Opening the AWL’s annual conference on 25-26 November, and moving the document “Nine years on: the new left, neoliberalism, and the new right”, Martin Thomas outlined the situation the political left finds itself in: “The global credit crash of 2008 and the ensuing travails have produced delayed political effects. A shift to more right-wing, nationalist, and ’identity’ politics may move neoliberalism sharply to the right, or even explode it from within. The economic turmoil has also produced new life on the left, as yet on a low wattage.”
In Britain that “new life on the left” has come predominantly through the Corbyn surge. The shift to But in Britain now, with UKIP melted down, the Tories in trouble and Labour buoyant, the openings for the activist left are perhaps better than anywhere else The conference resolved to seize the opportunities.
Our recruitment document said, “after adverse decades, we have a period of opportunity. Corbyn's second leadership victory and the 8 June 2017 election result have extended that period. It will not last forever. We owe it as a duty, to our socialist cause, and to past and future generations of activists, to rouse ourselves to make the most of this opportunity.”
We committed to increasing our own visibility, holding more public stalls, reading groups and public meetings. We must be the the permanent persuaders for revolutionary, third-camp socialist ideas in the labour movement. Several comrades talked about the importance of our books in educating and renewing marxist ideas inside the labour movement. The AWL now has a significant number of texts covering some of the fundamental debates from what socialism is, to the state of the left and how to revive it. In the coming year we will do more to promote and sell our books among the contacts we make.
While the AWL is still a small group, we should not underestimate our ability to be decisive in the battles on the horizon.
Our distinct socialist ideas and our fight for those ideas are essential to the liberation of humanity, working class self-emancipation and the aim as Trotsky said to “cleanse [the world] of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”
Our conference is an opportunity to assess the work we have done over the year, to discuss issues of contention and to debate the way forward. Comrades left the conference armed with sharper arguments and a clearer idea about how to go out and make those arguments.
Our document on Brexit was one of the longest presented to conference, and for good reason. The Tories are slipping deeper into disarray over how to achieve a Brexit that suits both their hard xenophobic right and their pro-integration big business donors. At the same time the Labour Party continues to fudge the issues. For us the priorities are: stopping Brexit, defending freedom of movement and arguing for a clear working-class alternative — a workers’ united Europe.
The main contention in the debate was how to relate to campaigns like the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, where a successful amendment shifted very slightly our emphasis on where we can vote together with the LCSM. Our focus is on building the Labour Campaign for Freedom of Movement. Also contentious was the issues of a further referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal.
We continue to be critical of referendums, believing them to be an undemocratic and insufficient way to deal with complex and important political issues. However, the majority of the conference backed a proposal to call for a referendum on any finalised Tory Brexit deal, as part of our agitation against Brexit.
In our document on industrial and trade unions issues we assessed the strength of the labour movement and our organisational work in it.
Between 2014-15 and 2015-16 there was a substantial drop in the membership of UK trade unions, while at the same time, in the second half of this year, there has been a flurry of strikes, predominantly over pay.
The AWL has been prominently involved in the Picturehouse strikes, helping to spread the strikes, to build up the support of the community pickets and to agitate for greater rank-and-file control of the dispute. We agreed to continue to “unbalance” our work by putting emphasis on bringing this dispute to a successful conclusion. A key issue is the reinstatement of the sacked reps. In the Driver Only Operation disputes in the rail industry we have also been able to play a role.
The document noted that the current deal with Aslef at Southern Rail brings with it the danger of a deadlock in the dispute and could spur other companies into pushing DOO, knowing that they could defeat the unions. The document commited us to trying to create greater solidarity between Aslef and RMT members, as shown at Northern Rail in Sheffield and Mersey Rail. We will also push for for the dispute to be taken up more urgently and with greater campaigning prominence by the Labour Party and labour movement as a whole.
In our discussion of our work in the Labour Party we covered the prospects of the Corbyn movement, the arguments we need to be having in Momentum and in local parties about what newly selected left-wing council candidates should be doing, and continuing to push local parties into positive campaigning activities on key working-class policies.
Wherever AWL comrades are active we want to help setup Young Labour groups. Experience and history tells us that the youth wing of the Labour Party, whatever form it has taken has often been the seedbed of the left. A number of Young Labour groups are being setup.
These are attracting young people who had not previously attended any party events. Young Labour can organise accessible campaigning activity, social events and opportunities to discuss socialist ideas. There was some debate and disagreement about our perspectives for Momentum, with a minority of comrades taking the view that setting up new Momentum groups, or continuing to work in groups that may be hostile to us, is counterproductive. We hope to debate these issues more fully and include more people on the broader left in the discussion.
There was also a discussion on our attitude to the recent Unite General Secretary election with a minority of comrades arguing that support for Len McCluskey in the recent Unite general secretary election reflected an overestimation of Labour Party dimensions. Opponents of the amendment, the majority of the conference, did not feel that this was a fair characterisation of our stance on the Unite leadership. We had some sympathy with Ian Allison’s campaign but more did not accept his candidature was anything other than be propaganda And bad propaganda on the left Labour leadership, which at the time was hanging on by a thread. McCluskey's backing Corbyn at that time was of key importance in our our decision to back him, while making strident criticisms.
The next issue of Solidarity will feature both opening speeches given by the movers of two resolutions on the Second Round of theFrench Presidential election. This was the issue of closest contention in the conference with arguments over whether or not it was right to advocate a vote for Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the May French Presidential election.
Part of the resolution supporting a vote for Macron stated; “To explain that we 'supported’ Macron only in the sense of voting for him as a lesser evil to fascism was no more complicated or liable to misunderstanding than to explain, in 2001 or 2005 say, that we "supported" Blair only in the sense of solidarity with the (much-attenuated) working- class base of the bourgeois workers' party to which he was attached. Less complicated, if anything.”
The opposing resolution argued that: “The second round of the French presidential election had some exceptional features. However, it did not demand that we call for a vote for Macron. Had the French far-left called for a vote for Macron the likely effect would have been to miseducate those around it, and potentially to hamper its ability to organise against Macron, or indeed Le Pen if she had won.
While we recognise that Macron’s victory was clearly the lesser evil we do not believe that the principle of working-class independence was better served by calling for a vote for him.”
The debate was comradely. Comrades raised different historical examples of electoral policies - of the Bolsheviks, the Italian Socialist Party and the Pre 1914 German social democracy - to discuss the differing attitudes to run-off elections in the Marxist movement. The resolution supporting a vote for Macron was narrowly passed.
Our conference was less than two weeks after the Free Education march and demonstration in London (15 November). Comrades reported on the prospects for fighting for free education and winning new interest in the AWL as part of the demo preparation and the march itself.
Following the election of Corbyn, there is more prospect of winning free education. The document argues that we cannot be complacent on the issue, but should continue to work with the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and take this fight into Labour Students as well.
The document also highlighted the importance of active AWL societies on campuses and that do visible and regular activity. We agreed to argue for freedom of speech and expression on campuses and to resist some student activists with an over-wide policy of “no-platform” means, and college authorities shut down debate and freedom of expression.
The conference was addressed by comrades from the Worker Communist Party of Kurdistan and the Iranian Revolutionary Marxist Tendency. LALIT, a Mauritian socialist party, Workers’ Liberty Australia, and Polish and French comrades provided solidarity greetings.
Fundraising, sales and collection at the conference raised in £4754.78. This means we ave reached and exceeded our total fundraising target of £20,000. We would like to thank everyone that contributed to our drive since it was launched at the beginning of the year. The final total raised was £20,177.78. This has helped us to upgrade our website and provide a better functioning tool for activists and socialists across the world.