This time last year Labour went into its annual conference buoyed by a better than expected general election result and Jeremy Corbyn’s rapturous reception at Glastonbury.
12 months later, after a contentious summer of internal wrangling, a failure to deal effectively with anti-Semitism allegations and a continued onslaught from Fleet Street, conference will be a less happy place.
The Party will want to make up for its ‘lost’ summer and use the conference to put forward a coherent offer to voters based around John McDonnell’s plans for the economy.
Whether or not it is successful depends on the Party’s ability to keep its internal debates off the front pages. There are three danger points which could deflect from policy and attempts to get back on the front foot and back on the front pages with a more positive agenda.
The first is Labour’s root and branch review of its internal structures which will decide who has institutional control of the Party. This is reflected in a three way tug of war between Momentum and its activists who want a bigger voice for members, the big Unions who are wary of any loss of central control and MPs, who are under threat of mandatory reselection. Labour’s NEC met during the week and debated the issues for over ten hours ultimately deciding to kick some of the more controversial elements into the long grass. But this will leave no one happy, so expect press briefings and raised voices.
The second is Europe. Last year the issue was subject to a traditional back room fix and not debated on conference floor. This year, however, with the Prime Minister in constant jeopardy and support for a referendum on the Brexit deal growing amongst unions and Labour’s 500,000 new members, it will be increasingly difficult for Corbyn to hold the line and argue for a general election to settle the issue.
Finally, there is the conference fringe which is a rolling series of meetings and events organised by special interest groups which takes place throughout the three days of conference. Back in the days of New Labour managerialism journalists would often resort to the dark corners of the fringe to pick up tit bits of controversy that might make good copy.
This year, despite the promise of plenty to write about on conference floor, the fringe may again be where some of the action takes place.
The decision of Tom Watson to reject a graveyard slot for his Deputy Leaders speech may mean a Johnsonian (Boris not Samuel) intervention designed to grab the headlines ahead of the leaders speech on Wednesday. His speech was so successful as a rallying point for moderates in 2016 that he has since faced attempts to remove him from office and water down the deputy leader’s role. He may feel he has nothing to lose or he may choose to be emollient in the face of a general election.
But by far the gravest danger from the fringe is the prospect of Labour’s antisemitism crisis rearing its head. At last year’s conference a senior Momentum official was filmed criticising the Holocaust Memorial Day at an antisemitisms event. After the summer which saw the Party lurch from one self-inflicted wound to another you can expect that journalists will be pouring over the fringe guide on the lookout for more of the same.
Labour will want to be business-like and speak over the shoulder of conference into the sitting rooms of voters watching the 10 o’clock news. They will want their message to be that they can be trusted to manage the economy and offer a viable alternative to eight years of Tory austerity.
The question is, will conference let them?