Labour Conference: debating a Green New Deal, Brexit and free movement

Submitted by Matthew on 25 September, 2019 - 9:24 Author: Alan Gilbert, Chris Reynolds and Martin Thomas

The process of “compositing” (merging a large number of similar local Labour Party motions into a manageably small number of options for debate) at Labour Party conference on the Green New Deal was long drawn out and arduous.

Eventually, however, the delegates agreed to send forward three options. One motion, supported by the GMB union, included some radical bits but, crucially, no target for suppressing carbon emissions.

The second, backed by far more CLPs and with the Fire Brigades Union as the mover, was more radical. It specifically included a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, but hedged round with a qualification.

The third, proposed by Leicester South Labour Party, insisted on ending airport expansion and on public ownership of banking and finance.

The Conference Arrangements Committee said that all three options would be taken. And then just wiped the third off the agenda.

The two other motions had been shaped by and taken lots of demands and wording from the more radical Green New Deal motions — free or cheap public transport, full public ownership of energy, repealing all anti-union laws, and more.

But that was no excuse to deny conference the right to vote on more controversial – but, frankly, vital – radical policies.

It is good that radical policies on the Green New Deal and movement to a four-day week were promoted at conference and got media coverage.

But we should beware. The four-day week policies are all, as the saying goes, “aspirational”, a bit like the Blair government's policies on abolishing child poverty. Given favourable economic winds, they may bring advances. Otherwise, not.

Labour's likely election manifesto still looks like having big gaps, for example, on the repeal of the Thatcher anti-union laws, which is conference policy but is not promoted by the leadership.

How the Brexit stitch-up happened

No local Labour Party or affiliate put in a pro-Brexit motion to Labour conference 2019.

No one made a speech at the conference, or distributed a leaflet outside it, explicitly arguing for Brexit.

Yet on 23 September the conference voted not to take a stance on Brexit until after the coming general election, and only then to call another, special, conference to decide.

How did that happen?

In the run-up to the conference, the Leader's Office was clearly worried. It contacted anti-Brexit campaigners to discuss possible compromise texts.

It looks like it wanted to stage a re-run of Labour conference 2018, where anti-Brexit delegates were pushed into accepting a single composite which left Labour's position entirely vague, and so there was no debate on the floor of conference.

This time, however, the Labour anti-Brexit campaign groups, notably Labour for a Socialist Europe, held firm.

The Leader's Office then switched to another tactic, a decades-old ploy often used by right-wing leaderships: getting a last-minute statement from the National Executive Committee to go to conference.

That did not go smoothly. The NEC meeting failed to reach agreement. The text was finally agreed by email. The Unison public service union, one of Labour's largest affiliates, and Jon Lansman, a prominent constituency representative on the NEC, publicly criticised the procedure.

Still, the Leader’s Office got the statement, they did not feel confident enough to steamroller all the motions from local Labour Parties off the agenda by declaring that they would “fall” if the NEC statement was first adopted, because they would contradict it.

Instead, as an insurance policy, they briefed the media that it was possible that the NEC statement and the two composites compiled from the local Labour Party motions would all be carried.

No matter. In that case it would be down to the Labour Party leadership to select what went in the manifesto, and the leadership would select something more like the NEC statement.

Come the debate, delegates were dismayed to hear a string of speakers for Composite 14 (the “soft” composite, fairly similar to the NEC statement) and relatively few for Composite 13 (the clear pro-Remain, pro-free-movement composite).

Some delegates thought this was a stitch-up, some that it reflected the large numbers of delegates who were either privately pro-Brexit, or seduced by the line that evasion on Brexit is the only way not to lose pro-Leave Labour voters, or obsessed with supporting “the leadership” come what may.

It is difficult to tell the balance of opinion among delegates. But the outcome of the compositing meeting in 2018 owed something to the sizeable number of delegates in it, often older Labour Party members trained in the anti-EU politics of the 1970s and 80s, who privately backed Brexit even though their local Labour Parties had sent them to conference with Remain motions. And the impression of some campaigners accosting delegates with leaflets and papers outside the conference was that this body of opinion still exists.

Some eloquent speakers associated with Labour for a Socialist Europe did get to the podium and made good speeches — Alex Fernandes, Simon Hannah, Urte Macikene.

But the debate slanted heavily for the leadership.

Then came the vote. Wendy Nichols, in the chair, said Composite 13 had carried. Then she said that Jennie Formby, the Labour Party general secretary, sitting beside her, had told her that it had fallen.

Then she refused to call a “card vote” (a precise count of the votes). Probably, given that most big unions were against Composite 13, it would have fallen on a card vote. But the card vote would have told us the weight of opinion in the local Labour Parties, and would have allowed local Labour Parties to check which way their delegates voted.

Most revealing was the loud cheering and the chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” which followed, not the result as such, but the undemocratic denial of a card vote.

Debating free movement

A first victory at conference was getting “immigration” onto the priority list of issues to be debated.

