Labour Party Conference 2016 was perhaps the most significant conference for the party since 1985.
The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader by such large margin will set the party’s direction for years – perhaps decades – to come. But the atmosphere on the Conference floor indicated that the mood among grassroots members was perhaps more evenly balanced than the leadership result might indicate. This was because Labour First and Progress had organised and had clearly been successful in the selection of CLP delegates. This was particularly true in respect of numerous large London CLPs. Both Momentum / Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (“CLPD”) and Labour First/Progress had operations on the conference floor to a level I have never seen before in my years as a party member.
So the battle was on for the soul of the Labour party. Matters that in previous years had merely been administrative took on a life of their own. The first battle was over which contemporary motions would be debated over the course of the Conference. The result was a mixed bag of Left and Right motions – and a motion on Brexit was an accidental casualty. I don’t think this omission was deliberate: simply that many delegates had other things on their mind.
The real battle began over the Conference Arrangements Committee (“CAC”). Every morning, the CAC would present their report and every morning a member of CLPD would stand up to ask that the report be “referred back”. The reason was that this report contained the recently agreed NEC rule changes which were to be presented as a package. But CLPD wanted the rule changes to be voted on item by item. This was because they were unhappy about one rule change: the addition of two representatives for Scotland and Wales to the NEC. Their problem was that these representatives would shift the NEC’s balance of power away from Jeremy Corbyn (though this was not the primary purpose of these provisions). On Sunday and again on Monday, a vote was taken on the CAC report by a show of hands and on both occasions the report was clearly passed.
The NEC rule changes were due to be debated on Tuesday morning. The Party rulebook is somewhat of a niche pursuit: in previous years, the “rule changes” debates would take place in front of an empty floor. This year, the floor was packed to the rafters. Indeed, numerous people on visitors’ passes had to be asked to move from delegates’ seats.
CLPD repeated their request from Sunday and Monday but this time asked for a card vote. They claimed that the votes that had been taken on the previous days had been close and that a card vote should be taken on this occasion to ascertain the view of Conference. It was difficult from my vantage-point to know whether this claim was true. But I was aware that several rows of people on visitors’ passes on the balcony were raising their hands when votes were being taken. However, the Conference Chairs were aware which were the visitors’ seats and were discounting their votes anyway.
At this point, CLPD completely overplayed their hand. A seemingly never-ending queue of speakers got up to concur in increasingly desperate terms. Added to this were a number of speakers making the point that they didn’t want to spend the rest of the day debating rule changes when there were important policy debates on the agenda.
Eventually, a vote was taken on a show of hands which clearly approved Tuesday’s CAC report. But CLPD still wouldn’t give up. Several more speakers – including Christine Shawcroft – raised a point of order that the rulebook clearly stated that a card vote should be taken when such a request was made. The Chair responded that a card vote should only be taken when the vote was close – and it was clear that it hadn’t been. CLPD cried foul claiming this was an affront to democracy. But the impatience among Conference delegates was palpable.
Ironically, the amount of time spent on this initial dispute meant there was hardly any time left to debate the substance of the rule changes package. Nevertheless, there was time for an extraordinary speech from Mike Katz of the Jewish Labour Movement, opposing the exclusion of proposed rule changes on anti-semitism. There was a powerful moment when a handful of hecklers from the balcony were completely drowned out by two enormous standing ovations.
Notwithstanding the controversy earlier in the day, the NEC rule changes package passed overwhelmingly. One CLP rule change allowing for parts of National Policy Forum reports to be voted down also passed – and I can see this potentially creating challenges for the party’s policymaking process. In another victory for Labour First/Progress, Maggie Cosins was re-elected to the National Consritutional Committee, which has the onerous task of dealing with party disciplinary matters.
Despite the battles for control of the party’s machinery, there was a surprising consensus on party policy. This was particularly true in the Education debate which featured a motion on grammar schools and this passed unanimously – as did a motion on child refugees.
But it was frustrating to also see it in the debate over Unite’s motion on Industrial Strategy. The motion was moved by Len McCluskey in what I found to be the most divisive speech of Conference. Having myself advocated for an industrial strategy for many years, I could wholeheartedly support the motion. Indeed, the speech in the same debate, which was delivered by Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was one I could have delivered myself.
However, I cannot and will not support McCluskey’s call for those who do not support Corbyn as leader to leave the party. If we are to have an effective industrial strategy that will truly transform communities right across the country, we need to be building bridges not walls.
The speech by John McDonnell, in which he praised some of his most vocal PLP critics, was remarkably consensual in comparison. Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis, also delivered a consensual, multi-lateralist speech – albeit one that may have cost him his job.
The only real dissent on policy was seen in the Energy debate over the motion moved by the GMB. This motion called for a balanced Energy policy including investment in Renewables and Carbon Capture and Storage technologies but it also supported the construction of new nuclear power stations and new gas facilities (including fracking). The more observant delegates would have noticed that this motion contradicted the speech given by Barry Gardiner earlier in the week in which he opposed fracking. One observant delegate spoke against the motion, noting the costs of nuclear decommissioning at Sellafield. Having previously worked at Sellafield on the nuclear decommissioning programme, I wanted the opportunity to correct her but I was not called to speak. The GMB motion passed – and this will create issues for the Shadow Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy team.
Perhaps the most dramatic moments of Conference were the speeches delivered by Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson. These were moments of raw emotion – perhaps not seen since Neil Kinnock’s famous speech in 1985. Sadiq Khan’s speech was a strident defence of parliamentary socialism – in direct contradiction to Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a social movement. Tom Watson went further, giving an audacious defence of the Blair and Brown governments. These weren’t the set-piece speeches we have become use to at party conferences but battle cries: the power of persuasion deployed relentlessly on the party faithful. There was heckling – even some booing – and not everyone applauded. But this was set against some of the most determined standing ovations of Conference. It was the battle played out in every CLP meeting across the country but on a massive scale.
The issue of party leadership may now be settled, but party democracy will live on in every councillor, parliamentary candidate and MP selection, every election of regional and national conference delegates, every set of elections to the NEC, NPF, NCC, and CAC, and in elections to branch, CLP and regional board. The battle for the soul of the Labour party isn’t over: it’s only just begun.