Reflections on the 2016 Labour Party Conference

It may not have been a hot summer, but it has certainly been a long one in Labour Party politics.  The fallout following Brexit, the resignation of almost all of Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and his crushing defeat in a vote of no confidence amongst MPs was matched by his expected and emphatic victory in the leadership contest that ensued. The culmination of this on Saturday, many would hope, might settle the matter. But Labour is still a party divided.  The trails of sometimes bitter in-fighting are strewn around social media for all to see, the wounds that have opened up in constituency parties around the country, not least in seats like Liverpool Riverside and Wallasey are unlikely to heal immediately. Some of the evidence of the party’s division could be seen on the conference floor and indeed on the podium.  Tom Watson’s combative speech, for instance, railed against what he saw as the ‘trashing’ of Labour’s brand – by downplaying the record of the Brown and Blair governments, Labour’s current leaders were undoing its prospects. Len McCluskey, in a challenge to rebel MPs, quoted from Henry V, calling on those with no stomach for the fight ahead to “depart the battlefields”, a perhaps not so heavily coded reference to deselection. In the hall, both were cheered and applauded enthusiastically.

There is no doubt, then, Labour is still divided. The evidence is there for all to see.  Moreover, it is difficult to see how it will be otherwise for the foreseeable future.  Although it would be too simplistic by far to say that it is about the electability of New Labour versus Momentum movement politics, there is a definite tension between those who see power in parliament as the final destination and those who see it as a staging post along the way to something much more fundamental. Corbyn himself, in a speech which was significantly more assured and confident than last year, sought to argue that Labour could be both of these things: it could be about protest and campaigning and about winning elections. What is undoubted is that the party is now bucking the trend in terms of membership, and looks likely to grow further now that Corbyn has for now consolidated his grip on the leadership.  If that increased membership translates into campaigners on the streets at election time, then that will be of significant benefit to Labour at election time.  Nonetheless, the evidence available suggests that Corbyn’s appeal as a potential prime minister remains very limited.  Despite enthusiastic support from a growing army of activists, in the wider country his ratings are very low as a range of polls have shown and Labour as a party is performing poorly.

Some have asked whether this means that Labour is somehow dying as a party of government.  Of course, no party has the right to exist, and in the short term at least the party’s prospects do not look particularly strong. However, as anyone attending conference would have seen, there is much life left in the party on all sides. On the fringe, debate is lively, ideas are coming from the left, the right and the centre of the party, grappling with practical issues of governing and policy, particularly in local and municipal government.  The forthcoming elections for metro-mayors in Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands also open up opportunities for Labour to prove itself in government and victories in London and Bristol earlier in the year are also high profile platforms for Labour in power.  Corbyn appears to be growing into the role of leader, and is demonstrating a level of relaxed confidence and authority that he perhaps lacked in the recent past.  Policy ideas are beginning to emerge and both his and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speeches showcased some practical and radical ideas.  So the party faces a huge challenge. It has a mountain to climb to get an appealing message across to the wider public, particularly those who have voted Conservative in the past or not voted at all. Next year, hopefully a year without an energy-sapping leadership contest, perhaps we will have a clearer idea of how close they are to meeting that challenge.

Also featured on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment page.

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