Pagefield spent a few days in Brighton this week for some sun, sea and socialism at Labour Party conference 2015. Here Nathan Jones and Benjamin Winter report back on the five things they learnt.
Agreeing to disagree
Despite the fears of many MPs, Jeremy Corbyn’s ideological project seems already to have shifted since he became Labour leader almost three weeks ago. While many assumed that he would use his platform to champion the causes of the hard left, he has instead emphasised the importance of creating a space to debate issues, in order to arrive at a position supported throughout the Party (i.e. not just in Westminster). It is this approach which enabled him to assemble a relatively inclusive Shadow Cabinet, but combined with a lack of message discipline, it set the tone for some rocky Shad Cab relations in Brighton.
A noticeable example of this was Corbyn’s declaration that he would never press the nuclear button in Government even if Labour approved Trident’s renewal which brought criticism from both the Shadow Defence and Home Secretaries. Labour remains divided on the wisdom of this approach, but the other side of the House will most likely be revelling in this organized chaos.
The new politics
Leaving specific policies aside, the leadership was very clear that this conference was about one thing – a new kind of politics. A kinder, more inclusive politics of the many and not the few. A politics from the ground-up which eschews personal attacks. An honest, straight-talking politics without message discipline and centrally imposed lines-to-take. Powerful messages, but perhaps not yet reflected in reality.
These ideas enthused the party faithful in the hall, but the irony of repeated lines which criticised messaging was not lost on many, particularly when the leader accidentally read his own speech direction – ‘strong message here’. It also proved difficult to enforce the ‘new politics’ throughout the party. Despite Corbyn’s call for a kinder form of politics, there were still plenty of jokes directed at the Tories, and Deputy Leader Tom Watson was only too happy to call the Liberal Democrats a ‘useless bunch of lying sell-outs’.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of honest, straight-talking politics was Corbyn’s decision to go after the national media in his address to conference on Tuesday. He left no doubt that he holds little regard for British mainstream media and is unafraid, and even eager, to challenge them. We counted four slightly laboured jokes in the opening of the leader’s speech aimed at this group. This approach will do little to assuage his critics in the media, but this seems of little concern to him and his supporters.
Instead, they argue that the target demographic for the Party will be reached through the long arm of social media, and that the role of the national press is therefore less relevant. This is surely something of a gamble. Labour’s run of election victories beginning in 1997 were built on a charm offensive directed at the media, which brought a historically critical press on-side. Corbynistas argue that social media has changed the game, but it remains to be seen whether social media can engage enough people to bring Labour the kind of votes they would need for victory in 2020.
Don’t look back in anger
You could have been forgiven for predicting a conference atmosphere somewhere between the Cultural Revolution and the last days of Rome this year, but fans of high drama were largely disappointed. The fervour of the Corbynistas seemed to cancel out the gloom of the Blairites and others, creating an oddly workmanlike feel to proceedings. All continued as normal on the surface, but one can’t help suspecting that trouble was brewing not far beneath.
Perhaps surprisingly for a conference immediately following an historic election defeat, there was little emphasis on looking back from the leadership. There seems a genuine lack of desire from Corbyn and his supporters to analyse the reasons for Labour’s loss, or more importantly perhaps the Tory’s victory, in May’s General Election. This led to accusations that the leader’s speech was targeted at only those in the room, and not the country at large. Perhaps some solace can be taken in the fact that the party is at least unified in the sense that all sides know there is much work to be done (although they disagree on whether they are working to a five or ten year timetable for their work).
For many conference attendees, the changes of the past month will not have inspired the same joy as has been seen in the so-called Corbynista/Corbynite/Jeremaniac contingent. Those at the centre and right of the party seemed to be over-represented in Brighton given the left’s resounding leadership election victory. Indeed, the Daily Mirror party DJ’s appeal to ‘make some noise’ for the new leader met with a decidedly muted response from the crowd.
Amongst this group there was much soul-searching to be done, although most seemed to have accepted the new dominance of the left for the time being. This has meant at least that fears of defection and splits have partially receded for the time being. A good example of this came at the Labour Friends of Israel reception, where the leader courted controversy by refusing to call Israel by name. A prominent donor was removed by staff after heckling Corbyn on this point, but when asked about defection stated he would not run from a fight.