Everywhere you look, there’s someone grinning.
And almost all the smiles are genuine; only a few look forced. Wind back a year and it was different story. At the 2016 party conference in Liverpool, everyone was grim-faced, with Momentum and Labour centrists barely on spitting terms with one another, yet still seemingly locked in a mutual death spiral. Even the bright-eyed optimists had all but given up on Labour.
Then came the general election and the Tories’ hitherto unexpected desire to self-destruct. Overnight, Labour went from being a party on the margins to being not just a credible opposition, but a possible government in waiting. Despair turned to hope and the 2017 Labour party conference in Brighton became more of a party than a conference. There was a contagious excitement among the delegates. A sense that their time was coming. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
Just across the road from the main conference centre, there were also queues snaking round the block for Momentum’s alternative conference, The World Transformed, held in a nightclub. If anything, the smiles were even broader here. While a few people just chose to chill out with a bit of creative play in the clay corner, several hundred more were crammed on to the dance floor to hear a panel discussion on democracy. And why there wasn’t nearly enough of it.
It was a scandal you only got to vote for your MP once every five years – the fact that there had been two general elections in as many years was overlooked – and people needed to have much more time off so they could vote on almost everything. Even a vote on whether to have a vote on a vote. It all got dangerously meta. The continuous revolution had been updated to the continuous election.
Momentum’s founder, Jon Lansman, said: “We need to get away from the Blairite authoritarian model where dissent was not tolerated.” Democracy must mean democracy. The party hierarchy shouldn’t be allowed to stitch up the agenda for themselves any more. His fellow panellist Clive Lewis was one of the first to applaud. The Norwich South MP has had more conversions than most over the past year, having gone from moderate to far left, and back to moderate, and is now busy re-establishing his leftist credentials. Deselect me, do want you want with me, he pleaded. Just love me.
Democracy might have its time and place. Just not at a party conference. Not even one with Jeremy Corbyn in charge. The Labour leader’s natural affiliations may be with Momentum, but that doesn’t mean he has to take everything it says on board. The real slogan of this year’s conference wasn’t “for the many, not the few”, which was projected on to the main stage of the hall. It was “no screw-ups”. Just get through the four days doing nothing to rock the boat and let the Conservatives implode the following week. Keep all the speeches and votes as uncontentious as possible. Stick to the easy topics and maintain a united front.
This wasn’t a feeling that was universally shared. Several moderate MPs and ministers put up token resistance at being denied a platform, but they quickly resigned themselves to the fact that this was Jeremy’s show. Jesus got a harder time from his disciples than Corbyn was getting in Brighton. But Corbyn is now acquiring the skills of a political leader. In the past, he would answer difficult questions with straight answers and invariably found himself in trouble. Now, he has become practised at avoiding tricky subjects.
On the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show in the morning, Corbyn had skilfully sidestepped committing himself to any position on Britain remaining in the single market and freedom of movement, and was equally determined to keep the subject of Brexit as far away from the conference agenda as possible. Never mind that Brexit was the most important issue facing the country today; it was nearly as toxic for Labour as it was for the Tories. Let conference anywhere near a vote on Brexit and they’d commit the party to freedom of movement and staying in the single market, something that wouldn’t sit well with Corbyn’s natural Euroscepticism.
With a lot of help from his Momentum supporters, the Labour leader got his wish. Brexit wouldn’t be debated and there would be no vote. Lord, make me a democrat. Just not yet.
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