Labour Party members, supporters and activists - particularly those on the left - are still on something of a high after the party’s far better than expected performance in the recent general election. But far-reaching democratisation of the party’s internal structures is still indispensable if the hard-fought gains of the last two years are to be cemented and built upon. It is with this in mind that we now turn our attention to Labour Party conference in September.
Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) across the country will be meeting over the next couple of weeks to submit rule changes, nominate candidates for internal elections (more on that shortly), and select delegates to send to conference. If you are yet to hear on when your local CLP meets to decide these matters, you should urgently get in touch with your CLP’s secretary or your local Momentum group. Constituency parties have until July 7th to resolve all of these issues - the deadline was previously June 23rd, but this was extended by the National Executive Committee (NEC) at its meeting in April, shortly after the snap election was called.
Most votes at Labour Party conference are decided by the number of bodies in the hall, and hands going up to vote. The majority of items on the agenda do not generally go to a card vote, where delegates’ votes are properly counted. Delegates proposing motions are supposed to be entitled to a card vote should they ask for one, although such a request was controversially blocked last year - so we cannot rely on card votes being called by the conference chair. It is therefore essential to get as many left delegates selected for conference as possible.
Some CLPs allow all members to vote to select conference delegates, while others restrict the vote to delegates nominated by their respective branches. If your CLP has all-member votes or you are a delegate for your branch, you must find out when the relevant meeting is scheduled and who the left candidates for delegate positions are. Your presence at the meeting and your vote are both crucial.*
The ‘McDonnell Amendment’
The focus, in the media and elsewhere, has largely centred on the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’. Leaving aside the fact that John McDonnell himself is highly unlikely to ever benefit from it personally, this amendment - if passed - will lower the nominations threshold for future leadership contests from the current 15 per cent of MPs to only five per cent. The upshot of this is that any chosen successor to Corbyn would be guaranteed a place on any future ballot to replace him. The right of the PLP would be unable to keep that candidate - whether it’s Rebecca Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis or someone else - out of the contest.
It has been suggested in some quarters that, following the election, the left already accounts for 15 per cent of the PLP and therefore would already have enough nominations in the event of a future leadership contest. This talk should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certainly, the new intake of Labour MPs represents something of an improvement. But it is certainly possible that the parliamentary left as a whole does not yet comprise 15 per cent of the PLP. Passing the ‘McDonnell amendment’ therefore remains a key task for the Labour left.
Conference Arrangements Committee and National Constitutional Committee Elections
Furthermore, a series of victories for the left at conference this year is necessary to build on the momentum - pardon the expression - generated during the recent election campaign. There are other important matters to be dealt with besides the ‘McDonnell amendment’, including elections to the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) and the National Constitutional Committee (NCC). The former oversees the agenda at conference, while the latter handles disciplinary matters (clearly an important concern for the left given the events of the last two years).
The left candidates for the CAC are both long-standing Labour Party and trade union activists - Billy Hayes and Seema Chandwani. In terms of NCC candidates, Anna Dyer and Emina Ibrahim are also on the left. You should encourage your constituency party to nominate all of these candidates. All members will have the opportunity to vote for Billy Hayes and Seema Chandwani via a one-member-one-vote ballot. The two NCC places will be decided by conference delegates, which is another reason why it’s so important to get leftwing delegates selected so that they can vote for Anna Dyer and Emina Ibrahim.
Other Rule Changes
Also likely to feature on the agenda at this year’s conference is the potential abolition of the one-year delay for proposed rule changes. In short, this rule means that rule changes proposed by CLPs and affiliates are only eligible for debate at conference the year after they have been submitted. This rule only serves to frustrate members in their attempts to reform and democratise the party, slowing the pace of change. A rule change proposed by Filton & Bradley Stoke and Newport CLPs proposes that ‘all constitutional amendments submitted by affiliated organisations and CLPs that are accepted as in order shall be timetabled for debate at the first party conference following their submission’. The left should mobilise in support of this.
At present, the only motions - other than rule changes - which CLPs and affiliates can submit to conference are contemporary motions (more on this below) on issues which have not already been covered in NEC or National Policy Forum reports. A rule change submitted by Brighton Pavilion CLP proposes doing away with this restriction. This would represent a major improvement if it were passed. It is a crucial step to making Labour Party conference a proper democratic policymaking forum once again. The left must therefore support it.
Another rule change quite likely to appear on the agenda at conference this year is one put forward by Enfield North and Leyton & Wanstead CLPs, which proposes bringing back Local Government Committees. This would again help to empower members, as the existing Local Campaign Forum system concentrates too much power in the hands of councillors and council leaders. Local Government Committees would be more accountable to CLPs, thereby enhancing the ability of rank-and-file members - and trade union affiliates - to have an effective say on the decisions taken by councils over crucial issues like housing and local public services. This motion therefore deserves the strong support of the left.
