Southside finally pull the plug, as members refuse to be silenced

Michael Calderbank reports from Labour’s London Conference

The London Labour Conference which took place by Zoom this weekend was a strange affair. The agenda was full of policy motions, mostly non-contentious and simply amplifying policies already in the 2019 national manifesto, peppered with guest speeches and a couple of panel discussions.

Regardless of their factional allegiances, all delegates surely understood that London faced enormous challenges arising from the pandemic.  Far from the simplistic picture of a wealthy capital and deprived Red Wall seats, London has significant areas of poverty, food insecurity and homelessness – all of which are likely to be made worse by the withdrawal of the £20 Universal Credit uplift. 

At one level, there was a common understanding of the need to take the fight to this corrupt, incompetent and racist Tory government.  Angela Rayner and, especially, Dawn Butler were well received and both argued we needed to be more vocal and outspoken in taking the fight to Boris Johnson.   

But if we’re to build an effective, united opposition to the Tories, then deeply factional and unnecessary attacks on socialist activists are clearly a major obstacle – and those responsible must be held to account.   It’s not so much that there was an elephant in the room of the London Conference discussions, but a whole herd of them: the withdrawal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn; the delay in publishing the Forde report; the rules prohibiting CLPs from discussing certain issues; the recent wave of proscriptions and much more were kept off the agenda.    

When one delegate was selected to question Angela Rayner, he departed from his pre-prepared script to take a rare opportunity to raise these issues of concern to so many members.   But he was quickly muted and ejected from the room for his trouble.

Even the timing of the Conference was clearly manipulated for factional advantage by the Regional Office, in direct contradiction to the wishes of the elected Regional Executive Committee.   

Chair Jim Kelly’s opening remarks made very clear the REC’s discontent with the decision to force through a virtual Conference in July, during the summer Parliamentary recess, rather than allow it to take place as normal in November.  Why the sudden rush, putting unnecessary pressure on staff, and particularly on unpaid volunteers who ran the Conference Arrangements Committee?   

The reasons are likely twofold.  Firstly, having the Conference run virtually allows for a greater degree of centralised control.  Secondly, by bringing forward the re-election of the REC, the right was keen to ensure it had control over the local councillor selections process.

At the level of policy, it was remarkable how little opposition was offered to the general radical thrust of Corbyn-era thinking. The CWU’s motion on the Digital Divide – including a commitment to roll out high quality free broadband under public ownership – was carried overwhelmingly. Indeed, the motion from Tottenham CLP calling on Mayor Sadiq Khan to take back in-house the whole of Transport for London – including buses and Overground services presently outsourced to Arriva – represents a policy more radical than anything passed by London Conference in the Corbyn years. 

Most contentious were the motions on the environment, particularly the one on “Just Transition”. Unions GMB and Unite both said that, while recognising the urgency of the climate emergency and the need for action, they would vote against the motion “with a heavy heart” because of the one line urging an end to aviation expansion.

 It’s understandable that the unions are concerned about their members, and the aviation sector has been particularly badly hit in the pandemic. True, the motion would have benefited from more developed thinking on how such workers could be engaged in a “Just Transition” process, and what alternative sources of major employment could be developed in an area like Heathrow and West London more widely. But despite union opposition, overwhelming support from the CLP delegates meant the motion was carried.

The two panel debates were somewhat uneven. The debate on racial justice with speakers including Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, former Haringey Council leader Joseph Ejiofor, and Sonia Adesara, a Tottenham based Doctor who discussed how race and class impacted on health inequalities, was a welcome and informed discussion. Indeed, given this was the first Conference in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities, it was perhaps surprising such issues did not receive more prominence in the policy motions themselves. 

Saturday’s debate was much better than Sunday’s – on “winning London for Labour in 2022” where we were treated to such pearls of wisdom as AM Leonie Cooper’s “we need to talk more about issues like dog poo” and “tell people what they want to hear” (I’m not even exaggerating).

The results of the elections for the Regional Executive positions were overwhelmingly negative for the left, with Labour to Win, the alliance between the unreconstructed Blairites and tradition right wing Labour First, taking the Chair, majority of Officer positions and the vast number of the constituency sections. That said, the result in some of the divisions was still close, a fact obscured by the “winner-takes-all” FPTP system.

The most immediate outcome is likely to be that it will be harder for socialists to be selected to the approved panel of candidates for local selections, or have their appeals upheld. But even more of a challenge might be finding socialists willing to stand in the first place.    

Clearly, the Conference was taking place at a time when the NEC had just been told that the Party was in a dire financial position following the resignation of so many members, with the result that 90 members of staff were to be fired.  By loading the agenda with policy discussions ranging from the uncontentious to downright banal, frustration was clearly building up over the course of the weekend. 

Outgoing Conference Arrangements Speaker Kathryn Johnson spoke for many when she asked why no one was pointing all this out, and saying what we could all see – that no-one is sure what the Party stands for and the new leadership is an Emperor without any clothes.

Unsurprisingly, she was muted mid-way through her speech, upon which Seema Chandwani, who was chairing the session, urged that she be allowed to finish her remarks rather than end the Conference on a sour note. Just as it looked like wise counsel was to prevail, and Kathryn resumed her speech, the plug was pulled on the Conference altogether, with Kathryn’s final words ringing in our ears – “We can’t just despair, members mustn’t give up….”

This episode in regional “democracy” was abruptly terminated.   

Michael Calderbank is a member of Tottenham CLP and a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

Image:City of London, seen from Tower Bridge. Author: Tristan Surtel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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