Pat Smith, the Hull North Constituency Labour Party delegate who moved the NHS motion at Labour Party conference, spoke to Solidarity.
What’s your assessment of the debate on the NHS?
The presence of protesters on the NHS Liaison Committee lobby was very effective, and must have been a factor in a majority of delegates prioritising the NHS for discussion. It also put pressure on the party officials and right-wingers who tried to water down the motion in compositing. We got everything we wanted apart from text against the internal market.
I think the leadership realised they couldn’t bully or stonewall us completely, given the balance of forces and also what a sensitive issue the NHS is.
During the composite, party official Jamie Reed said that the next election would be “fought on the economy, not the NHS”, and that “PFI is good because it builds hospitals”. Three days later Burnham said in a speech, that PFI is “wrong” and that the next election will be a referendum on the NHS!
I think they didn’t want a fight which would draw more attention to the issue.
What was your general assessment of conference?
Much of the conference was neither here nor there. Some of the fringe meetings were useful, particularly the CLPD, LRC and “Winning Labour” (organised by the GMB).
I heard the Vice President of ASLEF, Tosh McDonald, say something like “Why, when young people speak at Labour Party conference, are they always wearing a suit? Why are they always standing as an MP somewhere? Where are the rebels: the kids from estates with piercings, tattoos, and coloured hair?”
That sums it up for me.
In general the left isn’t very effective in Labour Party structures. Why?
The left is timid when it comes to fighting the centre and right of the party. But a fight is what people respond to. When I was aggressive in the composite, I was afraid it would alienate people. In fact, the other delegates unanimously suggested me to propose the motion, so I think it paid off.
Conference erupted when I denounced PFI. Even in that bureaucratised environment people are looking for a lead. It’s not just about radical policies, but about cutting through the bullshit of the policy wonks to put forward socialist ideas in clear, accessible language. But there’s relatively little of that from either the unions or the organised left.
I think the lobby was a good example of what the left should do a lot more of.
What can we do to fight for the NHS motion, and other left-wing policy, to be implemented?
According to Labour rules, the NHS policy should be in the next manifesto [since it was passed by more than two thirds], but we know it won’t be unless we build pressure using every channel we can in our unions, CLPs and the broader labour movement.