It was a momentous night for Britain’s Labour Party at its annual conference in Brighton. As has often been the case since June’s General Election, a buoyant Labour event felt more like a sell-out leg of a musician’s European tour than a British party conference. The headlining act was, of course, Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour’s new hero
Marching onstage to a three-minute rendition of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, the Leader of the Opposition’s speech felt like one celebrating victory. It echoed the widespread belief that the Labour party stands “on the threshold of power.”
Corbyn’s speech was unsurprisingly full of soundbites. Attacking the Conservative policy on social housing, Corbyn argued that “rent controls exist in many cities across the world.” He promised to provide protections for tenants before evoking the “chilling” image of the Grenfell tragedy as a symbol of “yawning inequality.” Critics will point to an exploitation of the emotional context of Grenfell but it’s hard to look past Corbyn’s consistent sincerity since that event took place.
What was abundantly clear by the Corbyn speech was that he finally looked confident as the leader of the Labour Party. Concise in his criticism of the government, he presented himself and spoke more like a leader in waiting than ever before. The reception was inevitably outstanding, but gaping inconsistencies in Labour’s policy statements still remain.
The elephant in the room
Despite the straight-forward jabs at the Conservatives regarding the ongoing ambiguity surrounding the Brexit negotiations, Corbyn recycling the “coalition of chaos” line, the Labour stance on Brexit remains notably cloudy.
It is no secret that the 68 year-old is Eurosceptic, yet his Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, refused to deny the possibility of a second referendum in his Wednesday speech. Corbyn, following his lead, claimed that Labour believed in an “unimpeded access to single market,” a position much more aligned with that of shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer.
However, while a recent poll found that 66% of Labour members back single market membership, the subject was, very controversially, kept off the debate agenda. In the party members’ ballot – which tables topics for discussion at the conference – not one of the eight motions chosen for debate was Brexit-related despite the fact that many constituency parties submitted motions.
The triumph of Momentum
This was also a manifestation of the power of pro-Corbyn grassroots movement, Momentum. Ultimately, it was this activist group that prevented challenges to those demanding clear positions from the Labour leadership on key issues such as membership of the single market and customs union. Momentum asked delegates not to vote for Brexit-related motions in advance of the conference.
Many senior Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna criticised the move, arguing that the party “should not be ducking this debate, we should be leading it”. The practice of sidelining controversial issues at conferences is not new. Indeed, it was a hallmark of the New Labour era, used to present a united front to the British political and media establishments. The lack of a clearly-defined, consistent position on leaving the EU dilutes the validity of any criticism of the Conservative’s dealing with the matter.
Momentum’s power was a defining factor at the annual conference. Coupled with the the potency of the Corbyn social media presence, activist group is now the decision-making faction within the party and has forced the Corbyn-sceptics to come around. Many were previously fearful for their jobs before the general election and, much like MPs under Blair, are far happier to hold back criticisms with policy if their seats remain safe.
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s most senior elected politician, declared that “Jeremy Corbyn will win the next general election”, a testament to how far that Labour has moved on since June. “It’s great to see our Labour Party so fired up under Jeremy Corbyn” the London Mayor continued. While MPs previously cowered in the corridors of Westminster when Theresa May first called the snap election, September’s conference rocked with an electable swagger.
Low on policy commitments but high on optimism
It was an event that did little to outline any serious policy commitment from the Labour party. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell did suggest that Labour would look to bring “wasteful” Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) back into the public sector and renationalise rail, water and the Royal Mail – citing the post-war Attlee government as inspiration.
On a superficial level, the policy is popular in the polls. It’s easy to become swept up in the cheers of Corbynmania but his speech struggled to touch on anything other than the incompetence of the current government. Even so, from an internal perspective, Corbyn is not required to speak in depth on policy issues – he is unassailable. Sadiq Khan and others have recognised where the party’s epicentre now lies and it is with one man’s ability to energise a new generation of the British electorate.
Each soundbite and policy statement Corbyn offers is a popular one, few are explained or contextualised within the current system. The single market membership, soft-Brexit, the renationalisation projects and social housing rhetoric are winning people over. That said, the conference did little to demonstrate a united party looking to collectively address those issues. The conference was more of a display of Momentum’s supremacy and the quasi-surrender of the Labour moderates and centrists, all driven by the popular force of its headline act.
Labour’s present, Britain’s future?
Jeremy Corbyn may not be an orator like Blair or Cameron, but the Labour party now has an identity centred around the cult of a personality. Corbyn did not win the previous General Election, despite the claims from Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, the country’s largest trade union.
Nevertheless the party is certain that a change is coming and that its leader is Britain’s most likely next Prime Minister. Brighton was undoubtedly Corbyn’s on Wednesday night. Britain might well be his in the very near future.