Labour conference: 10 things we learned


Jeremy Corbyn is more secure as Labour leader than he looked in his difficult first few days in the job and his job is safe – at least for the medium term. Anyone who assumed that Corbyn would be incapable of functioning properly as leader will have been disabused this week, because Corbyn has presided over a conference that has been, superficially at least, successful. The event has also demonstrated how remarkably popular he is with members.

2. Corbyn’s “new politics” has considerable attractions. Unassuming and straightforward, Corbyn himself has made a good impression in broadcast interviews. Speeches focusing on policy not partisan point-scoring, of which John McDonnell’s was the best example, have also made a welcome change. It would not be surprising if the Conservatives adopt some of this tonal shift at their conference next week.

3. But the “new politics” is not quite as new as it looks. Corbyn still employs spin doctors who brief the media. For all the talk about open discussion, Trident was not debated on the conference platform. Corbyn’s call for politics without insults didn’t stop a string of speakers making pig jokes about David Cameron. And on Sunday, as Chris Bryant was telling the conference that Labour spent too much time worrying about “the line”, Labour HQ was sending a briefing note to shadow ministers explaining the line to take.

4. Corbyn has said almost nothing about how his proposed bottom-up policymaking process will work. This notion is at the heart of his politics. People who join Labour would have the final say in deciding policy, he told the conference in his speech, and “no one – not me as leader, nor the shadow cabinet, not the parliamentary Labour party – is going to impose policy or have a veto”. This is a bold proposition. But, beyond a brief announcement from Angela Eagle about a review of the way the national policy forum will operate, nothing has been said to explain what this might mean in practice.

5. Despite having a large mandate, Corbyn does not look like a leader confident of being able to implement his own proposals. This became apparent in his first week as leader, but, as Patrick Wintour explains, there has been more evidence on display at the conference of Corbyn’s frontbench colleagues trying to constrain his options in key policy areas.

6. Free votes look increasingly likely. McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, wants one on military intervention in Syria, and Tom Watson, the deputy leader, has hinted Labour MPs will get one on Trident. Corbyn has tried to make a virtue of the fact he is willing to allow MPs to disagree. Arguably this is old politics versus new politics. But Corbyn has not convincingly countered the argument that leadership is about leading, that not being able to get his party to back him is a sign of weakness, and that, in reality, this is more a matter of politics versus unpolitics (or drift).

7. The pro-Europeans have won an important battle. Corbyn shifted his stance on the EU referendum before the conference when he committed the party to campaigning for an in vote, but the Eurosceptic GMB came to the conference ready to mount a fightback, demanding a special conference before the party finalised its position. This proposal went nowhere, and the conference lined up firmly with the in camp.

8. Corbyn’s opponents on the right have effectively put him on probation. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was little outright criticism of Corbyn, even from rightwingers who think he will be a disaster for Labour, but instead Corbynsceptics were quite open about the need for the party to ditch him at some point before 2020 if he proves unpopular with voters.

9. But there is no alternative leader. None of Corbyn’s three leadership rivals – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – emerged from the contest with their reputation enhanced, and this was not a conference with a leader-in-waiting lurking in the wings. Sir Keir Starmer, Dan Jarvis, Lisa Nandy and even Clive Lewis are among those being touted for this role, but none of them are near ready yet.

10. The battle for control of Labour’s internal machine will become increasingly important. Although Corbyn insists he does not want to see rightwing Labour MPs deselected, some MPs have real fears about their future (interventions like Michael Meacher’s did not help) and matters such as who controls the national executive committee will become crucial. As Stephen Bush reported for the Staggers, two NEC changes this week (an election and an appointment) have shifted the balance of power in favour of the Corbynites. It is years since journalists wrote regularly about NEC elections, but now is time to take an interest again.

Powered by article was written by Andrew Sparrow, for on Wednesday 30th September 2015 13.22 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010