Labour Conference: A party in need of greater division
The Labour party meets in Perth over the weekend in a state of such shambles that its outcome is an impossible act of divination. Just 48 hours before the conference no agenda or list of motions had been distributed or even compiled amidst rumours that those in charge of conference arrangements have been inundated with resolutions and counter resolutions.
The party’s own apparatus has apparently shrivelled under the viciousness of recent electoral beatings. This is a fact as much witnessed by the conference period dash as by the squalid sight of former Labour MPs reappearing for nomination to regional lists.
Yet the flurry of lay activity around the conference does point to a source of rejuvenation. There’s a fight to be had inside the Scottish Labour party. The question now is will it be had?
Corbyn represents the best chance for the Labour left in a generation to win back ground in the party. But his leadership is in danger. The strength of his support in the party membership is clear, but it has few concrete moments of expression outside of annual conference.
The UK conference at the end of September must be recorded as a defeat for the left and for Corbyn on at least two fronts. First, and devastatingly for the party in Scotland it recommitted itself to Trident. Second, it was the conference for which John McDonnell, the strongest appointment to shadow chancellor Corbyn could have hoped for, committed his chancellorship to supporting Osborne’s fiscal charter.
The founding of Momentum as an avenue of Corbyn’s popular support is perhaps the best move made by the left of the party since it formed the leadership. But it is likely to be peculiarly hobbled in Scotland due to its inability to speak to the left on constitutional matters.
So much rests therefore on the weekend’s conference. Without a tangible victory over Trident, there is little to restrain the parliamentary party and the media (linked as ever by the tightest nexus) from bulldozing Corbyn’s leadership from here through the 2016 Scottish elections, past whichever by-elections present themselves between here and the 2017 local elections and from there onto an early grave.
The UK Labour party desperately needs the added complication of a Scottish party, for whom the nuclear weapons system is native, separating from UK party position. And not just because of the importance of the issue in itself – though nuclear weapons are officially back on the agenda of UK politics, principally because of the Scottish dimension, for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
A vote against Trident renewal would be a knock against the party establishment north and south, proof certain to the media that Corbyn’s more ‘outlandish’ policies have a certain grassroots support, and it would breath precious victory into the embattled ranks of Corbyn’s supporters.
Now I know that many, most even, Scottish leftists have already made their mind up about Labour and about independence. But those who want to progress the socialist cause aim to fight it everywhere at once. In institutions they believe in and institutions they don’t.
It would have been nice to see rather more folk from the Labour left welcoming the SNP membership’s recent conference triumph over land reform. It would have been good if rather more noise had been made over the Green party’s recent policy upgrade supporting the Palestinian people.
But none of these shortcomings award the pro-independence radical left a certificate of abandonment for the Corbyn project. Even those who, like myself, always viewed the ‘recapture’ of Labour as an essentially short-termist and doomed venture, must recognise the value of a fight to keep this particular institution, not just of the union but of Scottish public and intellectual life, a real home for some kind of leftist tradition.
The Labour party is an increasingly insular world. The left’s fight for survival against internal Labour enemies hangs around its political imagination like a fog. But a live fight it still remains.
Whatever ground can be won, must be won now. Another chance is not coming hereafter.