I’ve covered every Labour annual conference for the past 35 years, but this week’s gathering in Brighton wins my award for the most fascinating one. Neil Kinnock’s 1985 attack on Militant was the most dramatic, while Tony Blair’s ditching of the party’s Clause IV commitment to public ownership made 1994 the most historic.
This week, the see-saw tipped suddenly. After 30 years in the wilderness, the left again tasted the power it enjoyed at my first conference – in 1981, when Tony Benn was the hero of the Labour grassroots, and Jeremy Corbyn one of his disciples.
The party was split then, and it is now. The ecstatic reception in the conference hall for Mr Corbyn’s speech on Tuesday was in stark contrast to the despair of Labour moderates, banished to fringe meetings in nearby hotels – until this year, the refuge of the marginalised left. It is a remarkable role reversal. After addressing 2,500 delegates from the conference platform, John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor, denied that at the same time a year ago, he would have been speaking to 35 left-wing activists at a fringe event. “It was less than 35,” he quipped.
On the rare occasions that Corbynistas and moderates shared a platform this week, the biggest cheers were for the new leader’s allies, while any Blairite brave enough to criticise Mr Corbyn was shouted down. Labour’s heart now beats unmistakably on the left.
Mr Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a rejection of Mr Blair and all his works – the spin, the command and control, the discipline and, crucially, the stifling of party debate on policy.
New Labour figures criticise the media for clinging to the Blairite and Brownite labels, yet these camps still pursue their personality feuds, despite their small differences. When they are not blaming Ed Miliband for the ascent of Mr Corbyn, Blairites and Brownites point the finger at each other. One Blair ally said: “Gordon didn’t take on Tony’s agenda. Then we were led by the son of Gordon [Ed Miliband], who trashed our record in government. Then our best hope was Yvette Cooper, who was Continuity Brown.”
Labour moderates now need to come together and organise at the local party level to avoid being outgunned by the Corbynistas. Modernisation needs to become a movement again, not the preserve of a remote officer class. Moderates talk of beating the left at its own game in the constituencies. But there are fears that some members will lack the stomach for the fight and drift away. That would make it easier for left-wingers to deselect MPs.
The excitement on the left is generating energy, and Mr Corbyn can tap into it. Left-wingers already plot to get as many of their own chosen as party delegates at next year’s annual conference. This week’s event was superficially calm because bloody battles over policy were delayed until then. Mr Corbyn’s plans to give more power over policy to members would mean less for the parts of the party that do not share his agenda – MPs and the Shadow Cabinet.
Mr Corbyn hopes these reforms to entrench the left’s power will survive, even if he does not. But in Brighton, some critics began to think it will be very difficult to oust him before the 2020 election, without very poor mid-term election results and a disastrous personal performance.
Some moderates accept responsibility for the left’s takeover, conceding that New Labour, while an election-winning machine, became seen as a values-free zone. In contrast, Mr Corbyn’s speech was heavy on values. One Blairite admitted: “We have done no serious philosophical work since 1995. We are still stuck in the tramlines set a year after Tony became leader. We need to excite the party again, to show it is not only the left that has values.”
A new generation of modernisers must draw up a fresh policy agenda that appeals to Labour hearts as well as heads. During the leadership election, Mr Blair said members whose hearts were with Mr Corbyn needed a transplant. He was wrong: it is the Blairites who need one, if they are to ever regain control of the party.
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