Newly elected Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn faced his first big test at Labour’s conference in Brighton this week.
Corbyn achieved a huge majority just three weeks ago off the back of an unashamedly left wing campaign.
His victory reflected a widespread desire for change.
Trade union delegate Dave told Socialist Worker, “The mood on conference floor is one of optimism. It’s combatative, but combatative against the right enemy—the Tories.”
A member of Labour Students added, “There’s a lot of excitement. The meetings and the fringe events are very different to when I first came last year.
“Everyone is a lot more positive—it’s like they’ve been reenergised. I think a lot of them are new members.”
But Corbyn also faces opposition within Labour from forces to his right that want to undermine him or keep him in check.
Corbyn’s first challenge came over the question of renewing Trident nuclear weapons.
But trade union delegates—including Unite and GMB—combined with constituency delegates to block the issue being debated at this year’s conference.
The vote angered many of Corbyn’s anti-Trident supporters (see right). This shows the pressure that Corbyn and his allies are under to placate the right so they can maintain party unity.
They are also under pressure to prove they can make Labour electable by moderating radical policies.
Newspaper columnist Owen Jones continued his pitch at one meeting for Labour to appeal to right wing voters as well as the left. But others struck a more militant tone.
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell told a Labour Representation Committee rally, “Have meetings and demonstrations—and get on picket lines as well. When workers take action, whether that’s industrial or an occupation, there’s no question that we’ve got to be supporting them.
“That’s how we’re going to beat austerity and pave the way for a Labour government.”
McDonnell is a strong supporter of the fight against austerity. But he revealed that Labour would support the Tory chancellor’s fiscal charter.
This commits the government to always run a budget surplus—a Tory excuse for cuts.
In his conference speech he said that Labour would tax the rich and clamp down on tax avoiders, not attack the poor.
This is refreshing. But agreeing with needing to “balance the books” is a concession to the right and their argument for austerity.
Yet Corbyn has enthusiastic supporters at the grassroots. Many of them welcomed McDonnell’s speech.
David McMullen was one of them. He told Socialist Worker, “It’s important to talk about getting rid of the deficit. But why is the government attacking the poor to pay for the mistakes of the bankers?”
Trade unionist Dave added, “McDonnell’s speech was excellent. It was socialist at its core, and showed Labour is serious about the economy.”
Corbyn supporter Rebekah Lawrence said, “There are so many people who are saying he’s not going to win but look at all the people joining Labour now—I hope there’ll be enough of us to change things.”
Dave agreed. He said, “Jeremy will overcome the problems now the same way he did during his election campaign—with the mass support that’s behind him.”
No Trident debate leaves delegates feeling cheated
Many delegates and supporters of Corbyn were angry that the debate on Trident nuclear weapons had been blocked from the conference agenda.
A key pledge of Corbyn’s leadership campaign was to oppose Trident renewal when parliament votes on it next year.
Leila, who had signed up as a supporter to vote for Corbyn—and is thinking of joining Labour—was one of them.
She told Socialist Worker, “I’m very disappointed. The people who don’t want to scrap Trident are entitled to their opinion.
“But to block a debate is very disappointing from the Labour Party.”
Corbyn sent a message to a fringe meeting held by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to reassure them he was still committed to scrapping Trident.
People at the meeting shared Leila’s frustration that the debate had been blocked.
Some called for a special conference to debate Trident renewal.
Others were angrier.
One speaker said, “If you’re a delegate to conference you’ve been cheated—you haven’t got a debate.”
A free vote to bomb Syria
Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn hinted Labour would support British airstrikes in Syria and Jeremy Corbyn looks set to allow his MPs a free vote in parliament on the issue.
But this shouldn’t be a matter of individual conscience—Western bombs won’t help ordinary Syrians.
Corbyn’s enemies were encouraged by his concessions—and even used them to attack him further.
Right winger Chuka Umunna said Corbyn should have taken a clear position on on Trident and Syria.
He said, “If people don’t know what the position of the Labour Party is then we’re not going to look like a party of government.
“It’s not sustainable for different people in our leadership to be saying different things.”
Right bides its time but still plots
Labour’s right wing made their presence felt at a number of fringe meetings.
Some 120 people attended a Labour First meeting. It wants to make sure the party is “kept safe from the organised hard left”.
Speaking at the event, MP Rachel Reeves said Labour activists needed to “reassure people that the Labour Party is not all at one with the current leadership”.
Others took a more cautious approach. MPs Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna, who previously organised against Corbyn, both called for members to support him.
Hunt told a Labour rally last Sunday, “The new leader has a powerful mandate from the party.
“But we also need to understand our loss at the general election.
“On economics, on welfare, on immigration, the Labour Party was not trusted.”
And at another fringe event Umunna said, “Before people start going down the road of ‘if Jeremy fails’, let’s give the guy a chance to succeed.” But he launched an oblique attack on Corbyn supporters with accusations of bullying and intimidation.
He said, “I’m all for party democracy. But I’m not for dictatorship.” He was upset at being accused of being a Tory.
Labour’s right resent the 60,000 who have joined since Corbyn’s election who want the party to fight the Tories—not ape them.