This week politics has taken a step away from the Palace of Westminster as Party Conference season gets in to the swing of things, and as Labour outlines its vision for post-Brexit Britain. With Theresa May taking the stage across the pond in New York to offer the lowest rate of corporation tax to the G20 summit, Jeremy Corbyn used his Conference speech to call the Tories out on their approach to Brexit. In his own words, they are “daydreaming about a Britannia that both rules the waves and waives the rules”.
Despite tensions in the Labour Party over the summer, it has emerged from Conference with a much clearer position on Brexit; the big-ticket item at a majority of events over the weekend. In the likely event that May cannot get a deal past the EU and through Parliament, Labour will call for a general election and claim that they, unlike the divided Tories, can deliver a clear direction to the Brexit process.
The subject of another referendum on the final deal dominated Conference fringe events, with a “remain” option becoming a will they-won’t they debate. Recent polling found just under 90 per cent of Labour voters support a ‘People’s Vote’, but union boss Len McLuskey and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said “remain” should not be an option in the event of a vote. However, the face-off was put to bed when Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer went off script, to a thunderous standing ovation, to say that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option”.
Brexit is a contentious issue for Labour, as the party has struggled to balance the different opinions of its broad demographic. Care was taken not to alienate Labour’s large minority of leave voters, with a promise to support a deal if it protected jobs and workers’ rights. Labour will hope its policies for a fairer society win the backing of the party’s broadchurch of leave voters, Momentum activists, and Corbyn sceptics amongst others.
Above the Brexit related din, conflict between Momentum and the unions rumbled on. In a Conference where over 60 per cent of delegates were from Momentum, they suffered a surprising amount of set-backs. When rule changes for leaderships and elections were compromised on, Momentum blamed unions with shouts of “shame” across the Conference floor. Further, their proposals for a second female deputy leader were withdrawn at the last minute, with many claiming Angela Rayner’s emergence as the frontrunner prompted fear that a non-Corbynista, leadership-hungry, deputy leader could threaten Corbyn. The battle for power in Labour will rumble on, but the party came across united – much more so than in recent months.
The consensus amongst political touts is Labour had a good Conference, despite some tensions and hiccups such as Laura Smith’s call for a general strike to topple the government. This is categorically not, I repeat, not, Labour policy – as hammered home by every shadow cabinet member interviewed since. Labour did well laying out their vision of Britain and have some good vote-winning policies - the 400,000 green jobs pledge has won praise from environment groups, renationalisation has overwhelming public support, and they have promised a minimum of thirty hours free childcare for all two to four-year olds. They are certainly winning the battle of ideas. However, to be seen as an effective opposition, and promising government-in-waiting, the party must now focus on bringing the momentum built back to Westminster and move beyond the anti-Semitism row which has dominated headlines over the summer.
Caitlin Fordham-Skelton, Account Executive