How many actual Tories will there be at the Conservative conference?

Andrew Mitchell has his own reasons for staying away, but plenty of other Tories see little purpose in attending.

It is mildly ludicrous that Andrew Mitchell, the chief whip and alleged verbal abuser of police officers, won't be attending his party's annual conference next week. And yet it is not that surprising. He might indeed cause a "distraction" from the business at hand - his excuse for bunking off - and he doesn't have a departmental brief, so he doesn't need to make a speech. So the calculation for Mitchell personally is fairly simple: why bother?

A problem for the Conservative party is that he is not alone in thinking that. Tory MPs have been grumbling more or less openly about their conference and wondering aloud whether or not to show up. The complaint is a familiar one: the whole show is run by and for the benefit of David Cameron's clique; only the favoured, Osborne-groomed ministers will be allowed near a platform or microphone; the whole jamboree is really just an excuse to gouge money from corporate public affairs budgets. (Conferences are very lucrative for governing parties as they hoover up lobbyist cash.)

The same gripes can be heard on the periphery of the Labour and Lib Dem gatherings but in my experience it is the Conservative one that has been most dramatically hollowed out in recent years. (The Lib Dems have a residue of actual democracy at theirs, which makes it worthwhile for members to go and Labour numbers are bolstered by unions, which are a better at mobilising numbers than Conservative associations.)

More seasoned hacks than me were shocked last year by the absence of ordinary delegates at the Tory gathering in Manchester. Senior figures in the party were also alarmed by the sight of empty chairs in the hall when David Cameron gave his keynote address.

Cameron's leadership has accelerated the decline in grassroots participation in the conference. That was inevitable given the way the "modernisers" around the leadership sought to define themselves in explicit contrast with much of what the party had once appeared to represent. The battle-scarred infantry of the Tory wilderness years didn't exactly take kindly to the appearance of a pomaded young cavalry officer riding in and telling them their campaign medals were worth nothing and that their only hope was to march behind him to victory. (They followed him for want of a better plan and never forgave him when victory still proved elusive.) Coalition also means that ordinary Tory activists don't feel ownership of the government's programme. Lib Dems can at least cheer the basic fact of being in power; Tories can only mourn the fact that their power is diluted.

There was a peculiar atmosphere around those early Cameroon conferences. Pushy twenty-something aides and wannabe apparatchiks - barely distinguishable in appearance from their New Labour counterparts a decade earlier - darted around bewildered old gents in navy blazers and regimental ties. The apparatchiks are now ministerial bag-carriers, MPs - or in some cases ministers. The old gents are more likely to make the journey to a Ukip conference than a Tory one. It will be interesting to see how many local association Conservatives come to Birmingham next week.

A final thought on this subject. Ed Miliband has been criticised for failing adequately to challenge his party in Manchester last week. The allegation of tummy-tickling and comfort-zone-coddling is not unfair. As I wrote in my column this week, the specific claim that Miliband entirely ignores the deficit is wrong; the charge that he has yet to offer any practical mechanism for delivering better public services and reversing inequality when there is no money spare is closer to the mark.

It is certainly true that Miliband doesn't deliberately antagonise his party. This is a strategic choice he has made. He has had a look at the way Tony Blair used conflict with "old" Labour and Cameron has used "modernisation"as the device for grabbing public attention and defining themselves as leaders - and concluded that it is not a path worth pursuing. Why? Because it sows the seeds of division and future rebellion, corroding a base of support that is essential to sustain a long-term political project. Cameron must now deeply regret not securing a clearer mandate inside his party for the kind of changes he claimed he wanted to make.

The obvious downside to the Miliband approach is that it looks like weakness - leading in fear of alienating the most tribal element in the party which, by definition, makes it harder to reach across to swing voters. Miliband's "one nation" pitch is an attempt to hold the allegiance of the Labour faithful and extend an invitation to people who naturally support other parties. No wonder it is vague on policy.

There is every reason to think it can't work. Eventually, Miliband will have to confront sections of his party if he is serious about running public services on tighter budgets. There is no denying that Labour unity has been bought with evasion, or at the very least deferral, of some tough choices. But it is worth noting too that the much advertised alternative is over-rated. That is the macho confrontation with the party to prove that everything is changing and that the leader is something rather new and special. It is an approach that worked for a couple of years for David Cameron. It is also the approach that means his disloyal MPs don't feel like showing up to their own annual conference. (And the chief whip won't be there to chide any troublemakers who do go.)

Miliband is aiming for something else: defining his political project not by the dismay of Labour members but through their acclamation. Can it be done? Parties these days seem so marginalised and tribal compared to the rest of society that it seems hard to believe he can pull it off. It will certainly be fascinating to watch him try.

Tory MPs complain that the conference is "run by and for the benefit of David Cameron's clique". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.