Report on the 2021 Labour Party conference as well as discussions on proposed tweaks to the CPGB’s Draft Programme. This report was originally published in WW1366, which can be found here
On Saturday October 2 we met to discuss our perspectives in the Labour Party and some suggested amendments to section 3.13 of the CPGB’s Draft programme, on ‘Women’.
James Harvey of the Provisional Central Committee opened the discussion by referring to Sir Keir Starmer’s recent essay, The road ahead, and the speech he made to the Labour conference. Comrade Harvey said that both speech and essay were essentially vacuous – a warmed-over version of Blairism that had been crafted to show to the ruling class, both in Britain and the US, that Starmer could be trusted in government. The other ostensible audience were those voters who had deserted Labour in 2019 and who Starmer thinks could be won back by an appeal to ‘patriotism’, ‘common sense’ and ‘the contribution society’.
Assessing the balance of forces within the party, comrade Harvey argued that conference votes showed that, despite the media spin about the Labour right’s dominance, there is still a substantial left in the CLPs. However, that left is disorganised and confused. It still harks back to the glory days of Corbyn and looks vainly for leadership from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs.
Comrade Harvey suggested that in the aftermath of the conference two broad currents could emerge in the Labour left: one arguing that the left should wait for better days ahead and simply ‘grin and bear’ the right’s current dominance. Outside of Labour, there is nowhere else to go, it is argued. Its strategy of achieving incremental ‘socialism’ through a series of left Labour governments binds this ‘left’ to the party – and to inevitable compromise with the Labour right. The other approach calls on people to leave to form a new party or movement – either a Labour Party mark two with trade union affiliation or a socialist party based on a broad, ‘lowest common denominator’ ‘programme’.
The comrade criticised both approaches, arguing that, as a bourgeois workers’ party, Labour remains a sphere of struggle for Marxists. He linked the struggle to transform Labour to the demand for the refoundation of the party as a united front of a special kind, open to all socialist and working class organisations. He concluded by stressing that this was now a central issue and that such a development could not occur organically within Labourism. It required a mass Communist Party with a Marxist programme that rejects reformism and participation in capitalist governments as a conscious strategy for the revolutionary transformation of society.
In the subsequent discussion comrades developed these arguments and drew on their experiences of the Labour left. Bob Paul commented on the widespread illusions many still have in Corbynism and the failure of the left to make a serious assessment and critique of its failure. Stan Keable also reported on the various meetings of the left at conference and the confused politics on offer. There was still a left in the CLPs and the “strutting suits” did not have everything their own way. But the Labour left remained focused on electoral politics and offered no real alternative to Starmer. In their contributions Pam Harley and Andrew Kirkland also recounted their experiences in Brighton. The conference adopted contradictory positions on issues such as global warming and the green new deal. However, the leadership could afford to ignore left ‘victories’ on Israel and Aukus, because the conference is not genuinely sovereign – real power to decide policy lies in the hands of Starmer and his shadow cabinet.
Jack Conrad argued that Sir Keir’s speech and essay were superficial, and oozed insincerity. Whether it would help his chances in an election was open to question, but getting into government remained his main goal. In passing the rule changes and establishing an ‘independent’ disciplinary body, Starmer was creating a purge machine that could develop a momentum of its own and step up the attacks on the left. Jim Nelson queried whether a reheated Blairism could prove electorally popular, given the historical decline in the Labour vote, which had occurred during his leadership.
Mike Macnair also thought that Starmer’s project of resurrecting Blairism was unlikely to work. He argued that we are living in a different world from the 1990s, both at home and abroad, and there is no place today for Blair’s economic strategy or rhetoric of modernisation. The Labour left still thought of Corbyn as “the king over the water” and thus remained trapped in the dead-end framework of Labourism. This impasse on the left showed more than ever that the central issue remained the need for Marxists to unite as Marxists and begin to build a mass Communist Party.
The second session of the aggregate was taken up with a discussion on some proposed amendments to the ‘Women’ section of the CPGB Draft programme. Comrades Ollie Hughes and Sarah Stewart moved a series of amendments, which, they argued, reflected the changing nature of the family in the 10 years since the draft was last substantially amended.
Ollie argued that some of the language and attitudes towards the family expressed in the programme were dated, and that by placing demands on child-rearing in the women section the implication was that childcare was an exclusively woman’s issue. We should not assume that the nuclear family was the norm and that the mother was the main carer, when it came to maternity/paternity leave.
A key issue for Sarah was the argument in the Draft programme that, “Given the ever-increasing pressure on time” (my emphasis), child-rearing and domestic labour is “often frantic, demoralising and allows no kind of rounded, cultural development.” Irrespective of the demands on time (debateable in itself, where these are ever increasing due to women’s growing role in the labour market or actually decreasing due to social changes in the home, and labour-saving devices), she believed such domestic drudgery was demoralising and isolating for women. In response our demands should be for collective provision and the socialisation of domestic work.
In moving some alternative amendments and replying to comrades Hughes and Stewart, Jack Conrad said that a programme should not strive to cover everything in detail, but instead deal with the main principles. It is not a legislative programme for a future society. He argued that the question of women remained very important for Marxists and that our Draft programme was designed to turn formal equality into substantive equality – proposals which were technically realisable under capitalism.
On the issue of “ever-increasing pressure on time”, comrade Conrad described the ways that ‘traditional’ working patterns had changed and that time pressures and the intensification of exploitation were indeed increasing for many workers, despite predictions in the 1960s that the future would usher in an ‘age of leisure’. He argued that not all domestic work was intrinsically demoralising and alienating: child-rearing, for example, is in principle creative and pleasurable. These sections of the programme were about women, not the family as such, and neither, he argued do they make any assumptions about nuclear or other types of family.
On the proposed amendments on maternity leave, Jack said our current demands reflected the experience of the overwhelming majority of women and it is that situation rather than all sorts of exceptions that a programme should address.
These opening contributions sparked a lively discussion in which comrades drew on both historical and contemporary examples to support their arguments. Paul Demarty discussed the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘normative’: the bourgeois family is not a transhistorical form. He suggested that a programme should start from the reality of the permanent submission of women to men under capitalism and develop demands that reflect the real working conditions for working class women. The future will surely throw up new family structures, but we can analyse what prevents real change happening now.
Anne McShane drew on the historical experience of the Russian Revolution and the women’s question in the early Soviet Union. She also said that we need to study the changing role and nature of the contemporary family as a basis for our programmatic demands. Mike Macnair disagreed that the current programme was hetero-normative: most childrearing took place amongst heterosexual couples. He went on to develop a wider argument on the continuing role of the family in capitalist society by showing how childrearing in the family is constitutive of class and reproduces the power relations of capitalist society: our demands should and do reflect that reality.
It was agreed that these and other contributions to the discussion had only scratched the surface of the issue, and that the discussion – both about the specific issues of the Draft programme and the wider theoretical questions – needs to continue at a future aggregate and elsewhere.
Note: You can find records of previous passed motions, resolutions, theses, and changes to the Draft Programme on our Theses & Resolutions page