The five things you need to know on Monday, September 26, 2016…
1) NUCLEAR MELTDOWN
The real danger of Labour conference is that all the media’s attention is on the fringes and not on what happens in the hall itself. But as Clive Lewis delivered his speech yesterday, I was alerted to the last-minute script change that laid bare fresh divisions over the party’s policy on Trident.
Our scoop – that Lewis had wanted to say he would not seek to overturn Trident renewal, but had the line cut by Corbyn comms chief Seumas Milne – became the only story in town as various new details and iterations emerged.
PolHome got the fantastic detail of Lewis punching a wall in frustration at the autocue-room cut, ITV News had the footage of him reading his smartphone and looking flustered, and last night Politico got his killer quote that Labour shouldn’t be ‘picking at the scab’ of a Trident policy that was settled. He had a meltdown over the late change, but he’s determined not to cave in his determination that the party should now leave the issue alone and not walk into a Tory ‘ambush’.
Despite the attempt to keep the defence review nominally alive, with both GMB and Unite vowing to protect their members’ jobs in the defence industry, Lewis has now won a major concession. Corbyn will maintain his ‘personal’ opposition to the deterrent, while accepting the policy is unlikely to change.
And if there is one lesson for Jeremy Corbyn from this entire conference it’s this: don’t mess with the unions. They hold the ring not just on Trident, but also have the numbers on the NEC and at party conference to determine both party reform and policy. That’s why the GMB kicking off over the new fracking ban matters too.
As for Jez, he has cancelled a round of media interviews planned for this morning. His team cite “diary management” and the pressures of writing his Big Speech tomorrow, but others suspect he is just keen to avoid the Trident meltdown.
And on policy more widely, don’t forget about Corbyn’s 10-point manifesto on which he fought the leadership campaign. Most of it the party can live with (though some bits, such as ending ‘support for aggressive wars of intervention’, could prove contentious), yet it has not gone through the formal policymaking process. NEC members were surprised on Saturday when Corbyn, fresh from his victory, asked them to endorse his manifesto in full. Some objected that that was not how things worked. But I’m told yesterday’s NEC decided to allow the manifesto to go before conference and will form the ‘framework’ for the national policy forum. One to watch.
Ed Balls may be struggling on Strictly but he is still proving he can bust some moves when it comes to dishing it out to the Corbyn regime. The former Chancellor was on ITV’s The Agenda last night, saying that the ‘coup’ was ‘foolish’ but under its current leader “it may be that Labour, as it stands, is never going to be elected again”. Yes, never again.
Team Corbyn are working behind the scenes on their reshuffle and the appointment of Jonathan Reynolds as Shadow City Minister (he got a shout-out in McDonnell’s speech, along with Caroline Flint) is the first sign of a welcome for returnees. Dan Jarvis may however hold out until there’s clarity on shadow cabinet elections (he may have to wait some time), though he’s got a Private Member’s Bill on child poverty that will raise his profile after a quiet summer.
But the big power struggle that moderates believe they’re on the cusp of winning is over the expansion of Labour’s ruling NEC. Although Corbyn has a huge new mandate, he won’t be able to further change the party, or policy, without the NEC or conference’s approval.
And although it may look like the most arcane bits of Kremlinology, the decision to add two extra NEC places for Scotland and Wales matters hugely as it shifts the balance of power from a narrow pro-Corbyn majority to a narrow Corbyn-sceptic one. Ian Murray warned yesterday that if the moves were overturned there was a danger of “shutting the Scottish Labour party down.”
The vote on the rule changes is this morning and although there was some speculation that Unite may try to delay them, they may give up after failing to convince the GMB and others. When that happens, watch the smiles on the faces of Tom Watson, Kezia Dugdale and Iain McNicol.
3) COUNCILLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
There’s one rule change buried in the raft of reforms to be voted on today that many have missed, but it’s significant nonetheless: Labour will ban all its councillors for voting against or abstaining on setting a legal budget in its town halls. Anyone who defies the edict will be disciplined.
Why does this matter? Well, moderates fear that across the country Momentum groups could copy the Lewisham branch in lobbying councils to set not just ‘no cuts’ budgets but illegal budgets (ie ones that defy the law on balancing the books), as a symbolic protest against Tory Treasury austerity.
