There were two things that defined Labour’s last two conferences. First, no one believed the party was a serious contender for Government; and two, the party of was riven with infighting to the extent that the conference was sometimes an unpleasant and threatening place to be.
This year’s General Election changed everything. At this year’s conference people were talking about a “Labour Government” with intent, rather than as a far-flung fantasy and Labour Party moderates exhibited respectful discipline and quietly accepted that, if the boat is not rocked, it might just sail them to victory.
The Leader’s office has improved too. The Party had more clarity and vision on policy, and Corbyn’s speech, whose speaking style is often bombastic, was delivered with clarity and professionalism. His cabinet was largely on message and his staff were seen whizzing around conference with a sense of strategy and purpose. Corbyn has also come a long way in his battle for the Party. While moderates won many of the early internal battles (for example to control influential Party committees), Corbyn and his team are now winning more and more.
The front bench spent a great deal of time talking about the new economy this year. The fourth industrial revolution featured in all the major speeches, with the leadership talking about the opportunities it provides for jobs and skills – even if that comes at the cost of greater automation. It was a message that courted both business and Labour’s membership, with a skilfully crafted dual message of supporting growth in a way that supports people.
However, there were also warning signs. While Corbyn and his team have noticeably improved their party management and communication skills since 2015, there were two big unforced errors that led to firefighting.
First was their decision to kick Brexit into the long grass and refuse to allow it to be discussed in the main conference hall – leading to a last-minute fudge to avoid embarrassment. Brexit seems to be Corbyn’s Achilles’ heel – and while it might be the big political issue of the day – he is aware that his views differ from those of his supporters, and so does not want the spotlight on it.
Second, was Corbyn’s decision not to attended Labour Friends of Israel’s reception – which is usually attended by the Labour leader – during a conference when the debate on anti-Semitism in the Party was rife. Instead Emily Thornberry was left to explain that he wasn’t attending any events that evening, only for footage to emerge later of him doing just that. This undermined all the leadership’s work in supporting a conference motion against anti-Semitism.
While these may seem little, they reinforce and deepen the Party’s divisions. The divisions that seemed more muted this year could easily be ripped open again if polling turns against Corbyn or tensions rise to the surface again.
The election has given it renewed confidence and unity, but this is not the end and there are clouds on the horizon. Corbyn has gone a long way to winning the battle for his party. If he pursues unity and compromise he might achieve this, but it requires him to abandon strongly held beliefs and risks undermining support amongst his insurgent, anti-establishment base. If he seeks to solidify his position and cement the role of his supporters, he risks alienating party moderates and ultimately damaging the party’s electability.
At the moment, he is pursuing both, but this may not be viable in the long-term; it certainly isn’t with the added challenges of being in Government. 2017 might just be the eye of the storm.