The Labour Party Annual Conference

Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister, John McDonnell, speaking. Photo: Kenneth Surin.

I am in Brighton, UK, attending the Labour party annual conference as a member-delegate. It is my first party conference, even though I’ve supported Labour for decades, albeit intermittently— adhering to the party-line during the Blair years was like having one’s teeth pulled without anaesthetic, and really that was a time when the Greens and nationalist parties were far more radical than Blair’s neo-Thatcherite crew.

The conference atmosphere is suffused with the possibility of a general election, with Brexit coming far behind this.

Most opinion polls show Labour some distance behind the Tories, and even tied with the Lib Dems. But these polls are notoriously unreliable in a contemporary British context, with its multiparty system, regional complexities (especially where Scotland and Wales are concerned), class divisions which can’t be papered-over, and unremitting media hostility towards Labour (with even the supposedly “objective” BBC getting into the game).

In the 2017 general election most polls gave the Tories a 20-point lead on the eve of the election, but Theresa May ended-up losing her overall majority in parliament, and Corbyn’s Labour gained its biggest share of the vote since 1945.

Official party business is of course essential, but the real buzz here surrounds the numerous fringe meetings, which focus on specific topics and have invited speakers. Here are some I attended today:

Basic Income as Common Dividends – Piloting a Transformative Policy. A Report for John McDonnell (speakers include shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister John McDonnell and Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class)

Real Britain: Austerity, the real elephant in the room (speakers include Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union)

When We Own It: Public Ownership In The 21st Century

Tackling Bandit Capitalism on your doorstep, insourcing public services (Jeremy Corbyn is an invited speaker)

It’s time for equality: No turning back the clocks! (speakers are union leaders)

Paying For A Fairer Britain – Labour’s Tax Policy (speakers include Paul Johnson, Director, Institute for Fiscal Studies and James Meadway, Former Advisor to John McDonnell MP)

Fixing Finance – Regulating Banking As If People Matter

While the media harp on Labour’s “Brexit crisis” and Corbyn’s supposed inability to “resolve” it, because of stark differences within Labour’s ranks (the awful Guardian again joining the rightwing rags in espousing this line), I found the fellow delegates I talked to, and the podium speakers, not really concerned about these Brexit divisions.

Yes, the party is divided, but so are the Tories (Boris Johnson had to expel 21 Tory MPs from his party because they wouldn’t tow his line!), and indeed so is the country at large. No Labour MP has been expelled by Corbyn.

Only a general election and a second referendum will do anything to change this situation, if at all, so the priority has to be preparing for these.

It is clear that Labour regards the prospect of fighting an election on a No Deal Brexit, or Brexit with a deal, or Remain, to be unproductive.

Rightwing Ukania (BoJo’s Tories and Nigel Farage’s Potemkin Brexit party) has nailed its flag to No Deal, the centrist Lib Dems to Remain, leaving no room for any kind of “constructive ambiguity”, that is, letting the people decide, and then putting the appropriate political arrangements in place.

Labour will fight the next election on overturning the Tory austerity agenda, and not Brexit.

The proposals for Labour’s anti-austerity election agenda have a radical appearance:

Abolishing the greatly reduced social safety-net the Tories call Universal Credit, which according to the United Nation’s special rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, is alone responsible for thousands of deaths in the UK.

Also to be abolished is the hated bedroom tax, which taxes anyone who has an unoccupied bedroom in their home (no exceptions are made even for the disabled, who may need a spare bedroom for those who care for them in emergencies).

Prescription charges in England will be abolished.

The privatization of the NHS will cease.

The railways, the Royal Mail, the water utilities, and the electric companies, will be taken back into public ownership.

A minimum wage will be set at £10/$12.50 per hour.

The third of the positions on company boards will be filled by workers, and, incrementally, workers will own up to 10% of the companies they work for.

More proposals will be made in the election manifesto, along with greater details for those I have mentioned here.

I described these proposals as having a radical appearance, but of course this is not really the case.

Thousands of British children go to bed hungry during the school holidays, and old people die during the winter because they cannot afford heating.

The UK has 14.3 million living in poverty, out of a population of 62 million, and 4 million of these are in work. The UK has 7 out of 10 of the poorest regions in western Europe.

The right-wing media will of course scream that all this is Stalinism, “the nanny state”, and so forth, but there is nothing radical in wanting food on the table for your children, and not to have old people dying of hypothermia, in the 6th richest country in the world.

There has also been the recognition that a decade of Tory ideologically-motivated austerity (turning the 2008 banking crisis into a crisis of the welfare state), harming an entire generation, will almost certainly take more than a decade to undo.

The hugely impressive shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister, John McDonnell, indicated as much in the speech I heard when he said that this long project— he described it as “socialism”– would have to be carried through by his (and by implication Corbyn’s) colleagues of the next generation, mentioning several of them by name.

The conference still has two-and-a-half days to go, but the clear sense being given here is that Labour is a mass movement (requiring a commensurate degree of mobilization) as much as it is a parliamentary party.

The next X factor in the Brexit saga is expected on Tuesday, when the 11-judge UK Supreme Court gives its verdict on the legality of BoJo’s suspension of parliament.

The task laid on BoJo’s lawyers was to convince the Supreme Court that he was absolutely trustworthy when he said this suspension had nothing to do with Brexit. This proved to be beyond his lawyers during the Supreme-Court hearings, and indeed would have been beyond the capability of any of the UK’s legendary “hall of fame” lawyers over the course of centuries.

BoJo’s mountain of lies are on public record, so his lawyers had to persuade the Justices not to believe their eyes when they eye-balled this record.

But the law has been known to be an ass, so who knows what the Justices of the Supreme Court will decide in this case.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.