A remarkable time to be a Labour activist (speech by Maisie Sanders)

On 10 October, Lewisham Momentum held a public meeting. The speakers were Derby North MP Chris Williamson; Royal Mail worker, CWU Croydon and Sutton youth rep and Lewisham Momentum activist Anita Kennedy; and Lewisham Deptford conference delegate Maisie Sanders. Here are Maisie’s speech notes written up.

Hi everyone, I’m Maisie Sanders. I’m a primary school teacher, an activist in Lewisham Momentum, and I was elected and served as Lewisham Deptford CLP’s youth delegate to Labour Party conference. Before Chris speaks, I want to outline a few thoughts about the conference and try to draw some lessons for what we need to do in the weeks and months ahead – and how you can help.

It’s clear that, for the first time since the dramatic events of 2015, we’re seeing real progress in transforming the party. This was my first conference, but it’s clear that it was very different from even last year’s. The energy, the enthusiasm, the presence of numerous left-wing activists starting to crowd out the bureaucrats and wannabe bureaucrats. The many votes the left won, from the National Constitutional Committee elections to repeatedly referring back policies to the National Policy Forum because they just weren’t good enough. The simple fact that the conference at least began to function as a real conference, taking decisions, in place of its previous status as a pretty dull rally.

It’s a remarkable time to be a Labour Party activist. The mood in Brighton was celebratory, and we should celebrate. But we should not rest on our laurels either. There is a huge amount more to do if we want to see a democratic, campaigning Labour Party that can actually deliver on the kind of policies that so inspired people, particularly young people, in the general election – let alone go further so we can think about transforming society in a socialist direction.

In terms of what we need to do, I could speak all night, but I’m going to focus on three things: democracy, policy and struggle.

FIRST, democracy, by which I mean the party’s structures and processes but also its life and culture. Despite the upsurge of membership involvement, Labour remains far from a democratic, member-led party. That is true in terms of national structures, which are largely a hangover from the Blair-era – and the danger is that the upcoming Democracy Review, to which most proposals for reform have been remitted, will slow down rather than speed up the process. We need to push hard for democratisation as soon as possible. We need to raise to look at ideas which are currently not on the table, like abolishing the National Policy Forum, which as far as I can see exists mainly to stifle conference democracy. Conference should be the sovereign decision-making body of the party. We need to demand an end to the system by which Corbyn-supporting activists are arbitrarily and summarily expelled, whether because they supported another party before they joined Labour or because they are members of a socialist group within the party. That’s a very big issue in Lewisham where quite a few activists, including Rebecca’s co-chair Jill Mountford [Rebecca Lawrence was chairing the meeting], have been expelled. We need to put an end to a situation where branches and whole CLPs are shut down, whether by bureaucratic command or by their right-wing officers just not allowing them to meet.

To draw in, organise, educate and mobilise many more of the huge number of young people enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, we need to build active Young Labour groups at borough and constituency level.  That’s starting to happen, including here where we’ve set up Lewisham Young Labour, but it’s very slow. It needs to get started in many more places and the party as a whole should promote it too.

SECONDLY, we need to move forward on winning left-wing, socialist policies – winning support for them in the party and winning campaigns for them in society. We passed some great policies at conference, from stopping and reversing NHS privatisation to repealing not just the Trade Union Act but all anti-strike laws, right back to the first ones Thatcher introduced. The danger is that these policies will remain on paper. Another hangover from Blairism is that many people, on the right of course but also sometimes on the left, don’t take democratically agreed policy very seriously. An essential part of democracy is that what conference agrees becomes Labour policy, actively advocated and campaigned for. On the opening day of conference, Jeremy Corbyn told Andrew Marr that would now be the case, which is great – we need to make sure it happens. The left needs to take policy-making much more seriously, and we need to be bolder. The manifesto was excellent, but there are many areas for development. How many council houses will we build? Will a national care service be free and publicly funded like the NHS? Shouldn’t more childcare mean something other than pouring money into private-sector providers? What about the banks? If there’s another banking crisis, will we bail them out again or will we nationalise them for real this time?

We can and should and must debate these kind of things, and meanwhile we can get as many people as possible out on the streets campaigning for brilliant existing policies like scrapping tuition fees, £10 an hour and scrapping zero hours contracts – to build a real movement around the party.

LAST but not least, if we want to be a socialist party we must be a party which supports every struggle against injustice.  Struggles by the oppressed, struggles by communities and above all struggles by workers. We need to introduce a whole new generation of young people to the ideas of workers’ struggle and recruit a whole new generation of workers to trade unions and to the labour movement.  We can start by learning from and making solidarity with young workers who are already fighting back – most impressively, the Picturehouse and McDonald’s workers, who conference passed a motion to support and who we’ll be collecting for tonight.

From now on Labour should not just apologise for strikes, not just attack the Tories over them, but actively endorse, celebrate and support the fact of workers standing up for themselves and fighting back. We need Labour to become much less a party of middle-class professionals and much more a party of workers, whether that’s posties or social workers, fast food workers or teachers, cinema workers or bus drivers…

If we’re going to support workers’ struggles consistently that poses some difficult questions for Labour and for the left. How can we be the party of workers if we abandon our brothers and sisters from Europe by advocating an end to free movement? How can we be the party of workers when Labour councils continue to provoke disputes with their workforces, as if we’ve seen in Lewisham with Forest Hill School, and we’ve seen in Derby, Durham, Birmingham and many other places. We need a serious discussion about how councils can take a different approach, standing with their communities to actually fight the cuts.

Immediately, the Labour Party as a whole and everyone in it faces a big test. As we heard from Anita, the Royal Mail strike will pitch a hundred thousand workers against their grasping post-privatisation bosses and against the Tory government. They need solidarity urgently. We must do everything we can, at every level, to make sure that the Royal Mail workers win.

As you’ll guess from everything I’ve said, I’m delighted by what’s happening in our party but I’m not satisfied. I want to go faster, go further, achieve more. We’re facing major tasks and sometimes that’s daunting. There is so much to do. But there is a very simple thing which all of us, which all of you can do, which will help transform the situation here in Lewisham and make all the rest of it much easier. Over the next month, we’ll have ward and then Constituency Annual General Meetings. Make sure you come and elect officers and delegates who will support Jeremy Corbyn, who will use their positions to fight to democratise the party, to support left-wing policies and to build solidarity. We cannot allow our Lewisham Labour Party to remain in the hands of the right any longer.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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