The Labour Party conference debate on "Refounding Labour", on 25 September, was a mockery.
The conference was presented with a long list of rule changes, some of which had been agreed by the National Executive only the previous evening (24 September), and hustled into a snap omnibus vote on the whole package.
Meanwhile, most of the rulebook proposals from CLPs had been excluded from the agenda on artificial procedural grounds. A few survivors are due to be debated on Wednesday; in a revealing slip, Labour Party head office omitted them from the published schedule. On one that asks for the current 18-month wait for rulebook proposals from CLPs to get debated to be shortened to six months, the Labour Party head office has straightfacedly commented that rulebook proposals are serious matters and need to be pondered at length.
No speakers against the leadership's snap rule changes were taken in the "debate". Oddly, there were no speeches for the rule changes, either. A string of obviously-prearranged speakers enthused vaguely about building the Labour Party, but said nothing about the rule changes.
One speech got heard against the rule changes, in an earlier challenge to the Conference Arrangements Committee by Wirral delegate Elaine Jones. It didn't get the CAC overruled; but it did win applause from a thoughtful minority of delegates and get (so we're told) the biggest vote for a reference-back for many, many years.
The unions all backed the platform. The Unite delegation meeting, so we hear, was rallied to back the platform by general secretary Len McCluskey, despite all his speeches about democratising the Labour Party.
McCluskey told the delegation that Ed Miliband is "listening" and "doing his best"; he is "new in the job" and should be cut some slack. If Miliband doesn't deliver, then maybe next year, or the year after next, the union should consider making a fuss. But not now.
Insiders suspect that this stance reflects the influence of McCluskey's "chief of staff", Stop The War and Communist Party of Britain honcho Andrew Murray.
Martin Mayer, chair of the union's United Left faction, expressed concern about the rule changes but went along with McCluskey. A minority of about 20% of the delegation spoke or voted against the rule changes.
Why didn't any of the smaller and more leftish unions - Bakers, Aslef, Musicians' Union, NUM - speak out? I don't know. In the past, the excuse in such unions is that they must stick to the collective line of TULO (the consortium of Labour-affiliated unions), and not to do so would license rightish unions like USDAW and Community to weaken the trade-union front. But USDAW and Community often weaken the trade-union front anyway.
The best that can be said for the changes is that the unions faced down (but maybe only for now) the worst proposals, such as reducing the union vote at Labour Party conference; and most of the changes are small. But many are damaging.
For example, Local Government Committees and District Labour Parties, the delegate bodies to which council Labour Groups are supposed to be accountable, are abolished and replaced by "Local Campaign Forums" (LCF)dominated by cabals of councillors.
This may have particularly bad effects in areas where the constituency and the local government area coincide, and so the LGC/ DLP is combined with, or overlaps heavily with, the constituency General Committee (GC).
In the strict wording of the rule change, the LCF has no rights to interfere with the GC and its business. In some areas, however, so we hear, councillors are trying it on.
Where local government areas span a number of constituencies - or where, as will become commonplace with the current government's changes to parliamentary boundaries, local government and constituency boundaries criss-cross - the effect is different: channels for collectively holding council Labour Groups to account are shut down.
At the conference entrance, response to left paper-sellers and leafleters was much better than it was a few years ago, for example in 2007. The crowd of delegates and observers now looks more like a cross-section of not-specially-well-off people, and less like a cohort dominated by sharp-suited careerists (as it was in 2007). But the mostly passive acceptance of outrageous undemocracy inside the conference indicates that most delegates are uncombative or just not specially left-wing.
These days there is always a crowd of leafleters from NGOs at the conference entrance. In 2010, the only left presence at the conference entrance was CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy), Labour Briefing, and Solidarity.
This time we were joined by the Socialist Party, the SPGB, Merseyside TUC, Socialist Resistance, the Liverpool Socialist Singers (who rendered the Red Flag and the Internationale vigorously to the arriving delegates), and, very briefly, by Socialist Appeal. And by RMT rail union officials, who believe it or not now wear t-shirts with an image of general secretary Bob Crow printed on them. One comrade was distributing a (rather general and abstract) LRC bulletin, and one was leafleting for a fringe meeting for a new leftish subgroup called Next Generation Labour.
At a fringe meeting on 25 September, a group called Labour Left relaunched itself, announcing that it will soon publish a "Red Book" as a riposte to the "Purple Book" of the diehard Blairites and the "Blue Labour"-ism of Maurice Glasman and others.
On the evidence of the meeting, sadly, "red" here means little more than an "ethical" warmness towards public services and worker cooperatives. The grouping (on its website) backed the "Refounding Labour" changes, and considers itself a "think tank" focused on "MPs and interns". (It's been reported at Labour Party conference fringe meetings that now fully 27% of Labour MPs have never done a real-world job, beyond the odd bit of part-time or summer work while students. They went straight from uni to wonkosphere jobs - MP's assistant, press officer, researcher, whatever - and then to being an MP. Ed Miliband is one of those 27%).
So far, Labour Left presents itself more as a polite corner of the wonkosphere than as the rude effort to energise the trade-union and Labour rank and file which the delirium of capitalism calls for.