The first full day of Labour conference felt like the universe’s way of backing Jeremy Corbyn’s criticisms of privatisation and unregulated markets. First came the unwelcome discovery that engineering works had left delegates with a choice between a local stopping service to Brighton and the three most feared words in the English language: rail replacement bus. I picked the former, and spent the next two hours staring out of the window at the seemingly endless green fields of the South Downs. (Anyone who complains about Britain being an overdeveloped concrete jungle clearly never gets the train.) Andy Burnham, now shadow home secretary, took the bus – and tweeted at the end of his “nightmare journey” that he was “ready to clap loudly when Jeremy mentions rail renationalisation”.
When I arrived in Brighton, there was another unpleasant surprise: the host of our Airbnb rental was nowhere to be found, and unreachable by phone. As I stood in an alleyway, hammering the door like an estranged spouse in an EastEnders Christmas special, suddenly the “disruptive” sharing economy didn’t look so appealing. Eventually, I gave up and found a hotel.
The slogan of the conference was “Straight talking, honest politics” but the real theme was modernisers v Corbynites. With the exception of a few loose cannon on either side, these skirmishes were camouflaged, as the centrists acknowledge that Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate is such that he is untouchable in the short term.
As Ed Miliband’s pollster James Morris observed, this made it feel like a David Lynch production: “everything seems normal, fringes tick on, members upbeat. But there is sadness and rage underneath.”
The most obvious change is that the modernisers have begun to show passion and conviction when articulating both their ideas and their personal attachment to the party. They have dropped the complacency that came with being the establishment, a move which, one MP admitted to me, was long overdue. “Those of us in the centre have a duty to be radical, too,” he observed.
This battle of ideas is exciting (something conference badly needed) but it does mean more arguments and more hurt feelings, because everyone feels there is something existential at stake. At the New Statesman party, Chuka Umunna – a politician whose easy self-assurance sometimes seems borderline robotic – spoke emotionally about a new member who told him at a fringe event she was afraid to speak in case she was “accused of being a Tory”. It’s a widely held but little expressed view, even among MPs.
The challenge now for the centrists is to reframe the battle. At the moment, it feels like a contest between principles (on the left) v competent, compromising, bloodless managerialism (at the centre) rather than a fight between two competing ideologies. “Your ideas won’t win an election” is no substitute for “our ideas are better”.
If I sound grumpy, it’s because being shouted at (both virtually and in the real world) about my status as an emissary of the Evil Mainstream Media is beginning to grate. Inveighing against the “Westminster Bubble” has the benefit of truth – politicians and the media do often have more in common than either does with the average voter – combined with the power of an ad hominem attack. It suggests that the speaker’s opinion is worthless because of their personal circumstances, which removes the need to listen to their words. For that reason, it has become a thought-terminating cliché, used too often by people who are in bubbles of their own.
In Brighton, I did a Radio 5 show where an audience member castigated us for insufficient enthusiasm for the new political dawn whose effects were apparently being felt everywhere. There was simply no polite way to say that Brighton – with its Green MP and its record as the first city to elect a Green-led council – was not an accurate bellwether for left-wing enthusiasm in the nation as a whole. The “Labour bubble” can be just as stifling as the Westminster one.
Another bucket of cold water came at my next fringe on how Labour can win back working-class voters. John Healey, now shadow minister for housing, pointed out the scale of the challenge: it needs to win 94 additional seats in 2020 to secure a majority of one, including many where the Ukip vote was larger than the Tory majority.
Polly Billington, Labour’s defeated candidate in the Essex seat of Thurrock, said that immigration and cleaning up the streets were the two issues most raised on the doorstep. She said something else that Labour should reflect on as the debates about EU membership roll on: free movement of people “is great if you want a plumber; it’s less good if you are a plumber”.
The houses that Jez could build
Huge credit is due to Corbyn for seizing upon housing so early in his leadership and appointing a dedicated ministerial team. Labour has not, until now, had an effective counter-offer to Help to Buy and the extension of Right to Buy, nor has it been able to capitalise on the Conservatives’ lack of interest in the problems of private renters.
The area should be an open goal for Labour: the forced sell-off of housing association properties will make council waiting lists rocket, according to Shelter, while more of their budgets will be swallowed by expensive temporary accommodation. All the Tory waffle about the revenue from the sell-off being used to fund more housebuilding is deluded: since 2012, for every nine homes sold off under the reinvigorated Right to Buy, just one has been built or started. In the north-west, 1,264 homes have been sold. How many replacements have been built? Two.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide