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Charles Van Gelderen

Government, party and the working class

(September 1968)

From International, Vol. 1 No. 5, September 1968, p. 7.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labour’s 67th Annual Conference convenes at Blackpool on September 30th. One wonders what the pioneers who attended that first conference at the beginning of the century would have thought if they could have caught a glimpse of the resolutions which will be debated this autumn! After two Labour governments with large majorities in the House of Commons, resolutions still call for the most elementary of socialist demands. Those early delegates would have been astonished to hear that in 1968 it was thought necessary to call upon a LABOUR GOVERNMENT, in the words of the resolution from Sheffield Trades and Labour Council “to put the interests of working people before the preservation of the pound; to put control of profits, prices and foreign trade before control of wages; and to support all popular movements against privilege, racialism and world imperialism”. Even labour Party members who were far from being revolutionary socialists took these demands as axiomatic within a Labour Party programme.

The capitalist press has already remarked on the fact that there are fewer “left” resolutions than customary on this year’s Conference agenda. Such as there are, with the exception of a few really good ones, seem to be largely inspired by the Tribunite Socialist Charter. The reason for the dearth of left-wing resolutions is not because there has been a rightward shift in the constituency parties. On the contrary! But there has certainly been an increase in apathy and disillusion and many of the active party workers who were responsible for some of the better resolutions in the past have either given up politics or turned to other fields of action, such as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Young Socialists, also a fruitful source of resolutions with a real socialist content, are almost non-existent.

What Value Has Conference?

The cause of this is not only the Government’s sorry record of anti-working class legislation. More and more party members are beginning to question the value of conference itself. Is it worthwhile sending in resolutions and going to the expense of sending delegates when clearly, Conference decisions have little or no effect on Government policy – or even on the Parliamentary Labour Party when in opposition? There was a time when annual conference was a real parliament of labour. Now it has been transformed into a meaningless society.

It is time that the labour movement gave serious thought to the role of annual conference. There is no sense in filling the agenda with hundreds of resolutions which are debated or not, according to the whim of an almost omnipotent Standing Orders Committee (viz., the Rhodesia resolution last year). Conference should be re-organised so as to give real democratic control to the party’s rank and file as represented by the assembled delegates.

Endorsement or Rejection

Whether Labour is in power or in opposition, the leadership should, each year, present a report of its stewardship before the conference for endorsement or rejection and also an outline of the policies it intends to pursue in the year ahead. This should be subject to full debate and right to more amendments. Both reports should be circulated to the constituency parties and the affiliated organisations, at least three months before the conference meets so that there can be the fullest dialogue between the rank and file and the leadership. Delegates should only be elected after the branches have discussed the policy documents and should reflect the views of the constituency or affiliated organisation. Block votes and mandated votes should be abolished. Delegates must be free to vote on the basis of the actual debates at Conference. Decisions when taken should be binding on the whole party, including the parliamentary caucus and the leadership.

As a corollary to this, the Leader and Deputy-Leader of the Labour Party should be elected by Conference and subject to annual re-election. Reform along those lines could restore a socialist dynamic to annual conference and ensure that the leadership, in office or out, pursue a policy corresponding to the views of the party.

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Last updated: 9 December 2020