Labour: Back on track after its conference

Delegates waving Palestinian flags at Labour Conference

By Robin Jackson

The Corbyn leadership emerged stronger from the Labour Party conference as the left continues to grow in number and become politically clearer. After a difficult summer the Corbyn leadership had a successful annual party conference in Liverpool at the end of September, promoting an agenda that appeals to wide layers of the population, and which forced the Tories back on to the defensive at their conference the following week.

Corbyn is addressing people’s prime concerns

Jeremy Corbyn used his conference speech to set out his agenda to defend living standards and promote equality, alongside a progressive foreign policy. Commitments were made on public services and welfare that added to last year’s election manifesto. These included policies on child care, social care, health and pensions. A comprehensive package of proposals to combat climate change was also announced.

The more serious parts of the media noted that the conference was a significant success. A comment piece in the Financial Times, titled ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s most accomplished speech and conference yet‘, described his speech as offering ‘a coherent analysis of the challenges facing the nation’ and stated that it ‘succeeded in making his radicalism appear like the new normal’. The Guardian’s editorial described his speech as ‘catching the zeitgeist‘. Both these papers determinedly campaign against Corbyn, but at the same time need to also inform their readers when his agenda is so clearly chiming with the popular mood.

The summer offensive against Labour

The conference set a course for reversing Labour’s political setbacks of the summer. These had resulted from the mishandled response to the sustained battering of false antisemitism claims made against Corbyn. Through out August repeated attempts to smear Corbyn gained unnecessary traction because of the confused political formulas put forward by Labour. In particular it did not clearly explain the distinction between antisemitism and opposition to the policies of Israel. This confusion was aided by repeated ‘apologies’ for alleged antisemitism, when in many cases what was actually involved were attacks on Zionism and on Israel’s policies and not on Jews.

Corbyn himself corrected Labour’s response to these attacks, as analysed here, and at the party’s NEC on 4 September a clear statement was adopted stating that free speech and the right to criticise the state of Israel will not be prevented within Labour. It is important that this issue is correctly responded to, because these attacks on Corbyn and Labour will continue whilst the party is led by a determined supporter of Palestinian human rights Adopting the erroneous IHRA examples of antisemitism, as Labour’s NEC also did on 4 September, will not stave off future attacks.

These issues were widely understood by Labour’s constituency activists, who at the party conference delivered a clear riposte to Israel by voting to prioritise discussing solidarity with Palestine. A motion was agreed opposing arm sales to Israel and during the debate on it many Palestinian flags were waved on the conference floor.


Despite concerted efforts from the media and Labour’s right wing, there was at the conference no set piece clash over Brexit in which Corbyn was defeated. What instead happened was the following. More than 100 constituency parties submitted motions proposing that the conference agree to support a ‘peoples vote’ and just 13 motions calling for the decisions on tactics to be left till after the negotiations with the EU, with all options left on the table to consider then. The 300 odd delegates in the compositing meeting on Brexit agreed to put a single motion to the conference reflecting this latter approach. This was entirely correct as it is necessary to know the contents of any proposed agreement with the EU and the political situation, including in parliament, when deciding what steps should be taken to best defend the economy and people’s living standards.

There was some additional exchange of views on Brexit, with John McDonnell and Len McCluskey saying that remaining in the EU should not be an option in any future referendum and Kier Starmer saying that it is still an option. Asked whether he backed Starmer’s words Corbyn’s response was: ‘those are the words of a motion that is supported by the national executive and the shadow cabinet and that is what’s being voted on in conference.’

Corbyn has laid out a clear position that Labour will vote in Parliament against a deal that does not have a customs union, equivalent access to the EU’s market or has a hard border in Ireland. The discussion within Labour will rapidly intensify next month when the government either fails or reaches an agreement with the EU.

Trade unions control Labour

The parts of Labour’s Annual Conference where issues of power within the party, in particular, are determined are the debates and decisions that change the party’s rule book. In general the left wing unions that currently back Corbyn being Leader tend to bloc with the centre and right wing unions on questions of Labour’s internal organisation. Whilst there was disagreement amongst the unions in June 2016 over whether Corbyn should be allowed to stand again for Leader, since then there has generally been agreement on issues about Labour’s rules. For the left in the constituency parties to achieve more radical changes to the rules it would need significant support from Labour’s trade unions.

Given the union’s control over Labour organisation, it should be no surprise that the ‘Democracy Review’ conducted by the party provided an opportunity for unions to increase their control. This year’s conference agreed proposals that will strengthen the unions’ influence over the elections of some seats on Labour’s NEC. There were also some changes agreed to parliamentary selection processes where there is a sitting Labour MP. In future a local constituency party will only need one third of its branches to vote for a reselection, following which other potential candidates can also be considered alongside the sitting MP. It remains to be seen how significant this change will prove to be as it will depend on how the NEC interprets these new rules.

