1. IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR
When the Momentum email arrived in inboxes of tens of thousands of Labour members late on Saturday night, anti-Brexit campaigners knew the game was up. Proving just how dominant it now is in the party, the grassroots movement told supporters not to pick controversial motions backing indefinite EU single market membership or free movement of migrants.
So, here we are at a Labour conference and the big issue of our generation, Brexit, will be debated - but without any potentially embarrassing votes to change policy. “This would make the control freaks of the New Labour era blush,” said Blairite Richard Angell, irony intended. And yet for all the backlash from some MPs, even Corbyn sceptic MPs (with seats in Leave areas) have a sneaking respect for the way that JC is becoming a more, well, traditional leader.
Having ducked and dived like a pro on the Marr Show, Corbyn can now claim it’s ‘nothing to do with me guv’ as the conference prepares to vote on only an anodyne NEC statement (finished only this morning) rather than unsettling motions. Asked about the priorities ballot decision not to select Brexit, John McDonnell insisted on Today that “the leadership doesn’t control that at all”. A few hollow laughs could be heard in hotel rooms, as everyone knows that Momentum does nothing without consulting the leadership.
Yet don’t forget the role of the unions (who have lots of Leave voting members) in this carefully-orchestrated party management. It was their late decision to adopt Grenfell as a priority issue, handing rail service to Momentum instead, that left Brexit off the list. Don’t forget too that Keir Starmer wants no distractions just at the point when Labour looks like it forced May to adopt its own policy of a two-year transition which keeps us in the single market and customs union. Even if the motions had been included, they would have been ‘composited to death’ last night by the Conference Arrangements Committee, I’m told.
But divisions over Labour’s policy continue of course. Corbyn sometimes talks about the opportunities of Brexit. McDonnell said he wanted reformed free movement with a ‘European wide agreement’ to protect wages. Clive Lewis told Caroline Flint on SkyNews that opposition to EU migration “is ultimately about racism.” Andrew Gwynne refused to rule out a second referendum on Westminster Hour. Will Labour let us effectively stay in the EU even after using the out door? Earlier, MP Ben Bradshaw took part in the pro-EU march on the Brighton promenade, then took a dip in the sea as Alastair Campbell played Ode to Joy on his bagpipes (I’m not making this up). Bradshaw was wearing his skimpy Aussiebum swimming trunks, and a friend said that meant he took his ’Bollocks to Brexit’ badge a bit too literally when he emerged from the deep.
There will be a debate on Brexit today. McDonnell said it would be “extensive, thorough…I think it might be robust as well”. Yet given the strategic task of this conference is to contrast Labour unity with expected Tory disunity next week (Tim Shipman’s revelations about Hammond texting Boris, the ‘i’ reports DD ready for leadership), just how the debate goes will be telling. In his HuffPost interview, elections chief Andrew Gwynne warned against any heckles or boos that could tear the party apart. “[Debate] has to be done in a comradely fashion and it has to be done remembering that the eyes of the country are on us.”
2. LOAN RANGER GOES TONTO
Monday is traditionally Treasury day at Labour conference, with Chancellors like Gordon Brown and Shadow Chancellors like Ed Balls setting out their stall ahead of their leader’s big speech later in the week. Today, John McDonnell has cannily built on the summer’s radical manifesto with an overnight trail of plans to cap credit card fees for those most in debt.
The policy, which had been floated but rejected by the Financial Conduct Authority, is sure to prove popular among party supporters. Stephen Jones, CEO of UK Finance warned on the Today prog’s business section that the plan would lead to ‘a withdrawal of credit’ from those in most need. Others will counter that’s exactly what payday loan chiefs said about caps on their rates, and it didn’t happen.
What is really noticeable here in Brighton is how the narrow election result has forced the City and business to attend a conference that they ran a mile from in the past two years. McDonnell, who has offered his famous “cups of tea” with the forces of capital, told Today he’d been “meeting lots of asset managers” who like Labour’s infrastructure and skills investment plans. CBI chief Carolyn Fairburn confirmed she welcomed those policies, though warned nationalisation would deter investment. The Left are delighted that business is having to engage with Labour on its, rather than their, terms. Or as McDonnell put it at the mass rally on Saturday night with Corbyn: “I’ll tell you a secret, I’m going to be Chancellor.”
McDonnell has kept back a ‘big reveal’ due to be delivered in his lunchtime speech, I’m told. What will the new policy be? I wonder if it is some fresh movement on a Universal Basic Income, the radical plan to give every citizen a minimum payment. Speaking of which, in a new podcast this morning, Ed Miliband says he’s interested but sceptical about the idea. Let’s see if Big Mac goes for it. Labour knows it needs to appeal to older voters, so his line on fiscal discipline will be interesting. Note too that Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams has a plan to help WASPI women retire earlier.
