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Seven thoughts on Labour party conference

Jeremy Corbyn is getting better all the time, and business is learning to love a Labour government. 

Business thinks the next election is Labour’s to lose

When the British Sprinkler Association thinks it’s a good use of their money and time to pay for a stand at Labour party conference you know that something is up.

A YouGov poll for Portland Communications shortly before Labour party conference showed that three-quarters of business leaders believe that a Labour government may be around the corner, and the renewed interest from Britain’s biggest corporations could be seen all over the conference.

While there are still those within the Labour Party and wider movement who believe that 2017 was as good as it gets for the opposition, it’s striking that in the corporate world, the possibility of a Labour government is being taken incredibly seriously.

And they’re…actually quite down with it

When, as leader, Ed Miliband attended a round table or did a fundraiser with the captains of industry, he had a fairly routine spiel. Yes, he would say, he had criticisms of how they operated. Yes, their most well-paid staff would have to pay more in tax.

But, he’d conclude, I’m not the one threatening our membership of the single market and the customs union, am I?

Back then, most business leaders concluded that the chances of the EU referendum being lost was small but the chances of having to pay a mansion tax and the 50p rate were high. But at Labour conference at least, even visiting business leaders with no love for Labour are starting to look at the fractious Conservatives and their Brexit plans and thinking that a Corbyn government might be a price worth paying for a softer Brexit.

Labour’s Brexit row is a bit of a red herring

While it’s not true to say that Labour and the Conservatives have identical Brexit proposals – as far as the vital issues of the Irish border and future trade, that Labour is open to remaining in the customs union indefinitely is a significant difference – it is true to say that both parties are offering different flavours of hard Brexit.

Conference delegates opted not to have a vote on the party’s Brexit policy, and there has been a great deal written about Jeremy Corbyn, his stance on EU membership and the Labour Party platform.

What’s often neglected is that the number of Labour MPs who are voting the way they are because of the Labour whip is fairly small. Perhaps ten or so members of the frontbench would prefer to be pursuing a softer version of Brexit, but for the most part, Labour MPs are voting with their consciences on Brexit anyway.

Party like it’s 1992?

Labour’s remaining Corbynsceptics, for the most part, think that the last election result was largely down to the failures of Theresa May and the Conservatives. Their expectation is that at the next election, normal service will resume – and that the result will be a Conservative victory against the odds, just as in 1992.

Labour members love Emily Thornberry

Just because there isn’t a vacancy, doesn’t mean there isn’t a contest. Should Jeremy Corbyn decide to call it a day unexpectedly, at the moment, his constituency neighbour and the shadow foreign secretary is in pole position as far as the contest goes. She was mobbed almost everywhere she went and her speech was almost as well-received by members as Corbyn’s.

Should a vacancy arise, it will be hard for anyone to stop Thornberry.

Of course, winning the invisible contest isn’t a guarantee that you will maintain that position should an actual contest start. In the last seven years, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have all, at one point or another, been the activists’ darling in their respective political parties, and look how that worked out.

Antisemitism could yet tear Labour apart

Labour has voted through tougher powers to tackle antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia in its ranks. But the conference debate which preceded the vote – won overwhelmingly, with just 3.72 per cent voting against the change – had a series of ugly interventions by speakers, and members of the Jewish Labour Movement were heckled.

Speaking to both activists and MPs, many were shaken that the interventions were cheered by delegates in the hall. The scale of the victory for the rule changes means that yes, those cheers can’t have been from very many people nor did they represent the balance of forces in the hall, but they were certainly experienced that way by some members and parliamentarians.

Adding to the problem, Len McCluskey appeared on Newsnight saying that he has never experienced any antisemitism – which, well, no, being a Catholic from Liverpool, the chances that he would be the target of antisemitism are fairly low – and said that the row had been manufactured solely to undermine the leadership, only adding to bruised feelings.

Should Labour’s internal rows, quieted by the general election, burst into ugly life again, interventions like McCluskey’s will be part of why. 

The absolute boy is all grown up

Jeremy Corbyn gave his best conference speech yet, delivery-wise. (Content-wise I thought last year’s was a lot better, but your mileage may vary.)

As I said on the Westminster Hour last week, the United Kingdom has never had a leader of the opposition take the job having never held even a junior frontbench position. Corbyn has learnt on the job and can now perform all the duties of an opposition leader, while Karie Murphy, his chief of staff, has smartened up his look as well.

Labour will hope that we haven’t yet seen the best of Jeremy Corbyn.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.