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30 September 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 5:01pm

The winners of the Labour conference

Those who leave Brighton with most to be cheerful about.

By George Eaton

John McDonnell, Shadow chancellor

After his divisive appointment, the shadow chancellor shored up his position through a rapid charm offensive. Striking an emollient tone and framing himself as a dour “bank manager” (albeit one who still supports direct action), he avoided the incendiary remarks for which he is renowned. At last night’s Campaign for Labour Party Democracy fringe, it was his speech, rather than Corbyn’s, that MPs and activists cited as their highlight of the week. His vow to vote in favour of George Osborne’s fiscal charter, despite his anti-austerity stance, did not result in the left-wing backlash that some anticipated. McDonnell has enough credibility among this wing of the party to get away with such realpolitik (as he all but admitted, his support is merely symbolic). Meanwhile, his economic advisory committee, including Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Mariana Mazzucato, David Blanchflower, Simon Wren-Lewis and Ann Pettifor, and his announcement that former civil service head Bob Kerslake would lead a review into the Treasury impressed even sceptical wonks.

Tom Watson, Deputy leader

In the dying hours of the conference, Watson rose to give the finest speech of the week. In marked contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s new deputy leader delivered an impassioned tribute to the power of government and New Labour’s achievements in office. His call for activists to “move on from our summer of introspection” showed just why even some of his old Blairite enemies regard him as the party’s last, best hope. His serious, wide-ranging address, including lengthy sections on business and the digital revolution, showed why some speak of him as a potential replacement for Corbyn.

After securing his own significant mandate on 12 September, Watson had an assured first conference as deputy leader. Having started the job both politically and personally distant from Corbyn, he has quickly forged a bond with the new chief, accompanying him to 37 events. For now, his loyalty to the new leader is absolute. “Let’s be clear: because he’s the people’s choice, he’s the right choice,” he said in his speech. But if Corbyn’s leadership leads to an ever-more marginalised Labour, his opponents will look to Watson to do what is necessary.

Hilary Benn, Shadow foreign secretary

Having been outplayed by Jeremy Corbyn over EU membership in the days following his election, Benn has emerged strengthened from the conference. Corbyn’s support for the In campaign and Nato membership is no longer in doubt and the shadow foreign secretary secured another important victory over Syria. The Labour leader has all but guaranteed that MPs will have a free vote on military action against Isis and Benn was able to advocate UN-backed air strikes in his speech (declaring elsewhere that “collective responsibility” had effectively ceased to exist). Corbyn’s decision to accompany him to last night’s Labour Friends of Israel reception was further evidence of his moderating influence. Benn was removed from Labour’s NEC in favour of Corbyn supporter Rebecca Long-Bailey (though members say he was rarely present). But in the bars of Brighton, he was increasingly discussed as a potential leader should the incumbent depart before the general election.

Luke Akehurst, Labour First secretary

As conference once again becomes a defining battleground, the super-activist has emerged as a key player. Labour First, the moderate group he leads, was forced to hold its fringe meeting outside when hundreds assembled at The Mash Tun Pub. Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves and, in a gesture of unity, Progress director Richard Angell were among those who addressed members. Akehurst’s organisational acumen helped ensure the Trident motion was not selected for debate. Following Labour First’s appeal to keep the divisive issue off the agenda, just 7.1 per cent of constituency delegates voted in favour of it. As the left’s opponents plan their fightback, Akehurst’s group will be one of the most important gathering points.

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Lillian Greenwood, Shadow transport secretary

The new holder of the post, who replaced her former boss Michael Dugher (now shadow culture secretary), has made an assured start. The Nottingham South MP benefited from the degree of consensus in the party over rail renationalisation, allowing her to confirm the first major policy change under Corbyn. Labour is now committed to taking franchises into public ownership as they expire. She is one of the shadow cabinet members most favoured by Corbynites but showed her willingness to challenge her leader by ending any lingering uncertainty over Labour’s support for HS2.