Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier
By Michael Murray firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Michael Murray London – a commentary/digest of political news for busy people – posted to be shared more widely.
Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: a dedicated low level follower.
In this issue:
The Labour Party Annual Conference 2017
This is intended to be no more than a foot soldier’s view of the organisation and structure of this year’s Labour Party Conference and its symbiotic relationship with Momentum, which, within a few short years has emerged as a game-changer within the Party, as seen in its role during this year’s General Election. The implications for policy development can be read elsewhere in this issue of Labour Affairs. Suffice it for me to say that Corbyn’s Leader’s Speech, on the last day of Conference, can be taken as a draft of the next election’s Manifesto. And it’s looking good for the future of Democratic Socialism in Britain – and further afield.
I attended this year’s Annual Conference in the seaside town of Brighton, on England’s south coast – in swimming distance of continental Europe – not as a Delegate from my Hackney and Stoke Newington Constituency but as an Observer. The selection of delegates happened in Hackney North before the June General Election. Someone with my views on the Labour Party leadership and its political direction would not get a look-in at that point, and better people than me didn’t. And, to be fair, being a newcomer – a returning member – I wouldn’t expect to be sent as a Delegate to Conference. Time served and work contributed over years should count for something. My less than three years of current party membership, albeit contributing more than my fair share of work in that time in 6 Constituencies from Stoke-on-Trent to Croydon – and, back in God’s time, before I returned to Ireland in 1982, many years of active service in the old Islington Central Labour Party – doesn’t give me any automatic nomination rights. As a footsoldier to the arsehole, too old to have to worry about “career moves” I don’t ask for any – happy to serve.
Had the selection of delegates for conference, and the various other committees voted on at the same time – for local, regional and national level committees – been made after that election result was known, it would have been a somewhat different, and more representative delegation that went to Brighton. More representative, that is, of the “broad church” that constitutes the 150 or so Branch, or Ward, delegates that meets at the monthly General Meeting of the Constituency – and, certainly, more representative of the wider membership, the majority of whom joined in response to Corbyn’s politics and style. I’m sure that is true of many other constituencies around the country.
I retain no hard feelings for those who were sent to represent Hackney North at Conference. Following Corbyn’s Zen-like forbearance and forgiveness, I’m happy to move on to what is clearly a new phase in the history of the Labour Party – and our Constituency – knowing that attitudes have been changed, changed utterly.
When Jeremy called for a show of appreciation for Diane Abbott’s media ordeal, at one point, the entire Conference Hall rose as one to a prolonged and loud standing ovation. Diane Abbott is our Constituency MP. The Hackney North delegation rose with them. But I remembered a night, before the General Election, at our Constituency GM when I saw some of the same people arrogantly and dismissively turn their backs and talk amongst themselves while Diane was giving the customary MP report back from Parliament in a public show of contempt for their MP as she talked about her continuing support for Jeremy. I wrote about that incident in this Diary previously, then, as now, not naming names. But, like any foot soldier, remembering who is who and who can be relied on when, as they say in the common parlance, it kicks off.
The Conference drew the largest attendance ever in the entire history of the Labour Party. Apart from the main event -the policy decision-making Conference of delegates – over the five days, from Saturday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon – there were hundreds of meetings on the whole gamut of economic and social policy in dozens of venues around the town centre of Brighton. The week began with a Saturday afternoon open-air rally, at which Jeremy and other local Labour Party people spoke. Six and a half thousand attended – and that was before the majority had even arrived in Brighton, including myself.
On Monday alone the Party organized 132 different events, in the form of lecture/discussions with Shadow Ministers and other Labour, trade union and civil society organisation people, going from one to the other to bring us foot soldiering activists into the Party’s informational loop in a buzzy and celebratory atmosphere that was palpable. Celebratory? Absolutely. Not that you’d know that if you relied on the Main Stream Media for your information on what was going on. It was a celebration of the General Election result and the lift it gave the Party. It was a celebration of a dawning realization that a milestone has been passed. A breakthrough had been made in the decades-long unchallenged hegemony of neo-liberalism and its anti-social austerity politics in the Party and society. That, and people seeing their way to mend the damage done over the last three years since the emergence of the Corbyn-led assault on austerity politics. Simon Jenkins and John Crice of the Guardian have been sneering at what they see as the “personality cult” of Corbyn.
They don’t want to see the adulation, the standing ovations, as being a newly re-uniting Party showing their appreciation and admiration for a supreme example of what can only be called “courage under fire”: Corbyn’s dignity and self-control maintained through two major coup attempts within the Parliamentary Party, relentless undermining from the mass media – and having to stand almost alone in the Parliament in the face of the most personal attacks by Cameron, later May, at the Despatch Box. Remember Cameron’s public schoolboy bullying references to Corbyn ? It even extended to comments on Corbyn’s suits. And Cameron’s contemptuous : “for Heaven’s sake man. Go!” which should have sparked a revolt from the Labour back benches – but didn’t.
