by Bruce Robinson
I spent five days as a free-floating activist at Labour Party conference, leafleting delegates, taking part in protest demonstrations and attending fringe meetings. At times I felt that I was existing in two parallel universes.
On the one hand, there were protesters really angry at what the Blair government has done. About 300 students from Manchester and other local universities protested against fees; there was the all purpose “Stop the warmongers” protest; and about 60 disabled people protesting about changes to the Incapacity Benefit rules which may mean them being forced into low paid jobs. Not to mention the “Stop the War” demo.
On the other hand, leafleting I got to see the delegates close up. Besuited and contemptuous, the Blairites and Brownies passed by — one member of the House of Lords accused me of giving him a leaflet under “false pretences”, perhaps he thought “John4Leader” was John Reid’s campaign.. Others were more sympathetic but as proceedings went on and more and more topics such as Iraq and Trident were excluded from debate, one got the impression of a bureaucracy in control, literally cocooned by the security cordon from the real world.
The conference illustrated the gap between the formal structures of the labour movement and a justified anger at the Labour government. For example, the demo on Incapacity Benefit was corralled into a pen across the road with the delegates fifty yards away, separated from any real contact by a road, tram tracks, several metal security fences and a load of police.
The demo could only talk to the few delegates who saw them by shouting “Shame on you” across the gap. The physical gap was a political gap. How to link the anger with those in the labour movement who might be persuaded to take up the campaigns or were fighting their own battles with the Blair government?
There were two types of politics on show this week that didn’t even ask the question, instead choosing to sit on one or other side of the divide. The first came from the SWP and its “Blair must go” politics. The SWP sees its role as just encouraging the diffuse anger in the hope that some of it will rub off in organisational growth of the SWP. There is nothing in their current politics that provides a perspective or line of march for the labour movement as a whole or specifically for trade union activists.
On the other hand, attending the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy rally was like going into a time warp where the passing of resolutions at Labour Party Conference still had the significance it did before the Blair machine rolled over party structures. “Inside the cordon” CLPD pursued a resolutionary politics that hadn’t registered the changes of the last 15 years. For example, many CLPs did not even bother to send delegates.
The only politics on offer that made a real attempt to cross the gulf was John McDonnell’s campaign. In various speeches McDonnell recognised the anger many felt against Labour as a result of the actions of the government and emphasised that his campaign was open to them, whether in the Labour Party or not. This was not just rhetoric: he was the only MP who could be bothered to come out of the conference to talk to the Incapacity Benefit demonstrators and was presented with a T-shirt by Merseyside firefighters in recognition of his active support for their strike against cuts. If the campaign was to really take root and look outwards, it could become a focus that would lay the basis for a more long term realignment for the left.
But… at this point the Labour Party rule book raises its ugly head and the changes made in the 90s may act to stop this potential being realised. McDonnell needs the support of 44 MPs to get on the ballot paper. Even among the Campaign Group there are MPs refusing to come out publicly in support.
Whatever the nominal reason, they should not be allowed to sit this one out. Too much is at stake.