Labour conference is usually the arena for an elaborate wrestling match between the party’s numerous jostling factions. This year’s conference was hosted in Liverpool, which has a unique history in this internal struggle. In his keynote address to conference in 1985, Labour leader Neil Kinnock famously took aim at the “grotesque chaos” of Liverpool council – at the time run by the hard-left Militant faction of the Labour Party. It is a speech that has come to symbolise the war between the party’s competing wings.
This year, however, no such feuds were expected. The left of the party entered conference in an unassailable position – the Labour leadership firmly on their side. Through the campaigning group Momentum, Corbyn has an iron grip on the party – something well understood by Corbynsceptic MPs.
And so Momentum went into conference with a radical agenda: to push for the open selection of Labour parliamentary candidates – a move that would pave the way for a cull of anti-Corbyn dissenters. Indeed, at the moment, a new candidate can only stand if the existing Labour MP is rejected in a vote by local Labour party members.
Momentum was given the impetus for this reform by a recent election which saw nine of its eight candidates (not a typo) elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee. For anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the Labour Party, the National Executive is its governing body.
But the new kids on the block were soon put in their place by Labour’s union elders, who blocked the open selections policy – leading to shouts of “shame on the unions” from some members.
Meanwhile, efforts to limit the power of deputy leader Tom Watson were scuppered in an embarrassing turn of events. Labour’s Corbynista factions proposed the election of a second, female deputy leader but hastily u-turned after Watson announced his full support for the idea. It was rumoured that Watson was planning on using the rule change to his advantage by proposing an anti-Brexit, progressive deputy leader.
This brings us to the big issue of conference: Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn took half an hour to mention the subject in his keynote address. Momentum didn’t really want it to be discussed at all. But Brexit was forced onto the agenda by the party rank and file, with over 100 local parties expressing their desire to debate the leadership’s policy.
The upshot wasn’t as painful as many Corbyn acolytes were expecting. The party has slightly amended its policy: saying that it will push for a general election if Theresa May comes back from Europe with a bad deal, and will call for a second referendum if a general election cannot be secured.
The prickliest point of contention came when shadow chancellor John McDonnell said that a second referendum would not include the option to remain – in which case the public would be given a binary choice between a deal that Labour had already rejected, and no deal.
In response, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer went off script and said that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option.”
However, for once, internal splits didn’t overshadow Labour conference, even on the issue of antisemitism.
The Labour leader faced an uncomfortable interview with Andrew Marr, during which he was asked to talk about each of Labour’s recent antisemitism scandals. Corbyn gave a weak answer when he was forced to explain why he had shared an antisemitic mural on Facebook, but antisemitism did not dominate press coverage in the way it has over recent months.
All things considered, Labour conference will most likely seem like a tea party compared to the Brexit bedlam set to be unleashed at Tory conference this week. For the first time in a long time, disunity is a stick being used by Labour to beat the Tories, not the other way around.
A Backbench report by Natasha Livingstone and Sam Bright
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