At the Labour Representation Committee conference on 14 November, John McDonnell MP announced that he will contest the Labour Party leadership again if Gordon Brown steps down after the General Election.
McDonnell ran a substantial campaign for leader in 2007, after Tony Blair stepped down, only to be blocked from getting on the ballot paper by rules requiring a large number of nominations from MPs.
McDonnell's general assessment, however, was that we are in a "difficult period". We have "got to keep the Tories out", but we know how bad New Labour is. "Our job is to act as beacons in the darkness".
In the coming general election, he urged LRC supporters to focus all their efforts on getting left Labour MPs re-elected. It is "not about alternative manifestos, or getting expelled", he said, but "the same as every other grouping in the Labour Party, we will be setting out our programme, a platform for change".
Although McDonnell stressed that he is not writing off the general election yet as a Tory victory, he was downbeat. Half of the members of the 25-strong caucus of left Labour MPs, the Campaign Group, are retiring at this general election. Others may well lose their seats through a general swing against Labour. "We could be down to two or three socialist MPs in the next Parliament".
However, he said, if a dozen or so left Labour MPs can be returned, there is also the possibility that in a hung parliament or one with a small Labour majority, those left MPs could "hold the balance of power" and be able to negotiate large concessions.
McDonnell also said that if he is does not get on the ballot paper in a new leadership election, he will not support any soft "centre-left" candidate. "We have to keep our hands clean for the future". He said that the LRC will call an emergency conference after the general election to debate next steps.
The LRC conference's closing speech, from Katy Clark MP, struck a very different note. Arriving only just in time to make her speech, Clark declared that "there is a battle in the labour movement and the Labour Party, and we are on the verge of winning".
She pointed to "some small victories" already visible - Brown's talk of a Tobin Tax, the small retreat on Trident, the slight moves on Labour Party democracy, the climbdown on Royal Mail privatisation" - and declared that "they" - the Blair-Brownites - "are the old guard now".
Where McDonnell had emphasised left Labour MPs retiring, Clark emphasised that many right-wing "New Labour" MPs are withdrawing and can be replaced by more left-wing candidates.
The conference itself, as is by now almost traditional for LRC conferences, had its most lively debate around a motion from the AWL. Our motion called for the LRC to keep some critical distance from the People's Charter (an initiative of the Communist Party of Britain), and to advocate socialist policies of class struggle, workers' control, and common ownership rather than sinking into the blandness of the People's Charter.
The Charter has proved toothless enough to be endorsed by Lib Dem and SNP MPs, and also by one maverick right-wing ex-Tory ex-UKIP "independent" MP.
Despite being scorned as ultra-left by many speakers, the motion won a sizeable minority.
The general mood of the conference, however, as evidenced by the majority willingness to settle for the People's Charter, was dispirited.
A motion from CWU Central London branch called for the LRC to "approach Labour candidates, CLPs, and trade union bodies to come together for a socialist campaign at the General Election", advancing socialist ideas as well as campaigning to keep the Tories out.
It was passed, but many even of the speakers in favour of it evidently thought in terms only of the "backstop" activity of LRC members getting on trains and buses to go and canvass for left Labour MPs at the general election. They seemed not to believe it possible for local Trades Councils or trade union branches to make a political intervention at the election in that majority of constituencies where the choice will be between a New Labour candidate and a Tory or Lib-Dem.
LRC secretary Simeon Andrews, in his last conference report before handing over the secretary job to Andrew Fisher and Pete Firmin, also struck a sombre note.
It is an achievement, he said, that the LRC has kept its membership at about the same level through difficult times. The LRC committee, he reported, was sitting uncomfortably on what he described as "the central fissure" in British labour movement politics, "between those who think the Labour Party can be reclaimed, and those who see it as an instrument of oppression".
"After the election, there will be some opening up in the party. But it remains to be seen what. If the Labour Party does not rediscover its social-democratic soul then, then even the diehards who have stuck with it all this time will reconsider".
This conflict - between those who see themselves as "progressives" and those whom they call "Labourites" - was had out mostly by subterranean canvassing for the elections for the LRC committee. In that, the so-called "Labourites" did better, though it was very far from a clean sweep.
There was no conference-floor debate reflecting the "fissure". Oddly, the "progressives" are by no means necessarily those who supported the motions put by the AWL to LRC conference in 2007 and 2008, calling for the LRC to widen out into a Workers' Representation Movement which would seek to get local Trades Councils and similar bodies to develop local Workers' Representation Committees.
Andrews's definition of "the fissure" is wrong. As has been argued on this website, "the real choice is different. Either we do both - 'reclaim the Labour Party', to the extent that such a thing is possible, and 'build a new party' - or we do neither".
To "reclaim" even a chunk of the Labour Party requires an active, organised force - a "party" - which does not limit itself at all to internal Labour committee-jockeying. Equally, no group can call itself a real workers' party - as distinct from a pioneer force striving to build a party, like the AWL - unless it has won over a sizeable section of the trade union movement encased with the Labour Party.
I fear that too much of the tension in the LRC is between rival versions of "doing neither" - between doing desultory Labour Party routine and waiting for "something to turn up", and giving up on that in order to flop into ready-made but dead-end non-Labour initiatives like the People's Charter.
Let's work for more productive tensions in future.