There's a feeling of unease in the air at Labour conference

The applause (or lack thereof) says more than the speeches.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As Emily Thornberry addressed the Labour Party conference this afternoon, it was telling what received the most applause.

Walking a delicate tightrope of pushing for the party to back Remain while maintaining a front of unity, the shadow foreign secretary only alluded to the change of position she would like to see from the leadership, and emphasised the importance of “unity and discipline” and “keep[ing] our eyes on the prize”. But when she told the conference hall that is was right to hold another referendum and declared “and I for one will be out there campaigning for remain!”, the crowd broke into rapturous applause, many getting to their feet. 

By contrast, when she referred to Jeremy Corbyn as “my friend, my neighbour.... and our next prime minister” - a line that had elicited huge, hopeful cheers when applied to Jo Swinson at Liberal Democrat conference last week - the audience simply clapped politely, with no obvious enthusiasm.  

It’s a small example of the overall mood here. Members of all persuasions report a loss of buoyancy from last year, an uneasy feeling in the air. Bigger than the immediate debate over whether the party backs remain in the next election, there is a broader struggle to launch a clear pitch to the nation amid the noise of Brexit, which the party knows is not its strong subject. The odds of Corbyn being the next prime minister are still much higher than those for Jo Swinson, but members are responding to their relative feelings of momentum: one is a party with the wind in its sails and nowhere to go except up, the other a divided party fearing the fight on two fronts that a general election before Brexit will bring. 

The Labour membership will still clap politely when their leader is hailed as the next prime minister, but there’s no heart behind that response. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

Free trial CSS