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Labour Conference 2016: The good, the bad and the ugly

Watson & CorbynThe Good
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced on the Saturday, with an increased vote from 59.5% to 61.8%. While the result was long expected, and came as a surprise to no-one except the Smith campaigners briefing he would win the week before, it should be underlined how significant this was. Over 313,209 people voted for Jeremy Corbyn, including most members in Europe’s largest left-of-centre party.

That being said, Corbyn only polled at 37% among pre-May 2015 party members. So where did his victory come from? The party membership fell from over 400,000 to around 160,000 while New Labour were in government. Many of these members have returned to the fold, along with new, younger members who only vaguely recall Iraq and were politicised in the 2010 student protest or after.

While Corbyn and the left are changing the party, and for the better, there is still a sizeable number of members who don’t support him.

The bad

The long-awaited NEC rule package was sadly voted through at the conference. This included the addition of representatives for the Scottish and Welsh Labour leaders, appointed and not elected by members. The effect of this is to, in the words of one delegate, ‘gerrymander the NEC’  into an anti-Corbyn majority.

One small positive was that CLPD won, I am told, its first major rule change since 2009, winning the vote on allowing Conference to vote on National Policy Forum documents ‘by parts’, effectively allowing CLPs to unpick unfavourable policy documents.

That should, on the face of it, be good news for the left, who are regularly forced to ‘take it or leave it’ when it comes to entire reports of policy. Yet it should be noted 2015 was the first summer where the left won the majority of CLP representation on the NPF, and at conference 2016 delegates were clearly on the right (as shown by a large victory for Labour First’s NCC candidate). We could see a situation where a left-led Shadow Cabinet and NPF propose radical policies only having them unpicked by the right at conference.

The ugly

The manner in which the NEC rule changes were passed was remarkable. The CAC ruled that they had to be voted on ‘as a whole’, with a single card vote for all rule changes. The left attempted to challenge this each morning of conference when the CAC report was moved, resulting in a lengthy debate on the Tuesday morning before they were voted on. When CLP delegates requested a card vote, the Chair dismissed this completely, despite the rules stating a card vote must be held if a delegate requests one.

Finally…

Clive Lewis’s speech received the most coverage of any Labour Left politician, possibly even including Corbyn’s speech. Lewis outlined his views on NATO and Trident, saying he acknowledged that Labour’s policy was in favour of Trident renewal. While some on the Left celebrated Lewis’s pragmatic approach to difficult questions where the left can be portrayed as weak on national security, others have criticised him not only for ceding ground on these issues, but for the manner in which he seemed to embrace NATO, calling it, “an organisation that springs directly from our values: collectivism, internationalism and the strong defending the weak.”

In terms of policy, Lewis didn’t make any major proposals except to commit Britain to its NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP, something which, as he pointed out himself, every previous Labour government has met. But the real question that NATO, and to a far greater extent Trident, pose for the Labour Left is this: what is ‘the Corbyn project’ for? There are emerging and influential voices such as Paul Mason who have called for Labour to fairly uncritically compromise on national security matters (‘the leftwing case for Trident’), for fear of electability, while others have noted that to do so might destroy the popularity and unique appeal of Corbynism. What made the leadership election last summer so remarkable was that an anti-war socialist was elected leader – someone who not only dissented from the establishment Labour line on domestic matters, but on international ones too, and usually being correct on every issue from Libya to Iraq to apartheid. If, in the pursuit of power, that stance is to change, then it could provoke a large debate about the politics of Corbynism and what it promises to deliver.

13 Comments

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    it doesnt matter how its painted but the blairites of this party the greedie ones will cause no end of disruption for the rest who follow corbyn

  2. Shan Morgain says:

    It’s not at all clear what the majority of LP members want regarding Trident. But knowing Corbyn, and McDonnell, this would be opened to members’ democratic mandate.
    However to do that we need a statement of pro and con. This needs to be as neutral as possible, in two columns, so the ordinary person can judge for themselves.

