Nine things to take away from Labour’s party conference

From smarter rhetoric from Corbyn's team to Momentum winning over hacks and MPs alike, the conference may not have been 'newsy' but it was far from boring

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Labour’s 2016 conference wasn’t what hacks call a particularly ‘newsy’ one. It more-or-less went as its organisers might have wanted, bar a small bust-up over an autocue. But as Labourites push through their hangovers and the last stragglers brave the trains homes, the party finds itself in a new position. Here are some thoughts about where Labour is and what exactly the events of the conference mean:

1)   Corbyn’s speech was about winning over Owen Smith supporters

Corbyn’s speech was a pitch to win over Owen Smith voters, rather than national swing voters. That’s actually fine: uniting Labour should be his first priority because nothing else will happen until that’s a done deal. He did that not by shifting policies, but his rhetoric – clothing things he was going to do anyway in patriotism and pro-business sentiment. It also came across as competent. This won’t change things overnight but it’s a template for future development.

2)   A smarter approach to rhetoric

The best line in there was about tax avoidance being “unpatriotic” – this was borrowed from the Christians On The Left group, which had been running a “patriots pay tax” campaign during conference – I’m told top Labour people saw this, and they were evidently impressed. Again, tax avoidance campaigning isn’t going to win Labour the election, but this is a template or proof-of-concept: they now know they can talk about things they already like, but in a way that draws in people who didn’t already like them. If they’re smart they’ll do this with other more substantial policy areas as they get to them. Another example is the way tax avoidance crackdowns were painted as pro-business. Being pro-business was something that was a big theme in Tom Watson’s speech and Corbyn echoing it the next day looked like they were on the same page. Again, this is all done without actually changing any policies, just talking about them differently.

3)   Taking on board criticism from friends

These and other things are evidence that Corbyn’s team are taking on board criticism, especially from people on the left who want the project to succeed but were starting to doubt whether it could. Owen Jones above all deserves a mention: passages on helping self-employed workers, patriotism, and also building a coalition of “low and middle income voters” are all things he’s recommended repeatedly. Andrew Fisher and Seumas Milne apparently wrote the speech and they put it together well. High-profile supporters on the fringes of Corbyn’s movement with good ideas have long talked of being shut out from the leadership and hopefully that is starting to change. Corbyn and his team should also think about extending this approach to friendly MPs if they want to succeed.

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4)   It might be too late

Ideally, this speech would have been given in September 2015, at Labour’s conference in Brighton. I’m torn on whether it could have been: on the one hand, yes, the Left had been out of power essentially forever, didn’t expect to be in this position last year, and hit the ground running, learning as they made mistakes. On the other hand, more than anything else it reminded me of the plain-speaking and frankly chilled out Corbyn of the 2015 leadership campaign who convinced people he was the man for the job in the first place.  Whether or not it could have been given last year is by-the-way it needed to be given: it’s possible that Corbyn has already been defined by his opponents in the early days of his premiership. Whether he can recover from that remains to be seen. It isn’t fair but that’s how it works.

5)   A fresh start

Further to that last point, I think Labour’s best hope of Corbyn making a success of himself is that he gets as lucky as David Cameron got in 2008. Not a lot of people talk about it now, but Cameron’s leadership of the opposition was really in two parts – before and after the financial crash. You probably don’t remember him floating policies like legalising left-turn on red lights while driving or George Osborne proposing a flat tax, or Cameron saying he wanted to spend more on public services. (Google them, these were all things that happened.) But after the crash hit the Tories pursued a strategy which spoke to current events and ruthlessly defined Labour as being reckless spenders. Memories can be short, and Corbyn’s best hope of a similar catastrophic event re-writing the rules is Brexit. That’s his big chance and he needs to get it right.

6)   Labour’s centrists

Labour’s centrists seem to have changed tack as well: to put it simply, more have realised that sulking is not a good look. Some were being pro-active anyway: Yvette Cooper has led by example on refugees, Chuka Umunna and Jonathan Reynolds on looking at new ideas like proportional representation or basic income. There are now signs others are thinking of getting on with things as well:  Dan Jarvis, long stuck in the unenviable political limbo of being everyone’s tip for leader, is launching a private members bill to get the Government to bring back binding child poverty targets. Other talented MPs are likely to join the shadow cabinet and actually show what they can do. It may not make them leader or topple Corbyn, but it will give people a reason to actually like them.

7)   Trident

Trident has been parked as an issue, but it may be back. It’s worth noting that Clive Lewis wanted to say he would “not seek to change policy on Trident” while Corbyn’s office changed his speech to say “I am clear our party has a policy for Trident renewal”. What’s crucial is that Labour’s policy on Trident, enacted under Ed Miliband, is to include Trident in a defence and security review. That was the one that Ken Livingstone and Emily Thornberry were doing before this summer. Not changing the policy on Trident just means leaving it to the defence review. Whenever that review is done – whether in opposition of government – Trident is likely to become an issue again. At the anti-Trident fringe I went to campaigners were well-organised. Their strategy is three-pronged: Firstly, to convince unions, particularly GMB, that “defence diversification” (making other things) can provide as many or more good jobs as Trident does. Secondly, they want to convince MPs that the public wouldn’t care if Labour dropped the policy – they say a lot privately agree it’s a waste of money but are afraid of the electoral consequences. Thirdly, they want to elect sympathetic people to internal bodies like the conference arrangements committee so that they can actually get a vote on the policy at conference, which keeps getting blocked. They hope they can get a vote in 2017.

8)   Successors to Corbyn

The issue of possible successors to Corbyn looks less important after his second victory. In terms of the runners and riders if a replacement were needed, Clive Lewis currently seems best placed: he’s left-wing enough for the membership, but by my reckoning has been trying to make more friends in the centre and parliamentary party. He gave a sensible speech in the summer showing he understood Labour’s problems, and his run-in with Seumas Milne probably didn’t do his reputation any harm either. John McDonnell is also left-wing enough for the membership and has also frankly come across as more presentationally competent that Corbyn. If competence became the sole issue he could be in the frame, though he might struggle to get the nominations and his past could be an issue. There are other names floating around as well – Angela Rayner has impressed many as Education Secretary. As for centrists, it’s hard to see a path to victory for one now, but the situation could change as more of them reengage with the party. Many centrists are significantly more interesting than some Corbyn supporters give them credit for but the way internal opposition to the leader was conducted has led to people being written-off en masse by a lot of members. It’s also worth mentioning that after the next election the PLP will have different people in it and it’s probably reasonable to assume the proportion of left-wingers will grow, at least a bit.

9)   Momentum conference

The Momentum conference running parallel to Labour was a good idea because it let hacks and MPs see the group up close. It’s easier to write people off as other or alien if you’ve never met them and the hacks I’ve spoken to who went over seemed relaxed about what they saw. (The exception is the antisemitism fringe.) The same thing happens when you embed reporters with soldiers – you get more sympathetic coverage, which is why militaries do it.  It may have the same effect on suspicious MPs worried about talk of deselection, as well.

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