As another conference season draws to a close for the Labour Party, many questions remain about its future. Saturday saw the re-election of leader Jeremy Corbyn, with a marginally larger mandate than the first time around. But the result showed just how divided the party is. For every three members who voted for Corbyn, two didn’t. The key message from the conference: expect an early General Election next spring, the party must be united. Whatever your views on Jeremy Corbyn’s prospects for Prime Minister, the Labour Party must surely now pull together to try and ensure that Labour achieves the best possible result it can whenever that General Election takes place. To do this, Labour will need to try and come together around a broad set of policies and start looking outwards to the electorate, rather than facing inwards. The prospects for achieving this? Well, if the last week is anything to go by, there’s a lot of work to do.
Whilst there have been plenty of calls for unity, there is a massive problem with trust. Previous demands to ‘get behind the leader’ have often been accompanied by the leaking of a list of MPs considered hostile and targets for deselection. There is bound to be apprehension in many quarters about what the future holds for the party and individuals within it, with people uncertain about how to proceed. Conversations around conference also touched on whether the Corbyn-supporting Momentum group will also seek to target local councillors for deselection, replacing them with candidates who are more supportive of the leadership.
Corbyn ally Clive Lewis addressed the conference on Monday in his role as Shadow Defence Secretary. Lewis was left furious when his speech was amended at the last minute to reflect Corbyn’s position over Trident rather than agreed party policy, which is to support renewal. It was a bold move by Lewis and showed his efforts to reach out to those sections of the party who support the party line, which, despite misconceptions, cuts across the left-right spectrum of support. To have the speech amended without first discussing it with Lewis shows Corbyn undermining his own Shadow Cabinet Secretary and ally, with Corbyn forced to admit that he would continue to oppose the policy. It makes a mockery of demands for loyalty when Corbyn himself can’t go along with the principle of collective responsibility.
Following on from the incident involving Clive Lewis, Corbyn found himself at odds with another member of his Shadow Cabinet on Wednesday when Angela Rayner spoke out on immigration figures. Corbyn has refused to say that immigration figures are a problem and need to be controlled, but in an interview with the Today programme, Rayner made it clear that immigration has been an issue on the doorstep and the party needs to acknowledge this. Rayner also echoed the calls for unity and the party to come together, but there was a clear message to Corbyn that he still needs to prove himself to the voters.
The displays by Lewis and Rayner are likely to give ‘so-called’ moderates in the party some heart. Their words of caution and willingness to challenge the leadership will carry more weight than criticisms coming from people who have criticised Corbyn’s leadership continuously over the last year.
There were few tangible announcements on economic policy. John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, recognised the threat to financial services as a result of the vote for Brexit and said that Labour would support access to the European markets for the sector. He talked about a £250 billion National Investment Bank and a network of regional development banks, which would be tasked with helping to support funding for small businesses. McDonnell also talked about exploring the idea of a Universal Basic Income and called for a new living wage of around £10 per hour.
The re-election of Corbyn has delighted some in the party and disappointed others. For the former, his leadership reflects hope and a different approach to politics. Polling for Sky suggests that newer members who support Corbyn want to see the party become a social movement like the Occupy one, whilst Labour supporters more broadly see it as more of a mainstream political party along the lines of – dare I say it – of New Labour (though I don’t think anyone in the party believes it should return to that particular incarnation). Those hoping for the party to evolve into a social movement may find themselves frustrated by the constraints of parliamentary democracy. Coupled with allies emboldened to speak up in opposition against the leader when they feel it necessary, the Labour Party still has some interesting, and potentially rocky, times ahead.
The current state of the Labour Party raises questions for businesses and organisations about how to engage with the party and even whether or not they should try, with many predicting a prolonged period of opposition for the party. But the process of engagement is important: Labour politicians influence public policy in many different ways – as backbench MPs, as members of select committees, members of regional and local government, not to mention peers in the House of Lords. Next week I will be reporting from the Conservative Party conference on Theresa May’s first conference as Leader and Prime Minister; one thing is for sure the headlines are likely to be very different compared to the stir caused last year by her speech on immigration.