Gareth Morgan: An internal struggle awaits at Labour conference

Written by Gareth Morgan on 13 September 2017 in Opinion

This year's conference could look pretty bleak for the moderates.

Most people could be forgiven for thinking that with the Conservative Party on the ropes the Labour Party would be completely united and focused on delivering the killer blow. Most people don't know the Labour Party very well.
Victory in the country is one thing but victory in the Party is another thing entirely, and for some much more satisfying. The Labour Party has been an uneasy alliance between Leftists, Co-operatives, Social Democrats and Trade Unionists for generations and the influence and power of the respective elements waxes and wanes over time. These "factions" will struggle for control throughout the elected tiers (Parliament, Councils, Mayoralties, Devolved National Legislatures) and, perhaps uniquely to the Labour Party, in the various hubs and spokes of the party machine ranging from Branch officers all the way through to the National Executive Committee.
It can all be quite bewildering to the uninitiated but each tier is the scene of a tussle between the Left and the Right in Labour. Conference is the latest such battlefield and instead of an outward looking conference that projects a government-in-waiting we are likely to see an internal struggle play out on the conference floor where delegates from CLPs and Trade Unions will wait to vote on particular rule-changing motions.
The headline grabber will be the "McDonnell Amendment" which seeks to reform the democratic structures of the Party, in particular to lower the amount of Parliamentary support a leadership candidate needs from 15% to 5%. You may be forgiven for wondering why this needs to be pushed now, there is no leadership vacancy afterall and Corbyn is secure in his position.
But this isn't about momentary control, this is about longevity and making sure that the Left extends its current power for years to come - and importantly, beyond Corbyn. Essentially, the Left controls the membership, the Right the PLP. The PLP can exert control, under current rules, by restricting the choice of candidates for members to vote upon - this amendment will alter that and ensure the Left has a candidate every time, even if they don't enjoy the support of their MP colleagues.
So what should we be looking out for? Funnily enough not conference. That sounds bizarre but bear with me. Conference is where the final vote will take place but it is the National Executive Committee in the coming week where the agenda for conference will really be set and where the likely voting pattern of the big trade unions will be agreed.
The NEC is pretty finely balanced in terms of Corbyn control. Unite is dead square behind him as are many of the CLP delegates but the other big unions can go either way on issues. The resignation of Kezia Dugdale in Scotland has altered this balance (she was generally anti-JC motions) and now it tilts to the Left again.
However what makes it really interesting is that there is a convention that the trade unions will generally reflect the recommendations of the NEC in their conference delegate voting patterns. This means that we could have the odd situation where the big Unions vote against the McDonnell Amendment at the NEC but then issue instructions to delegates to vote for it when it comes to the conference hall.
All in all this conference could look pretty bleak for the moderate and MP wings of the party - when Dugdale stood down, it affected more than the immediate future of Scottish Labour, it impacted on the dominance of the Left within Labour for a generation to come.
About the author

Gareth Morgan is a Labour activist and a director at Cavendish Place Communications

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