Returning from Liverpool, Pagefield’s Ed Brown outlines the change in the Labour Party, recaps the major announcements made by the Shadow Cabinet and looks at what this year’s Labour Conference could mean for business.
On my last trip to Liverpool, Labour Party Conference closed with internal party relations at an all-time low. Infighting reigned in the wake of the failed Owen Smith leadership challenge, and Conference was frankly a sideshow to Momentum’s World Transformed event. Fast forward two years and the atmosphere has been very different.
Having broadly avoided the anti-Semitism row that has so tainted the Party this summer, the Conference was much less about internal wrangling, and much more about presenting Labour as a government in waiting – albeit a radical one.
The Party’s new seriousness appears to have been recognised by business too. In the exhibition hall this year, the stalwart union stands shared space once more with the likes of Visa, Bombardier and Google. While fringes addressed serious policy issues ranging from data ethics and FinTech to transforming private renting.
The elephant in the room however remains Brexit. In a mammoth session on Sunday night delegates battled their way to a compromise agreement that keeps ‘all options’ on the table, including backing another referendum if no General Election is forthcoming. With signs of growing voter support for a second referendum, the remain camp were out in force across fringe events. Meanwhile, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, received perhaps the loudest applause of Conference on stating that ‘nobody is ruling out remain’.
However, Labour MPs we spoke to were clear that they will be pragmatic about voting on a Brexit deal. They see Labour’s evolving position as a useful tool to hammer the government on now, but when it comes to agreeing a deal, Keir’s 6 tests may suddenly become more flexible.
Inevitably, Sunday’s Brexit compromise provided the thinnest of covers for Party divisions. Both the Shadow Chancellor and Unite boss Len Mcluskey were quick to state that a second referendum would focus purely on the Government’s proposed deal, with no option to remain.
Nonetheless, with Brexiteers in the Conservative Party pushing Theresa May towards what much of business will see as a harmful Brexit, Labour has been presented with an unlikely opportunity to secure the begrudging support of the business community. Labour’s shifting position of Brexit, with its clear commitment to remaining in the Single Market and customs union does present an olive branch to business.
Labour also used this year’s Conference to build on their 2017 manifesto platform. Captured under the continuing theme of ‘for the many, not the few’ Labour announced that it would extend the Government’s 30 hours of free childcare programme to the parents of all two-, three-, and four-year-olds. Labour’s retail offer was complimented by a series of strongly interventionist business and economic policies, including renationalising water companies, legislating for all large companies to be required to distribute a percentage of their shares with their employees, and creating more than 400,000 skilled jobs in low carbon industries. Funding for the new policies would be found from one of the usual suspects – a hike on corporation tax – and a second home levy.
Perhaps reflecting the strange dynamic presented by Brexit, businesses’ reaction to Labour’s upgraded 2017 Manifesto has been relatively muted. Indeed, the CBI’s response yesterday to the Labour Leader’s speech opened with ‘much of Labour’s vision… is absolutely right’, before going on to call on Labour to stop throwing barbs at business and take up businesses’ open offer to work more closely together.
If Labour is really serious about offering an alternative government to Theresa May’s, it will heed the CBI’s warning and look to work collaboratively with business to fill the inevitable post-March 2019 policy vacuum – but can a Leopard change its spots?