Ignore the rumours: Jeremy Corbyn's supporters aren't after a factional fight this party conference. This is only the start of a transformative processby Richard Seymour / September 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Will Jeremy Corbyn use the Labour conference to stamp his authority?” asks the BBC. For the Labour ‘moderates’ the answer is “yes.” John Spellar, MP for Warley and signatory of the Henry Jackson Society , is terrified that they are going to “storm the conference, create the atmosphere they are the overwhelming tide”. They punished him with forty years of boredom; now he takes Brighton.
Spellar, and his allies, seriously need to get a grip. For all the fear and loathing emanating from Progress and Labour First, this conference will not see the Bolshevik-style takeover by young sovietniks that the Labour hard-right are fantasising about.
This is despite the fact that the Corbynistas look like having a big majority at conference. They swept local branches in the build-up, and the Corbyn-supporting slate for the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) won handsomely. Corbyn and his supporters are rolling into conference on a wave of triumph, with Labour polling well and performing well in by-elections. Momentum is using an app to organise supporters and indicate key votes. What is more, whatever outstanding issues face Labour, Brexit has once more become the Conservative Party’s problem, with Boris Johnson brazenly exploiting May’s weakness to cause chaos and set himself up as apotential leader of the hard-Brexit faction.
But the story of triumphalist takeover won’t wash. In order for Corbyn to win on an issue, it has to actually be debated. The CAC decides what motions are debated, and it isn’t yet run by the Left. The victory of Seema Chandwani and Billy Hayes will certainly change the tone of the seven-member committee, but their two-year term begins after conference, in October. That means the outgoing CAC, chosen under a different regime and by a different selectorate, will decide what motions make it onto the conference floor.
More importantly, the biggest fight brewing has been averted. The shadow chancellor’s planned amendment to the party’s rules, the so-called “McDonnell Amendment,” would have reduced the threshold of nominations for leadership candidates. Currently, any would-be candidate for Labour’s leadership must have the support of fifteen percent of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the European Parliamentary Party. The McDonnell Amendment would have reduced that to five percent, so as to make sure that a Corbyn successor would make it onto the ballot.
This is a fight that, we now know, the Labour Right would have lost, having neither numbers nor arguments on their side. What ordinary Labour member, anxious to ensure that MPs can’t use a veto to deny them their favoured candidate, is going to be persuaded by the idea that changing the rules would give them too much choice? Yet that was the first argument proposed by Matt Pound of Labour First when challenged about it on the BBC: that there might be—gosh—nine candidates.
However, the issue has been neutralised by a compromise, reducing the nominations threshold to ten percent, which has been backed by the National Executive Committee (NEC). Notably, the NEC also supported proposals adding three new grassroots representatives to the Committee, thereby incrementally tilting the balance of power to Corbyn. This is pretty far from the “divisive rule-changes” that the likes of Wes Streeting MP have been complaining about. First, it is not particularly “divisive,” and second it is extremely weak tea compared to reforms pushed through at previous conferences—such as the Collins Review reforms in 2014.
In part, compromise has been sought rather than all-out warfare, because the Corbynista majority was unexpected. But the leadership is also in a ceasefire mood. This isn’t just out of a desire to appear magnanimous in triumph. Labour’s strong performance, discrediting the anti-Corbynistas, has given the leadership the opportunity to pursue the long game they had always hoped to play. Recognising their weakness in the party’s permanent apparatus, and in parliament, they sought to slowly acclimatise the traditional management and parliamentary right-wing to being led from the Left.
Ironically, Corbyn’s opponents would have been better off taking that deal rather than provoking fights from which Corbyn only gained, a lesson that might temporarily have sunk in. Barring the Blairite belligerati, there isn’t likely to be much of a fight at conference, and the “moderates,” rather than complaining, should be grateful: every time they lose a fight to Jeremy Corbyn, they lengthen their time in perdition.
Other areas of potential controversy have also been neutralised. One area one would expect the press to sniff around for a whiff of bloodshed might be the amendment proposed by the Jewish Labour movement (JLM) for rules dealing with antisemitism. This subject has proven to be a toxic issue for the Labour Party. That is not because it is more prone to, or tolerant of, this form of racism than any other party. Neither the Chakrabarti Inquiry nor the Royall Inquiry found evidence of systemic, pervasive antisemitism in Labour, despite some obnoxious individual cases. But a lot of the press commentary and polemic within Labour has suggested otherwise, often claiming that Labour is in the grip of a form of antisemitism made acceptable by opposition to Israel. Many activists have been worried that this sentiment, and overbearing rule changes ostensibly designed to address it, will be used to justify purges of party activists, or to discipline them for pro-Palestine activism.
