Labour Conference: Corbyn’s victory rally
The Labour party is ready for government. That was the big message from Jeremy Corbyn in his speech to close conference. Many in the party certainly believe Labour is on course for government – whether it is in a state of readiness is another matter. The rhetoric is bold but the policy development still lags behind. Yet what was clear in Brighton is that this is a transformed Labour party that needs to be viewed as a serious political force.
Twelve months ago when the party was gathered in Liverpool the atmosphere was flat. Corbyn had successfully emerged from a second leadership election but he and his party’s national poll ratings were abysmal. Labour appeared doomed to disaster. But against all expectations the general election in May has transformed British politics.
The Conservatives polled the most votes, won the most seats and Theresa May is still the Prime Minister. But that was not the impression given by the Labour conference, which had the air of a victory rally. The Labour leader conceded that “we didn’t do quite well enough and we remain in opposition for now” but claimed that the result “has put the Tories on notice and Labour on the threshold of power”.
If Corbyn’s triumph at the national poll is yet to be completed he has undoubtedly conquered the Labour party. The parliamentary party, dominated by Corbynsceptic MPs, is cowed. Key internal bodies such as the NEC and the NCC, which deal with party organisation and disciplinary matters, are increasingly under the control of the left, which dominated the conference with the aid of Momentum.
That control enabled the leadership to avoid a damaging set-piece row on Brexit. While the party remains divided on Europe it has for now coalesced around support for a length status quo transition. Behind the scenes, trade unions are pushing for the leadership to commit to long term membership of the single market and some form of customs union. Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, is sympathetic to this and speculated that Labour could go into the next General Election presenting a competing vision to the Conservatives on Brexit. This could be the case even if the current parliament last its full term to 2022, given that the transition phase is likely to be two years plus.
But on the public platform the focus was on wider policy questions, with shadow cabinet figures setting out bold positions on a range of areas. The last time a Labour conference was this buoyant – in 2007 – it would have been impossible to imagine senior figures outlining plans to nationalise industry, raise business taxes and call for the transformation of the established economic model.
But there has of course been a global financial crisis since then that has ushered in years of austerity, stagnated wages and tightened public investment. On top of that Brexit now looms like a spectre over the UK economy. In such a context, both in the UK and more widely, politicians and political movements advocating more radical policy positions have begun to win support.
A feature of the Labour conference is the renewed confidence of the party leadership. Its aim, as Corbyn said today, is “not just to repair the damage done by austerity but to transform our economy with a new and dynamic role for the public sector particularly where the private sector has evidently failed”.
Hence the plans to bring utilities back under state control, roll back PFI contracts, end social security cuts, introduce rent controls in cities and tax undeveloped land. The party has also focused heavily on the education and skills agenda and on the changing labour market. The impact of automation is an increasingly important theme in Labour politics.
Yet in all these areas the rhetoric appears to be running ahead of the detail. John McDonnell referred to how the snap election had disrupted detailed policy development activity, which he says is now underway again. He said Labour intended to have an “implementation manual” ready for use as soon as it is in office.
Given the paucity of detail around significant announcements such national ownership and PFI, it appears that the manual is still some way from completion. None of the Labour plans appear to be properly costed, though at present the party is escaping serious scrutiny from a financial perspective. Indeed the leadership is able to jest that the Conservatives have now discovered a “magic money tree” to fund their deal with the DUP.
Confidence in a future Labour victory is high among the Corbyn faithful. But while this was a good conference that would provide a great springboard into an early election, it remains unlikely that there will be an early election. Labour must plan for what may be a full five-year parliament.
That is a long period in which to sustain momentum, especially if there is any change to the senior leadership (Corbyn and McDonnell will both be in their 70s by 2022).
Yet given current politics, Labour doesn’t have to be in power to exercise influence and the political and economic agenda has already moved to the left. Austerity, public sector wage freezes, tuition fees, corporate governance are all now in play. Other issues will follow. Labour is now an active force to be reckoned with.