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9 October 2023

Jeremy Corbyn can’t derail the Labour conference

The former leader caused a stir by refusing to condemn Hamas but his influence is much diminished.

By Freddie Hayward

The conflict in Israel is overshadowing everything at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. At a Tony Blair Institute event yesterday, David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, was clear that Hamas was a terrorist organisation and the attacks should be condemned. He was also clear that Israel’s response should be proportionate and remain within international law.

There was a risk that Jeremy Corbyn – who refused to condemn Hamas – would become the story. But the former party leader is not a feature of this year’s conference. He does not even have a pass to the secure zone. His influence has been subdued. He is not the equivalent to that other former party leader, Liz Truss, who paraded her ideology unopposed in Manchester last week.

The difference is that Corbyn cannot attract a scrum of supporters at a rally within the secure conference zone castigating the leadership at the same time that a cabinet minister is speaking across the road. Factionalism defines the Conservatives’ present and future in a way it does not for Labour. Squint and you can distinguish between the “soft left” and the “Blairites” (How many are even Blairites now? Aren’t some too communitarian, too sceptical of globalisation to be defined by Tony Blair? That needs interrogating) but in reality, this is Keir Starmer’s party.

The victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election last week has buoyed the party’s electoral hopes. “Labour is back in Scotland,” an enthusiastic Jackie Baillie, deputy leader of the Scottish party, proclaimed in the main conference hall yesterday. But, as one senior Labour source put it to me at the New Statesman’s reception last night, the national picture remains uncertain and voters remain volatile.

Labour’s strategy does not. It is long in the making. In June an aide to Starmer described Labour’s five missions for government to me as a funnel: the plan was to start with the broad ambitions and gradually condense them into pithy, retail policies by the time of the next election. Expect Starmer to make some progress in doing so with his speech on Tuesday. Don’t expect major policy announcements over the next three days that reconfigure Labour’s plan for government. Global warming policy will still be sold in terms of jobs and energy security. The key to Labour’s fiscal policy remains economic growth. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour does not need to change course. The mantra here is one of consolidation, explanation and driving the message home.

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Politically, there are risks. Starmer’s statement yesterday that he would scrap the Rwanda deportation policy even if the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats was reduced gave the Conservatives a lifeline. It could create some problems for Labour if planes filled with people seeking asylum do take off before the next election.

But, generally, the fundamental politics of the next election are unlikely to change by the time the Westminster circus heads back to parliament on Wednesday. Rishi Sunak’s reset remains mired in incoherence, communicated in a way that is distant from voters’ priorities. The big question is whether Labour will rethink its approach to public finances, reorienting forecasts towards the long term, towards those habits analogous with a business (invest to grow) and not a household (spend what you earn). Rachel Reeves’s speech in an hour could illuminate the answer.

[See also: Gaza’s attack changes everything]

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