Quite extraordinary scenes here at the Labour Party conference. I’m typing this in the main conference hall and have just watched Mike Katz of the Jewish Labour Movement give a short speech against anti-Semitism. This ought to be utterly uncontroversial, but it has become a wedge issue between the two tribes who now make up the Labour Party. Between those who were members before May 2015, and those who joined after. There have two very different outlooks, and are at war with each other.
Katz’s speech was cheered effusively, like a rallying call, by about a third of the hall. And, amazingly, heckled by other members. When Katz said: ‘We shouldn't have to wait’ for action on anti-Semitism, a woman shouted ‘who’s “we”?’ Other members called for her to shut up. Since when did fighting anti-Semitism become contentious in Labour, a party supposedly dedicated to fighting bigotry?
Then came speeches for a rule about whether Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, should be allowed on the party’s ruling 33-member National Executive Committee. A totemic issue because it's all about the balance of power in the NEC: she is a moderate, and if Scotland and Wales are represented on the NEC then the moderates will have more power and the Corbynistas will have less. This issue is to be put to a vote, and three members spoke in favour of it – to the fury of the Corbynistas, who wanted someone against. One, Max Shanly, raised a point of order and was heard by the hall. The platform, he said, was
‘Attempting to rig the discussions by not allowing those who oppose the rule changes to come up here and make the argument because they know that they don’t have responses. The package going forth will gerrymander the NEC and allow for the decision made at the weekend to be vetoed by parliamentarians who are not accountable to this movement.’
I wonder: in how many conferences of European political parties—not the fringe ones but the ones supposedly vying for government—is the word ‘parliamentarian’ a term of abuse? Also note the resentment at ‘parliamentarians’ accountable to voters, not the ‘movement’ now in the hands of Momentum activists like Max Shanly. (He featured in a Dispatches documentary saying that he has no problem with deselection meetings but ‘having Momentum’s name attached to it is about as helpful as a lobotomy’.)
But Shanly is quite right in his choice of words. The Labour moderates are parliamentarians, drawing their mandate from the nine million voters who elected them. And three-quarters of these Labour MPs have signed a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn.
Against them stand the Corbynistas, who now control the party membership (as the leadership contest attests). Some 70 per cent of Labour members joined since May 2015. When Jeremy Corbyn said the other day that party membership has trebled, he meant that the pre-May 2015 members are now outnumbered two-to-one by the newbies.
YouGov polling shows the fundamental difference in their outlook. Seventy-seven per cent of post-Corbyn members said that Labour was ‘not-left wing enough’ at the last election. Just 45 per cent of the pre-May 2015 members would say the same. If he left, 60 per cent of the post-Corbyn members say they’d resign from the Labour Party. Just 11 per cent of pre-May 2015 members say the same. And if Corbyn keeps losing local and devolved elections, 89 per cent of post-Corbyn members say he should keep on going. Just 40 per cent of pre-May 2015 Labour members say the same. Just 53 per cent of Corbyn-era members disagree that ‘Russia is a force for good in the world today’ whereas 76 per cent per cent of pre-May 2015 members disagree.
But perhaps the biggest difference is the word ‘parliamentarian’ – if you see that as a good thing, or not. To what extent do Labour Party members believe in parliamentary democracy as a means of advancing their agenda? The Corbynistas see MPs as the enemy (perhaps why so few Labour MPs are up here in Liverpool). The hard left doesn’t want to govern as much as it wanted to capture the Labour Party, and it has done so now. It has gone one better than taking over the leadership: it has taken over the membership. The scenes here in Liverpool are the aftermath of their victory.
PS Here's the full text of Mike Katz's speech:
Conference, I don’t want to be here because I wish there hadn’t been an upsurge in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynistic and homophobic vile hate speech in our party. Even conference, here, in our exhibitions and on our fringe, I’m sad to report. Jeremy has said it, Tom has said it, we have all said it: there is no place for this in our party - we must root it out. Against this backdrop, is there any wonder, conference, any wonder that support for Labour amongst British Jews is said to be as low as seven per cent. Conference, it makes me weep - the party of Manny Shinwell; the party that has done more than any other to promote tolerance and equality; the party to which the Jewish labour movement has been affiliated since 1920, is not seen as a welcoming home for Jews.
The leadership has acted and we welcome that. They set up the Royall Report, they set up the Chakrabarti report which had a number of good rule changes which would help our party deal with the problem. So I have to say, conference, we are beyond disappointed, we’re dismayed that the NEC didn’t put this forward in their package of rule changes so that we could sort this now. Andy moving it said that we have to take these rules because they require urgent action and, conference, I have no problem with that whatsoever. But leaving it as passing our rule changes for a debate next year means waiting another year so we can actually put this rule change on our books. It means another year to change our rules to make racist and anti-Semitic abuse as grave an offence as supporting another political party. Another year to send the signal to our members, to our minority communities, to the whole country, that we are serious about dealing with this problem.
Conference, we shouldn’t have to wait a year, we shouldn’t have to wait a further minute, we should have been able to do it now. They had our words, they had Chakrabarti’s words, and they could have put them in to effect immediately. So, conference, I have to say, and I say this with no let or regret, the JLM does feel let down. But we’re going nowhere. We’re going to be working with our members, with our affiliated members, with our supporters, MPs, councillors, NCLPs, in affiliates, to show that like every minority community Jews are welcome in the Labour party. And conference…[APPLAUSE] conference thank you for that, that means a lot, not to us but to the whole Jewish community. And I will say one more thing before I go: if we have to wait a year sadly so be it but the next best thing that we must do is renew our commitment to dealing with this, show we’re serious in dealing with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and it’s up to all of us from the very top of this party downwards to take responsibility for calling out hate speech in our party whenever we see it. Thank you, conference.