3. CALIFORNIA UBER ALLIES
Days after Transport for London’s shock decision to cancel its licence, the fightback by Uber and its allies gathers pace. The San Francisco-based taxi app will be delighted that the FT has put on its front page a story that TfL’s ‘bogus’ ruling had been based on politically-motivated worries rather than safety concerns for passengers.
The capital’s transport regulator partly based its decision on Uber’s lack of background checks and medical certificates for its drivers. But critics said TfL is responsible for both vetting the backgrounds of all private-hire drivers in the capital and ensuring they are medically fit through its preferred provider before issuing them with a licence. One Uber drivers’ rep added “to me this reeks”.
Sadiq Khan’s team deny the announcement was timed to coincide with his own Labour conference appearance (he gets his three-minute speech, sometime after 3pm today). But last night in the Hilton bar, the London Mayor and new union hero achieved something few have in recent months: he sat down with Unite’s Len McCluskey and Unison’s Dave Prentis. The Sun meanwhile reports that Tories are so nervous of a London wipeout that they’re drafting plans to curb foreign ownership of the capital’s homes.
Ever-popular Khan emerged as voters’ top choice in our HuffPost/BMG poll yesterday as the man to replace Corbyn as Labour leader. But this is very much a delegate-led conference (as witnessed by MPs complaining about being banned from the hall floor). Yesterday saw refreshing contributions from newcomers like 16-year-old Lauren Stock and Michelle Dorrell. And the international guest speaker tomorrow will be anti-capitalist writer Naomi Klein. I remember when Bill Clinton took that slot, 15 long years ago in Blackpool (“Bill Clinton, Arkansas CLP...”) and then again in Manchester in 2006. The contrast says everything about how far Labour has moved since then.
4. CAN’T TOUCH DISS
Andrew Gwynne was the WaughZone Live guest yesterday and he didn’t disappoint. The man with the longest title of any Shadow Cabinet minister – Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government And Co-National Campaigns and Elections Coordinator – joked that “I need an A5-sized business card”. But he needs no introduction here in Brighton, where MPs and party members unite in their fond respect for one of their stars of the 2017 election.
Still only 43 yet a veteran of Blair, Brown, Miliband and Corbyn administrations, Gwynne was as relentless cheerful as ever as he explained just how dire Labour’s private forecasts were after its local election drubbing. He revealed that internal party data predicted the party would be reduced to a rump of just 157 MPs, and ‘the blood drained from my face’ as he saw his own seat was expected to fall to the Tories.
The ‘Corbyn surge’ made that forecast history of course, and Gwynne was as pugilistic as anyone in taking on the Tories in the ‘short campaign’. Yesterday he told me how he deliberately sought to wind up Boris Johnson live on TV, having realised that the Foreign Secretary “absolutely hated body contact”. His ‘Boris, don’t be a pillock’ line went viral at the time, but it stemmed from a wider Labour tactic (repeated by Emily Thornberry and others) of literally getting in the faces of their opponents.
Gwynne also talked for the first time about his near-death experience in 2010, when he managed to take part in a crucial Commons vote despite (unwittingly) suffering a pulmonary embollism. If the blood clot had gone to his heart, he ‘wouldn’t be here to tell the tale’. One of the reasons he’s so well liked in the PLP and party HQ and leader’s office (a combo few pull off) is that Gwynne is also shrewd as well as loyal. And although it went little-noticed yesterday, his policy announcement to change the law to let councils carry out services ‘in-house’ (tearing up Thatcher’s compulsory tendering) would have a big impact on local government – and on bread-and-butter things like bin collection.
5. SCOTS UNITE
For a further example of just how effectively the Left is out-organising the centrists in Labour, look north to the Scottish Labour leadership contest. We report that Corbyn-supporting Richard Leonard (who only became an MSP last year) is on course to defeat rival Anas Sarwar thanks to a huge influx of Unite members becoming eligible to vote in the election.
I can reveal that Len McCluskey’s union signed up 2,700 members to the “political levy” – a payment needed to be eligible to vote in the Labour contest - in just two days last weekend. Yes, you read that right, in just two days. The new members, who responded to a mass text and email campaign after Unite came out for the leftwinger, came on top of the 5,000 levy-payers the union already has on its books.
So that’s already 7,200 Unite members ready to back Leonard and thousands more are expected to be signed up in the coming weeks, ahead of the final closing date for new members of October 9. With just 20,000 Labour members in total in Scotland, Unite members are now set to wield a large proportion of the votes needed to win the contest, sparked by the resignation of former leader Kezia Dugdale. One source said that Unite members could end up comprising a third of the entire electorate.
Moderates had hoped the Corbyn-sceptic Scottish Labour membership could help Sarwar (Scotland backed Owen Smith last year rather than JC) and were out in force last night expressing their unease. But as even ‘centrist’ shopworkers union Usdaw has backed Leonard too, Sarwar clearly has a problem with the bruvvers.