The five things you need to know about Labour’s 2016 Conference…
1) UNITY IS MORE THAN A MEMO
There were two very different conferences in Liverpool this week, and I don’t just mean the official event and Momentum’s ‘World Transformed’ gathering. In the conference hall itself, the contrast between the audience for Tom Watson’s speech and for Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote address could not have been more stark.
The Deputy leader won several ovations for defending Blair and Brown’s record, for stressing Sadiq Khan’s point about the need to be in power, and - most famously - for his slapdown of a heckler. That line, “Jeremy, I don’t think she got the unity memo” was brutal in its ridicule, not least as Corbyn simply sat and stroked his beard as the entire platform got up to applaud Watson. It felt for a minute like the Gorbachev and the Politburo standing up to Chernenko.
But the hall was packed with a very different crowd yesterday for Jezza’s speech (I’ve written my take on the speech itself HERE). Many of the Watson-cheering delegates (and MPs) had got the train south, ensuring an unusually ‘ram-packed’ Lime Street station, hours before Corbyn stood up. In their place, the conference was flooded with Momentum activists, leftwing delegates and union members.
As I predicted yesterday, there were several ‘sit-ins’ during JC’s speech from a minority of delegates and others who refused to clap him on issues like Iraq (the Sun has a striking pic of Andy Burnham and Iain McNicol in their seats). But the passionate cheering of the vast majority of the audience underlined how this party had changed.
Perhaps the most startling statistic of the week was the YouGov exit poll which showed Owen Smith had won 63% of pre-2015 members. That Labour Party no longer exists. In its place is a more radical creature made up of pre-1997 returnees and a mass of new faces.
Corbyn told the conference ‘we are reuniting the Labour family’. Yet in our podcast on Monday, Wes Streeting summed up the stance of a chunk of the PLP when he said it felt like a divorce where a couple lives in the same house, purely because neither party could afford to move out.
2) CLIVE LEWIS THROWS A MEAN PUNCH
In Spain, over half the cabinet of the Socialist Party have quit overnight in an attempt to force their leader to quit. That sounds spookily familiar. But Labour MPs have learned the hard way this summer that perhaps Nietzsche was right: ’that which doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’. Corbyn is in a much stronger position now than he was a year ago, and no one can hope to challenge him soon (not least as 130,000 more members who joined since January were excluded from the leadership ballot and will probably feature in the next one).
One of the leadership contenders last year confided to me this week that their big mistake had been to act like a parent telling a teenager on how to live life: “Looking back ‘Yes, you can have your fun, but you have to be *sensible* too,’ that wasn’t a great pitch.”
Shadow Cabinet unity is the most immediate priority for Corbyn ahead of his reshuffle planned at the end of next week (after the Tory conference but before the Commons returns with is pressing need to fill empty shadow posts on bill standing committees).
The New Statesman reported late last night that Shami Chakrabarti was lined up for Shadow Attorney General, replacing the departed Karl Turner (whose no-nonsense, Yorkshire criticism of Corbyn has been among the most forthright of any in the PLP). Keir Starmer is seen as a favourite to get the Shadow Home Secretary post, though I’m told Corbyn is keen to have a woman in such a senior job. The continuing diplomatic dance between PLP chair John Cryer and the leadership will continue on an element of election to Shadow Cabinet posts.
But as Clive Lewis demonstrated this week, even normally loyal Corbyn shadow ministers have their limits. Our story that Seumas Milne had changed his speech at the last minute mattered more because it showed the leader is still constrained by his colleagues. Note that Jez didn’t mention Trident at all in his speech (unlike last year). That wasn’t a knockout, but it was a bout won on points by the punchy Shadow Defence Secretary.
3) IMMIGRATION AND BREXIT ARE A MINEFIELD
The conference fringe couldn’t be accused of ignoring Brexit, and there were plenty of small rooms with warm wine that featured the topic. But it was clear that for many Labour activists the stages of EU grief have not yet been exhausted, with varying levels of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
At least ‘denial’, in the shape of a second referendum, is not official party policy. Owen Smith had campaigned hard on this, wrongly believing (like the ‘coup’ originators) that Labour members would be so outraged by the shock of Brexit that it would sweep him to power. In the end, those members (and the public even more so) gave a collective ‘meh’ to the idea of re-running the referendum.
One of the cock-ups of the week (along with pre-briefing the wrong housebuilding figure in Corbyn’s main speech as 60,000 a year, not the 12,000 he actually said) was over a successful motion backing a second referendum. The NEC had to put out a statement clarifying that “for the avoidance of doubt we want to make clear that it is not our policy.”
