Conference season for the political parties is in full swing, although you would be forgiven for perhaps noticing the Lib Dem conference held in Bournemouth last week, which passed with barely any media attention whatsoever. That just reinforces the decline of the Party since the end of the Con-Lib coalition in 2015.
This coming week sees the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, and it is guaranteed to be more widely covered and much more interesting than that of the Lib Dems. In 2016, the Labour Conference was all about Jeremy Corbyn, the revolt against his political agenda by his own MPs, and whether he could survive as Party Leader before a General Election was called.
What a difference a year makes. Corbyn goes into the 2017 Conference on a personal high, having vastly exceeded expectations in the snap June General Election. Instead of losing seats Labour gained across the country and Corbyn himself motivated the younger generations to vote on a scale not seen for decades. Backbench critics, although not silent, have quietened down; the ‘cult’ of Corbyn continues to grow; and bookies have made him favourite to be the next Prime Minister. This turnaround in fortune makes the coming Conference one of the more important ones of recent times.
Taking control of the rule book
Firstly, it represents an opportunity for Corbynistas to truly take control of the Party. This week Labour’s National Executive Committee ruled in favour of a rule change, dubbed the McDonnell Amendment, that would see a decrease in the number of MPs and MEPs required to officially place an MP on a future leadership ballot, from the current 15% to just 10%. This change is significant as it would make it much easier for a Corbyn-esque left-wing candidate to get onto a future ballot, removing the difficulty that Corbyn himself had, only reaching the required number of signatures at the eleventh hour. The NEC also backed changes to its own composition, increasing the number of members from the Party’s voluntary side and from trades unions, which is also expected to boost the control of the left of the Party in future. Conference is required to endorse these rule changes and there seems little to stop that from happening.
Taking control of the floor
In the lead-up to the Conference there has been a lot of talk about whether Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and a major critic of Corbyn, should be allowed to speak from the platform. The public reason put forward is that this Conference is designed to allow the rank and file members more of a say and so all elected politicians are having their speaking slots cut or cancelled. The reality is that Corbyn supporters see Khan as a traitor and potential challenger and wish to silence him. With left-wing Labour members winning control of a majority of delegate slots across the country, as well as key conference organising committee membership, it would appear they have the power to do just that if they wish. Blocking Khan from a platform speaking slot would be a major coup for Corbynistas and demonstrate almost total dominance of the Party. However, it would be extraordinary for the sitting Mayor of London not to be allowed to speak at the 2017 Conference when local elections are being held in London in 2018. Corbyn himself may step in to resolve the situation but this is a real political battle worth keeping an eye on.
What about the policies?
Normally, no-one would pay much attention to an opposition party’s policy agenda at a conference held just a few months after a General Election. Why would they, when another election would normally be expected to be a long way off? However, with Theresa May personally weakened, Brexit negotiations looking more than a bit wobbly, and a Conservative Government only tentatively propped up by the DUP, there is a very real possibility of yet another election sooner rather than later. Will we hear anything of Labour’s policy development at Conference? Will there be explicit policy statements continuing the move to the left the June Manifesto started? Will there be any policy statements at all? Or will we see more general attacks on Government austerity, calls for more workers’ rights and the like, with few detailed positions being taken? We would expect the latter.
Of course, the big policy issue is Brexit. And on this subject, the Labour Party seems to have managed the impossible by being even more split than the Conservatives as to which way to jump. Previous positions put forward by the Party in Parliament have not lasted long, and there seems to be a divide between Corbyn and his inner team and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet, never mind the rest of the Party. Does Labour support continued single market membership and free movement of labour, for instance, which appeals to the young, liberal, metropolitan Momentum base which underpins Corbyn’s strength? Or do they recognise the wishes of their traditional working-class base which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and who want to see a ‘proper’ Brexit? Any Brexit debates could expose just how fragmented the Party is on this subject. So it will be fascinating to see what happens.
Whatever subjects end up being debated, and whoever is allowed to speak form the platform, one thing seems likely: at the end of this conference Corbyn will have strengthened his grip on the Labour Party machinery. This means that he would be in a position to attack and replace longstanding Party policy positions, like supporting a nuclear deterrent, at the Conference in 2018. In short, this year’s Conference is more about being a springboard for future change, rather than being radical in nature itself.
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