Brighton, Labour, and the left

Submitted by AWL on 9 October, 2019 - 10:33

An interview with Kelly Rogers, a committee member of Labour for a Socialist Europe (L4SE), Another Europe is Possible, and the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, about Labour Party conference.

Q. What picture did the motions booklet give before conference?

A. The bulk of anti-Brexit motions were sent to conference as a result of work by our coalition, comprising Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a Socialist Europe and Open Labour.

For a number of months in advance of conference we were phone-banking Labour Party members in our networks, convincing them to support our motion and collecting delegate information. In the end, there were 90 motions in the Brexit policy area, 81 of which were in favour of the Labour Party adopting a Remain position in all circumstances. Over fifty of those were our text.

There was not a single “Lexit” (“left Brexit”) motion submitted, a fact worth noting since there are a significant number of Lexiters in local Labour Parties, who organise and argue against Remain motions, or vote against Remain candidates in CLP elections. But none were interested or confident enough to submit policy to Labour’s key conference.

I suspect this is because many Lexiters just trail the leadership, rather than going out to bat for leaving the European Union on its own supposed merits, and there were, in fact, a small handful of bland CLPD-led motions submitted to conference calling for “whatever the leadership want”.

There were lots of motions on the topic of a Green New Deal, more than on Brexit. The vast majority of these consisted of the text promoted by the new campaign Labour for a Green New Deal, also backed by Momentum.

The recent surge in climate activism, by Extinction Rebellion and youth climate strikers, meant that the issue had a huge organic take-up — which is really positive! There were eight “socialist Green New Deal motions submitted, promoted by The Clarion, which added a number of important demands.

Q. Then there was the process at the start of conference of “compositing” the motions (merging them into a workably small number of options for the conference to debate)?

A. People tend to forget that compositing is supposed to be about clarifying lines of disagreement rather than reaching a lowest-common-denominator consensus. The pattern in recent years, under both Blair and Corbyn, was for composite meetings to be used by the leadership to strip away any dissident text, and then for motions just to get waved through conference.

This year, Labour for a Socialist Europe and Another Europe were clear in advance that we weren’t prepared to compromise. This was despite a considerable amount of pressure being applied in advance by the Leader’s Office, who were aiming for a back-room deal.

We didn’t want to come out of conference with a fudge like last year, and so our delegates were briefed to hold the line — which they did excellently! They went into the composite meeting with our pre-agreed text, and they left a few hours later with the vast majority of CLPs backing that text.

A small handful of CLPs adopted the CLPD position, and the leadership put their own statement to conference, via the National Executive (NEC).

This wasn’t without its own drama though — dissident unions meant that the NEC couldn’t agree a statement! When attempts were made to pass the statement by email, instead of at a meeting, the chair of NEC declared it unconstitutional.

Advance briefing of delegates was less effective in the Green New Deal composite. For many of the key activists in Labour for a Green New Deal this was their first conference, and I don’t think they were prepared for the tonne of bricks that the GMB union was about to drop on them.

The GMB was gunning hard for a watered-down motion, and took control of the compositing meeting from the start by declaring their draft text the starting point for negotiations. From then on it became a matter of Labour for a Green New Deal delegates trying to put policy points back into the composite text.

The compositing ran into a second day, which allowed Labour for a Green New Deal to regroup. Overnight they accepted that they would have to split the compositing, a good move which ultimately meant that a much more radical text passed at conference.

It is a shame that they were willing to give too much ground, even in their alternative composite. Labour for a Green New Deal fought hard for a 2030 date for net-zero emissions, but were willing to let a lot of other text drop, for example opposing the expansion of airports.

With the support of the Fire Brigades’ Union, however, delegates representing the “socialist Green New Deal” motion — including Workers’ Liberty comrades — were able to ensure that nationalisation of the energy sector was kept in the second composite, but other points were left to a third motion, which then didn’t get to conference floor.

Q. And how did things go on the free movement motions?

A. The dark horse of conference! The free movement motion was promoted by Labour Campaign for Free Movement, and had been picked up and submitted by five CLPs.

Our motion was radical and far-reaching, including text on defending and extending free movement, abolishing “No Recourse to Public Funds”, extending the franchise to migrants, abolishing all detention centres and more. It completely flips the Labour leadership’s policy of “more border guards” and ending free movement.

Labour Against Racism and Fascism, backed by Momentum, had promoted another motion on abolishing detention centres and it was this motion that the leadership tried to use, cynically, to ensure the LCFM motion lost.

Despite clear cross-over (and even a common demand) our motions were separated into two policy areas, which made the odds of both being prioritised very low. LCFM activists lobbied the CAC to put the motions together, and delegates on conference floor “referenced back” the decision in the hope of overturning it.

We failed on that front but, in the end — again as a result of campaigning by our activists both inside and outside of conference — our motion just got over the line! Actually, this meant that only LCFM text made its way into the compositing meeting, giving the leadership very little room to water us down.

