The left in the Labour party face an important year. Saturday saw well over a hundred delegates, members and observers come together for the annual Labour Representation Committee conference in London. The conference coincided with the Fabian Society conference, marking an important day for the left in the Labour party. The LRC unites over a thousand left-wing activists both inside and outside of Labour, and Saturday saw intense debate over the future of the LRC – in particular whether to involve itself with other anti-cuts groups, or to remain the main group in the Labour party arguing for socialist values and policy.
LRC leader John McDonnell MP gave a rousing opening speech, calling for solidarity and resistance to the government’s cuts and privatisation agenda. Tony Benn, arriving later, also spoke of ‘demanding, not protesting’ that the government changes course. He was met with standing applause on entrance and after the speech for his dedication to the cause, despite him being in his 80s. He constantly attends anti-cuts meetings around the country, and has been on the picket lines over the past year supporting workers defending their jobs.
Other speakers included Tunisian exile Mohammed Ali, who spoke passionately about the uprising in Tunisia at the moment, with thousands of students and workers opposing the government’s oppressive West-backed regime.
The issue of union affiliation was raised by a Communist Students amendment which called for ‘all unions to affiliate to the Labour party’, a contentious point. But because there was no modification process this could not be removed from the otherwise positive amendment. Most unions reject the idea of affiliating to the party until Labour becomes an organisation which truly supports the working-class.
An amendment from Left Front Art in support of LGBT community groups draw unanimous support. Near unanimous support was also received for calls for a more democratic Labour party and party conference.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the day was the calls for the LRC to be less London-centric – for example, conference to be held in Birmingham in the future, and for executive committee meetings to be held in areas other than London – Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh being clear options. A comrade from Exeter supported this proposal, noting how difficult it is for many in the South West to get up to London with increased rail fare and high accommodation costs.
John McDonnell summed up the mood when he said the Tory-led government’s attack on both the unemployed and working people amounts to a all-out ‘class war’.
Islington Labour Councillor Charlynne Pullen bravely came forward and explained why she had voted for a cuts budget: ‘this is not the ’80s’, referring to militant Labour councils in the north of England voting against budgets which slashed services and jobs. To many though it appeared hypocritical that she has been campaigning against the cuts in her area while at the same time voting for them. There are indeed huge problems for councils who refuse to set legal budgets – but the majority of LRC members believe Labour councillors must vote against the cuts, and instead resign in protest, or stay on and face the consequences for the sake of local communities – mostly deprived communities – being slashed by the neoliberal axe of Osbourne.
It is hoped that by the end of the year there will be a Devon and Cornwall LRC group, following on from the establishment of groups in Hampshire and Teeside. As the saying goes – ‘two is company, three is a branch’. The growth of the left in Cornwall can also be seen in the Socialist Party’s aims to establish a branch in Cornwall within the next few months.
There were some problems with the conference – the second half was rushed, some speakers were wrongfully heckled and some amendments were given too little discussion time. One speaker noted that ‘the left prefer fighting ourselves to the enemy’, a point being raised in anti-cuts groups around the UK, some of which are suffering from sectarianism. Matt Wrack of the FBU offered similar criticisms. But the conference on the whole was passionate and supportive of all organisations fighting the cuts in a bold rejection of infighting and internal chaos (which Compass, the centre-left element within Labour, is being torn apart by).
The message of the conference was therefore clear. Councillors must oppose the cuts. LRC activists should be at the heart of community campaigns. And 2011 must be the year that the myriad anti-cuts groups unite under one banner in defence of public services and our welfare state.