What is essential is that the left mobilises against a proposed rule change being put forward by right-wing grouping Labour First. If passed, this would add two more seats to the local governance section of the NEC - elected to represent Labour councillors, directly-elected mayors, and police and crime commissioners. This section of the NEC already has two representatives, but Labour First wants to double that number to four. It should go without saying that the right has an inbuilt advantage here as the Labour left’s representation in local government remains weak. Therefore, if this rule change were passed, in practice it would mean that two more rightwing members are added to the NEC - in all likelihood giving the right a clear majority on it.
Two rightwingers - Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones - were added to the NEC in dubious circumstances at conference last year. The members’ overwhelming vote to return a full slate of six left-supported candidates in the elections for the CLP section of the NEC was effectively cancelled out in one fell swoop, leaving Jeremy Corbyn and the left without a majority on the NEC. This means that the left has been unable to win crucial votes on important administrative and organisational matters over the last year. This cannot be stressed enough - the left must do everything in its power to prevent the NEC being tilted any further to the right. Labour First’s proposed rule change must be defeated.
At New Socialist, we note that Labour First is not calling for increased representation of grassroots members, despite Labour Party membership having more than doubled since 2015. The left should certainly pursue this aim itself, and indeed we are informed that there are new rule changes in the pipeline that seek both to increase member representation on the NEC and to ensure that it better reflects the politics of most members. However, it is doubtful that any of these will be discussed at conference before 2018, unless the NEC takes the (highly unlikely, it has to be said) step of forcing any of them onto the agenda sooner.
Also, CLPs can directly help determine Labour Party policy by submitting what is known as a contemporary motion. The deadline for proposing contemporary motions is September 14th, but in order to be considered a contemporary motion, the motion concerned must be on an issue which has only newly arisen since the publication of the National Policy Forum’s annual report. This report is likely to be published in August.
As no contemporary motions have yet been submitted, it remains to be seen which ones should be supported by the left in order to accelerate the democratisation of the party. The issue of candidate selection seems highly likely to feature, with the very real possibility of a second general election in the not-too-distant future - many members will be keen to avoid a repeat of the NEC-controlled selection process prior to the recent election. It may therefore be worth trying to get a contemporary motion demanding member-led candidate selection onto the conference agenda. However, the NEC will meet before August - from when contemporary motions are likely to be submitted - so CLPs should themselves pass motions now calling on the NEC to implement full democratic candidate selection as soon as possible.
This year, Labour women’s conference will have policymaking powers for the first time in its history. This was one aspect of the package of rule changes voted through at conference at last year. The main business of this year’s women’s conference takes place on Saturday September 23rd, one day before the full party conference opens. You should ask your CLP secretary about whether your constituency party intends to send delegates.
In addition, there is a rule change before the full Labour Party conference - submitted by New Forest East CLP - which proposes allowing women’s conference to submit up to two motions to the main party conference. This would thereby significantly enhance the policymaking power of women’s conference, representing a significant step towards gender equality in the shaping of Labour Party policy. It should be supported.
The Task ahead
It is crucial that the Labour left doesn’t simply bathe in the afterglow of a highly encouraging general election result. We have no time to rest on our laurels. Our mission is to create a member-led party so that working people - many of whom have never played an active role in politics before - feel inspired to get involved for the long term. We must turn the Labour Party into an organisation which can radically advance the collective interests, aspirations and desires of the working class, marginalised and oppressed people, and communities across Britain.
Only in this way can we hope to transform this country for the better - a democratic Labour Party really is a prerequisite for a more democratic Britain. It’s up to the Labour left to get to work in making this a reality, with a strong showing at this year’s conference as the next step towards our goal.
If you need information on organising for conference in your local CLP and you haven’t been able to find it anywhere else, email email@example.com and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.
Where conference delegates have already been selected, it may be worth trying to get rule changes endorsed by your branch and CLP and instructing those delegates to vote accordingly. Many delegates will be prepared to abide by the democratic decision of their constituency party to back a certain candidate or rule change. However, conference delegates cannot be formally mandated to vote a particular way on a particular motion - this has no standing in the Labour Party rule book - so if your delegates do not vote in line with their CLP’s wishes, there is no formal method by which they can be sanctioned beyond moral pressure. Regardless of this, CLP meetings are certainly likely to be somewhat awkward for delegates who go against the will of their constituency party, so this moral pressure could be effective.
It will also be a challenge to pull this off, as motions have to be submitted weeks in advance of branch and CLP meetings. If you are going to attempt to do this, it is therefore important to move as quickly as possible to get these items on the agenda at these meetings so that they can be voted on before conference.
New Socialist is, and will always be, not for profit. Help us sustain and develop this project by subscribing on Patreon.