This week, the Labour Party held its annual party conference down in Brighton, just two weeks after the remarkable election of Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. The Conference offered us the first indication of how this new Corbyn-led Party would behave, communicate and develop policy and how his brand of left-wing protest politics would be translated into something more tangible as leader of the Official Opposition and a prospective alternative government.
The atmosphere was striking. As Brighton bathed in beautiful sunny weather, many Labour delegates wandered around the promenade in a state of shock and dismay. In the main conference hall, the new leader talked about ‘a new kinder politics’, while in the wider venues and conference hotels were filled with chaos, resistance, intrigue and gossip.
There had been a lot of talk from the leadership about the new members flooding into the Party (apparently 60,000 since Corbyn’s victory) and developing a new popular movement for the radical change in the Labour Party in support of the leader’s vision. It did not seem, however, that many of them had made it down to Brighton. The events, receptions and bars were still largely attended by members of the old professional Party (MPs, advisers and researchers – and to a lesser extent, councillors and local government representatives) – most of whom did not, and do not, support Corbyn or his politics. It was clear that many of them had yet to fully comprehend or accept the new reality. A few advisers (aides to previously important MPs) I spoke to seemed to be genuinely unsure of what they were going to do next. Many MPs themselves were openly defiant about the new regime. Some adopted a degree of gallows humour (Blairite MP, Tristram Hunt said in a fringe debate that Labour moderates will be feeling “like a pig’s head after a Piers Gaveston Society meeting”), while others seemed to take a far more combative approach, determined not to let the Party drift too far to the left and openly advocating alternative policy positions at fringe events and in media interviews.
At a policy level, the Conference was dominated by the emergence of deep splits within the Party. It is striking that many of the issues on which Corbyn built his radical platform for leadership (winning him overwhelming support) are the ones most deeply contested and resisted. Most notably, his proposal for a vote on Trident renewal at conference was scrapped in the face of opposition from trade unions and his own shadow cabinet who insisted that the UK’s nuclear deterrent must be kept. His subsequent statement that he would never use nuclear weapons as prime minister attracted opposition from nearly all of his own shadow cabinet. Other key issues, which played out to some degree at Conference included foreign policy in Syria, the deficit and taxation, nuclear power and the welfare cap. These divisions are perhaps hardly surprising given the momentous change that has occurred within the Party. The huge swell of support for Corbyn provided him with a clear mandate to lead Labour in a new direction, but the Parliamentary Labour Party, more politically moderate than the membership base, is unwilling to support him on issues which they believe will make the Party unelectable.
It is not clear how this tension will be resolved. Corbyn’s own role in this conflict does not provide much clarity. He frequently raises the notion of a ‘new politics’, in which policy disagreements would be openly debated (through the Party’s National Policy Forum), but this is unlikely to provide a long term or practical solution to the daily demands of leading his Party in Parliament. His keynote speech was emotive and contained plenty of Tory-bashing, but lacked a clear theme or direction. He spoke at a wide number of events, shuffling around the conference venues, often on his own, as if he was still a backbench MP. His unassuming nature is clearly part of his charm. This style may need to change in future, however, in order to better mobilise his support base, deliver radical change and unify the Party.
Perhaps of equal interest to party conference watchers were the movements of key players likely to play a prominent role in the coming months and years. New Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell seemed self-assured in delivering his anti-austerity speech. Angela Eagle presented herself as the central sensible and pragmatic figure in the shadow cabinet, while newly elected Deputy Leader Tom Watson seemed to enjoy strutting around the seafront speaking to delegates and ended conference with a crowd pleasing rallying speech. Should Corbyn’s leadership start looking precarious, more attention is likely to be given to these figures as potential replacements.
For business and organisations that need to engage with the Labour Party, these are confusing and uncertain times. Serious policy-level engagement requires an understanding of Labour’s organisational and bureaucratic structures and of the relationships between the Party’s leadership, Parliamentary Party and Trade Unions. At the moment, however, there is such volatility it is difficult to know where the Party will be in 6 or 12 months’ time, never mind where they will be in 2020.
If anything can be concluded from this week’s Conference, it is that the conflict between the radical left and the moderate elements of the Labour Party has not been settled by the leadership election. Arguably, it has only just begun.