Ken Clarke in today’s Statesman says “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front” (he also suggests he’ll vote against a Brexit deal in Parliament). But Corbyn’s vision for Brexit seems almost as vague as the Government’s.
As for immigration, JC’s firm line on not blaming migrants or wanting to cut numbers will be tested in coming months. Even ultra-loyal Burnham warned yesterday Labour supporters voted “for change on immigration” when they backed Brexit.
Meanwhile, Liam Fox in the Spectator today refuses to back down on his ‘fat’ and ‘lazy’ remarks about UK business. “As a country we have become too easy with the idea that the world owes us a living. The world doesn’t owe us a living.” Expect more from Foxy at our WaughZone Live event at Tory conference this Sunday lunchtime.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this Hillary Clinton attack ad on Trump’s lies in this week’s debate. Pretty devastating - but will it work?
4) THE BROTHERS STILL MATTER
If there’s one big lesson for the Labour leadership, and for MPs, from conference week it is this: don’t mess with the unions. Ed Miliband triggered the influx of leftwing members but the party reform he never dared touch was ending the union block vote at conference, let alone reducing their influence on the NEC.
Unite’s power was in evidence on the conference floor with the little-noticed rule change to allow future policy documents to be voted on line-by-line, a major victory for the Left. And Len McCluskey was scathing yesterday about Tom Watson, describing him as ‘right wing’, and declaring: “If Tom wants to try to refresh his mandate it would be interesting to see what happens.”
But the power of the GMB and Unison and others was also underlined by the way they backed Watson and Kezia Dugdale in the NEC to shift its balance of power to a ‘Corbyn-sceptic’ majority. And now that that majority is there, it is unlikely to approve plans to undermine itself by allowing more CLP reps to add to the six already backed by Momentum.
As the Times reports, Corbyn’s plan to use the NEC to push through radical changes is now halted, at least for a year. “There was a set of plans to turn Labour into the new Syriza by Christmas and that’s not going to happen now,” one source tells Francis Elliott.
And in another victory for the ‘moderates’, Glenis Willmott’s appointment as NEC chair guarantees it won’t be a vehicle for revolution (though the CWU’ s Andy Kerr is vice chair and will step up the year after if convention is observed). Like Kinnock all those years ago, the soft left and the centrists know the unions are their only way of checking the Left. The unions have won the war on Trident jobs, and are fighting another one on fracking.
Those MPs looking for a way out of the Corbyn era know they are likely to be beaten again, and possibly more bloodily, if they stage another leadership challenge before the general election. Some centrists talk of flooding the party with ‘sensible’ new members to fight fire with fire, but that looks like a herculean task with no candidate to rally round (unlike Blair who attracted 405,000).
Some MPs think that after an election defeat, the unions - including McCluskey - would walk into Corbyn’s office and tell him the game is up. But Corbyn has a habit of defying expectations. One senior insider told me this week that from the moment Hilary Benn quit, the leader was adamant he was going nowhere. The PLP thought he’d have to resign after the motion of no confidence. MPs and unions think he’ll have to resign after a general election defeat.
But don’t be so sure. Corbyn told me this summer that it was not ‘inevitable’ he would resign. And here’s another statistic. Our new BMG/HuffPost poll has found that 43% of Labour voters think Jez shouldn’t quit, even if he loses the next election (just 23% think he should). The echoes of Kinnock are louder in more ways than one.
5) LISA NANDY IS THE ONE TO WATCH
If Corbyn does decide to spend more time with his veg patch one day, the list of runners and riders to replace him will be wide. Yet if the party’s membership fails to change dramatically, it looks like only someone from the soft left could unite all those Smith and Corbyn voters of this summer.
And as a result, Lisa Nandy will undoubtedly be a leading contender. When you look at a fringe list at any party conference, you can spot those on manoeuvres from the names appear most regularly. One year Chuka was all over the fringe like a rash, another it was Burnham. This year, Nandy has been very visible - at the Lib Dem, Green and Labour conferences.
But Nandy has been all the more shrewd for not appearing to be jockeying for the top job, preferring instead to focus on the issues and debate Labour needs to have on a string of issues from Brexit to immigration to climate change to localism.
In our WaughZoneLive event, she proved just why she’s thought of so highly by many colleagues in the PLP. A fluent speaker of ‘real human’, a woman strong enough to stand up to the leader on anti-semitism (an issue starkly highlighted by our Jackie Walker video), friends with many of the left and the ‘right’, she has a lot going for her.
It may be years away, and she may stay out of the Shad Cab unless there are elections, but at our fringe there was the first glimmer of what life in Labour would look like post-Corbyn.
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