Labour’s challenge in Liverpool
It ought to be a buoyant Labour party that arrives in Liverpool this weekend for its annual conference. They are still neck and neck with the Tories despite a desperately bad summer. And they face an increasingly unpopular government which looks on the verge of implosion.
The party wants to use the conference to refocus on winning an election, presenting itself as a government-in-waiting. “Rebuilding Britain for the many not the few” is the strapline – setting out the narrative that Labour’s job is to repair the damage done by years of Tory austerity. But while the Labour leadership will hope to present itself as a party with a plan it risks being engulfed by factional strife, tensions at the top and division over Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn and the leadership team remain resistant to a second Brexit referendum which is attracting increasing support in the trade unions and constituency parties. Last year, the leadership was able to avoid exposing these divisions but that is unlikely to be possible this time, with major unions and local parties demanding a debate on the conference floor. The position adopted may turn out to be very significant in the way Labour behaves in the Commons when it comes to the meaningful vote on any EU deal later this year.
In this note, we look ahead to that Brexit debate and examine some of the other big questions going into the Labour conference:
Will changes to party rules increase the power of the left?
Up to a point. Tony Blair suggested recently that moderates may never get their party back. That is certainly the intention of left wing activists, including the party leader, who want to dismantle old centres of party power and shift control to the activist membership. A review of the party’s rules, carried out by former Corbynite MP Katy Clark and designed to entrench the left’s power, is due to be debated on Sunday. But the unions are pushing back and the increasing likelihood is that controversial proposals including on mandatory reselection of MPs, the accountability of council leaders and future control of policy making, will be watered down or deferred. The internal battle over party rules may be a niche topic but it serves to underline increasing divisions on the left and hints at a growing move among some big unions to pull the party back from the extreme.
What is John McDonnell’s role?
Chancellor-in-waiting. John McDonnell relishes his position as the most serious of the leading figures at Labour’s top table. He, not Jeremy Corbyn, is the driving force in terms of Labour’s policy platform. McDonnell’s speech on Monday will be the most significant political event of the week and he is likely to use it to set out more detail around his plans to transform the economy. The fact his speech is preceded by a two hour debate on public ownership suggest that nationalisation will be a key focus. It is possible that he may identify further sectors for public ownership in addition to those already referenced in the 2017 manifesto. It was significant that prisons and probation services were cited in this context in the party’s annual policy report last month. McDonnell has often followed the Gordon Brown conference playbook, announcing totemic policies that speak to the party faithful. Doing so again this year may fuel rumours that he is manoeuvring to position himself as a successor to Corbyn. While that may be overstated, it is true that the shadow chancellor has been aghast at the failure to properly handle the anti-Semitism row over the summer and has been working behind the scenes to try and calm the divisions over party reform – believing both episodes are damaging the party’s electoral position.
What position will the party reach on Brexit?
Probably fudge. The Prime Minister’s failure in Salzburg makes it more likely that the party delegates will want a substantive debate on Brexit. Scores of CLPs have submitted contemporary motions pushing for this to be debated. So Brexit is very likely to feature strongly in Sunday’s priority ballot, forcing the leadership to forge a party position. Most likely they will seek to fudge the wording so that the party commits to a “popular vote” – which the leadership would like to be in the form of a general election – but does not specify a second referendum.
Where does Labour want to be at the end of its conference?
Prepared for an early general election. Labour’s strategy is to force an election if at all possible. They believe that they would be well positioned to win such an election or at the very least lead a minority government. John McDonnell’s frustration is that he believes the leader’s office is much more motivated by internal party factional fighting than positioning the party to defeat the government and win an election. The success of the conference will be the extent to which it has faced outwards towards the voters or inwards towards each other.
By Lexington’s Partner Mike Craven and Director Declan McHugh
For more information about how Lexington’s Brexit experts can support you please contact: Declan.McHugh@lexcomm.co.uk