Preparing for power: 5 things we learned from Labour’s party conference

By Cameron McIntosh

‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ was the anthem, and Brighton was the location, for thousands of Labour members and delegates as they descended on the famous seaside resort for the party’s annual conference. The air of triumphalism was almost palpable as Corbyn’s supporters gathered to celebrate the recent toppling of the Tory majority, which saw the Labour vote soar by the greatest margin since 1945, in defiance of all expectations.

The transformation of Corbyn’s leadership from a show of ineptitude to a genuine government in waiting has been sudden and tumultuous. British politics looks more fractured now than at any point in recent memory, with the polarised two-party system adding to the pressures of ongoing Brexit negotiations.

What did we learn from the 2017 conference about the prospect of a future Labour government?

1) Winning elections is overrated when you can celebrate defeats like victories

Jeremy Corbyn’s performance on the campaign trail was exceptional. His ability to galvanise the disenfranchised and motivate an army of supporters to the Labour cause was a testament to his personal brand of authenticity. He fought against a distinctly hostile press and won over many voters to close the lead in the polls from 20 points to a hung parliament. Labour outperformed even some of its own expectations, winning at the ballot box in areas where the Conservatives had dominated for decades. However, crucially, Labour did not win.

The Brighton conference was a curious celebration of electoral defeat that asserted the dominance of the emboldened left-wing of the party. In none of the high-profile speeches was it mentioned that Labour still had work to do. Jeremy Corbyn labelled his party the “mainstream” which seems strange given that three months previously, the Conservatives won both more votes and more seats than their opponents. The next election is not scheduled until 2022 and it appears unlikely that the Tories will again gamble on an election during the process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Unless it wants to remain in opposition for the foreseeable future, the Labour party would have been better served in assessing how it can reach out to voters who were turned off by their offerings, to achieve a majority. Without reaching out to this group, all the talk about Labour’s plans for a fairer Britain will prove futile. A conference celebrating defeat is a sign that the leadership has become complacent. The Labour party is not yet the mainstream and it can only do so by winning at the ballot box.

2) Brexit is not up for discussion

Brexit is undoubtedly the most significant political issue of our time. It will be the number one priority of government for any party in power for the foreseeable future, because of its wide-ranging political implications. Striking a deal in the interests of Britain is vital, not only to the economic prosperity of this generation, but to those of the future. Therefore, at a political party conference in 2017, it would be reasonable to expect a mature discussion about the greatest constitutional issue facing the country.

However, Brexit was seemingly a taboo subject for the Labour party. Although it was alluded to by a few senior figures such as Sadiq Khan, a late addition to the list of permitted conference speakers, a vote on Brexit was banned by Labour’s hierarchy. The Brexit stance of the party, over a year since the result of the referendum, remains confused. In one breath, Corbyn issued a three-line whip on his MPs to vote for the triggering of article 50 and in the other, he has talked up the possibility of remaining a member of the single market. Closing down debate on the issue is a damning indictment of Labour’s failure to fully get to grips with the Brexit issue. Clarity is needed, and the conference failed in this regard.

The reason for such a confused strategy lies in the uneasy coalition of Labour supporters. On one side, ardent Remainers are looking to Corbyn as a potential leader against the Tory Brexit strategy, while on the other, Leave voters were sufficiently satisfied with the 2017 manifesto to continue voting Labour. It should be apparent that Jeremy Corbyn has a history of Euroscepticism and an analysis of his parliamentary record clearly exposes this. However, the difficulty for the Labour party lies in maintaining the broad coalition of people divided by the Brexit debate, split geographically as well as ideologically, as Labour’s vote in the north is dominated by Leave supporters whereas London and the South host majority remain constituencies. Labour is attempting to walk a tightrope between the two.

3) War-gaming sounds ominously for Labour’s economic plans

John McDonnell’s keynote speech to conference as Shadow Chancellor was emphatic in its insistence that the Labour party is prepared for power and is ready to implement its manifesto pledges immediately. He recognised the difficulties a Labour government would face by detailing some of the ‘war-game’ plans in place, for instance in the case of a run on the pound. While this shows, to some extent the level of preparedness, it also exposes the weaknesses of Labour’s offer to the country.

The billions of pounds worth of investment into the economy is very attractive to those who have felt the burden of Tory austerity for the past seven years, not least those suffering a real terms decrease in wages in the public sector. However, the issue of costing is worrying. While economic estimates are fraught with difficulty, the Tories have calculated a supposed £312 billion black hole in Labour’s spending plans, which included the newly-announced re-nationalisation of PFI contracts. Labour has said it will pay for this through taxing of the rich, but it seems unrealistic to expect that a rebalancing of taxes would provide sufficient government revenue to fund such extravagant expenditure. That is without factoring in the distinct prospect of investors and corporations moving abroad.

4) ‘McDonnell Amendment’ – a compromise but the Left are in control

The democratisation of the Labour party was further consolidated by the NEC and conference votes on the requisite proportion of MPs and MEPs required to nominate leadership candidates. Previously the ruling required at least 15% of the PLP to be assured a place on the ballot. This has been reduced to just 10%, a compromise on the demands of Momentum which had pushed for a reduction as far as 5%.

The amendment has been dubbed the ‘McDonnell Amendment’ in honour of the Shadow Chancellor and long-time Corbyn ally, who twice failed to reach the 15% threshold in his 2007 and 2010 leadership bids. In fact, the political earthquake that saw Corbyn elected leader against all odds in 2015 would itself have been averted had several parliamentary colleagues not lent him nominations in the final hour, to ensure the left-wing of the party was represented in the debates.

The ruling is significant because it has decisively altered the balance against the PLP in favour of the membership. The schism between Labour politicians and members has been acutely exposed in recent years, not least by Corbyn’s election, and this legislative amendment makes it easier for the left-wing to have candidates nominated. The hard-left have reclaimed the party from the so-called ‘Blairite’ wing and this will provide a long-lasting legacy for the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The left will no longer be under-represented on ballots and the membership will be empowered to elect leaders from Corbyn’s faction of the party as they see fit.

5) Corbyn remains the star of the show

A rapturous round of applause greeted the Labour leader as he made his way centre-stage to deliver the speech everyone had been waiting for, soon followed by a united rendition of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ from all corners of the grand hall. You would be forgiven for thinking it was a famous Rockstar addressing a crowd of fans, or perhaps the newly-announced winner of Celebrity Big Brother. Very few politicians receive the kind of welcome that Corbyn enjoyed and many critics have dismissed such reverence for Corbyn as a personality cult. To some extent it is, but the level of enthusiasm his leadership has generated should largely be welcomed.

His speech lasted a phenomenal 75 minutes. It amounted to a campaign rally attacking the Tories and celebrating the election result, intermitted by crowd participation, standing ovations and deafening cheers. He called on Theresa May to step aside and described a shifting political consensus, in which Labour now occupied the much-coveted centre-ground. His remarks on excessive interventionism and human rights abuses were contrasted by discussion of the Grenfell tragedy and the housing problem in the UK. The speech covered a lot of ground and was well-received by his attentive audience.

Jeremy Corbyn is the face of the internal revolution that has conclusively altered the balance of the Labour party’s structure in favour of the left. After the astonishing result in June’s general election, the 2017 conference showed us that Labour is posturing for power and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal popularity remains the fundamental ingredient necessary to the party achieving its future ambitions.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons via Flickr

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