But the rule changes will probably pass without much fuss. The amendment has the blessing of the NEC. The leadership is also backing the JLM’s motion (a fact which the JLM has carefully highlighted in its campaigning), after the wording was amended to ensure that the new rule would not necessarily penalise members for “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”—rather than, more reasonably, designating such incidents worthy of investigation. As it stands, the draft proposes changes to make discrimination against ‘protected characteristics’ a specific offence. It specifically identifies “antisemitism, Islamophobia or racism” as occasions for disciplinary action. There may remain criticisms of some of the wording—and some will prefer education to discipline—but it would be surprising if this didn’t pass, neutralising an issue which has dogged Corbyn’s leadership.
The other potential issue is free movement. The Labour Campaign for Free Movement has little support on the parliamentary benches, with only four MPs, including Clive Lewis and Tulip Siddiq, backing it. However, it has significant support from within the membership and the trade union movement. It has proposed a “contemporary resolution” which it is asking CLPs to support and send to conference. It says:
“Labour is the party of all workers, regardless of where they were born. We note many struggles where migrants have been central to improving low-paid workers’ wages and rights, like the recent victorious cleaners’ campaign at LSE. Free movement benefits all workers. Without it, migrants are more vulnerable to hyper-exploitation, making downward pressure on wages more likely. Limiting it would damage the economy and hit living standards.”
The difficulty for Corbyn is that he probably agrees with every word of that statement. In a lifetime of activism, he has never argued anything different. On his first day as leader, he celebrated by attending a pro-refugee rally in central London. Both he and McDonnell campaigned for Remain with an unapologetic defence of free movement and the rights of migrants. In the aftermath of Brexit, however, and reflecting the overwhelming balance of opinion in the PLP, Corbyn has suggested that Labour is “not wedded to free movement.”
Is this the beginning of a breach between Corbyn and his younger membership base? Highly unlikely. It is not even clear that the resolution will be debated. A contemporary resolution is one that must address a subject that has not already been substantively addressed by the National Policy Forum or the National Executive Committee. In the past, such resolutions from CLPs (say, proposing renationalisation) have been regarded as troublemaking devices. The outgoing CAC may block it, since it does no favours for their wing of the party.
And that is the other issue: Corbyn’s critics on the Labour right are in no position to outflank him. Blair’s argument that Labour should focus on attacking non-EU (non-white) migration is hardly likely to appeal to those who support free movement on human rights grounds. Chuka Umunna’s attempt to make the issue one of Europe and the single market flopped, resting on a singular over-estimation of just how much people actually care about Europe.
What the resolution will be about, should it be debated, is pushing back against some of the language that has been coming from MPs and even Corbyn himself. Labour’s activists have just been through an election in which the power of the Murdoch press and the Lynton Crosby smear-machine was shown to be broken. Millions of people cared more about living standards than bashing immigrants and soppy abstractions about the nation. This debate will be about urging the leadership to have the confidence to fight for the ideas it believes in, rather than pandering to simplistic arguments about how free movement undercuts wages.
Given the relatively small margin for a major political dust-up, what are Corbyn and his supporters looking to achieve in this conference? Some incremental gains and punches ducked, perhaps. The conference will be more activist-led and have fewer dull speeches. Some flesh and bones will be put on the grassroots organisation. Some markers will be put down, suggesting the direction of travel. Momentum’s ‘The World Transformed’ event (full disclosure: I’m a speaker) will act as a hub where a lot of informal ties will be strengthened, a milieu forged, and curious outsiders given a welcoming vista on the movement. Were they going for blood, though, as the ‘moderates’ fantasise, they would be talking about far more deep-rooted institutional reform, such as abolishing the National Policy Forum and restoring policymaking power to conference.
Amid the chest-beating and hair-pulling, it is vital to remember that Labour is still a pluralist party. The leadership line is not just whatever the members say. It is an uneasy compromise resulting from a struggle for influence between the parliamentary party, the unions, the party’s senior offices, the councillors and local officials, and then the membership. Corbyn and his supporters want to tilt the balance strongly in favour of members and union affiliates, but it will always necessarily be a balancing act: just as, in effect, Labour has historically been a balancing act between a social movement and an electoral machine.
This conference for the Corbynistas is about building hegemony across different parts of the party. The bunkered Blairite fantasies notwithstanding, Brighton sun, not storms, will be the tone of conference if the leadership gets its way.