Diane Abbott was there pitching for a softer text, although she left quite early once she realised our delegates weren’t going to budge. Another MP, Karen Lee argued hard against a lot of the motion text, even going so far as to say that we shouldn’t give migrants equal, free access to the NHS because they would exploit it for free abortions, which in her view count as “elective surgery” — an utterly outrageous argument which only served to harden our delegates against any pressure.

Our motion came out of compositing almost untouched.

Q. How was the organising on conference floor?

A. The anti-Brexit operation was well managed. We had multiple briefings each day for delegates and for volunteers. We had a Whatsapp with all of our delegates in it and circulated speech notes, so that everyone could put their hands up to speak and feel confident that they had something to say. Many didn’t need them, and were absolutely brilliant.

A good thing, because a lot of people were watching — over four million people watched Labour for a Socialist Europe committee member Alex Fernandes give an electric speech about cross-border solidarity and opposing the far right on the live stream.

LOTO [the Leader’s Office] invested a lot into defeating our motion. First they pressed us to agree compromises before the conference, then they exerted pressure in the compositing. Seamus Milne himself [the Director of Communications, the leading figure in LOTO] was walking the floor and talking with delegates in advance of the vote.

On conference floor they used the chair to swing the debate in favour of the leadership. We had delegate after delegate making “loyalty” speeches.

Q. What do you make of Unison voting with us on that? Unison has not generally sided with the left in Labour.

A. Last year the union block vote was used by the leadership to stamp on the CLPs. It seemed that the Unison leadership didn’t want this year’s conference to be seen as unions vs CLPs.

It’s also the case that Labour Party policy has been moving in one direction, towards becoming a Remain party. The Unison leadership are aware of that direction, and they want to be at the head of it rather than behind.

Unison’s members are overwhelmingly pro-Remain, which may also have been a factor in the decision. The Unison leadership reports that they had a spike in new union membership applications immediately after the conference debate.

Q. This was, in general terms, a feisty, left-wing conference. Yet outside the conference things were quieter than for some years. There were more people refusing to take bulletins and leaflets, fewer people stopping to chat and to buy literature.

A. I don’t have a full explanation. There’s a degree to which people are getting their conference information from the internet and smartphones, and so don’t bother with bulletins and papers.

The old Labour right were invisible at the conference. I think they knew the left would hegemonise conference this year, and decided to let it pass. That is not entirely a good thing, because Corbyn loyalism has been spilling over into quite horrible anti-democratic attitudes.

That is something I picked up a lot when phoning round in advance of conference. Left-wing Remainers would tell me that they agreed with us on Brexit, but that they had stopped going to their CLP meetings because they would be accused of being stooges for Progress [the “Blairite” faction] or such.

If that is what left-wingers get, you can only imagine what actual Labour right-wingers get, in many places.

Q. Labour List described the conference as a triumph for Momentum.

A. I think an interesting thing to come out of this conference is the sense that Momentum is rapidly on its way to becoming redundant.

At the 2017 conference, our anti-Brexit motion wasn’t even debated because Momentum whipped its substantial number of CLP delegates to vote against prioritising it. Contrast this to this year, when Momentum backed the LARAF motion against the LCFM-promoted motion — a much easier task! — and lost. They clearly didn’t have anywhere near the same number of people in the room acting on their instructions.

This isn’t surprising considering that Momentum has degraded hugely as a campaigning organisation. It has shut down all internal democracy. It has served only to trail the leadership — something that has become increasingly controversial with the leadership’s prevarication over Brexit. Its base has dissipated massively, and many local Momentum groups have decayed into small rump groups dominated by cranks and antisemites.

There is definitely still a cult of Corbyn in the Labour Party — evidenced by the headbanging loyalty speeches made during the Brexit debate — but it no longer fits neatly with support for Momentum.

In the looming general election it is possible that Momentum will be temporarily rejuvenated. Winning elections is what it exists to do, after all. But I think that may be short-lived.

Q. What ways forward do you see for the Labour left now?

A. There is a clear need for those of us who are on the left, and have supported Corbyn against the right, but are opposed to Brexit and are fighting hard for free movement and migrants’ rights, to organise together. And there are lots of us.

We can build on the success of this conference. It was the most democratic conference to happen in many, many years.

Delegates were voting on motions that actually mattered, and where they had a real choice — not just waving through the leadership position, presented without opposition. That was because of the work of our activists, in which Workers’ Liberty played a very important role.

The Labour Party urgently needs democratising. The leadership’s attempts to deflect or defeat left-wing policy are the exact opposite of what Corbyn promised. And still, at this conference, we had the old Blairite practice of shadow ministers coming to the podium to “announce new policy” without reference to the conference debates.

The Labour Party membership — the biggest political party in Europe — is a force that could go out and win a new referendum on Brexit if it were organised to do so. The battle for free movement and migrant rights is only going to become more urgent. But currently the Corbyn leadership is failing on those fronts.

The increasing redundancy of Momentum opens up a space. A lot of people are increasingly alienated by the Labour leadership and LOTO, and we need to provide a pole of attraction for them.

In the coming weeks a lot of that work needs to be done through L4SE, in the run-up to and during the coming general election, with street and doorstep activity putting a left-wing case for free movement and for Remain.

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