POLITICS
26/09/2018 18:38 BST | Updated 27/09/2018 13:26 BST

5 Things We Learned From Labour Party Conference This Week

Lessons from Liverpool

1. Jeremy Corbyn Is Getting More Radical, Not Less.

Harold Wilson once said of Tony Benn that ‘he immatures with age’. But for Jeremy Corbyn, the older he gets, the more he sounds like a Millennial radical. Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto proved popular with the public because it caught the mood of the times. This week, the Labour leader has shown that those pledges to end Tory austerity, ‘fat cat’ tax breaks and privatisations were only the start. Water companies will be nationalised and public sector chiefs will be answerable to their staff. Even the BBC and newspapers will be forced to ‘democratise’. A Palestinian state would be recognised on the first day of a Corbyn government.

John McDonnell had one of the most telling lines of the entire week when he said on Monday that “the greater the mess we inherit the more radical we have to be”. This is a pivot on the usual Tory message that throughout history the voters have turned to the Conservatives to clean up the financial mess left by Labour governments. Blair’s response to years of underfunded public services was to actually spend his first two years sticking to Tory spending limits. Corbyn’s is to say tax the rich and pump cash immediately into the economy. And on climate change, he’s making the case for more radicalism by pledging to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

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McDonnell’s plan to transfer up to 10% of shares of all companies to their workers is truly radical, and provoked the ire of business groups like the CBI. Yet it was pitched as a sensible John Lewis-style partnership rather than Marxist dogma. Indeed, Prescott’s mantra of ‘traditional values in a modern setting’ could apply to Corbynism 2.0. Instead of traditional state-run nationalisations, a Labour government would deliver co-operatives, mutuals and localised power – all very on-trend in 2018. There’s nothing scary about the Co-Op, is there?

Corbyn won his biggest cheer when he told Theresa May to ‘make way’ for a Labour government. But it’s possible the next election won’t be until 2022, by which time he will have been Leader of the Opposition for seven long years. Even if he fails to win, by then his politics and his supporters will have embedded deep roots into Labour at every level. For some around him, that’s the biggest prize of all.

2. Keir Starmer Put Remaining In The EU Back On The Agenda

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For many people, delivering or not delivering Brexit is the only political issue that matters right now. So Keir Starmer’s announcement that Labour will vote against Theresa May’s current plans for quitting the EU really mattered. It puts the ball firmly in the court of the Tory MPs who are flirting with a rebellion big enough to cause Parliamentary gridlock this autumn.

The most significant moment for Remainers, however, came when Starmer actually uttered the ‘R-word’ from the platform. His ad-libbed line that “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option” prompted a standing ovation that rolled like a tsunami around the Liverpool conference hall, gathering pace and power as delegates realised he’d actually said the previously unsayable. Almost overnight he became a conference darling, rivalling even Corbyn in the key metric of requests for smartphone selfies.

Starmer has also shown a strategic nous that others in the party could learn from. Through the year he has steadily moved Labour’s position, carefully consulting different wings of the party as he went. Some in the party believe he genuinely wants ‘Remain’ to be on the ballot paper of any referendum, even though he knows it’s highly unlikely that the country will get one.  The more realistic prize is, as Corbyn hinted in his own speech, a Brexit that keeps some form of customs union with the EU.

Those in the tortuous meeting on a compromise Brexit motion said it was Starmer’s true finest hour (or five hours), as he managed to carve out a consensus that kept trade unions and members together. To win the next election, Labour will have to build an even trickier coalition. It has to hold onto the 1.5m Ukippers who returned to the party in 2017, its own Leave and Remain voters, while winning over Tory switchers in key marginals. That’s a big ask, but by unifying Labour and focusing on May’s own divisions, he may have changed the political weather. 

3. John McDonnell And Tom Watson Are Both Raising Their Game 

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Not once but several times this week, speakers at the conference referred to ‘the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’. The Shadow Chancellor is keen to play down any such suggestion but thanks to a much more engaging media operation, he’s been on more TV screens, radio shows and newspaper and online news platforms than ever before. His higher profile has relieved the pressure on Corbyn to constantly act as the face of the party, while making a more polished case for some key policies.

McDonnell has put his foot down on some of the more blatant errors made by those around Corbyn, from Margaret Hodge’s suspension to tangles over whether the Russian state really was behind the Salisbury Novichok poisoning. He’s also been doing some heavy lifting on policy and more on green taxes, and on the really Big Idea of a universal basic income, which is due from his team before the year’s end.

