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The 2017 Manifesto, Not Divisive Rule Changes, Should Be The Star Of Labour's Conference

11/09/2017 07:44 BST | Updated 11/09/2017 07:44 BST
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When Labour gathers in Brighton, there is much to celebrate. The general election in June 2017 delivered a result which confounded the pundits, delighted Labour, and created chaos within the ranks and upper echelons of the Conservative party. A prime minister who called the election expecting a decisive victory instead watched her authority evaporate and her parliamentary majority disappear.

Labour was denied the outright victory we sought by sixty seats. However the party improved its position by 30 seats, winning back many of those we lost in 2010 and 2015. These included former Labour constituencies such as Peterborough, Lincoln, Battersea, Brighton Kemptown, Reading East, and one, Canterbury, never held by Labour before.

There was an overall swing of 9.8% from Conservative to Labour. With 262 seats, Labour is three seats ahead of where it was after the defeat in 2010 following the financial crash and 13 years in office. Labour secured 41% of the national vote, compared to the Tories' 43%. There has been solid progress since the days of Ed Miliband, and you might think this would form the centrepiece of Labour's annual conference.

However, Labour's leadership seems hellbent on a conference of constitutional wrangling, and unnecessary division. Perhaps Labour's leadership doesn't realise what a commanding position they are in. They are the new establishment within Labour. They are in charge of the Labour party, and the tone and focus of the Brighton conference reflects their will. Perhaps the general election results were such a surprise, they have not sunk in. Even so, the manifesto - arguably the star of the show - deserves the limelight.

Instead, we are promised an almighty row about how to elect the next Labour leader. In the pubs and clubs of Mansfield or Stoke, they talk of little else. This is a subject so arcane, obscure and divisive. With so much positive material and so many popular policies, and a national platform from which to project, it is bizarre Labour's establishment wants to focus on a couple of paragraphs of the rule book.

You can understand the need for the Labour establishment to engage in succession planning. The grouping around Jeremy Corbyn find themselves in charge of a mighty political party after decades standing outside selling papers and giving out leaflets. Corbyn will be seventy around the time of the next general election. It is legitimate that they should want a successor from the same tradition of North London socialism.

Hence the 'McDonnell Amendment' which seeks to lower the bar for a candidate, so that a candidate who is deeply unpopular with the people who know him or her in parliament, can nonetheless be placed on the ballot paper for consideration by the membership. What the leadership want is for a member of parliament such as John McDonnell, who failed to make the ballot paper in 2007 and 2010 because no more than a handful of his parliamentary colleagues wanted him, to be given a virtual free pass.

The current rules were introduced under Ed Miliband following the fiasco of the Falkirk selection. Labour MPs lost their historic role in electing the leader in return for an increased role in the nomination process. Under pressure from Jon Trickett and others on the hard left, the level was reduced to 15% from a proposed 20%. So the current rules are already a compromise, and as low as it should go. A further reduction should only be matched by a return to the electoral college with clear voting sections for MPs, trade unions, and constituency members.

Labour's establishment wants to talk about Corbyn's successor at the Brighton conference. That is a mistake and a missed opportunity.

Personally, I would rather be debating how to defeat Theresa May and win the next election. Sadly, Labour's new establishment do not agree.

Richard Angell is director of Progress. He is chairing this evening's 'Road to conference' joint Progress and Labour First event which takes place at 6pm in Committee Room 11 of the Palace of Westminster (give 15minutes to get through security). Find your nearest event at http://prog.rs/roadtoconf