The Conference Arrangements Committee had tried to avoid that by dividing the relevant motions into two separate “issues”, “immigration” and “immigration detention”, so that neither would get enough votes to reach the agenda.

But “immigration” did get enough votes. And the motions in that category were all clear for the defence of UK-EU free movement. No composite could avoid including that policy.

Moreover, the Unison public service union indicated that it would back free movement.

On the morning of Tuesday 24 September, however, delegates found that “immigration” was not on the day's agenda.

After much lobbying, at 2 p.m. the delegates were finally assured (instructively, by someone from the Leader's Office rather than directly by the CAC) that “immigration” would be on the agenda on Wednesday 25th. On Tuesday evening, as we go to press, an order of business has been published for Wednesday with “immigration” on it.

Wednesday is a short day of conference (morning only), and many delegates leave on the Tuesday night.

Will “immigration” fall off the agenda after all, for lack of time? Or be “remitted”? Will the changed composition of conference, and the shortage of time for debate, mean that the composite may get defeated?

Or will the composite be blandly voted through with little debate in a thinly-attended hall, with attention diverted to Parliament — and then shelved as previous conference policy on anti-union laws has been?

The conference fringe

As since 2016, a large number of fringe meetings were organised under the banner of “The World Transformed”.

Overall, Labour Party conference 2019 probably had more fringe meetings than conferences did even pre-Blair. It has become not unusual for people to come to the conference city specially to attend “The World Transformed”, rather than fringe meeting attendance being only overflow from conference.

It's difficult to make an overall assessment of “The World Transformed”, because it took place in eight different locations. However, comparing what I could pick up from this year with what I remember from previous years, I got much less sense this year of the fringe meetings being the engine-room of the left.

The fringe meetings of, say, the early 1980s are not to be idealised. They often had very long speaker lists, making speeches without much political clarity.

But the key left fringe meetings were rallying-points for the left, and at least in the corridors outside there was lively discussion, leafleting, literature-selling.

Now many of the best-known figures of the Labour left are secluded behind the scenes or on the conference stage, and the fringe meetings are more diffuse.

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy's start-of-conference fringe meeting has been a landmark for decades.

Traditionally, after some more-or-less ceremonial speeches from high-ranking figures of the left, it was a forum for detailed information and planning about how to fight the platform on procedural points.

This year it seemed to have a fairly usual attendance — a hundred plus — but the average age there looked to be markedly higher than that of conference as a whole.

Most of the platform speeches denounced the Tories and the Lib Dems, and praised Corbyn, but little more.

Reporting from the National Executive Committee, Rachel Garnham talked of the prospect of the National Policy For
um set up under Blair being abolished some time soon, but said nothing about the NEC stitch-up over Brexit.

Giving the delegates' briefing, Barry Gray noted that the Conference Arrangements Committee had ruled out motions from about 40 local Labour Parties had been ruled out because they covered party-organisation issues, although there has never been (even under Blair) anything in the rulebook to disqualify such motions.

CLPD had backed a challenge in the conference hall to the CAC on that issue, especially because the motions ruled out included one backed by CLPD to reduce the number of MP nominations needed for Labour leader candidates.

Barry Gray also criticised the NEC for opposing most of the rule changes debated at conference. That meant that most of them had been withdrawn from the vote because the notorious “three year rule” would prevent anyone trying again on same or even similar issues until 2024.

Conference has definitely loosened up since the Blair days, and even since the Miliband days. For a long time, conference was entitled to debate only a maximum of eight (or, for a while, only four) issues, and most of its time was given to speeches (directed at the media) from front-benchers. This conference, for the first time since the mid-1990s, could debate up to 20 issues.

Delegates were unafraid to challenge the Conference Arrangements Committee, though the bias of the big unions to backing the CAC meant that challenges failed.

But Barry Gray also called on the delegates to press for all compositing meetings to agree a single composite, so as to show unity in advance of the coming general election. In other words, he called on the delegates to avoid using Conference's new-found ability to debate, and to campaign not so much for Labour Party democracy as for uncritical support of the Labour leadership.

“The World Transformed” had a younger turnout. But, for example, a debate on “progressive alliances” — meaning, should Labour seek an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Greens — seemed to have perhaps half the audience favouring that idea. There was no vote, but the balance of speeches from the floor suggested a fairly even division of opinion.

Janine Booth and Nadia Whittome spoke clearly and convincingly for Labour to orient to independent working-class politics, but the platform speakers for an electoral pact, Labour MP Clive Lewis and Green MP Caroline Lucas, were people seen as well-known representatives of the left.

The background to all this is that the opportunities since 2015 to organise a lively new Labour left among the rank and file have been largely squandered so far, or, in fact, obstructed.

Momentum, which offered the promise of that new Labour left, had its democratic structures abolished by a coup from its office in early 2017, and since then has operated chiefly as an email and social media operation.

It did not function as an organised left in the conference.

The nearest approach to that was the grouping around Labour for a Socialist Europe, the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, and Another Europe is Possible, which leafleted, distributed bulletins, caucused, and organised and lobbied delegates.

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