Comment

Open Labour Winter Policy Conference Report

by: Tom Miller on 09.03.19 | In: Comment
by: Tom Miller on: 09.03.19 in: Comment

Since we had our Winter Policy Conference there has been a formal split in the PLP, Labour has come out for a second referendum and Chris Williamson has been suspended. These days it feels like a tremendous amount can happen in just a few weeks, so it can take a bit of discipline to cast your mind back and stay on track.

Organising locally

All the same, we had a fantastic Policy Conference event in Leeds this year with just over 120 members coming to join us from around the country. We aren’t bound by our rules to have extra policy conferences, but as a National Committee we have been very conscious that we started out with a policy blank slate, and that we need more events that members can get to without prohibitive expense. We were ably assisted by our West Yorkshire Regional Group. Their work shows what a difference organising regionally and locally can make –we want to launch more of these groups around the country so anyone interested in doing so please get in touch.

Once the day had been introduced by West Yorkshire Chair Jo Ingold and my co-Chair Emma Burnell, we were treated to an excellent speech from the Slovenian Social Democrat and academic Sonja Lokar, who had been active in the transition of Slovenia’s Communist Party into an electoral force. She spoke about building a left which is inclusive, recognises the changing nature of working class struggles and those of the oppressed and under-represented, and which stretches across borders.

Following Sonja we held a workshop session on potential outcomes of Brexit. The goal of this was for groups to reach some common understandings about strengths and drawbacks of the various lines Labour could take, both from the point of view of political strategy and policy itself. Groups presented back to the room on ideas like a negotiated Labour Party proposal, a new referendum, or dealing with a Norway+ type arrangement as suggested by some of the material in our ‘owning the future’ pamphlet from February last year.

Brexit and Europe

From the perspective of the National Committee, it was an absolute nightmare for activists, MPs and campaignng voice in the press to get Labour to declare any Brexit policy which advanced on the 2017 manifesto position. Even getting a commitment to the customs union was something which looked like it would never come, and when t did it came with only a vague commitment to the single market, despite the massive number of trade union members whose jobs rely on easy trade and manufacturing processes between this country and the continental mainland it sits next to.

It has also become clear that Labour achieving its demands from opposition will be very difficult. As has been shown on two occasions, the 2017 result means that there is not parliamentary support for Labour’s softer version of Brexit. There may have been a majority for Norway+ if Labour had backed it, but we will never know. As the clock ran down before Labour’s position evolved, it’s been increasingly clear that only a radical break can offer the answers, and that we as Open Labour needed to push for more than we had been doing.

We had previously called for a full debate in the party at conference, but in fact we got a very limited one, with the will of members heavily pushed back by the front bench in compositing. We had pushed, alongside TSSA and a range of other voices for a special conference, again on the basis that the situation was changing and that policy should be led by members. Again, this call was not heeded. With the days ticking down it became clear that the front bench would only move if it felt that voters opinions had moved before it. This in turn meant that it was necessary for us to consider joining the campaign for a fresh referendum, and for a chance to win the public over, now with a clear proposition on the table.

As part of this we also considered alternative forms in which these conversations could be held, for example, citizens assemblies.

Parts of our adopted policy ended up being suggested by the National Committee, with other parts suggested by members in attendance. Ultimately, the consensus in the room was that both of these were some of the best ideas left open to us, so our position paper now includes a commitment to campaign for:

  • Full EU rights on customs and trade, for reform and a left shift across Europe
  • Suspension of Article 50
  • A special conference for members to decide Europe policy
  • Closer working with left pro-Europeans such as Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a People’s Vote, etc. We also plan to work with Labour for a Socialist Europe.
  • A Citizen’s Assembly to sit alongside Parliament.

Altogether, the reflects a shift in the organisation to an unambiguously pro-European line, in the belief that it’ increasingly clear that the argument can be won.

Luckily, as now seems to happen fairly often, it seems that we have been joined by the leadership of the Labour Party on most of these matters, which has made an even bigger jump – from one part of our conference policy to the bit which comes afterwards. At least they can demonstrate that the yworked hard to bring about a Brexit that would be less damaging to workers. But it is time for the Party to admit that we aren’t the government, as yet.

Our job now will be to make sure that MPs support the Kyle-Wilson amendment, and to begin planning to campaign for Labour’s policies in working class and swing areas for any future referendum.

Political strategy

We have resolved to:

  • Set up a political advisory board, similar to those in operation with our friends at Renewal and Compass.
  • Set up a youth section drawn from our young members and students, to explore ways forward for organising and recruiting in the youth and student movements. We will do this on the political basis of supporting basic labour movement norms from democracy in the movement including OMOV in Labour Students, supporting closer work with sister parties and the organisations representing them, and closer work with trade unions at home, particularly around youth recruitment and empowering union youth sections.

Reforming the state

Open Labour calls for Labour to consult its members on voting reform as soon as possible, with a view to offering a clear policy at the next election. As our policy now stands, we would push for the party to adopt ‘a form of proportional representation’ as part of this process.

Social Policy

Open Labour is calling upon the party to adopt a position of nationalising CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and vastly increasing funding for CAMHS and other MH support. We are also calling for this funding to be ring-fenced, and for the mandatory reporting of statistics.

We will campaign for the return of academies to public ownership by reversing the incentives system and only granting new school applications which are comprehensive.

We will campaign for Labour to offer a policy of removing the so called ‘two child policy’ for child benefit, including the abolition of the vile ‘rape clause’.

We are calling for a detailed and comprehensive set of policies to widen access and inclusion for people with disabilities, and will campain to bring some of these demands into the way Labour itself works.

Anti-Semitism

We have re-iterated our support and solidarity for victims of anti-Semitism within the party on the basis that party democracy requires equality and inclusion for all, which means taking complaints seriously and politically combating those who are against this. We stand alongside JLM in making sure that this happens, and we are calling on left wing Jewish people and their allies to either to remain in the Labour Party or to actively join it and take up the fight. Labour is one of the major political parties in the country, and through whatever means it comes about, its penetration by anti-

A Socialism of Strength, Diversity and Trust

Adding these to our conference policy from summer means we have a fairly full suite of policies which reflect our position in the party as fighters for inclusion and democracy – in the economy, in the British state, and inside the Labour Party. They reflect our stand for a socialism which draws strength from diversity, trusts people, and builds across borders. Now our job will be to build support for these open left ideas and strategies by building on the ground and winning support inside the party and the labour movement.

You can view our updated position paper here. We will have more policy to debate as we come towards the summer, and if you would like to be part of that, now is the time to make sure you have join us.

If you are already a member, there is lots more you can do to get involved, and we really need you to help. You could set up a local group, run a fundraiser or a policy event for us, run a campaign for one of our policies locally, or write a piece for our website. If you have some time to do any of this then we would love to hear from you.

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