Labour conference could be about policy, not procedure
In his book, The Road to Brighton Pier, the political writer Leslie Hunter describes the atmosphere inside a Labour party languishing in opposition, and riven with factional animosity, in the months leading up to the party conference in Brighton:
‘Except on the most formal occasions there was no social intercourse whatever between the rival factions. They met frequently, in the National Executive [Committee] or some other forum, only to argue; never to talk, much less to listen. Sharing in nothing but the acerbities of these semi-private altercations, they grew to know each other less and less. Differences of opinion that could have been settled almost overnight, given goodwill and tolerance, became wholly personalised. Imputing the basest motives, the wildest ambitions and the grossest faults of character and capacity to each other, every Jekyll looked on half his colleagues as a bunch of Hydes.’
The Road to Brighton Pier was published in 1959, and serves as a timely reminder of the mortal dangers of sectarianism and schism within the Labour movement. The mutual loathing between Bevanites and Gaitskellites was little dimmed by Nye Bevan’s own accommodation with Hugh Gaitskell at the 1959 conference, when he famously renounced unilateral nuclear disarmament, to the utter fury of his erstwhile supporters.
Move forward to the late-1970s, when those around Labour’s current leadership were learning their trade, and the atmosphere was no less toxic. Rancour and recrimination led to the discordant 1981 special conference in Wembley, the rupture caused by the ‘gang of four’, the explosive Tony Benn-Denis Healey deputy leadership contest, and the fiasco of the 1983 general election. In the 1950s, and in the 1980s, when Labour has provided a spectacle of division, the verdict of the voters was punishing.
Now, we are on the road to Brighton once again. Is Labour as divided as during our previous periods in the doldrums? Yes and no. There remains a sizeable body of opinion, inside the constituency Labour parties, local government, trade unions, and among members of parliament, which remains steadfastly committed to the ideals and principles of moderation, centrism, parliamentary democracy and internationalism.
This body of opinion may be in a minority following the huge influx of new members since 2015. But being in a minority does not make you wrong, especially on the big issues of Britain’s role in Europe, our commitment to Nato, our belief in nuclear deterrence, our rejection of 1960s-style ‘anti-colonialism’ used as cover to apologise for terrorists, and our commitment to drive out antisemitism from our society, starting with the Labour party and the political left.
In lofty moments, we might call this approach – the application of timeless values to changing circumstances – ‘revisionism’, and remind ourselves that we stand in the tradition of Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Gaitskell and John Smith. This is the broad tradition with which Progress supporters associate, and we should never forget – even amid the brickbats and name-calling – on whose illustrious shoulders we stand.
But we must also be realistic. Our current circumstances are profoundly different to the days of Bevanites and Gaitskellites, or Bennites and Kinnockites. The Bevanites or Bennites never won. They remained a noisy and vigorous pressure group within the movement, haranguing the leadership for its perceived betrayals and compromises. Today, the Corbynites are the new establishment. They are in charge. The triumphs are theirs, as are the failures. There is no one else to blame, not the ‘Blairites’, nor the ‘mainstream media’. Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum now control the party’s NEC, the shadow cabinet, and all but a handful of CLPs. They enjoy the support of most of the trade union general secretaries. They have a wide network of supporters in the media and faux-samizdat websites, which are now proving their insider status with newly-acquired parliamentary lobby passes. And of course they have a dominant influence over the procedure, debates and speakers at this year’s party conference.
So we should judge Corbyn by what happens in Brighton. A leader preparing a party for government would naturally want to project an image and message beyond the conference hall and to the key seats of Britain. The conference would be a showcase for talented members of the shadow cabinet who would shortly be entering their government departments. It would set out the policies that would appeal to swing voters. Leading figures – for example, elected Labour mayors who have shown how to win and how to govern – would be given keynote addresses.
Most of all, it would take the government of the day to pieces, exposing its weakness, ridiculing its leaders, and differentiating Labour from Tory on the big policy areas of the day. This is what Labour achieved in Blackpool in 1945, in Scarborough in 1963, and again in Blackpool in 1996, ahead of election victories and successful periods in office.
Pretty much the last thing a leader serious about preparing for power would allow is for the party conference to be dominated by obscure rule changes, wrangles over procedure, and intrigues over internal elections to party committees. There is a real danger that Corbyn’s supporters will use the Labour party conference for their own agenda of driving out dissidents, tightening their grip on the machinery of the party, ritually humiliating hardworking Labour MPs and repeating the bizarre myth that Labour really ‘won’ the general election.
A leader as dominant as Corbyn, in charge of the new Labour establishment, can shape party conference as he or she wishes, to project whatever image they want, and to reach out beyond the faithful. There is still time to refashion conference into a projection of a united party, preparing for government, and to avoid a sectarian slugfest. On the road to Brighton, it is not too late for Corbyn to convert.
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