The Labour Party Conference has come and gone and no one was seriously hurt, though party members on the Blairite wing were suffering from almost clinical shock at what has happened in the last three months.
After the first hour, when many delegates tried to refer back the agenda proposed by the Conference Arrangements Committee and only lost, on a card vote, by 56% to 44%, there was not another significant disagreement during the proceedings. The reference back would have allowed for details of the different pre general election policy reports to be questioned.
The rest of the Conference was good natured and outgoing Shadow Ministers were applauded for their past work as much as the new team.
Andy Burnham received a standing ovation almost as enthusiastic as that which was given to Jeremy Corbyn. Andy Burnham also had the best anecdote of the Conference. One of his leadership election meetings was in an evangelical church in Sheffield and the podium was in front of the altar. His speech went fine but the first questioner said, “Andy, do you realise that the sign behind you says, ‘Repent, JC is coming’. This was probably the moment when he realised the game was up.
Overall, the Conference was not remotely like my memory of the Wembley Conference of 1980, the last time that the left in the Party were in the ascendant, when speakers were shouted down, David Owen shouted back from the floor and the party split.
Trident: A complex picture
Issues with the potential to cause division were under the surface, of course, and the most immediate, Trident renewal, was kicked into the long grass, with the unions, but also a majority of constituency parties, failing to choose defence in the ballot to determine which topics were priorities for debate.
The arguments about Britain’s nuclear deterrent are more complicated than when the Labour Party previously debated the issue during the 1950s and 1980s, both periods when the Cold War intensified. The arguments for disarmament then was largely moral and that is still important, but even people in the military now doubt whether the weapon is worth the cost, given Britain’s increasing inability to resource involvement in the sorts of conflicts that we now have across the world. It is still issue that could lose Labour some voters though. Although the under 35s are less likely to support Trident replacement, the over 55s, who grew up during the Cold War and turn out in larger numbers to vote, still hold to the ‘we need it just in case’ view.
It is difficult to see how Labour’s divisions over Trident can be resolved. The unions supported Jeremy Corbyn over his anti-austerity economic approach but want to protect defence jobs and are unlikely to face much pressure from their members to reopen the debate on nuclear weapons. If the Party does still vote against Trident renewal, Corbyn will lose his Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary. If it doesn’t, then Corbyn has said he will live with the decision but he can’t change his opposition to nuclear weapons and, as the general election nears, the contradiction will become increasingly difficult. If other things go wrong then this might be the issue over which he will resign.
Resolving potential conflict
The other issues that could have caused conflict have been resolved. Labour will not propose withdrawing from NATO or the EU. There had been stirrings of a campaign to commit Labour to supporting No in the referendum if Cameron comes back with opt outs in areas such as worker’s rights and environmental legislation. A small group of Eurosceptic MPs launched Labour for Britain in June and the TUC Conference passed a resolution which was cautious about what the trade unions’ position might be. All this evaporated at the Brighton Conference and the pro EU resolution was passed without a single hand going up in opposition.
Despite this, the pro EU experts at the fringe groups were pretty pessimistic. The feeling was that Labour and other pro-EU groups were not making a positive case for a Yes vote, other than just it being about saving jobs, and this would not be enough to counter the more ideological No campaign. Labour needs to construct a negotiating position on EU reform distinct from that of the Government to give substance to the yes campaign. The negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) remain a problem on the left that will not be resolved before the EU Referendum. Labour MEPs have supported the idea of a free trade agreement but will not vote for a final draft that opens British public services up to American firms or allows firms to sue Governments if they are affected by environmental or other regulation, but campaigning groups such as 38 Degrees are opposing TTIP full stop and tis may spill over into opposition to the EU itself.
Starting policy discussions
The first Conference after a political party has lost an election is not one at which you would expect policies to be developed and Corbyn, McDonnell and the various and enthusiastic new shadow teams of MPs, many of whom never expected to be in their positions, have launched policy discussions.
