Five observations from Labour Conference 2019 by Gareth Jones.
- Corbyn weathers a difficult conference and remains in control:
As the Labour Party gathered in Brighton earlier this week, Jeremy Corbyn faced a number of internal challenges, with negative headlines about Party disunity and significant pressure on him to change his stance on Brexit. The conference started with a row about Momentum founder Jon Lansman’s attempts to abolish the role of Deputy Leader (and thereby oust Tom Watson). Then came the resignation of senior policy adviser Andrew Fisher, who had reportedly fallen-out with other members of Corbyn’s team.
However, arguably the biggest test of Corbyn’s authority came on Monday when the Conference voted on Labour’s Brexit policy for the next election. Corbyn’s preferred policy (that the party would organise a second referendum, remain neutral while it negotiates a new Brexit deal and then decide which position to back at a special conference) came under pressure from many delegates who wanted the Party to support Remain in all circumstance. Despite initial indications that Corbyn’s position would be rejected, his team managed to rally his supporters and carry through the motion, which resulted in a triumphant – if highly divisive – chant of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” on the conference floor.
The Supreme Court’s ruling against the Government on Tuesday provided even better news for the Labour leader, immediately changing the mood music around the conference and allowed Corbyn to make a triumphant speech calling for Boris Johnson to resign. The leadership will largely be happy with the overall outcome of conference, with Corbyn’s authority intact and key policy questions settled (for now).
- Although the Party has half an eye on his successor:
One interesting point in Corbyn’s speech was hearing the 70-year-old Party leader declare that “Labour will never tell people they have to work until they’re 75.” This felt like a personal pledge, amid rumours that he was becoming exhausted in his role.
While Corbyn told Andrew Marr on Sunday that he will definitely serve a full-term as prime minister if Labour are successful at the next election, there is growing belief that Corbyn will stand down at some point (and earlier if Labour are unsuccessful at the election). This fact appeared to be implicitly recognised at conference, where there was, in effect, a shadow leadership contest taking place among leading frontbench figures – including John McDonnell, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner — using a variety of hot topics (Brexit, climate change and private schools) to raise their profile and court support from party members, and this is something we are likely to see more off in the coming months.
- The transformation of the Labour Party is almost complete:
The prospect of a new leader raises fear from some of Corbyn’s loyalists and the Party’s left that their legacy in transforming the Party will be lost, and control handed back to moderates (indeed, part of the reason for Momentum’s attempt to oust Tom Watson was to prevent him assuming a leadership role in the intervening period).
However, my own observation from Brighton conference centre and its surroundings this week was that after four years of Corbyn’s leadership, the moderates have largely given up. The Party delegates in attendance were overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn and supportive Party officials now occupy all major posts on the NEC and HQ. It is also noteworthy that many facets of the parallel conference organised by Momentum ‘The World Transformed’ have been incorporated into the mainstream. The only part of the Labour Party that has yet to be completely transformed is the parliamentary party, but as many MPs sought to avoid this year’s conference, any resistance to the leadership was not particularly evident.
- The policy announcements were truly radical – and there was plenty of them:
In his keynote speech, Corbyn talked up the scale of Labour’s policy ambition by declaring “No more tinkering around the edges.” And by any standards, the raft of policy measures announced this week were significant, comprehensive and, in some cases, controversial. These included: the introduction of a four-day working week, a real living wage of £10 an hour, ending the rollout of universal credit, scrapping prescription charges in England, free personal care for the elderly, compulsory licensing to secure generic versions of patented medicines, a new publicly owned generic drugs manufacturer, the reversal of all legal aid cuts, the effective abolition of private schools (by scrapping tax breaks and seizing their assets), the scrapping of Ofsted, an access to food fund and end the need for food banks within three years. One notable point is the context in which these announcements were being made. In previous times, questions about their affordability and deliverability would be being made loudly and aggressively by their political opponents.
However, the Conservatives have been notably quiet (and distracted) this week and issues around public spending controls or the deficit have disappeared from political debate. Labour have the confidence to pursue a radical agenda, provide a compelling ‘retail offer’ to voters and shift some of the focus away from Brexit. There was one issue where this radical agenda was most evident, which brings us onto…
- For Party members, climate change was the hottest topic:
It was perhaps not fully picked up by media, but down in Brighton it became clear that the hottest conference topic was in fact tackling climate change – and how this would be addressed by Labour’s Green New Deal. It was the number one on the agenda as far as constituency party delegates were concerned, shadow ministers had noted that one third of all fringe debates were on energy and climate change and just down the road from the conference centre, Extinction Rebellion had set up camp. The Labour leadership were determined to respond to this sense of urgency with ambitious proposals, most strikingly of all was a pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The party has also pledged to nationalise the ‘big six’ energy companies, a guarantee of “good unionised green jobs”, a plan to build 37 new offshore farms (which would be 51% publicly-owned) and a “mammoth expansion” of electric car usage. While these proposals will no doubt cause a degree of economic disruption, they also represent a significant opportunity for parts of the renewables and EV sectors.
There is also a belief among those in Labour that sooner or later, environmental politics will have a big impact in electoral terms and they are determined to capitalise on it.