As well as a return to the 1980s days of ‘loony Left’ councils, there is a fear that the councillors would be deselected if they refuse to take radical action. And away from all the talk of MPs’ deselection, Corbyn-sceptics worry that councillor deselection could be the Next Big Thing, with new members forcing their local representatives to follow the leader.
I’ve written in detail about this HERE, but it’s worth noting that this summer John McDonnell (himself a rate-capping rebel in 1986) marked the 30th anniversary of the ‘fightback’ alongside ‘Red’ Ted Knight in Lambeth, saying he was “proud” of the “heroes and heroines” who stood firm against the cuts.
Of course, one council that refused to set a budget was Derek Hatton’s Militant-led Liverpool. Degsy has been given a pass to conference this year and has revealed in his Liverpool Echo diary that he’s exchanged “very pleasant, very welcoming” words with Corbyn.
Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan (an Owen Smith backer) has his speech today with a warning that Labour councils should be about power, not protest. And he has a pointed line that “Labour out of power will never, ever be good enough. The people who need us the most are those who suffer the most when Labour is not in power”.
Moderates fear Corbyn is going back to the future with his agenda. But there is a real risk that they still fail to understand the tsunami of new members who have flooded into the party.
And the comparisons with the 1980s can be misleading. The Independent’s Andy Grice, who knows more than anyone I know about Liverpool and Labour’s internal warfare, has written a piece today in which he says Momentum’s World Transformed event proves the movement is nothing like Militant. Well worth a read.
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4) BIG MAC, FRIED?
Jess Phillips has never been afraid to speak her mind, but it seems that her new role as chair of the women’s PLP has given her even more licence to thrill fellow moderates. Yesterday, she laid into John McDonnell on LBC, coming very close to calling him a misogynist for his ‘lynch the bitch’ joke about Esther McVey and assassinate Thatcher gags. “The common denominator seems to always be....women".
McDonnell was however greeted with a hero’s welcome on the conference floor for his unashamed pledge to bring “socialism” to Britain, along with a raft of plans to tackle tax avoidance by the rich, a ‘minimum minimum wage’ of £10 an hour (by 2020) and a possible universal basic income.
McDonnell has been all over the fringes like he’s still a backbencher and last night popped up with a couple of interesting ideas. He told an electoral reform fringe that he wanted the House of Lords to be a testbed of some kind of PR. And he told our Martha Gill that Lords reform could also be a first test of directly consulting Labour’s mass membership on policy.
Much of Big Mac’s speech was focused on life after Brexit, and some MPs felt he didn’t sound too devastated by the prospect. Still, his ally Diane Abbott had a dig not just at Labour MPs who are now talking about ending freedom of movement, but also the voters who backed Leave. At a fringe (picked up by the Sun), she said: “The people that complain about the freedom of movement will not be satisfied because what they really want is to see less foreign looking people on their streets.”
5) THE KIDS, WE’RE UNITED
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has her debut on the conference stage today and I predict that she will go down a storm with delegates. She will draw on her personal backstory to underline the changes Labour can achieve in office, setting out how SureStart helped her as a young mum.
Having left school at 16, pregnant and with no qualifications, Rayner will use her speech to talk about the “snobbery” she gets “from some pundits and commentators, from the hate-filled trolls on social media”. “Some of the Tories say: ‘she left school at 16, she doesn't have a university degree, what does she know about education?’ I say, I may not have a degree - but I have a Masters in real life.”
Rayner will unveil a taskforce into early years childcare policy, an area where Labour thinks it ought to be ahead but where Ed Miliband was completely outmanoeuvred by David Cameron in the 2015 general election.
More widely however, I’m told Rayner will kickstart a new nationwide campaign titled ‘Education not Segregation’, to press on the bruise that is May’s new grammars plan – the one area that unites every Labour PM. On Corbyn’s education campaign day on Saturday, the party aims to contact a million voters in key marginal seats like Norwich North, Warrington South, Harrow East, Stockton South, South Swindon. It will be a test to see how its mass membership of 600,000 can be mobilised to fight the Tories rather than vote on an internal election.
There is one fly in the ointment, however. Will Corbyn pledge to abolish existing grammars in places like Kent? There’s lots of pressure on him to do so from some on the Left, but Labour could be ‘wiped out’ in the county elections there if it does so, one source told me.
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