Analysis: 3 internal battles Labour will face at its party conference

Alasdair Clark

Labour will gather in Liverpool this weekend with key battles over Europe and party democracy expected to dominate headlines

LABOUR will gather for its autumn conference in Liverpool this weekend after a “summer of discontent”, with key battles over Europe, antisemitism and internal party democracy set to fuel more debate across the warring wings of the party. 

CommonSpace takes a look behind the headlines at the debate which will shape the weekend. 

Radical party democracy changes could oust centrist MPs from Westminster

Whilst the subject is likely to be the most difficult for Corbyn to win, the vote on new internal rules won’t take place on the conference floor. Radical reforms to expand the power of members within the party have also angered centrist figures who fear the new rules could be used to oust them from Westminster. 

An internal review by former Scottish Labour MP Katy Clark, who is now Jeremy Corbyn’s political secretary, will prompt the most significant changes to the party’s rulebook for decades. Corbyn’s team have been engaged in a challenging balancing act in the lead up to the conference to ensure the rules satisfy the membership base as well as the influential trade unions who often hold the balance of power. 

A mammoth 10-hour meeting of the party’s ruling national executive committee [NEC] on Tuesday [18 September] thrashed out a series of proposals in an attempt to reach a compromise between the powerful trade union bloc and membership representatives. 

Key to the debate will be how Westminster candidates are selected, or more appropriately how local Labour party members can deselect unpopular MPs. Current rules mean a vote on the future of an incumbent MP can only take place if more than 50 per cent of branches in a local party area vote in favour of a “trigger ballot”. 

READ MORE: The Left post-2008: A new dawn, or a spectacular missed opportunity?

In the past, right-leaning trade unions have been able to form “ghost branches” of two members to protect sitting MPs, making it impossible for members to secure the support of over 50 per cent of branches. 

Tuesday’s NEC meeting reached a compromise which means that either local party branches or affiliate branches can trigger a reselection vote in their own right if a third of branches back the vote, ending the effective veto union branches have over local party branches. 

Incumbent MPs opposed to Corbyn have been extremely critical of any rule change which makes it easier for local party members to deselect them, with high profile critics such as Joan Ryan MP already having lost confidence ballots it is likely members could opt to remove a number of sitting MPs if the process is simplified. 

Another key NEC decision will be how Corbyn’s successor is chosen. Currently, leadership candidates need to secure nominations from 15 per cent of elected Labour politicians before they can secure a place on the ballot, a rule which nearly kept Corbyn off the ballot paper in 2015 as he struggled to get the required support from Westminster MPs. 

Proposals to end this veto given to MPs, put to the NEC on Saturday [15 September], rippled throughout the party’s left wing who feared even the new rules could prevent a left-wing MP from replacing Corbyn in the future. 

The suggested proposals would mean candidates could get on the ballot in one of three ways; first by securing nominations from 10 per cent of local parties plus at least 5 per cent of MPs, or from at least three trade unions comprising and 5 per cent of the MPs. The third option is support from 10 per cent of MPs alone.

Corbyn supporters say these proposals still leave too much power in the hands of the trade unions and the MPs, and complicated internal party politics and trade union relationships could prevent a future left-winger from reaching the ballot. 

Europe – will Labour’s Brexit mean Brexit? 

An unlikely coalition of centrist MPs and left-wingers who favour a second vote on leaving the EU have been working hard to force a vote on the party’s Brexit position at the conference. Advocates of a so-called second “People’s Vote” on Brexit say that the majority of Labour members support a second referendum to end the Brexit process, but the party’s leadership have ruled this out arguing that the first vote should be respected. 

151 of the 272 submitted to the conference by local parties concern Europe and many of those demand a second referendum. If passed, the party leadership could be forced into an embarrassing U-turn in their policy on Brexit and some Corbynsceptic figures quietly suggest it could even cause a confidence issue for Corbyn’s leadership. 

READ MORE: Scottish Labour’s Brexit bust-up: Kezia Dugdale calls for a second referendum

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell addressed the calls for a second referendum directly, saying Labour was “open-minded” about the prospect of a second referendum but added that he was anxious that it would give far-right groups room to gain more political traction.

A vote on conference floor regarding Brexit policy was avoided at the last party conference, with Momentum organising its supporters to block the vote in favour of discussing other topics, however, a similar move at this conference would likely be unsuccessful and politically damaging. 

More likely, if the policy does go to a vote it’s likely the leadership of the party will attempt put forward a fudged compromise motion which will be carefully worded to balance support from as many wings of the party as possible. However, with major trade unions such as the GMB and TSSA now openly supporting a second vote, it could prove difficult for such a motion to get the support of the conference. 

 An crisis of antisemitism?

After a summer embroiled in allegations of widespread antisemitism in the party and perceived failures by the leadership to tackle the issue head-on, tensions are likely to flair at the conference over the issue. 

The party’s NEC controversially adopted the debated IHRA definition of antisemitism alongside its examples, which some say limit free speech and legitimate criticism of Israel, but the decision is unlikely to satisfy Corbyn’s most vocal critics who say the leader himself is part of the problem. 

Margaret Hodge, the centrist MP was allegedly called Corbyn a “fucking antisemite” welcomed the NEC’s adoption of the IHRA examples, but said that Corbyn was part of the problem. 

READ MORE: Analysis: Why Corbyn’s rumoured IHRA climbdown is unlikely to settle the row engulfing Labour

Online rows and tension on social media could also make their way into the conference venue, with members in close proximity to the politicians who have been so vocally critical of Corbyn and the Labour membership over the summer.

Labour – at war with itself?

Labour’s internal disputes are significant and those determined to find a way to regain control from the left are rumoured to want to exploit the tensions to fuel a possible breakaway split. However, Labour’s ability to be at war with itself is equally matched by its organisational ability to put tensions aside, as was the case in the 2017 snap-election. 

One long-time member told CommonSpace: “Different wings of the party have never been afraid to air their disputes or resort to an all out row, but like any family, we have always been able to pull ourselves together when it counts.”

When asked if Labour was eating itself from the inside, they said: “The internal Tory division over Europe has shown what can happen when political parties can’t have an honest debate with themselves. The problems Labour is now resolving publicly will make the mass-membership party we have much stronger in the long run.”

Labour’s conference will take place Sunday 23 September to Wednesday 26 September, with over 13,000 members expected to attend.

Picture courtesy of Garry Knight