Yesterday, I attended my very first conference as a member of the Labour Representation Committee. I was a little apprehensive that, after deciding on the LRC for my political home, I would come face to face with the mass membership and realise that I wasn’t in the right place. I am glad to report that my comrades have proved my fears unfounded. In other sections of the Left, the address ‘comrade’ can be so loaded, even to becoming a weapon, but here I felt genuine warmth whenever that word was used.
Tony Benn, veteran inspiration of the Labour Left, opened the conference with a short, well-received speech. He spoke of the historical LRC, set up to give voice to the Labour Movement in politics, firstly through the Liberal Party, and then going on to found the Labour Party. He pointed out that after New Labour’s divorce from the grassroots Labour Movement, the present LRC is just as needed to bring our voice into politics. Finally, he restated one of his key political themes that, if there can be full employment and no shortage of bombs and tanks in the Second World War, why can’t we put that energy and indefatigability into winning the peace. It was good to see Tony Benn after his recent operation, although looking a little weak of body, still strong in spirit.
From the outset, the fault lines within the LRC were clearly visible — between the membership who were in the Labour Party, keeping the faith though battered and bruised by New Labour bullying, and the membership outside of Labour in the disaffiliated unions and the various small Communist and Trotskyist tendencies that affiliate to the LRC. However, the fault lines are publicly cherished, and the open, democratic nature of the LRC is designed to act as a bridge between these groups, working together for democratic socialism. As with any radical political meeting, there were two people who demonstrate that they feel radicalism is an excuse for nuttiness: a ranting ex-Trot and an absurd Posadist. They were met with a polite but firm response from conference: sit down and shut up if you have nothing sensible to say.
A good representation from the CWU were at conference, and received resounding support for their defensive strike action at Royal Mail. Industrial issues for journalists and civil servants were also brought up as resolutions. The RMT brought a resolution in support of the People’s Charter, which was supported. Please do visit their website, read the charter and sign it; it could be a useful symbol for unity in the Left and opposition to the neoliberal policies of the mainstream parties.
The morning ended with hustings for two places for the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance slate for the Labour Party National Executive Committee. It was all decent and good-humoured, but I was surprised that, when the four candidates were asked about electoral reform, three came out in favour of keeping first-past-the-post and one said she was starting to feel some change may be necessary. I was shocked because, in most political circles I’ve moved in, proportional representation is a given, and the only argument is about which kind of proportional representation. I can understand that the PR advocates often seem to be liberal progressives firmly rooted to a middle-class dialectic of tinkering the political machine, rather than dealing with actual social evils. The hustings panel seemed only to know about particularly ugly models of PR: closed lists and additional members. I can understand that Labour grassroots activists are firmly wedded to the idea of winning over the CLP then winning over the constituency, that it’s difficult to conceive of other, more democratic, models.
After lunch we had an inspiring speech from Cristian Dominguez of the United Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers about how environmentalism needs a united global response and that socialists should be at the forefront of that response. Sian Jones, chair of the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Working Group, fittingly brought the message home, by outlining positive policies that would help the UK meet our carbon-reduction targets, including campaigning for the creation of a million ‘green jobs’ to make the reduction a reality and combat unemployment; Britain could even become an exporter of green expertise.
The afternoon resolutions were mostly as expected: a solid policy of pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, opposition to power-gaming over Iran, advocating greater democracy within the Labour Party, opposing the BNP by solidly campaigning for social housing, fuller employment and the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers, and how the LRC should campaign for the general election.
In amongst those the Left Women’s Network put forward a clear, concise and rational resolution for the decriminalisation of prostitution. The resolution, which was overwhelmingly carried, stated that sex workers were among the most exploited people in our society, and that criminalising them adds to their repression and encourages their exploitation. Although some speeches from the floor had worries about how a decriminalised sex trade might be regulated, this wasn’t the point: criminalisation is a wrong-headed and harmful response to prostitution, and that should be agreed before considering other issues.
The conference was brought to a close by Katy Clark, who always seems to be on form. As we sang the Red Flag, although my voice wasn’t up to it, I felt that I had found my political home and that I was part of the most important socialist movement in Britain today.