Labour: a time like no other (report of Labour Party conference 2015)

By Sacha Ismail and Martin Thomas

At a crowded left-wing fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, on 28 September, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said:

“When workers want to take action, we will support them automatically. Our movement should not be divided, there is one struggle. We need to take industrial action and we need to take direct action, on the streets and into the occupations… We are campaigning to close the [immigration] detention centres, we are in solidarity with the people in them.

“The secret we discovered two centuries ago, in the fields and the workshops of the industrial revolution, and the secret now, is that we need unity, we need determination, but above all we need solidarity.”

From the floor, Rachel Mullen, a young worker active in the Bakers’ Union, talked about the work they are doing to unionise and organise young workers in the fast food and other service industries.

Rhea Wolfson from the new organisation Labour Young Socialists talked about how LYS is building a united, democratic left in Young Labour and Labour Students. Communication Workers’ Union activist Maria Exall called for the building of a united Labour left on a similar model, with strong local groups and democratic national structures, so that we can debate and agree ideas, demands and action.

Inside the conference, on trade union rights, unions had moved weak resolutions calling for opposition to the new Trade Union Bill, but saying nothing about how, and little about the restrictions already put on workers by Thatcher’s laws – except for a useful call from Unite to allow workplace ballots for strikes (although in fact there should be no legal restrictions on the right to decide to strike).

Eleven CLPs put in more radical motions, many modelled on the Right To Strike initiative. Some including demands to repeal all anti-union laws, including Thatcher’s.

The unions felt the Corbyn surge too. They accepted Right to Strike clauses on restoring the right to solidarity strikes, and the composite was passed unanimously.

Another successful composite from CWU and UCATT called for a “Working Group of MPs, trade unions and party members” to be established that would bring “a New Deal for Workers” policy to be brought to next year’s conference.

It is a time like no other in the history of the Labour Party. Trade union leaders and some centre-ground Labour politicians are trying to keep up, but with some difficulty.

Most of the constituency Labour Party delegates at the conference would have been elected before the leader election campaign, and some up to six months before.

So, we had to expect the conference to lag behind the movement. The delay of a further conference for a full year would be unfortunate. There has been talk from both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell about calling an additional special conference before the next regular conference in late September 2016. They should do that. At the moment a year will be a very long time in politics for a Labour Party in such a radical process of change.

Activists should push for fuller debates at local, regional and national conferences, both official and unofficial.

To the dismay of many on the left, Trident lost out in the constituency delegates’ vote for areas to debate. Unions seemed to be worried that if motions not to replace Trident were put to the vote, they would either have to vote against Corbyn, or face a backlash from their own right wings.

GMB was going to vote to replace Trident. Unite has an ambiguous policy from its 2012 conference. It says “it cannot be right to spend large sums on weapons of mass destruction when essential services are facing cuts”. But it also says: “support our members and their employment until we have firm commitments to a policy that would see the jobs and skills of Unite members preserved”, and right-wingers in Unite have interpreted that as a mandate to back Trident replacement.

Unite was reported as likely to abstain. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey was quoted (Independent, 27 September) as saying: “We won’t be voting in favour of any anti-Trident resolution”. But some said that the Unite delegation might vote against replacement if the issue came to the floor.

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and other left groups who supported a discussion of Trident did not have the degree of influence over CLP delegates that you might imagine. There were some signals that the vote against prioritising was swayed not by the right wing but by Corbyn people.

They were worried they would lose, because big unions would vote for Trident; or that they would win narrowly and be pitched into early confrontation with the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Whatever the truth of that, debate on the issue should and will surely be organised. As far as veterans could remember, Labour conference has debated nuclear weapons only once in 26 years since Neil Kinnock managed to bury Labour’s nuclear disarmament policy through a “policy review” in 1989. (That one time was 1997, when Tony Blair, triumphant, felt confident to trounce the rank and file). A policy to scrap Trident and use the money to rebuild the welfare state and create jobs is or would be immensely popular.

And we still need to build a democratically authoritative left in the party, able both to make sure debates happen in the wider party, and to organise reasoned debate inside itself.

On Europe, the old nationalistic “left” position of calling for a vote to leave the EU has collapsed. At the TUC in early September, the GMB moved a proposal which suggested the unions might vote for withdrawal if Cameron wins bad exemptions for Britain from EU policies. (So, if he does that, we “punish” him by voting for even worse departures, and even more re-erection of barriers between nations? Huh?)

But at Labour conference GMB secretary Paul Kenny called for Labour to support “membership of the EU as a strategic as well as an economic asset” and “approve of UK membership of the EU”. He also called for an independent Labour campaign on the issue, utterly separate from big-business pro-EU campaigns: “no platform with the CBI and no platform with the Tories”.

The Labour Party is being rebuilt as never before. We should organise the newcomers into democratic local Labour Parties and constituency Young Labour groups and turn those organisations out to the streets, to campaign for the NHS, for the right to strike, and on many other issues.

The rules introduced by Blair in 1997 still oppress the Labour Party. On the first day of this conference, only 48 minutes were given to debate from the floor. On the second day, 155 minutes of debate, but only 98 of those from speakers from the floor as distinct from movers and seconders.

The new Labour Party is making a good start on changing its culture, and needs to change its rules. And, as the left organises within this new Labour Party, we must create the space and the culture for reasoned debate within the left.