Labour did almost everything wrong at its conference in Brighton, but it ended for delegates in a kind of triumph.
The party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) began the annual gathering with a botched attempt to remove Tom Watson as deputy leader, after the Corbynite majority voted first to abolish his post, only to pull back following an outcry in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
The abortive attempt to topple Watson was a double error. As one Corbynite ally put it to me, “It was a mistake to start and a mistake to stop.” In beginning the move against Watson, Corbynites on the NEC ensured that the dominant narrative about the party conference in the press, and most importantly among broadcasters, would be one of splits and divisions. But in calling it off, the plotters paid the price without securing the prize.
Watson is a defeated enemy as far as the forward march of Corbynism is concerned: he is in the minority on the NEC and in the wider party. He can only regain power and relevance if the leadership itself becomes vacant and he assumes the role of acting leader. The attempt to remove him sent two messages to the embattled PLP and through them to the media: that Corbyn was contemplating the end of his time in office, and/or that his allies believe that the Labour leader will not win the looming general election and, as a consequence, will be forced to resign.
Those who know Corbyn well concede that there is a chance that he would decline to serve a full term as prime minister (he is 70), but they fully expect him to lead the party into the election, whether it is later this year or in spring 2020. Rumours that Corbyn is planning to leave can act as a comfort blanket for the party’s Corbynsceptics, who have no realistic path to regain control while he remains on the scene.
Leadership speculation is a constant factor in the life of a political party because almost everyone covets the job above theirs in any organisation. But when the leader is seen to be strong and secure that speculation can be a boon, as the ambitious seek to bask in the glow of the leader. Because the NEC had signalled that Corbyn’s leadership may be nearer to the end than the beginning, the bold and wide-ranging speeches by Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Rebecca Long-Bailey (who are considered to be the major players in any leadership contest) were seen through the prism of Corbyn’s weaknesses, rather than as a sign of the strength of the shadow cabinet.
Although the well-briefed line is that Jon Lansman, NEC member and founder of Momentum, launched his own operation against Watson without the knowledge of Corbyn, few believe it. Most of Labour’s power brokers consider it implausible that an accord to remove Watson could have been reached without the leader’s knowledge among the lay members of the NEC (elected by activists on a pledge to follow Corbyn’s will), the pro-Corbyn trade unions, and Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy.
Several NEC members think the game was given away in the meeting that followed in which Corbyn said that he “wasn’t sure” the issue was going to come up – which provoked an alarmed look between Joe Bradley, Corbyn’s point man on trade union and NEC relations, and Seumas Milne, his communications chief. For several of Corbyn’s allies, it increased the belief that Murphy had become a liability. “She irritates the PLP, she starts fights that aren’t needed,” one cabinet ally complained to me. “And she gives Jeremy political advice, which she is not qualified to do. I don’t always agree with Seumas but his qualifications are clear and his advice is often good.”
Several of Corbyn’s close allies are urging him to find a new chief of staff, and do everything in his power to retain the services of Andrew Fisher, his departing policy chief.
The Labour leadership followed the Watson debacle with an unsightly scrap over its Brexit policy. For the party’s high command to strain every sinew to rig the outcome of conference votes is a tradition as old as the party, but the approach is risky for Corbyn because his appeal is largely based on his rejection of the traditional approach of Labour leaders towards the conference floor. The policy reached – of remaining neutral on Brexit ahead of Labour negotiating its own deal with the EU – also puts Corbyn at odds with three of his closest allies, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry, all of whom have declared themselves as committed Remainers in the event of a second vote.
The policy pleases practically no one. As one Labour MP, in a heavily Leave seat, put it to me: “It’s a message to my Leave voters that we’ll try to stop Brexit and to my Remain voters that we don’t want to.”
Yet, in spite of so much unrest, the conference ended with the rank-and-file feeling a new rush of optimism and with Jeremy Corbyn delivering a confident speech on 24 September. Why? Because the biggest news story in Brighton was delivered by the Supreme Court in Westminster. The ruling to declare the prorogation of parliament illegal moved the debate away from Brexit, where Labour is divided, to the question of government interference in the parliamentary process, an issue where it is united.
The court verdict was the Johnson premiership in a nutshell: his efforts to reunite the Leave vote under the Conservative coalition has come at the cost of revitalising the Liberal Democrats and boosting Labour’s fragile unity. Johnson may lead in the polls but he could yet find that he fails to make inroads into Labour territory and is defeated by the Lib Dems and the SNP. It won’t matter if Corbyn has a bad week if Johnson is determined to keep having worse ones.
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace