Reflections on the Labour Party Conference 2018

28 Sep 2018

DRD‘s reflections on the Labour Party Conference in 2018.

Labour’s rallying cry to its troops at this year’s annual Conference in Liverpool was to prepare for a General Election in November.

Reflections on the Labour Party Conference 2018

The party went out of its way to be on High Alert:

  • Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote conference speech to gee up the faithful was his best to date. True, that’s not a high bar. It still suffered from typically poor delivery and weird inflexion, but it did at least form a cogent argument for a Labour government rather than a ranty, rambling list of grievances.
  • The Party Political Broadcast it produced, ‘Our Town’ (see it here) was highly professional – an evocative portrayal of the decline of our de-industrialised heartlands that Labour pledges to re-juvenate in order to recapture working class support in seats it has lost like Mansfield, Hastings and Walsall.
  • And you couldn’t move for policy announcements. The party vowed to rein in academies and abolish free schools. It promised 30 hours of free childcare for all 2-4 year olds. It pledged to nationalise the railways and water industries. It said it would maintain the triple-lock guarantee for pensioners, give free shares to workers in big companies and create 400,000 new ‘green’ jobs … In short, it promised the earth.

All this frenzied activity even forced some sensible Conservatives to wake up and smell the coffee. Influential blue-collar backbencher, Robert Halfon MP felt that Labour may resonate once again with millions of workers. “I’m worried … Labour has identified real anguish and anxiety from the British public about the state of our public services and about the cost of living.”

Tim Montgomerie, IDS’ ex-chief of staff, went further. ‘I don’t agree with it but Corbyn has a comprehensive and maybe compelling vision for the post-crash future of Britain. May doesn’t and that leaves Tories very vulnerable … Tick, tock, tick tock for Tory MPs.’

But *SPOILER ALERT* there is not going to be an Election this November. The simple truth is that, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a two thirds majority in the House of Commons is required for a new Election to be called. Conservative MPs may be turkeys, but they do not vote for Christmas, particularly those who had a close shave in the abbatoir just a year ago.

Labour framing this as a pre-Election Conference was simply a device – albeit a smart one – by the party leadership to draw a line under a traumatic summer and look to unify the party. But how successful was it?

Superficially at least, the leadership made a pretty decent fist of things. But, you only had to spend a few hours scratching the surface behind the scenes to realise the divisions remain as deep as ever, and new ones are emerging that could become even more threatening to the unity of the party.

Brexit, of course, is totemic, one issue in which the party rank and file (and the unions) remain sharply at odds with the leadership. Six hours of compositing on Sunday evening to produce a fudged motion could not hide the differences. The Shadow Chancellor immediately pronounced that any second referendum would only be on the terms of the deal or no deal. He was slapped down very publicly in an electrifying platform speech by Keir Starmer who, unscripted (at least to the eyes of the Leader’s Office), committed the Party to keeping ‘Remain’ on the ballot paper. For his efforts, he received the longest, loudest standing ovation of the Conference. His card may now be marked, but the leadership is no longer in a position to resile from this commitment.

The party divide, though, is far wider than Brexit. The sore of anti-semitism is still weeping. The Leader squirmed in the face of some hostile media interviews on the issue, but refused to offer a personal apology. A packed Labour Friends of Israel reception heard moving testimony from MPs who had suffered anti-semitic hatred. Deputy Leader Tom Watson, draped at one point during the same event in The Star of David, said he was proud to defend Israel, citing a ‘moral obligation’ to rid the party of anti-semites. Other Labour MPs declared that this was a ditch they were prepared to die in.

On economic policy, moderate Shadow Ministers privately bemoaned the lack of new thinking and ridiculed John McDonnell’s spending commitments as lunacy, asking how big the magic money tree would have to be this time around. Things were not much better in public, where even Shadow Cabinet Ministers could not say how much Labour’s plans would cost. They were not helped by colleagues who praised the law-breaking response of Liverpool’s Militant Council in the 1980s to Conservative cutbacks then, or threatened a General Strike to austerity nowadays.

Most mystifying, however, was the complete failure of Momentum to exercise its considerable influence now it has taken control of virtually every lever of party machinery. Its ‘The World Transformed’ parallel-conference was an irrelevant flop. It sided with the leadership over Brexit but was badly defeated by members. It lost on allowing Trotskyite entryists into party, failed to oust Tom Watson as Deputy Leader, and had to pull the idea of a second, female deputy leader when it realised that would likely go to an ardent Remainer.

Above all, it was left humiliated over the question of “mandatory open selection” of MPs (read “de-selection”) in the Party Democracy Review when it pitted itself against the might of the unions and came off second best. The increasing schism between Momentum and the trade unions is an emerging threat to the Hard Left hegemony of the Party, and one which moderates feel they may, ultimately, come through the middle on. That could be a long-shot, but it is perhaps the best hope of those in the centre.

At the end of the day, Jeremy Corbyn has some right to feel quite pleased with how this Conference went. The party took some knocks, it spent too little time talking to the nation at large and too much time arguing amongst itself but the cracks, in public at least, were largely papered over. The question is whether that will be the case next week in Birmingham?