Back in the USSR?
Much like the weather, this week’s Labour Party conference was often bleak with the odd glimmer of sunnier times to come. Labour headed into the conference after weeks of battling between the Cobynistas and so called moderates, each vying for their candidate to be the party leader. As was widely predicted, Corbyn was reanointed with a landslide win of 62%, with overwhelming support from his new coterie of ‘registered’ and ‘affiliated supporters’.
The announcement brought equal amounts of jubilation for Corbyn’s supporters at the Momentum ‘shadow conference’, and despair for the so called moderates. Instead of challenging his powerbase, the contest had the reverse effect; strengthening Corbyn’s hold, giving him a new lease of life. He’s getting the taste for power. Today we saw him veritably bounce on to the stage, looking if not sounding more like a Labour leader complete with suit and tie.
Unlike days of old with queues and security searches to see the great leader, it was a quiet affair, with businesses and their stalwart lobbyists notable by their absence. The exhibition hall, usually bustling, was practically empty with a much blander fringe programme. So if you weren’t there, we can assure you, you didn’t miss much.
There were however glimmers of optimism. Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson were undeterred. Khan, uniquely placed as a Labour politician with a vast mandate, reminded the conference hall that policy without power is futile – mentioning the word power no less than 38 times, just in case we didn’t quite get it.
Watson gave an equally strong performance, which lifted the mood of moderates, even if only for a few minutes. He pressed that it is time to “get back to business” and “get the band back together”, and urged the party to be pro-business, warning that “capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy”.
And where would any conference be without its comedy moments. Monday saw the bizarre controversy between the Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis and Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s highly controversial director of communications. While Lewis planned to remind conference of Labour’s backing of trident, Milne had other ideas and so thought it helpful to change the autocue just five minutes before Lewis took the stage. Perhaps Lewis wouldn’t notice utterly different words coming out of his mouth? Lewis stuck to his script but duly punched the wall (not Milne) afterwards.
Love me do
And so to round off perhaps the most unusual conference in recent times, Corbyn today gave his speech in a relaxed and assured performance. Many MPs had already gone home but Corbyn helpfully reminded the rebels about the growth of the party and his even bigger mandate.
Outlining a vision of “socialism of the 21st century” which could prove popular with a certain section of the electorate, he outlined a national education service, reinstatement of the migrant impact fund, removing the local borrowing cap and allowing councils to borrow against their housing stock, increasing the living wage, banning zero hour contracts, one million new homes in five years, a pupil premium for arts, and a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
While this will all do little to appease his Parliamentary colleagues, he did at least note that verbal abuse and Anti-Semitism have no place in society and hopefully the Labour Party too.
The long and winding road
So where are we now? Despite the shenanigans of the last few days, the Labour Party still looks like it will remain together, for the time being. The moderates were holding firm to their Party and their poster boys like Khan and Watson. They will, they say, stay and fight. Haunted by the failure of the SDP in the late 80s do they have any choice?
To prevent further divisions, Corbyn will need to focus on areas of unity such as the NHS and grammar schools. He will need to have an effective team and for moderates who resigned to return to the shadow ministerial fold. He will need to manage his team better, allowing them to pursue their policy objectives and support them in doing so.
With arguably the most politically divisive leader in recent British history in charge, Labour will be very much hoping that this year they aren’t going Nowhere Man.