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27 September 2017

Seven thoughts on Labour party conference

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

By Stephen Bush

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?

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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.

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