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19 September 2018

The three flashpoints that will dominate Labour conference

Labour’s week in Liverpool will be dominated by Brexit, anti-Semitism, and internal party democracy. 

By Patrick Maguire

Is anybody in Labour looking forward to its conference next month? With the opposition about to decamp to Liverpool, you would be hard pressed to find an MP or party staffer who answered that question in the affirmative.

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, conference has been a uniquely rancorous affair for the leadership and parliamentary party. This year will be no different. Most think it will be worse. Strikingly, the doomsayers include Corbynites, who one would expect to be enjoying their ascendancy.

What do they have to worry about? Corbynsceptics are in disarray, and are more often than not routed by the left in internal battles.

But the task on Merseyside will be different. The party’s forever war is now a cold one. Conference, or at least how it is covered and perceived in the press and by its warring factions, will be dominated by proxy battles. Those tasked with firefighting them identify three: Europe, anti-Semitism, and internal party democracy. Linked to each of them is the broader but more profound question of when, and why, the party might split.

Any Corbynsceptic would fiercly deny that any of these, particularly the second, are proxies for anything. But the almost certain likelihood of wrangling over all of them is going to turn conference into a pretty nightmarish affair. That John McDonnell has spent recent weeks seeking to calm moods on all three fronts underlines the damage they could do.

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A scrap over Europe is inevitable. It’s often assumed that Labour’s members are defined by one quality alone: unthinking fealty to Corbyn. That’s lazy thinking at the best of times and is especially so on Brexit. Of the motions, 151 of the 272 submitted to conference by local parties concern Europe. Dozens demand a referendum on the final Brexit deal or a general election.

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The lie of the land was similar at conference last year. Then, the leadership just about managed to negotiate an escape route. An intervention by Momentum stopped votes on grassroots motions that proposed staying in the single market and maintaining free movement of people, and saved Corbyn and Keir Starmer the embarrassment of having the party’s official line overruled.

The same trick might be pulled again, another fudge concocted (Momentum has said it will not block a conference vote this time around). The composite motion on Brexit that goes before conference might be worded capaciously enough to please everyone. But with March 2019 just nine months away, the political challenge is realer and more immediate and the fissures between the grassroots, unions, Momentum and leadership – and within them – are growing. The row will expose the fragility of the compromises Labour has managed to maintain so far, as will whatever means by which it is resolved.

More damaging publicity over anti-Semitism is also likely. Despite Labour’s decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition in full, the row is still live and any escalation in Liverpool could push MPs further towards the exit door (a la Frank Field, who cited it as one of the triggers for his resignation of the whip last month). Last year, Corbyn was criticised after he did not attend a reception hosted by Labour Friends of Israel, as leaders before him did most years, and failed to condemn anti-Semitism specifically during his conference speech.

You might argue that these are perceived rather than real slights but even so, how the leadership is perceived to handle the anti-Semitism row is as important as the reality, regardless of how big the gap between the two is. Conference, with its hundreds of fringe events, thousands of attendees and factional tensions, presents countless potential flashpoints.

Less predictable is the shape of any row over the party’s internal democracy. Proposals to change the rules by which MPs are selected and Labour’s next leader will be chosen will be debated by the party’s ruling national executive on Saturday, conference’s first day. Other controversial proposals – such as giving members the right to select council leaders – were kicked into the long grass by the NEC yesterday. The outcome will reveal the balance of power between the two competing flanks of the Labour left: Momentum and the unions.

Broadly speaking, the former wants more power for members in selections and leadership contests, and the latter wants more for themselves. It will also tell us much about the permanence of the Corbyn revolution, and whether the party’s structures will preserve a passable route back to power for his critics. If not, MPs could see it as their cue to jump before they are pushed.