At a meeting of the CLPD at party conference, Labour’s left is organised—and deservedly optimisticby Stephanie Boland / September 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
It’s 18:28—two minutes before the event begins—and I’m already playing the part of hapless MSM. I’ve arrived for a Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLDP) meeting at the Queen’s Hotel, Brighton, and I’ve not got my £3 entry fee. “We have to cover the room somehow,” a member tells me, before I dash off to a cash point. I return at 6:36. Luckily, the event is so popular that they haven’t started yet.
The CLPD aren’t, to the lay person, one of the most prominent Labour groups—until you start following the procedures and rule changes that have the power to tilt the party machinery to one faction or another, at which point, they’re everywhere. Relatively small, with around 80 members, their affiliation with Momentum allows them to punch well above their weight.
This year, with a series of important, Momentum-backed rule changes on the agenda, their mid-conference meeting is buzzing. Compared to the main conference hotel, where the mood is bizarrely subdued—and journalists meet in the corridors, shaking their heads at each other, unsure where the story is—the tone here is bold and optimistic.
True, there are murmured cheers when Rhea Wolfson MP kicks off her speech by mentioning the recent resignation of Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale—her interim replacement, Alex Rowley, is “a fantastic comrade”—but the tone is largely positive. When the “right-wingers” (members on both sides of the party have a habit of referring to themselves as “centre left,” and designating their opponents the left or right-wing outliers) come up it is largely with the self-assured tone of a movement which assumes that, if it doesn’t already control the party in its totally, it is sure to do so soon.
For the CLPD, this is the realisation of a long-held dream. The party, Wolfson says, has been “wholesale transformed in the most positive way,” turning into a grassroots organisation that can change “not just the party, but society.” Cat Smith MP compares the mood to her first conference, where, she says, she felt shut out as a “young delegate, a long way from home, with opinions.”
“I was excluded,” she tells the meeting: “someone tried to push me out of the hall.” She welcomes the changes brought in this year which allow ordinary members to have a greater voice on the conference floor, noting that she, in the shadow cabinet, won’t be speaking there. “Our party should be run by our members,” she says. “We should be a democratic party.” Kelvin Hopkins MP, too, praises the change from a party which “had lost its way and was in danger of losing its socialist soul.”
Each of their speeches cuts to the heart of an existential question which divides this year’s conference: how much should the party be controlled by its members, as opposed to its MPs? Labour’s left consider the PLP merely the conduits for grassroots change; the party’s right counter that MPs are elected to represent all of their constituents, giving them a personal mandate.
Part of the reason one of the most high-profile amendments proposed this year is so controversial—the so-called “McDonnell Amendment,” which would lower the threshold of MPs’ nominations required for a potential party leader from 15 per cent to 5 per cent—is because it encapsulates this essential divide. Momentum’s organising powers have, according to their research supported by the Guardian’s own polling, given them a majority of delegates.
Yet tonight, assembled activists are warned that their amendments risk being defeated by the unions, who are likely to vote along with the recommendations made by Labour’s National Executive committee. Under regulations which prevent defeated motions being debated again for three years, changes could be delayed for years. There is talk of Constituency Labour Parties remitting (withdrawing) their motions to prevent this happening.
The morning after, the “Yellow Pages”—a daily briefing assembled by CLPD and similarly-aligned groups Left Futures and Labour Briefing—confirms this, assuring delegates that their rule changes will be put on a future review which Jeremy Corbyn plans to undertake into “all aspects of the party’s democratic structures/internal governance.”
This review aside, the evident willingness of ordinary members to get to grips with the sometimes esoteric details of the party procedures will be enough to worry many on Labour’s right. Particularly troubling—or encouraging, depending on who you ask—is the determination to control both the party’s NEC and the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), which handles disciplinary matters.
One speaker mentions the recent disciplinary hearing of Ken Livingstone as a case in point: a member of CLPD, Russell Cartwright, served on the three-person panel that decided not to expel Livingstone; tonight, the controversial assessment is deemed “very balanced.” (Livingstone is also praised during the evening as one of the “comrades” who has often rebelled against the Labour whips, alongside Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn.) Delegates are encouraged to vote for Anna Dyer and Emina Ibrahim for election to the NCC.
It will be a surprise to no-one if they are elected by the close of business today, shoring up the left’s place on that committee. “We don’t control the whole of the Labour party,” one speaker says. From the back of the room, a wag yells: “Yet!”