Triumph and Disaster

26 September 2019

Pete Bowyer is a Partner at DRD Partnership and leads on the company’s Public Affairs activities. A member of the Labour Party for over 30 years, here he shares his insights about Labour Party Conference. 

If anyone knows Jeremy Corbyn’s numbers for this Saturday’s National Lottery draw can they please let me know? Corbyn’s shortcomings are legion, but luck is a politician’s trump card. And Corbyn has luck in bucket loads, at least for the time being.

Labour’s Annual Party Conference started off on an uneven footing, and only proceeded to get worse. The bungled attempt to take out the party’s elected Deputy Leader at the weekend set the tone for a highly divisive week. It was swiftly followed by chaotic scenes on the conference floor as a leadership stitch-up decided a show of hands was enough to vote down the most pro-Remain motion being put to conference. But just as plans were afoot to stage a mass walk out of Tom Watson’s keynote platform speech, the Supreme Court rode to the rescue of the party by creating a media black-out of any further conference embarrassments and bringing proceedings to an early conclusion.

Labour’s troubles on its Brexit positioning was the central issue for conference to grapple with. It failed, spectacularly. The agreed policy – offering a second, or confirmatory, referendum but remaining neutral at a General Election on which side to support – is seen by the leadership as a clever wheeze to triangulate (in Blairite terminology) between the Leave and Remain camps. Instead it has simply alienated both camps further. Leavers just want MPs to accept a Brexit deal – almost any deal – and are horrified at the prospect of another public vote undoing the hard-earned majority they won last time around. Remainers, who make up the vast majority of the membership, point to the absurdity of the party remaining officially neutral during any General Election campaign on the most central issue the country has faced in the past eighty years. Both fear that what few voters Labour has left will now desert the party in droves to others with clearer positioning.

But the Brexit fiasco obscured a raft of other policies the party did adopt overwhelmingly. The abolition of private schools and the appropriation of their assets. A 32 hour working week without a reduction in pay (which wags jibed would see the Leader’s hours actually increase). Decarbonisation of the economy by 2030. The boycotting of the only democracy in the Middle East: Israel. The scrapping of prescription charges. An end to OFSTED. The nationalisation of the rail, energy and water sectors. Reparations for Britain’s colonial past. £6bn for care homes for the elderly and £10bn a year housing grant ringfenced for councils to build 100,000 social rented council homes. The list went on and on.

Collectively, the policies agreed this week marked a significant shift of the party even further to the left. But how did this come about? Firstly, the party’s conference – its supreme policymaking body – is now firmly in the hands of true believers. It’s been estimated that 80% of conference votes are now controlled by the far left, a coalition that spans most of the trade union movement, Momentum and Labour Left Alliance, a grouping of Marxists of various descriptions that make Momentum look like pussy-footing centrists. The only vote that was close – on Labour unequivocally supporting Remain in any subsequent referendum – came precisely because this coalition started to break down. On pretty much everything else it held firm.

Secondly, the Conservatives are, at least partly, to blame. The Prime Minister and his Chancellor have not been shy to throw off the shackles of austerity and announce their own spending splurges on everything from the police, to schools to the health service and more. Labour could not allow the Tories to be seen to have a monopoly on the magic money tree, so the party has doubled-down and created a whole new magic money forest.

Finally, the party is emboldened, despite its position in the polls (which the leadership, in any case, refuses to believe). They put their (relative) success in 2017 down as much to their manifesto as their man. Internal party polling (which it does believe) has shown that whatever the electorate might think about the leader, their individual policies are popular with strong majorities in favour of many of the prescriptions offered. Essentially it opens up the possibility of Corbynism without Corbyn. All the party is doing now is ratcheting up already agreed policy positions a notch or two (or three or four …).

But this is far from the end of the matter. Corbyn’s hastily revised Conference Speech was stripped of a slew of other policy announcements he was due to make as the party felt they would not receive the oxygen of publicity they deserved in light of the Supreme Court judgment. But they have not been ditched, simply postponed for a more media-friendly time slot in the coming weeks as the impending General Election looms. The leadership senses triumph, moderates fear disaster. We will know soon enough which, if either, of these impostors wins the day.