This Labour conference is going to be the most left-wing I have ever attended. My first, also in Brighton, was in October 1983. The Bennite tide had already begun its long withdrawing roar, although it didn’t feel like it.
Tony Benn himself had lost his seat in the Conservative landslide that June. So the first business of party conference, on Sunday 2 October, was to elect Neil Kinnock, the “soft left” candidate, leader, over Roy Hattersley for the right and Eric Heffer (6 per cent of the vote) for the Bennite left. Jeremy Corbyn, a new MP, voted for Heffer.
After that, the main business was the appeal by the five members of the editorial board of the Militant newspaper. They had been expelled by the National Executive Committee in February, and the NEC’s decision was supported by votes of the conference, with local parties voting to reinstate them, but outvoted by the block votes of the trades unions. Corbyn was prominent in what called itself the “campaign against the witch-hunt”.
The conference was chaired by Sam McCluskie, Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, and no relation of Len McCluskey, the union power-broker of today’s Labour Party. McCluskie was a “moderate” in the language of the day, and would have recognised the label today.
What most people didn’t realise at the time was that the Labour right, the moderates, were winning. John Spellar, who had briefly been an MP before being also swept away in Margaret Thatcher’s cataclysm and who was political officer of the electricians’ union, had worked tirelessly to take back control of the NEC, the party’s governing body, from the Bennites.
The 1983 conference confirmed the Bennites’ retreat. Spellar’s organisational work prepared the ground, but the decisive moment was the 1983 election defeat: it convinced a large part of the left that the Bennite programme was wrong and unelectable. Benn himself returned to the Commons in a by-election in 1984, but his politics were over – or so we thought.
Now, Benn’s heirs control the party. Not only do they have the leadership but this week they gained control of the NEC. On Tuesday, the NEC, currently tied between Corbyn supporters and non-Corbynites, agreed to recommend rule changes to conference. One was to increase the number of NEC members representing local parties – a group currently firmly controlled by the Corbynite slate.
This was slipped through with a change to the rules for leadership elections, cutting the number of nominations from MPs and MEPs needed from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. This change attracted more attention, even though I get the impression that Corbyn intends to be leader for at least another five years. The more significant change was his tightening his grip on the NEC.
Another significant moment came last week, when the results of the election for the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) were announced. This is the committee that controls the agenda for party conference. On Thursday this week the outgoing CAC showed its power by reversing Corbyn’s decision that Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, should be denied the chance to address the conference from the platform.
This should temper the enthusiasm of those who think that Corbyn will be hailed as the all-conquering hero in Brighton this week, and that his supporters have gained decisive control of the party apparatus. He does undoubtedly have the wind in his sails of coming a good second in the general election, but his dominance of the party is not as complete as it looks.
For one thing, as the CAC’s decision to give Khan a platform reminds us, Corbyn’s supporters have not yet taken control of the party committees. The new NEC and the new CAC do not meet until Wednesday, when the party conference is over. That means the leader will not be in full control of business in Brighton next week.
Not that there will be much. The conference after a general election is not the time for big votes on policy. But if there are votes, they will not all necessarily go Corbyn’s way. A majority of the votes at conference are probably held by his supporters, although the mood in the hall will exaggerate his support because many Corbynite local parties are sending large numbers of delegates, even though their voting strength is fixed according to the number of local members.
The leadership will win, therefore, but there may be uncomfortable moments over, for example, the campaign by some non-Corbynites to stay in the EU single market in the long term.
That split draws attention to another reason why I am not sure that “the left wing” is in the ascendant. Brexit cuts across the old labels of left and right. In what way is Corbyn the radical, left-wing, anti-establishment voice when his policy on Brexit is almost exactly the same as the Government’s?
History may not repeat itself, and the Corbyn tide may look as if it is still rising, but the thing about tides is that they turn, and it can take time to realise that this has started to happen.
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