Luther’s take on Labour Party Conference 2018
This year’s Labour conference, oddly, felt a little bit 2014 – a basically competent party, with some clear messages, but without the dynamism and vigour that an opposition party heading for Government should have.
The story of the conference was of course Keir Starmer’s promise that a “remain vote wasn’t off the table”, which delighted party members in the conference hall. In context, the ad-libbed line was presumably intended to enable Labour to continue to be all things to all people on Brexit, and Starmer was visibly taken aback that it was interpreted by many as backing for remaining in the European Union. The fact that Corbyn’s team expressed their unhappiness to Starmer’s advisers immediately after he came off stage, and that members of Starmer’s local party expressed similar displeasure at an event immediately afterwards, suggests that he had not played as clever a political game as he had intended to.
John McDonnell dominated much of conference, popping up at what may well be a record number of fringe events to argue that Labour was the “party of business” even as he announced plans which went down like a lead balloon with members of the business community. Interestingly, Progress ally and Shadow City Minister Jonathan Reynolds deputised for McDonnell at a number of events, rather than McDonnell’s actual deputy (and ideological ally) Peter Dowd. Could this be a sign that McDonnell recognises the need to present a more centrist front if he is to make it into Number 11 Downing Street?
Corbyn gave what was perhaps his most confident speech as leader and provided a challenge for Theresa May next week: what will she do to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ she spoke so eloquently about on the steps of Downing Street when she became Prime Minister in 2016, but which have received little governmental attention since. The speech was populist but the overwhelming consensus was that it might also prove popular. That said, several delegates decided not to wait around for the speech, meaning that party staffers had to mask empty chairs from the TV cameras in the conference hall.
Despite a summer dominated by Labour infighting and accusations of antisemitism, the aggression one might have expected to see did not really surface. Unlike in Brighton last year, where delegates from all wings of the party held events in neighbouring buildings, the layout of party conference in Liverpool is such that Momentum’s alternative festival, ‘The World Transformed’ was slightly removed from the main events. This meant that delegates attending the mainstream fringe events encountered few die-hard Corbynites unless they spent time in the conference hall. Last year’s sighting of Wes Streeting being heckled as he went to a late night reception was not replicated this year.
The fights over internal party rule changes did not really materialise, with Jon Lansman facing criticism from some on the hard left over the lack of clear direction from Momentum over how to vote. The unions did what they do best and engineered a series of stitch ups to water down some of the most contentious proposals, such as on mandatory reselections of MPs. Perhaps they are finally beginning to play their 1980s-style role of dragging the party back to the centre ground.
The two members of the Shadow Cabinet most often described as rising stars, Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey, did a pretty good job of living up to their hype by announcing policy proposals (on free childcare and revitalising high streets) which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Blair or Brown manifesto, but were designed not to alienate the Corbynite base of the membership. However, their commitment to policy development was not matched by many of their colleagues. Labour had nothing new to say about what should be Tory weak spots in areas such as Universal Credit and the NHS. Unlike the early days of Project Corbyn, most of the Shadow Cabinet have now been in post for the best part of two years and have weathered a General Election, so the lack of policy proposals emanating from some of them was fairly inexcusable.
Labour has sharpened up its act considerably in the wake of last year’s General Election. There is still much which should worry voters should Corbyn become Prime Minister, but the Conservatives will head into their party conference knowing that they need to up their game if they are to fend off the Labour threat.