A Reflection on Labour Party Conference: The Sun is Shining

By Anna Jobling, Member of the YCC

A Party united: At Labour Conference last year, following a leadership challenge and months of infighting, Tom Watson said it was time to get the band back together. This year in Brighton, it was evident that the Labour Party had succeeded in doing just that.

The frictions and disagreements we saw spilling out in 2016 stayed beneath the surface. Corbyn’s dissenters have been quietened by the General Election result and are more at ease with a leader who has grown in confidence and delivered stronger media performances and polished Leader’s speech. Whilst concerns have not gone away, ‘moderates’ have accepted that resistance is futile, at least for the time being.

In addition to unity, the conference felt celebratory and optimistic. Enthusiastic party members, excited by something different and better, created a jubilant and infectious mood, which was swelled by the sunshine and fresh sea air. However, in sad contrast to that sunny optimism, bullying and anti-Semitism continue to plague the Party. Delegates overwhelmingly supported stronger measures against this. The key test will be whether this translates into action.

The main man: As Corbyn bounded onto the stage for his Leader’s speech to the chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, audience members eagerly waving their newly bought Corbyn football scarfs, his aura of pre-eminence outweighed that of all other Labour leaders, even Tony Blair in 1997.

Indeed, Corbyn’s hand is firmly on the tiller of the Party. This dominance is concerning, not only because a party needs to be more than one person, but also because there is also no obvious successor that could continue to harness the rock star devotion he commands, much less a contingency plan if his popularity collapses. However, Emily Thornberry and Angela Rayner are increasingly popular and were given the opportunity to shine during the conference. In the short term, Corbyn’s challenge will be to maintain this energy into the next election, while expanding his support base to win back Labour’s traditional working-class support base and older voters.

A new ‘common sense’: In his leader’s speech, Corbyn asserted that far-left policies are becoming the new mainstream centre ground. His suite of new “common sense” policies included rent controls, protecting workers against automation, raising wages, and spreading growth around the country. However, these policies are light on detail and in a rigorous election campaign they could unravel very quickly.

Also making headlines was John McDonnell’s commitment to “bring back in-house” up to £200 billion of assets built and maintained under the private finance initiative. He also restated the commitment to renationalise Royal Mail, as well as utility and rail companies. Although this received rapturous applause in the auditorium, these policies are unlikely to survive an election campaign. The Conservatives will not repeat their poor electoral performance again and there will be much greater scrutiny of Labour policy going forward.

Businesses is back: A business presence could be seen everywhere at Labour conference. The business day was sold out and a handful of companies had exhibition stands, including Microsoft, Google, Royal Mail, and BP as well as numerous corporate sponsored fridge events. Whilst many companies are at odds with the Labour agenda, it was evident that business is taking the prospect of a Labour Government very seriously and making real efforts to engage.

Elephant in the room: Labour avoided Brexit overshadowing this conference by having no votes on contentious issues such as free movement or continuing membership of the single market. Nonetheless, it remains the elephant in the room. Corbyn stated that the UK should stay within the basic terms of the single market and a customs union for a limited transition period. However, there is still no clear policy on the final outcome of Brexit.

United and advancing: Ultimately, Labour Conference showed that the Party is on the front foot and acting like a government in waiting. Corbyn stated that the Labour campaign machine is “primed and ready to roll" and the gaff free conference demonstrated that.