Labour Party Conference – Setting The Scene

Tom Hamilton

As Labour members gather in Brighton tomorrow with one poll showing the party slipping into third place behind the Liberal Democrats and a general election still expected to take place this autumn, Tom Hamilton – Associate Director and former Head of Policy to Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson – sets the scene for what is likely to be an eventful five days for Labour.

Labour Party Conference comes at a strange time. We are almost certainly on the verge of a general election. The Conservatives are sacking MPs, losing both ministers and their majority and looking anything but competent. It is perfectly plausible, despite current polls (Labour is third behind the Liberal Democrats in one poll this week) that Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister by the end of the year. But Labour’s gathering in Brighton does not yet feel like a triumphant pre-election rally.

Looking inwards

As usual, the run-up to Conference has been bumpy – and as usual, it will probably end with most delegates going home happy. But for now, the internal arguments dominate.

The decision by Labour’s National Executive Committee to disaffiliate Labour Students, on the explicit grounds that it is unrepresentative of Labour’s student members, and on the implicit grounds that it is a holdout of ‘Corbynscepticism’ (both accusations are credible) has upset at least two overlapping groups of MPs and activists: those who came through the organisation’s ranks at the start of their careers, and those who have benefitted from the organisation’s undoubted ability to mobilise young and energetic campaigners to descend on target seats at elections.

And the timetabling of a debate on revised disciplinary rules – including new processes for expelling antisemitic members – on Saturday at Conference, when observant Jewish delegates will be unable to participate, is another, almost certainly accidental, provocation (the claim that Labour makes things difficult for Jews not deliberately, but by not even noticing it’s doing it, is of course part of the case against Labour, not a defence).

Once Conference actually starts, dissent may be less visible. In part, this is because plenty of Labour MPs are not going to Brighton at all. Many are staying in their constituencies to focus on the trigger ballot process, which makes it much easier for them to be challenged as Labour candidates. So far, most MPs who have faced trigger ballots have won easily, but it has hardly fostered goodwill between MPs and the Leader’s office.

Unlike most corporate visitors to Conference, Labour MPs have to pay out of their own pocket and can’t claim their costs back on expenses – and hotels and conference passes can be expensive. “Why give them my money when they want to take me out?” asks one backbencher. Another MP says that rather than spend hundreds of pounds of his own money to be shouted at, he is going to go to the Rugby World Cup in Japan instead. There will be just as much shouting there, but he will probably have more fun.

Brexit troubles rumble on

With the Tories now explicitly targeting Leave voters and the Lib Dems targeting Remainers, Labour is still attempting to retain its 2017 electoral coalition. Labour’s latest position – negotiate a new, softer Brexit deal, then put it to the public in a referendum with remaining in the EU as the alternative – is both more coherent and easier to explain than some people like to pretend. There is a plausible argument, which we can expect to hear Labour make forcefully, that it is now the only party with a moderate Brexit policy.

But for Jeremy Corbyn, a leader whose appeal is based on his principled refusal to compromise on deeply-held convictions, and whose greatest weakness is a perceived lack of leadership skills, refusing to say which side he will take on the most important question facing the country feels like a strategic risk, to put it mildly. Shadow ministers will spend the week facing – and probably answering, not always helpfully – questions about which side they would back in a future referendum.

Simultaneously targeting Remainers with a second referendum pledge, and Leavers with a commitment to negotiate a deal to leave the EU, may strike voters as too clever by half. In government, should Labour get there, the political pain of offering a binary choice between staying in the EU, or a version of leaving which almost everyone who actually campaigned for Leave in 2016 thinks is worse than staying, could be so severe as to be unsustainable. Labour’s internal Brexit debate is not over.

People before privilege

Meanwhile, Labour continues to try to change the subject from Brexit, and every Labour conference provides a multitude of subjects to change to.

The Conference strapline, “People Before Privilege”, may logically amount to no more than a restatement of “For The Many Not The Few”, but it sounds edgier, more challenging, more willing to pick fights. It reflects the fact that Boris Johnson is a more obvious embodiment of privilege and entitlement, in his background and demeanour, than Theresa May ever was. And it signals that the leadership wants to make policy announcements which do not just show who Labour wants to help, but dramatise who Labour wants to take on too. None of this is new to Labour, or to politics in general, but the examplars of privilege Labour may have in mind – bankers, private schools, “big pharma”, choose your own target – might be feeling a little queasy.

Some new policy has been heavily trailed, including an expected commitment to scrap Universal Credit – something which, rather like implementing Universal Credit, is a nice idea but may be more complicated than it sounds (to be fair, Labour does appear to acknowledge that the process will take time).

John McDonnell’s fiscal rule means that any new current spending commitment needs to be matched with a revenue-raising measure to pay for it. So Labour is on the lookout for the least vote-repellent takeaways to pay for the most vote-winning giveaways. That makes last week’s endorsement by McDonnell of an independent report advocating extending the scope of a financial transaction tax by over £2 billion very interesting. Labour’s priorities – like adult social care, where the party has long been itching to make a big offer – cost money.

Focusing on what a Labour government would do helps to remind members why they are members, as well as helping to persuade ordinary voters that it might be worth voting Labour. Turning away from its internal battles has rarely been Labour’s preference. But with an election approaching at speed, it’s time for the leadership to persuade the party to fight the Tories rather than each other.