Labour Party conference featured plenty of fringe meetings such as Kraft Foods making the case for Dairylea to be included in school meals, tobacco companies telling delegates to remember that “smokers are voters too”, and BUPA setting the agenda for how to improve healthcare standards. But away from the lobbyists and spin doctors, outside the ring of checkpoints, barriers and hundreds of armed police, was an alternative fringe. David Broder reports.
AHUNDRED turned out for the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy meeting, which with little obvious structure meandered between speakers from the floor and big names on the panel. Tony Benn having made the case for democracy in the party and society, John McDonnell delivered a pitch for his leadership campaign, presenting himself as standing up for what most members believe in, getting people back into the party and forcing the government to be more accountable to the labour movement. Embarrassingly, soft-left MP and ex-minister Michael Meacher delivered much of the same anti-cuts, anti-privatisation, anti-war agenda, but instead called for a centre-left leadership candidate (himself?) to represent the “silent majority in the centre of the party”. So not a real left-winger like McDonnell then. References to the important role in party democracy of the deputy leadership job made it unclear what exactly he's planning to do, but he ignored the political questions posed by the man sitting right next to him.
SIMILARLY, at that evening’s Labour Against the War rally, Alan Simpson MP said that if the unions refused to back candidates who'd replace Trident, we would quickly see leading ministers change their position. But Gordon Brown, John Reid and other backers of the Iraq war are certain to continue with imperialist foreign policy, whereas McDonnell has repeatedly spoken out against nuclear weapons. Simpson therefore lacks both any strategy for disarmament and any moral courage in his failure to support McDonnell. Sadly, while nine people spoke from the platform, including Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and Walter Wolfgang, there was no time for questions from the floor. This was particularly unfortunate since it would have been good to highlight the difference between McDonnell's reference to the repression of bus workers in Tehran, and Milan Rai’s bullshit about Ahmedinejad not actually running Iranian foreign policy. Apparently, Ayatollah Khamenei is constitutionally in charge of Iran's effort to achieve “diplomatic equality”. So that's alright then.
HANDS off Venezuela held a fringe with McDonnell, Corbyn and Socialist Appeal’s Rob Sewell. Alas! By some appalling stroke of coincidence, the Stalinist Socialist Action sect's Venezuela Information Centre outfit had happened to schedule a meeting on Chávez for exactly the same time, but with Ken Livingstone speaking. Nevertheless, HoV attracted over 50 people, and Sewell was in his element pitching to a reformist audience for whom questions of bourgeois state power, workers’ control of factories and expropriating oil were irrelevant. Sewell wants to spread ‘the Revolution’, even to “Bolivarianise the Labour Party”.
Corbyn spoke on electoral fraud in Mexico; however, he made no effort to explain defeated candidate Obrador’s mildly reformist politics, other than a nod to Sewell's reference to a “Mexican Chávez”. McDonnell did refer to the importance of local democratic structures and the grassroots movement in Venezuela, not just following leaders - unlike Sewell's opaque reference to radicalism being mutually reciprocated between “the process” and “the masses”. Corbyn rejected my suggestion that we should explicitly side with the workers and peasants in struggle in Latin America, not simply governments who claim to oppose neo-liberalism - sidestepping my point about Evo Morales’ clashes with Bolivian unions.
NEITHER was my criticism welcome at the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, where the panel was strictly Socialist Party only. Only 40 people turned out - but ex-Militant MP and Coventry Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist argued that even the Labour Party was small when it started. Nellist said that McDonnell was bound not to win so there wasn't much future for any campaign to support him. However, given the choice, trade unionists should vote for him - but why, if there's no fight to be had in Labour? An SP comrade explained that Labour is no longer a bourgeois workers’ party, since what we now see is “a Labour government presiding over imperialism”. What, unlike all previous Labour governments?
Workers Power attacked the SP for not putting forward an explicitly socialist programme. Sadly, the confused Josh Davies said that he was supporting the McDonnell campaign, since it would prove Workers’ Power right about not engaging within the Labour Party when John made a big effort, rallied a bit of support and failed anyway... With all the talk of the reformist pragmatism which McDonnell might slip into, the opportunity to attack the SP's total capitulation to government attacks on civil service pensions was too tempting for me to miss. Hannah Sell retorted that under neo-liberalism, some concessions had to be made.
UNITE Against Fascism’s meeting attracted around 80, including plenty of Socialist Action apparatchiks who’d come under various guises to see their patron Ken Livingstone. After their recent apologetics about Livingstone’s privatisation of the East London Line, he gave them something else to swallow, taking anti-immigrant theory head on by claiming that “15 of Britain’s 25 leading businessmen were born abroad - think how many jobs they’ve created for Londoners”! This typified the meeting’s failure to express the need for cross-community politics rooted in fighting for working-class interests, rather than abstract multi-culturalism.
MCDONNELL’S next “gig” was for Labour Left Briefing. Merseyside firefighters on strike for four weeks against job cuts and a 96-hour week, a Unison rep involved in the NHS Logistics dispute and PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka were among those supporting John’s campaign to keep public services in public hands. Unfortunately, Katy Clark MP was the one speaker not to endorse his leadership bid. Although “aware that some supporters of John McDonnell’s campaign [were] present”, she refused to get “bogged down in personalities” - she described the contest as a forum for debating policy on public services, in an ideological battle with the right. Before another meeting, she’d told me she wouldn't make any decisions without consulting her constituents - rather cautious, given that McDonnell can’t stand without 44 MPs’ nominations.
While many supposed “lefts” refused to take the opportunity to support him, John McDonnell made it clear that he is determined to get on the ballot and push real labour movement ideas - “for the working class achieving more power”. He says the only barrier to his campaign is a lack of confidence, a lack of courage in the fight against the leadership - from the evidence of the Labour conference fringes, this charge could be accurately levelled against several all-too-timid MPs.