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Conference 2015: The Left makes gains on the NEC and policy

Inside Labour CorbynWhile most media commentators, predictably, have focused on the big set-piece speeches from Corbyn, McDonnell and Watson, the first annual conference under the new leadership saw the first green shoots of party democracy. Media presentation and effective communication of the party’s popular messages is of course vital, but so too is getting those policies endorsed by the party first, and currently conference is the best place for that to be achieved.

Conference began with the NEC announcing that, for the first time in some years, the rule that Conference would debate four motions from the unions and four from CLPs would allow eight motions in total. In the past, where CLPs and trade unions had voted for the same motions in the priority ballot, fewer motions had been heard, making it difficult for the Left to get important contemporary motions on policy onto the agenda. Despite this progress, the right were able to organise to defeat the left on a number of key votes.

On Sunday, a reference back was moved by CLPD to ensure that nine rules changes unfairly ruled out by the CAC would be heard. Sadly, conference voted this reference back down by 54% to 46%. Then, in the priority ballot, CLP delegates voted to select their four contemporary motions and despite encouragement from across the left of the party, did not vote to prioritise a debate on scrapping Trident.

There are a number of possible explanations for this. The first, and most obvious, is that there was a significant mobilisation by the right to keep this off the agenda, encouraging delegations not to prioritise Trident. That said, the right had not organised for delegates to the conference any more than in the past, given that they did not expect Jeremy Corbyn to be leading the party. More likely reasons than the strength of right-wing organisation are that sympathetic delegates decided against prioritising the issue, thinking that it would be premature or even that it would be worse to have Trident debated and for the motion to fall, and also the simple indifference of some delegates to such an issue. One other possibility is that the motion’s title, “Britain’s Defence Capabilities”, does not scream out, “Debate Scrapping Trident”, and many delegates may have voted to prioritise a motion clearly about refugees, housing or the NHS instead.

What is clear, either way, is that the left must organise throughout the year to win more delegates to annual conference to ensure that we don’t face similar defeats on rules changes and policy votes next year.

In the end CLPs voted to hear motions on housing, the NHS, the refugee crisis and austerity. The unions meanwhile prioritised motions on austerity, employment rights, Europe and rail, although the rail motion was later withdrawn in favour of an NEC statement. Thus the subjects to be debated by conference were austerity, housing, NHS, employment rights, the TV license fee, the refugee crisis, Europe and mental health.

In the NCC election, conducted on Monday, the right’s Judith Blake defeated the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance candidate, Gary Heather, by 50,258 to 36,141.

One major victory for the left at conference was the moving of an NEC statement on rail, allowing franchises to be taken back into public ownership as they expire. TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said, “For the first time ever I’m supporting something the NEC has put forward.”

Conference also voted overwhelmingly for Unite’s motion on Syria, which advocated the position that the UK should not endorse bombing without safeguards, including backing from the UN.

Another was the passing of the unions’ motion on employment rights, which included support for solidarity strike action, something illegal in the UK since Thatcher’s anti-union laws, and stated Labour’s total opposition to the forthcoming trade union bill. These are all significant policy gains for the left.

On the NEC, the frontbench appointments saw Hillary Benn replaced with Corbyn-supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey, while the union elections saw Community replaced with the more leftwing BFAWU, the bakers’ union.

After conference, the orchestrator of the Labour First group, Luke Akehurst, sent an email to his faction saying, “far from being a rout for Labour’s mainstream, we won both the main votes that were contested among delegates (the priority ballot on whether to debate Trident, and the National Constitutional Committee election) and asserted that we are here to stay”.

What Akehurst then proceeded to do was to lay out what the right will do in the next few months to bolster their position at conference. The left should pay attention, as much of it could apply to us as well. Akehurst encouraged right-wingers to run for positions in their CLP, to win delegate positions, and to recruit like-minded members.

What the left must remember is that while winning delegate elections and passing motions in CLPs will be crucial if we want the party to adopt the policies we know will help Labour to a majority again, we should remember what happened this summer and where our strength lies: in the communities, the activists, the causes and the campaigns that are currently outside of our CLPs. We have to make our CLPs so much more than simply vehicles for door-knocking and holding fundraisers. We have to connect the CLPs to the political life of our constituencies as far as we can, and make our party the confederation of social movements that it has the potential to become.

Only by championing the voices of the disenfranchised and the excluded majority, both within the party and without, can the left triumph in both the conference hall and the ballot box.

4 Comments

  1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Tired, lame, limp, wristed, disappointing, utterly, predicable etc…..

    “This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.”

    And God help all the people, our disabled, our unemployed, our old, tour sick, our poor and the exploited and dispossessed; still desperately looking to Labour for hope or hope of respite from the coming Tory onslaught.

    “False hope is a terrible thing, if its the only thing keeping you alive you’ll be dead by dawn.”

    Charlie Rae

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      My wife on the other hand still thinks that, “it will right itself,” I hope she’s right.

  2. Verity says:

    The penultimate paragraph really sums up the state of play. The overwhelming number of CLPs have forgotten or lost any understanding of how to engage the one time only, ‘Labour supporters’. Naturally appeals for membership resume with (some constrained) success but some, one time, supporters remain as such and get some of their daily information from poor and variable sources only. There is need for a national initiative or framework to wake the (overwhelming) majority of Party organisations from their learned slumber.

  3. Bazza says:

    My worry is that we need to begin harnessing the enthusiasm of those who voted for Jermy and those who joined/re-joined because of him.
    We need to be getting brief policy ideas out to CLPs perhaps every few months (simply and clearly written and brief) and CLPs could eventually hold public meetings say on housing and invite Labour supporters plus we should offer on-line consultations.
    But yes fundamentally we need to get the new involved, and to take on positions.
    Every CLP could also have an e forum of members with their votes taken into account – not everyone can make meetings because of caring roles, childcare, work commitments etc.).
    As well as having face-to-face meetings and e involvement, you need a bit of both ‘blended involvement’ (although you can’t really beat face to face meetings) the new should especially go for being delegates to Conference – it is a wonderful experience!
    And we need to vote in internal elections!
    We need to assert our beliefs in every position and vote for those who agree.
    So the 60% need to organise, organise, organise!
    I did watch some of the Conference on the BBC’s Parliament Channel and it was so good to hear from mainly delegates and especially the first time delegates.
    Many of us are still bursting with ideas, just ask!

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