Leadership election rules

At present most of Labour’s affiliated unions defend the effective veto that Labour MPs have over leadership elections. The rules are that when the next vacancy for Leader arises potential contenders for the post will require nominations from at least ten per cent of MPs plus MEPs, in order to secure a place on the ballot paper. This ten per cent threshold (at present that would mean 28 nominations) guarantees that the next Labour Leader will not come from the left. To get some idea of how unreasonably high this threshold is, it should be noted that in 2015 approximately 15 MPs voted for Corbyn for Leader. He got on the ballot paper that year because centre and right wing Labour MPs ‘lent’ him their nominations, enabling a minority view into the debate, which they believed would be crushed in the actual vote. The left will not be leant any nominations in future.

Since Corbyn’s overwhelming victories in two leadership elections, Labour’s right wing have been determined to ensure that the MPs veto against the left remains firmly in place and therefore to prevent the party membership electing the leader they wish – this is a typical expression of the ‘democrats’ of the Labour right. Their aim is to ensure that Corbynism, that is a popular socialist policy, is brought to an end at latest with Jeremy Corbyn leaving the Leader’s post – or earlier if possible.

A left leader is an important issue for trade unions

But the future of the trade unions is in reality tied up with this question of the MPs nominations threshold. Economic stagnation across Europe combined with austerity policies is putting huge pressure on living standards. Politically this is leading to increased polarisation, with the centre being progressively crushed. Austerity-backing social democratic and liberal parties are being displaced as support for both the far right and left grows.

Labour’s sister parties in countries such as France, Germany and Holland, standing on platforms similar to Labour’s 2015 Manifesto under Ed Miliband, are suffering huge losses even to the point of suffering electoral disasters.

Right wing social democracy is being crushed

In 2017 the Dutch Labour Party was reduced to 5.7% of the vote in the Netherlands general election (down from 24.8% in 2012). The French Socialist Party fell to 6.4% in the first round of the Presidential election (down from 28.6% in the 2012 first round). Also the Social Democratic Party of Germany only secured 20.5% of the vote in the federal elections – it’s smallest vote share in the post 1945 era (down from 25.8% in 2013).

This year in June’s Italian general election the vote of the centre-left coalition, led by Matteo Renzi, fell to 22.9% (from 29.5% in 2013), allowing a far right coalition to take up office. In Sweden in September the Social Democratic party only secured 28.3 per cent, its lowest vote since 1908 and to date no stable government has been formed there.

Corbyn’s agenda is saving Labour

Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto in 2017 underpinned Labour’s rapid rise in that election – achieving a 40 per cent share of the vote, 9.6 per cent higher than in the 2015 election. The party’s support increased by approximately 15 per cent during the seven week campaign. Labour’s support under Corbyn is far higher than the right wing socialist parties in Europe.

Labour could win a general election if one was called now. Its current standing in opinion polls is generally above 35 per cent, similar to the Tories. This high level of support is due to Labour being unambiguously led from the left. Plus its strengthened position in parliament, since last year’s election, has made it more difficult for the Tories to advance policies which would be derailed by rebellions on their own side. If Labour’s next Leader is not from its left wing the party can expect a similar fate to social democracy elsewhere in Europe.

The steady advance of the far right across Europe is a particular threat to Black and other ethnic minorities and religious communities and also to trade unions. In Britain the mass appeal of Corbyn’s popular agenda is helping to restrain the far right’s advance, but this would change if the next Labour leaders is not from the left. That would allow the potential space for the far right to grow.

Leadership nominations – MPs threshold should not be 10%

Analysing the interrelation of the political situation with the effect of the MPs’ a ten per cent nomination threshold, this is that it will ensure that Labour’s members and Affiliated Supporters (the individual trade unionists who vote in leadership elections) do not have a Corbynista candidate to vote for in the next leadership election. It is an undemocratic measure to block members from being able vote for their preferred candidate. This veto against the left needs to be removed, with the MPs’ threshold reduced to a maximum of five per cent. Five per cent was the level it was at in 1988.

This year’s Labour conference maintained the MPs ten per cent threshold in Labour’s rule book and added a requirement that nominees also secure the nomination of either five per cent of CLPs or five per cent of unions (the precise formula being: at least 3 affiliates – at least 2 of which shall be trade union affiliates – comprising 5 per cent of affiliated membership).

Ending the MPs’ ten per cent threshold should be a priority for activists on the left, both in the unions and in amongst Labour’s members. What is needed at the next Labour conference is an agreement between the unions and Corbyn’s supporters in the CLPs to reduce the MPs threshold to five per cent. If the unions want to have their own veto, for example set at five per cent, that should be accepted as it is entirely reasonable. What should not be accepted is the continuation of the MPs’ veto, allowing them to block Labour’s next leader coming from its left. Such an important issue as the leadership should be decided by Labour’s members and trade union affiliates.