    Kudos to Lewis for maintaining loyalty when his speech changed last minute. As we well know too many MPs are prima donnas who can’t cope with anything unexpected or unwelcome.
    Loyalty means loyalty when it’s uncomfortable. Anyone can be loyal, or brave, or clever, in conditions of comfort. It’s the tricky bits that select the real alphas – so again kudos to Lewis.

    Be sure to keep us informed please on the investigation into the Conference chair’s unconstitutional rejection of a card vote. This cannot be allowed to become a precedent.

    1. David Pavett says:

      … we need a statement of pro and con. This needs to be as neutral as possible …

      I couldn’t agree more but it is far from clear that Corbyn and McDonnell agree or even if they want to take this issue to the members. There have been plenty of different opportunities to do this. It hasn’t happened.

  3. John says:

    Why are alternatives to Trident – like putting the missiles on a plane – never discussed? Billions of waste or nothing.

  4. David Pavett says:

    James Elliot treats Clive Lewis’ Conference speech with kid gloves. It was awful. All that defence of the realm stuff and how NATO was created on the basis of principles which are those of Labour as well.

    The real test for the opportunism of his stance (and I guess those of the Shadow Cabinet – do they not discuss and agree these things?) is that his case for Trident was purely political and did not include a hint of military evaluation. That makes it remarkably close to Blair’s view. He recognised that it had no military value but felt that it was needed for Britain’s international image.

    And the thing is that Clive Lewis (and his Shadow Cabinet colleagues) did not have to do that at all. It would have been perfectly in order to have said that the debate launched by Emily Thornbury’s paper on defence has not yet been completed (truth be told, it has never started) and that the Party’s view on Trident would be formulated after a full discussion throughout the Party. What is more, had Party members been put in charge it seems very unlikely that they would have come to the same decision as Clive Lewis and his Shadow Cabinet colleagues. I therefore see the whole matter as an example of a reversion to old-style manipulation of the membership. I would put that under the heading of “ugly”.

    1. Danny Nicol says:

      Clive Lewis seems very Tony Blair-ish to me. Not one to be trusted.

      1. David Pavett says:

        Surely this is something that involves the whole Shadow Cabinet, especially the Party leader. It is impossible to imagine that Lewis’ speech could have been made without Corbyn’s approval. Was it a price demanded by MPs considering a return to the Shadow Cabinet?

    2. C MacMackin says:

      Well said. I suspect that this was intended as a compromise to try to unite the party.

      1. David Pavett says:

        I suspect the same thing. The alternatives are that (1) the Shadow Cabinet actually thinks Trident is needed for our defence or (2) that they have decided that there are more important problems to resolve in the immediate future (Paul Masin’s position). Option (1) is hard to countenance. Option (2) is a plausuble but did not require an outright (phoney) defence of Trident to be made. I think the episode is an example, and not the only one, of floundering.

  5. David Jameson says:

    A strong but ethical defence is not contradictory and the pursuit of power is not a luxury ( if you’re having to use a food bank or haven’t had a wage rise since 2008 ). Nirvana is all well and good, but getting anywhere close to it simply won’t happen, if we insist on compromising the nation’s defences and assisting in the exploitation and undermining of our own working class by propping up European labour policy ( globalization on a smaller scale ).

  6. Giles Wynne says:

    Mostly Ugly Conference- Even the voting figures were massaged – Where were the other half of the 560,000 “members”. One distinctly got the feeling that the Captain was not only not in charge of the ship, but not on the ship.In fact looking objectively at the whole event, why would anyone want to join this corruptible organisation, let alone campaign for it. -Dark, Dismally Divided, Deceitful, Disingenuous
    AND NOW “DISTANT”. Is that not right or wrong ?

  7. Danny Nicol says:

    The Scottish and Welsh unelected NEC places are a catastrophe transforming the political balance of the NEC against Corbyn and the Left.

    Momentum now has 18,000 members and there were five clear days to build up some kind of head of steam against the rule change. The Momentum leadership, however, didn’t even think fit to send a single email to the 18,000 to try to mobilise them against it.

    A real lack of seriousness.

  8. Craig Stephen says:

    Given all the above, it seems that this is a conference won, as it were, by the Right, despite Corbyn’s massive win.

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