Meanwhile, Tom Watson looks like a man reborn. This isn’t just his slimmer frame, or his decision to ditch a suit for the entire week in Liverpool. A year ago, he had accepted Corbyn’s snap election success and kept quiet. In recent weeks, he has been outspoken on anti-semitism and on ‘bullying’ of MPs by leftwing constituency members.

Perhaps his biggest triumph this week was the way he emerged with a win-win situation from the whole female deputy leader proposal. Having surprised the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) by backing a plan that was meant to clip his wings, he sparked a panic that Angela Rayner could emerge as a leader-in-waiting. With Corbyn allies lacking a clear alternative candidate, the only option was to kill the plan and leave Watson looking like the champion of women’s rights…while remaining the only (male) deputy leader. “They were playing draughts, Tom was playing chess,” is how one person in Liverpool put it.

4. Trade Unions Still Matter, Despite Momentum’s Growing Power

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When Jeremy Corbyn called for ‘unity’ in his keynote speech, he was referring to internal party splits over Brexit and anti-semitism. Yet he could easily have been referring to the deep – and growing – divide between the trade unions and Momentum that has been one of the most striking dynamics of this week in Liverpool. Add in the fact that few Labour MPs turned up and you can see a disconnect between the different parts of the Labour family.

Two key NEC meetings in the past week laid bare the problem, with the leader’s office causing irritation with what were seen as attempts to ‘bounce’ unions into weakening their own role in MP reselections. The unions also proved that unity is strength as they joined forces to see off Momentum’s more radical proposal for automatic reselections and won a new role in nominating leadership candidates. The compromise will still make it easier to remove a sitting MP solely at the request of party members.

But the bad blood means that some Leftwing MPs are now just as much under threat as it will only take a third of union branches to trigger a challenge to them. The lingering bitterness spilled onto the conference floor, with some delegates yelling ‘shame on the trade unions’. Unite’s Len McCluskey was involved in a shouting match in the street with Chris Williamson, who accused him of selling out his members. One trade unionist told me the ‘brocialists’ are more in favour of individualism than collectivism. There’s often a class divide here too, with Momentum’s middle class members being pitted against working class trade unionists.

Still, Momentum had another hugely successful The World Transformed festival, with 6,000 people attending. And its growing power meant that 13,000 people attended the main conference, more than in a decade. Its delegates now outnumber the centrists across the country. Most importantly, although the conference debates were at times a bit chaotic, they featured some very impressive contributions from first time delegates. One member talked about her life being saved by SureStart after a violent relationship, another revealed how local mental health cuts meant she had to stop a young woman from walking into the sea. Any party conference that allows such real world testimony has got to be progress.

5. Anti-Semitism Remains An Ugly Sore

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One of the most electric speeches of the week came from Emily Thornberry. Faced with a conference hall that waved Palestinian flags as never before, she managed to use her own criticism of Israel to open up a space where she could launch into a powerful denunciation of ‘fascist’ anti-semites in the party.

The week had started with Corbyn being grilled on the subject by Andrew Marr, a fact that led Barry Gardiner to complain the BBC was unfairly focusing on the issue. Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP, was seen with police protection as she walked around the conference. Then Len McCluskey suggested that Margaret Hodge’s angry description of Corbyn as a ‘racist’ proved she had “lost every sense of moral proportion, every shred of decency”. An Israeli Labor party MP told the Labour Friends of Israel fringe that Corbyn had to do much more. The strong presence in Liverpool of ‘Jewish Voice for Labour’, seen by many in the Jewish community as a fringe of a fringe, unnerved several MPs.

Corbyn himself devoted a section of his speech to rooting out the problem, admitting it had been a ‘tough summer’. Tom Watson, who made a strong show of support for Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan on Tuesday night, said that the party had put its new structures in place to root out the racists and it has now got to deliver. “I very much hope by end of this year the backlog would have been completely cleared,” he said.

The Left has long claimed that the backlog of cases is somehow the fault of Labour HQ or of the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) which handles disciplinary cases. It has installed a new in-house lawyer and most Labour HQ compliance unit members have departed. The NCC itself this week elected a more leftwing membership and within hours ousted its chair and replaced her with a Momentum-backed activist. If the backlog and delays don’t reduce, then this issue may rumble on for some time yet.