The theme at this year’s Labour party conference was not hard to discern: a big, sharp stick for the richest 1 per cent and a juicy, fat carrot for everyone else. John McDonnell’s threats to name and shame tax-avoiding businesses and his pledge to nationalise “profiteering” water companies and turf out bosses “on vast executive salaries” were balanced by promises of paid leave for domestic violence victims, employee dividends of £500 a year and 30 free hours of childcare a week for under-fours.
Underneath the oxygen-sucking arguments about Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn’s team has managed what Ed Miliband’s never could. Labour has threaded individually popular policies (such as renationalising the utilities) into a coherent narrative, summed up by the 2017 election slogan, “For the many, not the few”.
This tactical triumph springs from a surprising source: mean tweets from political journalists praising the Lib Dems. Back in the spring of 2017, Corbyn’s team was despondent. The party was becalmed following a bruising set of rows over whether or not Labour should vote in favour of triggering Article 50. It was also well behind in the polls. Even loyal ministers and staffers conceded that the policy agenda lacked radicalism and energy. The final straw was when the shortcomings of the party’s press strategy became a matter of public debate on Twitter, with unflattering comparisons made to the wit and speed of the Lib Dem operation.
And so Corbyn’s aides resolved to prove their detractors wrong with a series of announcements during the Easter recess. The policies, from free school meals for all primary pupils to harsher punishments for businesses that are late paying suppliers, were united by the theme of carrots for the many and a stick for the few.
The fortnight’s policy blitz generated the best sustained press coverage the Corbyn project had received. Just as importantly, when Theresa May stunned Westminster by announcing an early election a few days later, it gave Team Corbyn a roadmap for the campaign. Fast-forward to this year’s conference. If the plan in the 2017 election was to do “Easter but bigger”, the plan in Liverpool was “the 2017 manifesto but bigger”.
Crucial to that aim was picking a fight. A policy announcement made by a shadow minister to a cheering conference gets one day of headlines. But if that same policy is savaged by the Confederation of British Industry or a bank, it gains much more attention. Right on cue, the business lobby group attacked McDonnell’s plan to force large companies to give 10 per cent of their shares to employees, calling it a “diktat” that would “set alarm bells ringing in boardrooms”. Team Corbyn’s gamble is that disgruntled voters might rather like the thought of captains of industry feeling a hint of alarm.
The leadership’s belligerent approach has disappointed some on the opposition front bench, who believe the Tories are shredding their reputation as the party of business by pursuing a hard Brexit, and that Labour should take advantage of this weakness by making warm noises about the value of enterprise and the importance of the single market. This tendency lost the argument, with one flagship policy illustrating the point: there were two suggestions for how Labour should spend the money raised by a new tax on holiday homes based on their property values, equivalent to double the amount paid in council tax. The obvious, swing-voter-friendly course was to earmark the funds to help first-time buyers. Instead those who wanted the estimated £560m raised to go to the homeless won the day.
The outlines of Corbyn’s next election campaign are already emerging, even though most Labour frontbenchers wearily concede after a few drinks that the Conservatives will find a way to avoid contact with the electorate for as long as possible. Corbyn knows, too, what type of prime minister he wants to be if he wins.
But there is greater ambiguity over the kind of Labour leader he wants to be. Is he the avatar of the party’s grass roots or a supreme fixer on the New Labour model? The difficult truth for Corbyn is that while the success of that Easter fortnight and the 2017 manifesto were a validation of his political analysis, they tarnished his vision of a more democratic, grass-roots movement. Neither emanated from the collective deliberations of party members; both were delivered from on high.
The 2017 manifesto was largely the work of one author, Corbyn’s policy chief, Andrew Fisher. Its success is one reason the party’s democracy review will increase the power of the leader to set policy through the ruling National Executive Committee, rather than debate on the conference floor. The decision to “own the recess” was also taken by a small group in the leader’s office.
At conference, this clash of ideals was again on show. On Brexit, the leadership finds itself at odds with most members, with more than 100 constituency parties calling for another referendum. Fringes were full of anguished Remainers. Yet the party kept its nebulous, ambiguous position on a second vote.
Each side accuses the other of hypocrisy. The leader’s allies point out that critics used to complain about Corbyn’s refusal to compromise with the electorate (of whom 52 per cent voted Leave). Corbyn’s opponents note he used to talk up the rights of members and now presides over the systematic blurring of their wishes. The Corbyn of 1988 would have regarded the Corbyn of 2018 as excessively autocratic. Both sides have a point.
This means that, as exhausted delegates leave Liverpool for another year, the Labour leader is faced with an uncomfortable truth: over and over again, he has proved his detractors wrong. But when it comes to policy-making and strategy, his success has also challenged his own cherished principles.
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis