsions over the last few weeks. But he felt there was real opposition to the right on the conference floor. This was proved by the fact that ‘when I did manage to make a point of order about Margaret Beckett's terrible chairing on the first day it went down incredibly well’. He pointed to the fact that around 55% of the constituency delegates actually voted against Starmer’s rule changes. As he and other delegates complained, ‘the changes probably wouldn’t have got through if Unison hadn’t backed them.’
Ian noted some brighter moments since then. The Green New Deal was passed and the foreign policy debates have been good for the left. One highlight was the passing on Monday morning of a historic vote on Palestine. Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Ben Jamal explained,
‘this is the first time that any major UK political party has acknowledged the reality of the situation facing the Palestinians. It calls for sanctions and the end of the arms trade with Israel. It is a historic and very significant step particularly in the context of the systematic attempts by the right of the party to suppress the Palestinian voice within the party.’
Another excellent result was the big majority for a resolution opposing the Tories’ new Aukus military deal with Australia and the US. The resolution was backed by most of the main unions and called for opposition to the Aukus deal and for de-escalation in support of Labour’s stated support for nuclear non-proliferation.
The passing of the resolutions shows the strength of the anti-war movement in the party, but also the disconnect of the leadership from the members as they have already made clear they intend to ignore what members have voted for.
Labour Party member and author Mark Perryman also felt the outcome of the conference was complicated. ‘Policies are not left wing enough for me but there has been a break with Blairism and the leadership is having to make concessions to the left. Starmer was quoted in the Sunday Mirror calling for taxes on private schools.’ For him, ‘the real problem is the attack on democracy. Starmer wants the smallest possible party, he’s running a war on democracy in the party. The thing is he can get away with it because a lot of people think about getting elected before everything else and they will sit in their hands if they think that a shift towards the centre is going to get electoral results.’
Everywhere there are discussions on the left’s next steps. Many people I spoke to felt that this conference was going to be something of a turning point. A number of delegates told me there was a feeling that ‘we can’t carry on like this.’ Bonnie was one of many delegates who felt that for many people the conference may be the end of the road. ‘I can’t see what is left for the party. A lot of people have held on desperately till conference and now I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people left.’ Her fellow delegate Julia wasn’t so sure. She felt ‘the right wouldn’t be at all happy because they had had much more trouble than they thought getting their changes through’. Whatever their opinions on staying or leaving, many delegates talked about the need for new strategies for the left.
Jenny from Sheffield spoke for many at the conference when she said that the fight had to be taken into the communities and amongst working people, ‘It’s not a question of fighting for people,’ she said, we have got to fight alongside them’.
Jan from Wales felt ‘there needs to be new strategic thinking, and people need some time to regroup and figure out how to respond’. She felt there was still plenty to fight for in her constituency party. Crispin Flintoff also felt that the left needs to work out a new strategy,
‘we need to transition from Corbynism to some kind of new movement, not a party but a movement that can keep people together right across the country. Zoom can help with this but what I think is important that we have a bottom up approach not the kind of top down approach taken by Momentum. People need to get organised locally around local issues and then try and create a new network.’
A group of delegates from Yorkshire told me that the demonstrations over Palestine earlier in the summer had been crucial in generating the success at conference. For them the Palestine vote meant they were going to redouble their efforts to build the Palestine movement.
Once again the left wing The World Transformed festival is running alongside conference. Sizeable and spirited meetings about taking on the far right, mobilising against climate change, developing new media and much else provide an important chance for the left to analyse a changing situation and to discuss movement building. A number of attendees told me that they felt that though the festival was well attended and full of young people there had not been enough honest discussion about where the left in the party really was and the real reasons for the defeat of Corbynism. ‘It is almost as if there is a sense of denial’, one said.
A whole range of fringe meetings from a well-attended Morning Star rally to meetings on trade unions rights, Palestine, Kill the Bill and a 200 strong Stop the War fringe also proved that there is a healthy activist left around Labour that really wants to take on the Tories. Another focus for this was a People’s Assembly outdoor rally on the seafront that saw a wide range of speakers from the party, the unions and beyond arguing the need to get back on to the streets outside the Tory Party conference this Sunday in Manchester. People’s Assembly chair Laura Pidcock summed up the angry mood at the rally when she said, ‘if you look at the state of society, whatever happens on the conference floor, we have got to take the fight to the government.’
Starmer may be running the show but the bad news for him is that the left is in fighting mood and is openly attacking him for the first time.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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