Labour Conference:
Going through the motions

Tom Hamilton

Will policy decisions taken at Labour Conference have any effect if the party gets into government?

Labour Party Conference is many different things at once. A social event, a trade fair, a talking shop, a platform for a candidate for Prime Minister and his potential cabinet to show the country why they should be running it and what they would do if they did. But it is also – like the Lib Dems’ conference but unlike the Conservative one – a policymaking body.

That does not mean that the leadership always follows the policies conference passes. Tony Blair simply ignored the decision of the 2004 conference to renationalise the railways. But under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, with his desire for more radical policies and member-led democracy, surely conference takes on a new significance? When motions are passed calling for private schools to be shut down, or for an ambitious target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030, isn’t Corbyn’s Labour bound to follow them? That’s certainly what some of the excited headlines suggest.

The truth is that not all of the coverage aids understanding. It suits both Labour grassroots campaigners attempting to make the party’s policies more radical, and newspapers attempting to make the party’s policies sound more radical – and perhaps, in their view, more menacing – to pretend that the Labour policies agreed at conference will automatically become part of Labour’s programme for government. That’s not a conspiracy, it’s just opposing incentives coming into alignment.

One clue about whether Conference decisions will have any real-world effect if Labour gets into government is to listen to what shadow ministers say in their speeches. If getting rid of private schools, say, was so important to Labour, why wouldn’t Angela Rayner or Jeremy Corbyn talk about it? When they don’t, it’s a good clue that it is not actually central to their programme – and that while they have failed to stop grassroots campaigners passing a motion, they are alive to political risks or practical difficulties which may make the policy unattractive.

Labour will always have more policies than it has space in a manifesto, and the manifesto is signed off not by Conference but by a smaller meeting of Labour stakeholders, the Clause V meeting, held during an election campaign. If Labour leaves something out of a manifesto, it can be put back in at the Clause V meeting, but only if those present agree to it.

So on the 2030 net zero target, for example, the meeting at conference where it was discussed included a row between union representatives, who warned that it would risk thousands of their members’ jobs, and environmental campaigners representing the Momentum-backed Labour for a Green New Deal, who said they didn’t care. The motion got through. But as one Labour official pointed out to me, Labour for a Green New Deal aren’t going to be in the Clause V meeting, and the GMB are.

That doesn’t mean everyone at the top of the party is relaxed about these motions getting through. They do signal a direction of travel and the mood of the grassroots, and they help to provide headlines which are not always welcome. But what they show most of all is the way the political management of conference has changed.

Compositing meetings are still held to keep debates off the conference floor, but there are many more motions now, and less central intervention to ensure that difficult wording can be watered down. Campaigners for more Labour Party internal democracy have won control of both the processes and the leadership, and that means that the leadership is sometimes inconvenienced by people who thought they were being supportive. On big issues, like Brexit, the debates can still be contentious – but on big issues, like Brexit, the leadership still ensures it gets its way, this year by precipitately denying the need for a card vote even though a show of hands in the hall looked too close to call.

That was all the more striking given how many card votes have been held this week on more minor issues. As another former party staffer reminisced fondly, in the old days the regional organisers would have told local party delegates to stop being so silly and get with the programme. That’s the sort of quietly forceful intervention that often gets dismissed as control freakery. Well, the presence of signalling systems at London Bridge station is also a form of control freakery. You wouldn’t want to get on the train if they weren’t there