I think the members were cheering to thank him for his endurance – and not a few amongst them clapping as if to say “we’re sorry for what this Party put you through.” A young lad, sitting on one side of me, whom I later learned was a final year second level student, still a year away from having the right to vote, seeing the response to Corbyn’s Leader’s Speech, said: “I’m seeing history being made here.” A battle-hardened comrade on my other side, from Southend, dismissing any cult of the personality, said: “Better (for a Leader) to be loved than feared.” Corbyn is loved for all the right reasons and it’s a love that’s not lost on him.
A word about Momentum at Conference. Last year the media tried to stir it up by attempting to pit Momentum against the Party. This year it took a giant step towards being seen as an accepted, main stream, organization within the “broad church”- but not by everyone. That would be too much to ask for. Though a member of Momentum, I confess I still have some little question marks in my head about the organization, but not grave enough to disassociate myself from an organization that showed its undeniable worth during the General Election. By the way, I joined it as a “protest’’ against Labour Head Office disallowing any local meetings between members for the duration of the second Leadership election. It even ruled against local Branches holding summer barbeques, for feck sake. But, earlier this year the Momentum leadership moved to confine membership to Labour Party members only while keeping the door open, rightly, to non-Party members, who can have a role, but do not voting rights unless they join the party.
Between Saturday and Tuesday evening Momentum organized a total of 200 hours of social, cultural, musical and artistic events across 8 venues, all sold out (I, a wise virgin, had purchased a season ticket in advance). On the Monday alone, it organized 24 events and, like the Labour Party, had attendances mostly in the hundreds, not dozens, in venues which included two cinemas. The smallest attendances I saw was for CND’s fringe meeting on Trident – which surprised me, though the Conference was correct not to open up the Trident can of worms at this time. Also, the Electoral Reform Society’s meeting on Proportional Representation and its place in Democratic Socialism, under- attended because the venue was too small for the numbers interested – which had happened at other events also: a case of the Conference being the victim of its own success.
Two things which show the potential and seriousness of Momentum – apart from the phenomenal success of their entire “The World Transformed” (TWT) Programme, staffed by young volunteers were the following. First, their organization of a “Pop-up Think Tank” around the challenges facing Trade Unions going forward which involved shop floor and official trade union speakers and facilitators from across the board, from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) to the GMB. The second was even more noteworthy. Last year, when Momentum announced its first “The World Transformed” programme, the media depicted it as an ‘alternative’ Labour conference. It turned out to be a great success right across the party, with people, including top Shadow ministers, and Jeremy himself, going back and forth between both events, as, indeed, happened last year spontaneously and naturally. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see many openly anti-Corbynists from my own Constituency drifting into Momentum sessions and being impressed by the organization they witnessed, and the breath, openness and inclusive meetings participation techniques of the lectures, debates and its trademark “break-out” sessions to maximize attendees’ participation if the debates. It’s a technique I first participated in as long ago as the 1970s, in TUC training courses for shopfloor worker representatives. Strangely, it has been slow to develop within the mainstream Labour Party – at least in my more recent experience in Hackney North.
And, this year, to totally allay any possible fears about TWT growing into a de facto alternative conference, Labour Party delegates – and this was principally aimed at the new delegates to Conference – were given continuous information about debates and timing of votes in the conference hall and urged to attend. This was done using an “app” developed by Momentum.
Finally, It would be remiss of me not to mention the other dimension of the Labour Party conference: the ease of being able to engage in conversation with leading figures of the Party – and their accessibility outside of meetings: on the street between venues, pubs, restaurants. Thus, I got to talk to John McDonald about my idea that the Economic Seminars organized by him should be revived – so that the Tories would not get away with “Where’s the Money Tree?” shite in response to Labour’s change proposals. He assured me that this, in fact, is in hand and shortly to be re-launched. Or, Keir Starmer. What an approachable, no bullshit human being he is ! In this case, it wasn’t me, but a councillor from Keir’s constituency who initiated the conversation, on an aspect of Brexit. Or, Tom Watson, whom I’d met previously at a Cooperative Party event, not too full of himself to stop for a chat. I could go on. In fact, you couldn’t walk two yards without getting into conversations with comrades you’d met canvassing over the last few years. Or, whom you’ve never met before: all keen to stop and talk and exchange ideas. And that’s the definition of the social movement Labour has discovered within itself after the barren years. Long life to it. And who cares if the main stream media doesn’t understand ? The foot soldiers have been revived and re-energised. That’s all that matters. And all that you have a right to expect from such an event as the Party’s Annual Conference.