By a delegate to Labour Party conference
At this year’s Labour Party conference there were major debates on rail renationalisation and extending council housing. Both arose from “minority reports” coming out of the National Policy Forum (NPF).
On both of these issues the leadership was defeated because all the trade unions supported both positions. The support in the CLP section on the council housing issue was also overwhelming. The contemporary issues chosen (apart from Iraq) were uncontentious and represented a consolidation of the trade union “accord” at the Warwick NPF held in July.
What was not on the agenda of the conference was also significant: there was no “minority report” on improving employment rights, this being an issue resisted by the Government in negotiations at Warwick and not pushed by the unions. There was no mention of the Civil Service job cuts either, despite the issue being one that also affects other public service unions.
Attempts to improve party democracy did not succeed this year. After the success of extending the number of contemporary motions last year, this time the union vote was split and neither of the proposed improvements to the representation of CLP delegates at conference or on the CLP section of the National Executive succeeded. The constitutional amendment on the election of party chair was also defeated. This post remains appointed by the party leadership.
There were many left fringe meetings at conference, all well attended as in previous years, despite an obvious shrinkage of CLP delegates attending the conference. This shrinkage reflects the demoralisation of party activists and their perception that the conference is a stage for the leadership to get media coverage, not something for party members.
The Labour Against the War fringe meeting was packed out. There were eyewitness accounts from Iraq, and left Labour MPs speaking, as well as a link-up with the brother of Kenneth Bigley. The Socialist Campaign Group/Labour Representation Committee rally on the last night was also well attended.
Tony Woodley and Kevin Curran spoke and were challenged as to their unions’ stance on the Iraq vote taking place the next day. Campaign Group MPs called on people at the rally to continue to ensure that the opinions of ordinary Labour Party members are heard on Iraq and the many other issues of concern in the party.
At this year’s conference there was a collective amnesia about the split in the party on the issue of the war in Iraq. Delegates who had opposed the war got up to say that we must all leave this behind and all pull together to rebuild Iraq. Unions that had opposed the war agreed an NEC statement, carried overwhelmingly, that firmly shut away the destabilising aspects of Blair’s decision to go to war. A critical motion that called for a date to be set for early withdrawal of troops was defeated 80% to 20%, with the vote in the union section even higher: 90% to 10%. This was particularly ironic as at TUC not two weeks previously the vast majority of unions had supported a similarly worded motion!
The reasons that the Iraq issue was put to bed on the Labour Party conference floor can be explained by it being the last conference before a probable general election. The stakes, however, are very high.
When the Iraq war was last properly discussed at the conference, in 2002, before the troops went in, there was a 40% vote against all military action in Iraq, and the vote for action stressed the need for the involvement of the UN. It probably reflected public opinion at the time.
Since then public opinion on the war has hardened and many more Labour Party members have left because of the war. This changed circumstance was not, however, reflected at this year’s conference.
The fig leaf used by the Blairites to cover their naked “save Tony” strategy was the support of some Iraqi trade unions for the Allawi government. In order to persuade the Big Four union delegations that they should oppose the critical motion, representatives of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions attended delegation meetings to argue against early withdrawal of troops, and to put the case that the decision on this should be down to Iraq’s elected Government rather than Labour Party conference.
At a fringe meeting supported by the Fabian Society, the Observer, LabourStart, War on Want and Unison, the position trumpeted was the need to build trade union organisation in Iraq, promote solidarity between British and Iraqi workers, and support provision of the basics of civil society — water, electricity, communications, jobs, homes.
Those, of course, are all vital for the people of Iraq. However, it is equally important for the democracy and political representation of the British labour movement that Tony Blair should be criticised at his own party conference for what we all know was a major and costly decision to wage war on Iraq.