A policy review took place between 2010 and 2015 and Angela Eagle made sure that it was generally open to contributions, but the conclusions of the National Policy Forum and Policy Commissions were pretty much controlled by the Leader’s Office. It remains to be seen how policy-making will work now. It could be truly democratic but also chaotic unless carefully coordinated.
Actually the last two weeks have seen the beginning of policy-making. Atul Hatwal on the Labour Uncut blog described John McDonnell’s speech as Miliband on Special Brew, a much clearer and more radical version of what Labour was saying before the election and the same description could be used for other areas of policy as well. McDonnell’s speech was arguably the most important of the Conference, with a commitment to tackle the deficit but not at the expense of growth which Ed Balls was implying at times without actually saying it. McDonnell was also ready to tackle the role of Treasury which as an institution has always laid a dead hand on the attempts of other Government Departments to innovate and think long term if it involved them spending more money. Public expenditure and welfare cuts will be firmly opposed and a Living Wage will be statutory rather than encouraged by tax incentives, which was the previous policy.
Conference voted to bring the rail franchises back into public ownership replacing the pre-election policy of making sure that public enterprises could compete for them on a level footing. Lucy Powell, at Education, has said that local authorities would regain overall responsibility for schools and there would be no more free schools, replacing Tristram Hunt’s weaker version of local education directors and no free schools where there was a surplus of places. The pre-election commitment to build houses gives more emphasis to social housing than before.
Factionalism and Voter Popularity: Recognising the immediate threats
While the Labour Party enjoys itself discussing policy there are two immediate threats. The first of these is factionalism.
Moderates have launched the Labour First network which drew packed fringe meetings and is committed to oppose unilateral nuclear disarmament. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is already organised on the other side. Debates at the national level probably won’t do much harm and Liz Kendall’s poor showing in the leadership election have led the Blairite wing of the Party to realise that they haven’t really looked to develop much in the way of new ideas since the 1990s. Some of these, such as the view that it doesn’t matter who provides services as long as they do it more cheaply have begun to unravel. If conflict spreads down to the constituency level and then back up through battles over delegates to Conference and the National Executive Committee and then the selection of candidates for Parliament, then the image of a divided party will hurt it electorally. This may not happen. Neither left nor right have been organised at a constituency level since the 1980s and the leadership election may have brought in people on the left but whether they have any appetite for faction fighting or organising is another matter. Much of the work at constituency level has been undertaken by people in the centre or left of centre in the party, many of whom voted for Corbyn after the shock of the election defeat and to shake things up, but are not looking for a dramatic shift to the left. Delegates to Conference this year were chosen before the leadership election started but we will have to see what happens next year.
After the Conservative Party Conference attention will pass to the Government’s agenda and Parliament and Labour will have to avoid divisions among its MPs. Syria is an immediate problem. At Conference, Hilary Benn tried to shift the debate towards the need for an overall international settlement but Conference passed a resolution which required an UN resolution before Britain joined in bombing expeditions. This potentially creates problems for the Parliamentary Party but Russian intervention has already made the issue more complicated.
The other threat is electoral unpopularity. Oppositions expect to make gains against the Government mid-term and a failure to do this would lead to a loss of confidence in the leadership. Blairites have said that Corbyn’s conference speech appealed to the party and not the country. The problem with this view is that ‘the country’ consists of all sorts of different groups. Corbyn’s appeal to fairness may appeal to some groups and his message that people don’t have to put up with control by an elite may appeal to UKIP voters but we don’t know.
The first polls are not favourable to Corbyn but a focus poll of people who actually listened to him was more complicated in its reactions. The main elections next year in Scotland, Wales and London are not areas where the Conservatives are strong and so may not be a good indicator and the London Mayoral election is as much a personality as a party contest. The opinion polls have been rather discredited by their failure to get the Labour/Conservative percentages right but still give a broad idea of trends and at present, not surprisingly, give the Conservatives leads either side of 8%. Next year’s English local elections and the weekly English local by-elections will give an indication as well. The first one since Corbyn’s speech, in Banbury, gave a swing to Labour but there are many more to come. In this as in other areas related to the Labour Party no one quite knows what will happen next.