It is hard to overstate the feeling of unity among new members. Whenever and wherever you meet them you hear the same thing. Again and again we speak warmly of how ‘normal’ we all are! We do not recognise the false descriptions spread across the media, put out by the right of the Labour Party. None of us have personally come across any of the things we have been accused of. ‘Trotskyists?’ we laugh, ‘Entry-ists’ we chuckle, shaking our heads.
‘Comrade’ is the right word, we all agree. There is so much optimism, unity and warmth, though we come from so many disparate places across the country. Warmly we engage with one another. Earnestly we attend meeting and sit through the discussions and votes in the conference hall.
On Monday things begin well. Emily Thornberry (Shadow Foreign Sec.) calls for an ethical emphasis in our trade and foreign policy. Clive Lewis (Shadow Defence Sec.) tells us how human rights and an emphasis on sustainable development has an immediately discernible and important impact on our national security. From the floor, McCluskey calls for an economy that ‘works for the millions, not just the millionaires’. Dave Ward argues that the Tory legacy is not just one of austerity and inequality, but also one of economic failure in terms of growth and investment. Later on John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor) calls for a switch in emphasis away from the market-driven (neo-liberal) doctrine towards a comprehensive industrial strategy, with help for regional and small businesses, expansion of co-operatives, better wage protection, and an end to zero-hours contracts. In the afternoon there are debates on renationalising public services, including the railways, and on workers rights, through the Workplace 2020 initiative. The atmosphere is upbeat and optimistic.
On Tuesday the atmosphere changes. The NEC treasurer, Diane Holland, reveals a £5 million surplus in the accounts. We are the largest party in Europe. We have more members than all other UK parties put together. We have had more new members join the party in the last 20 months than in the previous 20 years. All this has happened since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, but the NEC is none too keen to give him any credit for it.
Corbyn has just been re-elected with an even larger mandate than he had a year ago. With this renewed mandate Corbyn calls for unity, but Owen Smith supporters spread nothing but disunity and dissent, although Owen Smith himself is nowhere to be seen.
Labour First hands out leaflets saying in the ‘spirit of unity’ and in the name of ‘democracy’ ‘moderates’ should ‘unite’, not behind the leader, but behind Progress, a faction within the party that (with no sense of irony) opposes sectarianism. They have not finished with their name-calling in describing the rest of us as the ‘hard left’, though all we see is a return to ‘true’ Labour values away from the ‘hard right’ of the last three decades of politics in Britain.
The NEC is obviously trying to oppose the democratic mandate of the twice-over, resoundingly elected leader. There is a call from members to pass constitutional changes individually not as a block, and to have a broader discussion of the proposed constitutional changes, rather than rushing them through on a show of hands, but the NEC refuses to budge, due to ‘time constraints’. There is a show of hands on the proposed constitutional changes. The NEC declares an ‘overwhelming majority’ but this is hotly disputed from the floor. The objections fall on deaf ears.
The atmosphere has been poisoned. The media gleefully seizes on it, delighting in the derision. There is a feeling among the membership that the NEC is not playing fair in its attempt to overthrow the collective will. The spirit of optimism of the day before turns increasingly sour.
Nonetheless, the leader shows in his closing speech that he is gaining in confidence even as he faces down a barrage of attacks on a daily basis. The message that rings out on Wednesday is that the Labour Party have a leader who is ready to form a government when he becomes Prime Minister.
Corbyn is warming to the task that was first thrust upon him in the leadership contest a year ago. His leader’s speech is delivered with unprecedented confidence, pathos and even humour, while throughout it Corbyn remains utterly true to his personality and to his personal principles.
The message is that the country should beware of the party that appointed Sir Philip Green to be its ‘efficiency tsar’. Corbyn asks “Who seriously believes that the Tories could ever stand up to the privileged few? They are the party of the privileged few, funded by the privileged few, for the benefit of the privileged few.” In contrast, the Labour Party has the widest and broadest possible grassroots platform to draw on, and that platform is growing month by month.
The right of the party sees this as a problem. For Corbyn it is a great strength. Corbyn’s leadership speech contained a set of policy initiatives to lead the party forward to a people’s victory, a victory for justice, a victory for shared, sustainable, investment, growth and prosperity. Who would not want to take up that challenge to help build “a fairer Britain in a peaceful world”.