At a Q&A in the Labour conference at Brighton, Ed Miliband was challenged by an activist: “When will you bring back socialism?” “That’s what we are doing”, Miliband replied.
Ed Miliband has, at last, promised to repeal the “bedroom tax”.
Miliband’s obscure and unpopular plan not to count trade unionists as affiliated to Labour unless they complete a form to “opt in” was soft-soaped at the conference, rather than blazoned as a sign of his will to confront the unions.
After Ray Collins presented a slipperily-worded report, GMB union general secretary Paul Kenny was called to speak. “The removal or sale of our collective voice is not on the agenda”, he said. “We are proud of who we [the unions] are and what we have achieved by way of social justice. We are certainly not going to accept any advice on democracy and transparency from the people who brought us the cash for honours scandals or whose activities are funded by cash from wealthy outsiders who refuse to give to the Party but prefer to lay cuckoos in CLP nests” [i.e. the Labour right-wing faction Progress].
Kenny got a standing ovation. Dave Anderson MP also spoke in defence of an unabridged union link. Jon Ashworth, a Labour whip, was put up to speak from Miliband’s office, and later summarised his speech like this: “The priority now is to ensure all parts of our federal party are engaged in this debate and of course we must maintain the collective voice”.
Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey, who has displeased left activists in his union by welcoming the “opt-in” talk, also got a standing ovation.
“If our party is to have a future it must speak for ordinary workers and it must represent the voice of organised labour. Trade unionists are the people in this land who create the wealth of our nation... And everyone in this party — everyone — should be proud of our link with them through their trade unions”.
And yet, in its gritty detail, this Labour conference has been as bad as other recent ones for arbitrary ruling-out of motions and rule-change proposals from local Labour Parties. And as dominated by windy front-bench speeches. The Labour leaders remain committed, in general, to keeping Tory cuts.
After the experience of “New Labour” in 1997-2010, a real democratisation, a proper debate, and an effective assertion by unions and local Labour activists of working-class interests, was needed in the Labour Party. With only one more Labour conference this side of the next general election, such transformation before May 2015 is very unlikely.
Despite Ed Miliband’s claim that “the era of New Labour has passed”, a Labour government after May 2015, if we get it, will be only a modified version of the 1997-2010 regime, not something radically different.
The murmurs of revolt in the Labour and trade-union rank and file, reflected in the blips of leftish talk from the platform, are as yet only murmurs. But they are important. This labour movement, bureaucratised though it is, is the only one we have. The struggle within it cannot be bypassed by instant just-add-water alternative left parties.
Our task is to build a collective of socialists who will work both at fundamental re-education of the movement and at taking forward every struggle, however partial.