What to expect at this year’s Labour Party Conference
Labour head to the seaside next week in a state of considerable ferment. The party conference in Brighton will be one of the most fascinating for decades – the hard left is in its strongest position for generations and Labour have the most left wing leader in their history. The ‘membership’ of the party has changed utterly, with the influx of left wing members and ‘supporters’ over the summer and many long-standing MPs will be surveying a party that they don’t recognise. All of this adds up to a fascinating few days on the south coast. With all this in mind, what are the five things you should look for in sunny Brighton next week?
- This conference will feel different and more powerful than any since 1981.
Mark Mardell relayed an amusing anecdote from an MP on the centre-right of the party. This MP said that given that most of the people who were normally outside of the conference selling Socialist Workers and shouting about the overthrow of capitalism would now be inside, he and his colleagues should now be outside shouting about fiscal responsibility. That’s a wry way of pointing out the utterly changed nature of conference, with left wing delegates now feeling that they’ve “got their party back” (the fact the hard left has never been dominant in the Labour Party shouldn’t detain us here).
Under the guise of “internal party democracy”, Corbyn seems intent on giving policy-making power to conference, rather than MPs. Take a read of this fascinating interview with George Eaton, in which Corbyn repeatedly makes clear the primacy of conference in decision making. Corbyn says that unilateralism would become party policy if a motion was passed at conference “because it would have been passed at conference.” He also says that “mandatory reselection”, that Bennite instrument of purging, would “absolutely” become “party rules” if conference voted for it. This isn’t just the most left wing conference since 1981: it’s also the most powerful. Nevertheless, note also that despite Corbyn’s importance the influential Conference Arrangements Committee includes figures such as Gloria De Piero MP and Michael Cashman.
- This is Corbyn’s best chance to make an impact.
It’s one of the enduring realities of British politics that Leaders of the Opposition have only a few weeks to define themselves, as Foot, Kinnock, Hague, Duncan-Smith, Howard and Miliband found to their cost. Ed Miliband never recovered from his faltering start as Labour leader, failing to make a positive imprint on the British public. Corbyn needs to use his address to show that he can reach out beyond the enthusiastic, but small, band of Corbynistas and make an impression on the country at large. Phil Collins in The Times has some ideas for how he might go about this. Given that Corbyn is the only Labour leader to start off with negative ratings, he already needs to give his leadership a boost and to show that he can reach beyond Islington and Highbury. This is his best opportunity to seize the public imagination. Perverse though it might sound, it could also be one of his last.
- Public displays of unity and private displays of resistance.
There are always two conferences. There’s the conference that the public sees on television – often orchestrated and united around party lines. And then there’s the conference that happens behind the scenes, often in the main bar late in the evening or in Brighton’s many fine restaurants. In public, expect to see displays of unity, with even reluctant shadow cabinet members like Andy Burnham sure to offer words of praise for the newly elected leader. The bar of the Grand Hotel, on the other hand, is sure to be full of the disaffected and the disempowered already considering how to move Corbyn on. It’ll be a tale of two conferences, and the media is sure to be keeping an ear out for disaffection and plotting through the course of the week.
- The fringe will be feverish.
The fringe is almost always where the most interesting speeches are made, and this will be more the case this year than ever. The Blairite ‘resistance’ is out in force, with Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt speaking at numerous events. It will be interesting to see how much their loyalty is strained away from the main conference arena. The Labour First meeting will also be worth noting. The left-wing fringes are likely to be intoxicated with renewed power, and you should expect the rhetoric to reflect this. Interestingly, Corbyn has also accepted a few fringe speaking invitations that he might now be reconsidering, including one at Sinn Fein’s fringe. The media will be all over these events, looking for a juicy soundbite from an unguarded moment of candour from politicians who feel safe with the faithful.
- How does Corbyn deal with big business at conference?
It’s one of the rituals of party conference that the party leader makes a slow walk through all of the business exhibitors to talk about what they do and thank them for turning up at the conference. The Leader and the shadow Chancellor would also be expected to make at least a brief appearance at the business dinner. In the past, Jeremy Corbyn has seemed far more interested in visiting the Cuba Solidarity campaign stall than in any of the business stalls. Will he be happy to make small talk with the representatives of business this year, or will he regard this element of the leader’s job to be anathema? It might be worth checking out our top tips about lobbying Corbyn’s Labour in case he does pop in to your stall.