For those who watch it closely, or have been run over by it, the Corbyn bandwagon has always been a curious thing. An amalgamation of the old disaffected left (emerging from a long exile on the fringes of the party), old lags in the machine politics of organised labour and an influx of idealistic younger people enthused by the offer a
different settlement in the UK.
There was always a feeling that at some point the fault lines would emerge and the project come under pressure as a consequence. This conference is perhaps the first clear sign that this might unfold. Primarily that’s because the reforming zeal has met the brick wall of trade union interests.
Before diving into that it’s worth clocking that this in some ways the product of their own success. It’s a truism
that the disparate left has an appetite for in-fighting that is unmatched. Groups regularly form, splinter, fiercely argue over things that the outsider can barely discern – even Momentum split in the past few years. But they’ll stick together whenthere is an outside threat – The Labour centrists. Take that away (and the right is barely a
threat now) and they can indulge their rich tradition.
The two formidable wings of Corbyn have been Momentum and Unite. Combined they give him financial and activist muscle and have steam rollered their way to dominance in the party. However, with the short-term threat of the centrists vanquished the sights are set on locking in changes on a longer time frame. They have control, now it’s about hegemony.
For Momentum this has been about dismantling party structures that empower “elites” as they’d say, and putting the membership in charge. We saw that in their belief earlier in the year that the Labour General Secretary should be an elected position – in direct conflict with Corbyn’s office and Unite.
That’s fine but at some point the mission would mean looking at the role of trade unions. They’ve lost their electoral college power for the leadership election but retain significant powers around triggering MPs reselections not to mention their NEC positions and conference delegates. Momentum, via the Democracy Review, wanted to prise their fingers off some of these levers of control and put the members truly in charge.
This conference has really been about the unions flexing and putting a stop to the fetishization of membership power. They used their influence in the NEC to water down the Review’s proposals, preserving their influence, and then whipped their conference votes to ensure it passed. Meanwhile Momentum members were left in a state of naive bewilderment that their erstwhile allies in the fight to protect JC had suddenly become aligned with the establishment.
Almost immediately there has been an increase in chatter on reforming the unions or “right wing trade unionists”.
It might not get anywhere but the solid wall behind Corbyn has some cracks in it. A continued absence of an external threat to the left makes it more likely that these cracks will be picked at.