After Conference, where next for the Labour left? – Rachel Garnham, CLPD


“There is a residual strength in the left, built on knowing that only the left has the policy answers to the major crises of the day. So how do we channel that energy and strength?”

By Rachel Garnham, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) Vice-Chair.

Three messages came loud and clear from Labour’s 2021 Annual Conference in Brighton:

First, the current leadership appears completely incapable of putting forward the programme necessary to fight the Tories, generate electoral support and build a coalition to win elections. Instead the dishonesty of Starmer, in completely disregarding the programme on which he stood for leader, is repellent to many voters.

Second, the current leadership continues to display a huge level of disdain for its members – both individual and trade unions – which contributes to its seeming inability to generate electoral support. Hundreds of thousands of people rooted in communities across Britain should be both a source of energy and ideas and a conduit to generating further support. Instead every trick in the book is used to drive us out of the movement.

The third, the left may be down but we are very far from out – the energy, the connections and the determination to fight for what we believe in, for democracy and for socialism is still very strong –  demonstrated in the votes, delegates’ speeches and on the fringe. And the relationship between the left in the CLPs and the left in the unions is stronger than at any time in recent memory.

The right is not winning any of the arguments, instead it only managed to force its rule changes through a series of fixes:

  • excluding and suspending active members, and delegates in particular, and shutting down CLPs for no good reason – the extent of disciplinary action against left-wing Jews being particularly disturbing;
  • pushing pages and pages of rule changes on the NEC and then members and trade unions with no time to scrutinise, consult or most importantly draw attention to the clampdown on democracy;
  • Taking the card vote on General Secretary before many delegates had picked up their card votes, and then changing the result further into conference;
  • On the key rule change to allow conference to hold political decisions taken by the Chief whip in relation to the PLP to account, lies were repeatedly told about the rule change’s potential to bring sensitive cases to conference, knowing perfectly well this was not true. So we were not able to take the opportunity to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn but that campaign must continue.

Some of the key NEC rule changes reverse progress made as part of the Democracy Review:

  • It will be far more difficult for there to be a diverse choice of leadership candidates, with the nominations threshold raised to 20% of the PLP. The prospect of a woman or black leader appears  ever more distant.
  • The number of motions to be discussed at conference has been reduced from 20 to 12 leaving more time for platform speakers and sofa chats, which seems to be creeping back in. It was quite clear that the debate at conference was the best of our movement, we need to ensure there remains plenty of time for delegates to share their views.
  • After well over a decade of members complaining that the National Policy Forum is remote, undemocratic and not fit for purpose, there have been no reforms that will make the process any closer to grassroots members, and the NPF looks set to yet again be used as an excuse for promoting neo-liberal policies that are not supported by members or voters.
  • Changes to re-introduce Local Government Committees were reversed so that regions can sign off individual arrangements undoubtedly to the benefit of local cliques, not grassroots members and trade unionists.
  • The NEC has been given the right to introduce unspecified guidance on the standards of behaviour and conduct for elected reps and candidates that will be subject to disciplinary action if not met.
  • The General Secretary can now reject membership applications for any reason they see fit – an astonishing power-grab.
  • There were changes to limit which organisations CLPs can affiliate to.
  • The trigger ballot process was reformed to make it much harder to hold local MPs to account and hold full selections.
  • Finally, elements of the disciplinary processes have had democracy and accountability removed and put cases in the hands of so-called ‘independent’ bodies, which in reality are anything but independent, as they are appointed by the General Secretary.

Amongst the dark clouds however, there were some glimmers of hope.

  • The threat of reintroduction of the electoral college has been temporarily defeated, although we must keep a watching brief on the working group.
  • Against NEC advice, and therefore highly unusual, the Conference passed a rule change that would prevent NEC impositions of parliamentary candidates in the event of a snap election or by-elections .
  • A new Labour Student organisation has been put in place which appears to be more democratic than the previous bastion of the right.
  • New structures for disabled members, and for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic members that provide spaces for members to organise – hopefully building on the success of Young Labour and of the women’s organisation where the new, left Women’s Committee is already starting to make its presence felt.
  • Really good policies that are popular with the public and would help Labour win were passed in a whole range of areas from the socialist green new deal to the £15 minimum wage to support for sanctions against Israel because of their apartheid regime. Although immediately dismissed by the Leadership, these are now Labour policy and we must hold the Leadership to account on their implementation

While there have been major setbacks, there is a residual strength in the left, built on knowing that only the left has the policy answers to the major crises of the day. So how do we channel that energy and strength?

Most immediately there are a series of conferences to get organised for – regional conferences in particular which will elect Regional Executives that have an important role to play in local selections. Local selections will be taking place where members do have the opportunity to become locally elected representatives, which could enable members to make genuine change in local government.

We need to fight back against the unjust expulsions and exclusions, and support members impacted, in particular the disproportionate number of left wing Jews who appear to have been targeted for action. Attacking and culling your own membership is no way to win elections.

Votes at conference could have been different if a single union had voted differently, it is incumbent on all those on the left in affiliated unions to actively organise there for an agenda of left policy and Party democracy.

We must also take the opportunity of online meetings to really advance our political education and make new connections. Last week Eastern Labour Left hosted comrades from North of England Labour Left to discuss organising regionally and to hear from Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, about promoting socialist policies in power. There is a wealth of activists, trade unionists and Socialist Campaign Group MPs willing to connect with members online. Meetings like this provide hope and inspiration and there are no shortage of local, regional and national campaigns to take part in.

Before too long there will be new elections for the National Executive Committee, the National Policy Forum, and with any luck the Leadership. We need to start getting organised now – particularly as members will need six months membership to vote in Leadership elections.

Fighting for socialism is a marathon not a sprint. As Diane Abbott MP said in her assessment of Conference for CLPD’s Yellow Pages daily newssheet at Annual Conference: ‘The ordinary people of this country and internationally cannot afford to give up. So neither can we.’

  • Rachel Garnham is the Vice-Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), you can follow her on twitter here.
  • You can also follow CLPD on Facebook and twitter.
  • Rachel recently spoke at the Arise Festival post-conference report-back and discussion. You can watch her contribution and the full meeting here.
The Labour Assembly Against Austerity Fringe event at Labour Party Conference 21. Photo credit: Labour Outlook Archive

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