Political parties are often described as broad churches. Successful ones exist and thrive by capturing a range of backgrounds, viewpoints and ideologies into one political movement. This was very much evident this week at a buoyant, if slightly disjointed, Labour Party Conference in Brighton, where the Party’s leaders, MPs and activists gathered together for the first time since June’s general election.
This, at times, felt like there were at least three completely different conferences happening at once. Firstly, there was the main event, taking place on the conference floor, characterised by the keynote speeches of the leadership, party and union officials along with various party motions. Secondly, there was the traditional fringe events, receptions and gathering of MPs in the main hotels, where the mainstream parliamentary party and the ‘moderates’ were still visible. Thirdly, there was the nearby Momentum Conference (entitled ‘The World Transformed’) organised and attended by Corbyn-supporting left-wing activists, whose events had a noticeably experimental feel, incorporating culture, music and design into political discussions (which featured clay-modelling and a late-night dance event called ‘acid Corbynism’).
Walking around Brighton’s seafront, these different groupings gave the Conference a distinctly unconventional feel. However, it did manage to hold together – just. The Party is now two years into its remarkable transformation under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, with a vastly expanded membership base and a policy platform that has made a decisive shift to the left. Whereas last year’s conference in Liverpool had a fractious feel between members of the PLP and the leadership, this year’s event was remarkably low on dissent. After their surprisingly strong performance in June’s election, Corbyn and his supporters are now firmly in control. Despite not actually winning the election, the Conference felt at times like a victory parade (chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” were commonplace). Furthermore, the prospect of another snap election is keeping the Party broadly united – Labour know they are now closer to power than they have been in years and could be in government soon. Indeed, in his keynote conference speech, Corbyn said that the election result “has put the Tories on notice and Labour on the threshold of power.”
You could tell his words were being taken seriously. The fact is that at present, the Labour Party is the largest and most successful left-wing political party in a western democracy. At a time when centre-left and social democrat parties are in crisis in many countries (just look at the SPD’s result in last Sunday’s German Election), Labour has managed to generate broad appeal through offering populist policy positions, with a leader regarded as authentic and able to tap into the concerns of many voters. Whether by accident or design, Labour has successfully built an electoral coalition of over 12 million voters which combines support from its traditional heartlands, public sector workers, ethnic minorities, disaffected middle class, urban liberals and ‘Remain’ voters. In addition, the Party is now firmly seen as the Party of the young, who were well represented at Conference and provided many events with an atmosphere of youthful energy and, indeed, ‘momentum’.
Of course, while there was much positivity, the tensions and contradictions within Labour were not particularly hard to identify. The most obvious is policy dilemma facing them is Brexit, with the Party seemingly unwilling to commit to a position that would alienate either its Leave voters in many of their northern heartlands, or Remain voters among its membership and in its urban constituencies (many delegates were spotted wearing “bollocks to Brexit” stickers). The leadership, very conscious of this, sought to avoid any high-profile disagreement by ensuring it was not one of the eight key issues debated by the Conference and making a number of deliberately ambiguous statements on issues such as single market membership, the customs union and the prospect of a second referendum. While this ambiguous approach does not solve anything in the long-term, it is clearly tactically effective and will help to keep pressure on the Conservative Party as the pressure builds around the Brexit negotiations.
More generally, there was a clear disconnect between some of the policy debates taking place in the Conference fringe meetings and the announcements being made on the Conference floor. This, no doubt, will become increasingly clear to businesses as they continue to increase engagement with the Party. Several of the fringe events we attended seemed remarkably business-friendly, with many frontbench MPs adopting pragmatic positions and carefully listening and responding to business concerns across a range of industry sectors (e.g. financial services, energy, food and agriculture). Yet at the same time, Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell announced that he was seeking a strikingly ambitious nationalisation programme where he would bring the rail, water, energy and construction sectors into public ownership (plans described by the CBI as likely to “send investors running for hills’). Notably, he announced that the government may not be paying market rates to shareholders in the nationalised companies. Rather the Labour government would decide how much it was prepared to pay.
This captures a key challenge for businesses as they engage with Labour. The Party could currently be described as a combination of a mainstream political party and a left-wing populist movement. For those thinking hard about Labour policy and its potential impacts, this should be taken into account. Not only is it advisable to develop productive relationships with the Labour frontbench, it is also important to understand the Party’s internal structures and formal policy mechanisms and how they are influenced. In any case, it would be foolish for any business planning for the future to ignore Labour right now. There are many doubts over whether the Conservative minority Government can last the full term until 2022 and Labour are well placed to capitalise on any collapse. As Corbyn announced in his keynote speech, Labour should now be seen as a “government in waiting.”