What was the Progress feeling at this year’s Labour Conference?
The Progress Rally at Labour Party Conference on Sunday featured a strong bill of speakers – ranging from Chuka Umunna to Tristram Hunt and Eddie Izzard. It also presented an opportunity to gauge the mood of the modernising wing of the party, fresh from their comprehensive defeat in the leadership, deputy leadership, and mayoral selections. This crowd doesn’t do rallies quite as well as the Tribune-types, with their heritage of platform oratory, and, although invited to do so by Peter Kyle, the new MP for Hove and Portslade, did not take the chance to cheer or heckle very enthusiastically.
Indeed, when one speaker congratulated “Jeremy and Tom” on their victories, a strange silence overtook the room, broken only by a few nervous laughs. Most speakers called on the audience to recognise Corbyn’s mandate but also to defend vigorously the achievements of the last Labour Government to reject the charge that they were Tories in disguise. Kyle urged the audience to take the new leader’s invitation to debate as an opportunity to be frank about their areas of policy disagreement. Tristram Hunt, in an uncharacteristically barnstorming speech, exemplified that frankness by calling himself “a God-fearing, national-anthem singing, roast-beef eating” radical democrat.
Andy Burnham, who many could forget started out his political journey as a Progress member, drew a few laughs, perhaps not in the way he intended. He thanked people for their first preferences, and one gentleman stuck up a lonely hand. Calling for second preferences, Burnham got a few mumbles and a hand or two. Urging on third preferences, the crowd roared.
But it was perhaps Chuka Umunna who captured best the mood of the room and this wing of the Labour Party. He defended the achievements of the Blair-Brown governments, from the minimum wage to Sure Start and spending on education and the NHS, but also said the audience had to recognise that the New Labour style of politics had been rejected. And that summed up the Progress feeling – defiant in claiming Labour identity and traditions and about the achievements of the Blair-Brown governments, rather sullenly acknowledging the shortcomings of those politics, and still angry and baffled as to how that alternative had emerged from a politics so anathema to them as those of the member for Islington North, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn MP.