“It’s a good job there’s not an election coming,” a Labour MP quipped sarcastically as he surveyed the wreckage of the party’s Brighton conference. There is an election coming soon. Yet, bizarrely, Labour is behaving as if it is already lost.
As rival camps jockey for position in the election’s aftermath, Jeremy Corbyn’s allies are trying to ensure the left retains its grip on the party. That’s the only explanation for the botched attempt to abolish the deputy leader’s post held by Tom Watson, the figurehead of Labour’s centrists, and for a rule change that will allow the left-dominated national executive committee (NEC) to choose the acting leader if the leader steps down, instead of Watson taking over by default, as Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman did when their respective leaders stepped down.
The fin de siecle atmosphere was reinforced by the spectacular resignation letter of Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s director of policy, with a blast at the intolerance of the clique around the leader for showing “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency”. He added: “I no longer have faith we will succeed.” Although Fisher will stay for the election, his exit shows that the Corbyn inner circle is shrinking. “It’s over, and they know it,” one MP critic told me.
Instead of the pre-election unity the leadership hoped for, it has disunity. The sea air here in Brighton is thick with talk of plots to remove Corbyn. They won’t happen with the election so close, but had Watson’s job been abolished, there could have been a formal split, with scores of MPs walking out of Corbyn’s party altogether.
Labour is a powder keg ready to ignite, and the successful defenestration of Watson could have been the spark. Corbyn was wise to make a tactical retreat, but plenty of damage was still done; behind the scenes, tensions are now out in the open. As Watson told a fringe meeting: “This is, honestly, a battle for the soul of the Labour Party.”
With an election looming, it’s a terrible look for voters. Meaty policy announcements – free personal social care for pensioners, free prescriptions and a 32-hour average working week – are being eclipsed by the battle over whether Corbynism can survive after Corbyn.
The Labour leader’s handling of Brexit has fuelled the internal criticism. True, Labour has moved a long way towards a Final Say referendum since last year’s annual conference. But Corbyn still sits stubbornly on the fence, unable to come out for Remain but in danger of being pushed into a policy he does not believe in by a grassroots revolt. Blairites smile at the irony of Corbyn triangulating between Remain and Leave, and mobilising the trade unions’ 50 per cent share of the conference votes to defeat the constituency parties like the “right-wing” leaders who preceded him.
Whatever this bitterly divided conference ultimately votes for, it is quite possible that Labour’s policy will still be as clear as mud, and that Corbyn’s “wait and see” approach, offering a referendum with a choice between a Labour Brexit deal and Remain, might prevail in the party’s election manifesto.
The fear among many Labour MPs is that such a fudge will be impossible to sell on the doorstep, especially when they’re competing with the Tories’ clear Leave message and the Liberal Democrats’ equally clear pledge to revoke Article 50. Both offer weary voters an end to the Brexit saga; Labour’s plan to negotiate its own deal would prolong it. MPs also fear Corbyn’s plan for him to remain neutral in a referendum would not pass muster, making it even harder to present him as a prime minister-in-waiting.
Corbyn allies insist he deserves credit for trying to bring a divided country together by straddling Leave and Remain, and refusing to join the “culture war” waged by the Tories and Lib Dems. They envisage a “heart versus head” appeal to Remainers who are currently tempted to vote Lib Dem, but who might just hold their nose and vote Labour in the polling booth as the only way to stop the Tories. Corbyn’s pitch to these voters: “It’s me or Boris.”
To try to stem the Lib Dem tide, Labour backbenchers who backed a referendum and revoke in Commons votes remind constituents of this in their campaign material. But many fear that if Labour doesn’t get unequivocally behind Remain, a Lib Dem revival will help the Tories win Con-Lab marginals, in some cases with a lower share of the vote than in 2017.
All that said, despite Labour’s dire poll ratings, the Brexit crisis and Boris Johnson’s flirtation with no deal mean the party still has a chance of winning power by forming a minority government. But you wouldn’t know it at this conference.
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