From housing to higher education, a people’s vote to Palestine, Labour’s 2018 Party Conference had it all. After a somewhat turbulent summer, the Party was in desperate need of positive press coverage and, above all, unity. Whether Corbyn and his allies delivered on this is really dependant on which wing of the Party you ask. Regardless, this conference was a big one and one that has pushed radical politics firmly onto the political agenda.
It is easy to watch politics from afar, to tune in to the leader’s speech and use one quote from it to define a whole movement. But conferences are more than that and Parties are more than just their leader. Corbyn and his shadow cabinet did well to put up a front of Party unity and through cleverly engineered speeches, were almost convincing in their efforts. However, attend one of the more moderate fringe events or rallies and the message was different. Yes, strive for unity, but not at the expense of any one group within the Labour Party.
If you spent a day on conference floor at any point during the week you could be forgiven for thinking the Labour Party was non-existent before 2015. Many delegates who took to the stage to speak certainly seemed to suggest that the Party was the Jeremy Corbyn Party. Even the man himself joined in with the infamous ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant. It certainly felt as though you were judged not by what you had to say, but by how loud you applauded the leader.
Much to the frustration of many, the successes and achievements of pre-Corbyn Labour were all but forgotten with senior union figures such as ASLEF’s Tosh McDonald accusing past Leaders of being complicit in the scandal of Tory austerity. The anger over Blair’s decisions over Iraq is justified, but to paint all who don’t fit the corbynista mould with the same brush is unfair and dangerous. After all, until he is elected Prime Minister, Corbyn simply cannot be classed as the most successful leader of the Labour Party.
The role of the trade unions and the affiliated socialist societies at conference was interesting to watch. Once thought of as being the radical side of the Party, it was often the affiliates that voted down motions pushed by Momentum and the like, including debates on the open selection of MPs. This isn’t to say trade unions are not still radical in their aims, but there were points during the conference when they seemed to supply the voice of reason. Trade unions are the backbone of British left-wing politics, a fact that must not be forgotten.
The real test and the topic that’s on everyone’s lips was Brexit. It is no secret that the UK’s membership of the European Union is an issue that has divided Labour’s members since the EU’s very conception. Many, understandably, felt it would have been a complete farce if Brexit wasn’t debated, so it was a great relief to see the issue making the shortlist of 8 priority motions that would be put to the conference floor.
The composite motion put together by delegates and Keir Starmer in what was a 6 hour long meeting seemed to offer something for everyone. It was a fudge, but it was always going to be. With so many differing opinions, even within factions, there was absolutely no way to completely please everybody. Whatever John McDonnell may or may not have said, the option to remain is very much on the table which will please the many Labour members and voters who support it. Yet the motion and the debate was cautious to respect the referendum result, offering a general election and a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal instead of an outright call for a second referendum. This was cleverly spun by Corbyn in his speech and many are just satisfied with the fact that, at last, Labour has a seemingly coherent policy on Brexit.
Other than Brexit, the main challenge to the Party going into conference season was to take a stand on the issues such as antisemitism and sexual harassment that have tainted the Party. In her speech to Women’s Conference, Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby admitted mistakes had been made regarding the investigation of sexual assault and harassment within the Party. It was disappointing to see however that Women’s Conference had the opportunity to only submit one motion to be discussed by the rest of that Party meaning the discussion on violence against women was largely left unheard.
To their credit, many of the shadow cabinet speeches touched on the issue of antisemitism, rightly called a ‘stain on the Party’ by deputy leader Tom Watson. However, there were still horrendous incidents at conference. During a debate on Palestine, speakers were advised to be wary with their language, advice which some kept to more than others. The thinly veiled attacks from Unite’s Len MCluskey directed at Jewish MP Margaret Hodge and the fact other Jewish MPs required police protection truly underline the deep-rooted issue that is bringing eternal shame to the Party. If Corbyn is serious when he preaches about anti-racism he must call out antisemitism in all its forms, particularly when it’s happening right under his nose.
For many, the Party Conference was doomed to fail. However, it ended up being something rather different than Momentum had hoped and Progress had feared. There is still much work to be done to truly unite the Labour Party and win back support from the oppressed. But, in the words of the late, great Jo Cox, ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’.