The Labour conference mood: 'there’s a sense of loss, but also a real determination'

Corbyn in Coventry

“He is leader and I will support the leader,” says 79-year-old Margaret Tegg – a councillor in Rhondda. “He was elected democratically and, as a party member, the party goes first.”

She may have voted for Andy Burnham in the election, but it’s clear where her loyalty lies – to the party.

Speaking as the Labour party conference in Brighton entered its second day, delegates seemed in high spirits with little evidence of the divisions that have emerged at the top of the party.

Tegg admits she doesn’t agree with many of Corbyn’s positions on defence, having a granddaughter who served in the armed forces. “I’m not a warmonger by any means, but we have to be realistic and we have to have a defence,” she says.

“We agree to differ. That’s the whole thing about politics and democracy ... I think we all had a view that the party had to move on a bit. [Corbyn] must be saying something with all these new members.”

“The press seem to thrive on our divisions and make stories out of it,” interjects Dianne Walls, 64, a councillor in Newham, east London, who is sitting nearby. “But nobody in the party that I know ever worries about that.”

Walls did vote for Corbyn, switching away from Yvette Cooper after she decided to toe the party line and abstain on the welfare vote. “I’ve been to at least 12 over the years and I think this has been the most well-attended, upbeat and hopeful conference,” she says. “I think hope has been a word that’s come through. Because whether you voted for Jeremy or not, he is listening.”

She admits to having been ‘Jeremied’, gushing about the times she’s heard the party’s new leader speak. “I don’t think he’s a mad lefty. He’s definitely leftwing, but he’s got a different approach. Why should people be queuing at foodbanks in one of the richest countries in the world?”

Tom Burke, 30, who is manning the LGBT Labour stand, points out that delegates have to sign up months in advance to attend the conference, meaning the crowd would not by and large be new members brought in through the Corbyn surge.

The conference was largely planned before Corbyn’s win. The conference magazine, containing event listings, contains no picture of the party’s new leader.

“I think there’s quite a mixed mood,” says Burke. “On the one hand you have a lot of activists who have worked pretty hard in a tough general election campaign and there’s a sense of disappointment and loss, but also a real determination to regroup.”

He voted for Liz Kendall followed by Yvette Cooper, but denies he can feel a split in the party. “There’s no sense of mutiny in the atmosphere. We’ve seen a broader based shadow cabinet. You’ve seen those who’ve joined the back benches being treated graciously and being clear about where there are policy differences.”

Oliver Coppard, who was Labour candidate in Nick Clegg’s constituency of Sheffield Hallam, says disagreement in the party is too often misunderstood as division. “We disagree and we come together and we fight elections,” he says. “We are not a cult, we are a political party.”

Coppard, who voted for Cooper, says the conference was characterised by a nervous energy. “Because of fixed-term parliaments, we knew last year [that the election was coming], so the atmosphere was quite flat.”

He says it will be a period of experimentation for the party. “We couldn’t go back to how we were,” he says. “Let’s come back in 12 months time and see what happens. It could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing – nobody has the answer.”

The mood is very different among those in the Labour upper echelons, who will only talk to journalists off the record about their nervousness about the party’s direction.

A Labour insider, who was loosely associated with Kendall’s campaign, interprets the conference mood slightly differently to the delegates, describing it as subdued. “I haven’t seen many obvious Corbynistas out and about,” he says. “I haven’t really spoken to anybody who voted for Corbyn, but that could just be the people I’m hanging around with.”

He says the machinery of conference had succeeded in acting as the “last bulwark of defence” against Corbyn and his policies.

Gloria De Piero and Michael Cashman, figures from the party’s self-described moderate wing, beat Corbyn supporters Jon Lansman and Katy Clark to take two positions on the Conference Arrangements Committee, which decides what the conference discusses, and therefore what may become party policy. “I always thought the arcane rules at conference were stupid, but now I see that they are for times exactly like these,” he says.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 29th September 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010