Left wing Labour Party members have reacted with anger to a speech by deputy leader Tom Watson at party conference yesterday, Tuesday.
Watson said he wanted unity against the Tories—but he launched a broadside against left wing Labour members.
He defended the record of previous right wing Labour governments.
“I don’t know why we’ve been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years,” he told the conference. “But trashing our own record is not the way to enhance our brand.”
Watson ought to remember that the period from when Tony Blair was elected in 1997 to when Gordon Brown lost in 2010 saw Labour's vote fall by five million. Not only did Blair lead Britain into the Iraq war, but Labour's 13 years in office was also a time of sharpening inequality and of Labour bowing down to the bosses.
Watson spoke of the need to win elections and gain power—a criticism thrown at Corbyn throughout his leadership.
It echoed a speech by Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan earlier in the day. He said the word "power" 38 times.
It was a two-pronged attack, with Khan counterposing his mayoral victory to Corbyn’s leadership, while Watson berated the members for dragging the party leftwards.
Left wing Labour members were furious. Watson’s defence of Blair even provoked heckles from some delegates on the conference floor.
One Labour member told Socialist Worker, “I thought Watson’s speech was awful. He didn’t acknowledge Jeremy as leader.
“I knew it would be like that, but I wanted to see it for myself. A lot of my friends wouldn’t even go in.”
Another simply said, “I left the hall when Watson spoke—that’s my reaction to his speech.”
Yet the right loved it, with Watson’s speech in particular gaining at least three standing ovations from large sections of the hall. John Hannett of the Usdaw union said the speech was “inspirational”.
The right showed their claws
Corbyn's opponents showed on Tuesday that they are down but not out—comfortably winning key conference votes.
Delegates passed a number of left wing motions, including one that committed Labour to “A massive increase in the supply of council housing”. Another pledged to end “NHS privatisation” and the PFI deals which saw private companies take over new hospital buildings.
But a motion moved by the GMB union that said Labour should not abandon gas or nuclear energy was passed with very little opposition. It flatly contradicted a speech by shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner the day before promising an “outright ban” on fracking.
The right comfortably won key votes
And the left was also defeated in a high-profile battle over rule changes. Labour’s right managed to force through a rule change that strengthens their influence on the party’s national executive committee allowing them to undermine Corbyn.
With chair Paddy Lillis ignoring calls for a card vote, delegate Max Shanley accused the platform of “attempting to rig the discussion.”
And another delegate slammed the change as “essentially a stitch up”.
The day left many on the left feeling deflated, and bitter. Matthew, a member from Marlborough, told Socialist Worker, “I was really impressed by Angela Rayner’s speech. But that’s where my happiness ends.
“I’m a democrat—I don’t mind losing a vote. But if I lose a vote because it didn’t happen, that winds me up”.
More than 100 left wing Labour members debated the way forward at an angry fringe meeting held by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) on Tuesday evening.
CWU and FBU union general secretaries Dave Ward and Matt Wrack argued to transform Labour’s massive new membership into a social movement.
But others said the important fight was inside Labour, with one member arguing, “If we don’t democratise the party, no social movement will save us.
“The emphasis of CLPD on rule changes, on democracy, we cannot lose sight of”.
Yet the defeats for the left at conference show the right still control many of Labour’s structures—and will use them to beat back the left. Attempts to defeat them through those structures take a lot of time and energy, and can demoralise left activists.
Building where the left is strongest—as part of a movement—is the best way to build on Corbyn's victory.