This year’s Labour party conference [25-29 September, in Liverpool] was, according to Campaign for Labour Party Democracy secretary Pete Willsman, the most lively in years – more support for references back, more support for speeches against the leadership line, and some political debate.
This is the second year we’ve had contemporary motions back on the agenda, after they were abolished by Gordon Brown in 2007 and restored in 2011.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public service Unison, got applause from the majority when, speaking on the Unison motion about public services and the pensions dispute, he demanded that Labour back the 30 November strike. If Labour leaders don’t support the strike, he said, then his members and his union won’t forgive them. He said that a line supporting the strike had been taken out of composite, and shouldn’t have been.
Kingsley Abrams, from the Unite union delegation, spoke against a motion from USDAW on public service cuts which criticised those cuts only as too far and too fast. The whole Unite delegation voted against the motion.
The unions had failed to push the (limited) democratic reform proposals in their own submission to “Refounding Labour”, but they stood firm against pressure from the leadership to have their 50% of the vote at conference reduced, and reduced plans for “registered supporters” to have a say in Labour leadership elections to small proportions.
Some delegates managed to start some heckling when the headmaster of a Catholic Academy spoke about how good Academies are. People round about them started to pay attention to what was being said, rather than just clapping every speech to be polite.
A few delegates walked out for a speech from the chair of the Police Association, and their gesture sparked good discussions. A Merseyside CLP delegate spoke up for free education after the platform had announced a new policy (devised without reference to conference) that Labour would only cut university tuition fees to £6,000. Many delegates applauded her, much to the annoyance of the officials.
People cheered Ed Miliband’s speech when he said he wasn’t Blair and when he kept saying how he was proud of the link with the unions. They were less keen when he went on to say Labour had been wrong to oppose Thatcher’s selling-off of council houses and anti-union legislation.
There was good applause, and a good-looking show of hands, for a speech moving reference-back of the stitched-up “Refounding Labour” rule-change package. Later in the week, a constituency delegate got in to make a speech calling for the overthrow of capitalism — an idea not heard about Labour Party conference for some decades now! — and won applause.
The party officials now all seem to be Blairite ex-students. They attempt to control every aspect of the conference. They write people’s speeches and pressure delegates to vote their way.
All the emergency motions submitted were ruled out of order. Every one. You would think just for appearance’s sake they would let one or two through. The Unite union tried to move that the BAE job losses be discussed as an emergency motion, and was told that nothing was allowed as an emergency after the Friday before conference. The issue was then brought to conference in the “safe” form of a National Executive statement.
On one issue, the few left-wing delegates seemed to make no headway with the majority: Labour councils making cuts. Even delegates who would insist that a future Labour government make no cuts would not support Labour councils today defying cuts.
And we heard terrible politics from the platform on benefits, asylum, business, police, army, cuts.
All in, some things are moving — too few, and too little, compared to the scale of the attacks on our movement, but those in the Labour Party who want to reassert socialist ideas have a little more room to do that.