By Rick Parnet
Since the Labour leadership’s new shift on Brexit, several anti-Brexit people, good comrades on the radical socialist left, have said to me essentially that the demand for a special Labour Party conference is now irrelevant or at least not very important. I get the sense this is an argument that is being ‘picked up’ and starting to spread. I think it’s radically wrong and so am making an effort to get the argument written down quickly. I hope this will generate a discussion.
For sure many people in or around the movement will think “Job done” and so feel more sceptical or less enthusiastic about the demand, not really seeing why it is necessary now. But they will be wrong. In the dominant political culture, many party activists, even those who are anti-Brexit, will be reluctant to organise to exercise control over the leadership in the way a special conference implies. They will be wrong too. The job of socialists who strive to be clear-headed and develop the movement should be to explain, patiently but as vocally as possible, why this is necessary – not to merge into the sentiment that this is “sorted” or that the leadership should once again be left to get on with it.
If we fail, which we may given the state of things, it should not be because we didn’t try.
There are quite a few reasons why this demand remains relevant and crucial.
Firstly, the limitations of the ‘new policy’. The leadership has certainly shifted, but it has not committed to campaign for a referendum, much less to fight to stop Brexit. It has committed to support a parliamentary amendment for a public vote in certain circumstances. While Skawkbox’s claim that “Labour’s position is the same as it was” is obviously heavy spin, there is a grain of truth to it. We should certainly hope for further shifts, but we should not rely on the wisdom or good will of the leadership – many of whom, for sure, will be thinking they can send a signal they oppose Brexit but then effectively shrug when the parliamentary move goes nowhere. To go further we must seek to organise pressure from activists and members. There are many ways to do that, but fighting for a special conference is a very important one in terms of the membership acting as a collective force instead of a series of scattered voices.
Secondly, everything is in flux. Witness the battle over what the ‘new policy’ actually was within a few hours of it being announced. We don’t know what new shifts will take place. The Brexiters in the apparatus as well as in the PLP seem to be organising aggressively. Again, we should not rely on hoping things will work out and generate further positive shifts, but instead organise pressure to produce and shape them. A special conference is the way for the party as a collective entity to firm up and solidify, as well as develop, the policy. It can also help create stronger pressure to rein in MPs and officials currently minded to oppose an anti-Brexit policy.
Thirdly, Labour’s Brexit policy cannot just be about a referendum or even just about Brexit per se. We need an opportunity for a collective discussion and decision on what kind of Brexit/anti-Brexit policy we want. In the first instance, about the crucial and decisive issue of free movement; but also, more generally about what kind of demands Labour’s campaigning on this issue will raise for Britain (eg an anti-austerity, pro-working class program) and for Europe (eg building international labour movement, levelling up of living standards and rights, democratisation). Again, a special conference is a way Labour activists through their CLPs, as well as affiliated unions, can debate, submit and then work through proposals on these issues and shape the policy.
Fourthly, the more democratically and inclusively a turn on this is accomplished, the more confident and energised our movement will be and the more force there will be behind campaigning to make it happen. If we want a serious Labour campaign on the doorsteps, on the streets, in workplaces – and surely that’s necessary – then hammering out our policy and stance collectively and democratically is the way to go. To counterpose the former to the latter is the politics of the Momentum leadership or, in their honest moments, the Blairites.
Last but not least, taking a crucial decision in this way will have important consequences for the future of the party and the ‘Corbyn movement’. Is all the talk about democracy and empowering the membership meaningful, or mainly rhetoric? Will we go beyond the stage where all the big decisions are made in politicians’ offices, without much reference to the democracy of the party – as, let’s be honest, they are at present? How do we create an effective counterweight to the growing pressure for the leadershp to respond to constant crises by being less radical, when it obviously needs to be more? How do we train the new generation of thinking, critical-minded educators and organisers so desperately needed for the labour movement to revive?
The course of the struggle over Brexit in the party has demonstrated precisely how fundamental those wider questions are.
I would add that some of these arguments apply whatever your view on Brexit. Anti-Brexit, pro-Brexit or somewhere in between – or whatever permutation – anyone who takes Labour’s democracy, its future and its effectiveness in the upheavals shortly ahead of us seriously should support the calling of a special conference. But the argument has extra force for those of us who oppose Brexit and want a serious and determined fight to stop it.
To not argue and push as energetically as we can for a special conference means telling ourselves that the leadership’s new stance means more than it does; that it will not regress and will automatically develop in the right direction; that we can forget about the wider demands necessary for a socialist anti-Brexit policy; that getting out to argue and campaign is counterposed to, rather than strengthened, by collective and democratic decision-making; and that thoroughly democratising the movement, in reality and not just words, is really not a priority.
Again, it may be that political level and engagement of the membership is too limited, and the viewpoint and willingness of most activists to challenge and seek to exercise control over the leadership too limited, for the campaign for a special conference to get a grip. But for socialists, consistent left anti-Brexit fighters and consistent democrats in the party not to argue and fight hard for it would be an abdication. We’ll only be able to test how much grip this demand has by campaigning for it.
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