Image: Jeremy Corbyn Graffiti, England
Image: Jeremy Corbyn Graffiti, England

Labour conference 2018

Ellie Mae O'Hagan

A step towards a new political consensus

Liverpool, England’s northern city famous for football, the Beatles and its notoriously quick-witted citizens, is always at its loveliest in Autumn. And it is against the backdrop of cinereal September clouds that 13,400 people decamped to the city’s docks for five days to take part in the Labour Party conference, where they would subsist on a cyclical diet of warm white wine, black coffee, composite motions and political debate.

This conference hashed out policies on a massive range of issues: the party pledged to prevent the establishment of more independent schools, hand over shares of companies to workers, create nearly half a million green jobs, and frustrated its critics by “leaving all options on the table” in regards to Brexit. It was a conference where the UK’s most influential journalists desperately tried to get tickets for parties held by small trade unions, where hitherto marginal political figures were received like rockstars, and where the capitalist organisation the Confederation of British Industry described the vision of Labour’s socialist leader as “absolutely right.” If you want to know what a new political consensus looks like, this conference was a good place to start.

The story takes an unexpected twist

Labour has been on a political rollercoaster over the last three years: its unexpected election loss in 2015 to David Cameron’s Conservatives saw the resignation of its social democrat leader Ed Miliband. Miliband was replaced by Jeremy Corbyn, a radical leftist and probably the party’s most obscure figure, on a majority that outshone even Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the 1994 leadership election. For the party’s left-wing grassroots, Corbyn’s leadership win was a source of jubilation. For the party’s MPs, many of whom cut their teeth under Tony Blair, it was horrifying—and these opposing stances have made his tenure an eventful one.

Corbyn’s first year was troublesome to say the least: his inexperience and absence of a political machine behind him led to a year of gaffes, terrible headlines and disillusionment within the party’s activist base. It was not until 2017, when the British Prime Minister Theresa May called a surprise general election that Labour’s fortunes seemed to reverse: in 6 weeks the party went from being 24 points behind in the polls to destabilizing the government and coming within a hair’s width of victory. Corbyn became a national celebrity and a youth icon overnight.

A social movement in the ascendancy

The machinations of this iteration of the Labour Party are important, because they are reflected in the experience of the annual conference. Just as Labour’s electoral fortunes have dramatically changed since 2015, so has the composition of people coming to this event, the issues debated and the general sense of optimism. Conference is as good a barometer as any for the state of a political party, and with it, the likelihood of a change in government. I remember a delegate lamenting to me in 2014, when Ed Miliband was expected to be the next Prime Minister, “this just doesn’t feel to me like the meeting of a party about to take power.” Turns out, it wasn’t.

So in 2016, undoubtedly one of the most depressing Labour conferences I have attended, the halls felt almost empty. Political lobbyists, having assumed Labour would never get into government, had all but vacated. The party’s right, disillusioned and angry at how badly the leftwing leadership was doing, absented itself—and most of the activists who supported Jeremy Corbyn spent their time a few miles down the road at The World Transformed, the festival organised concomitantly with conference by Momentum, Labour’s leftwing caucus and organising body.

In 2017, conference had the atmosphere of a five-day festival—Labour had just caused a massive political upset, and its activists were delighted, and surprised, to learn that much of the country was willing to buy what they were selling. With no rich donors and a mainstream media that was almost universally hostile, the general election result felt like a genuine expression of people power, and in turn, the conference had the iridescent feel of a social movement in the ascendancy.

Political seriousness instead of factional infighting

And so this year, perhaps it is indicative that Labour conference felt more serious than at any other time than I can remember (and I’ve been to seven). The arguments and tensions around different motions, ideas and policies were aired on the conference floors, in composite meetings and fringe events—not because Labour is drowning in factional infighting, but because there was a real sense that the party might actually end up implementing its policies in the near future. There was work to be done.

This year, the lobbyists were back—indeed, I wonder how the party’s new radical members felt about the giant BP stand illuminating the exhibition centre—Corbyn’s supporters, having since gained much more of a foothold in the party’s local structure were front and centre at the conference hall, and the crowds were overwhelming. Conference, reflecting the party itself, is transforming.

Two diametrically opposed positions

Of course there were problems: the party’s decision to leave all options on the table with regards to Brexit led to confusion, with the Shadow Chancellor saying one thing (remaining in the EU is not an option in a second referendum) and the Shadow Brexit Secretary saying another (we can’t rule out remain as an option). It was clear from the comments made by party activists that the membership base wishes to remain within the EU and wants the party to call a second referendum. This will be a difficult circle to square for the leadership, which needs to find a way to appeal to its core voters in the north of England and Wales—many of whom enthusiastically voted to leave.

One could argue that it’s the best move for the party to keep all options at this stage, given how rapidly the terms of Brexit seem to change. But that hardly satisfies a hungry press gang, who are desperate to label Labour traitors to its remain-voting members (if it pledges to leave the EU) or traitors to the country (if it fights to remain). The refusal of the party to take a position encouraged journalists to spend the conference picking apart every last comment made by a Labour Party figure, in the hope that they might come across some furtive hint of where the elusive leader stands on the EU. These endless speculations were a frustrating distraction from the party’s policy programme.

Labour is ready to rebuild Britain

As is traditional, the centrepiece of conference was the leader’s speech. Such is the importance of this event that in recent years the speech has been moved to the final day of conference to ensure attendees stay until the bitter end. In years gone by I’ve detected nervousness on the left about what Jeremy Corbyn might say. As someone with no frontline political experience, could he assume the role of statesman? Would the party be able to lay out a coherent vision that would appeal to all parts of the electorate?

Here too was transformation. There was a quiet confidence amongst Labour staffers who would occasionally flash journalists knowing smiles when they were asked at parties what could be expected. And Corbyn himself was like a different person, at times insouciant and at times passionate; casually wandering off script with sardonic asides, and soaking up the euphoria of assembled delegates. It all seemed easy.

The speech itself asserted that Corbyn and his supporters represented a new political consensus. This argument built on his 2017 conference speech, but the tone was markedly different. Instead of pitting himself as the figurehead of a social movement, now Corbyn suggested he was the leader of the party of government. The bombardment of policies throughout the conference itself—on everything from housing, to the macroeconomy, the environment and policing—were a prelude to the conclusion of the speech: that Labour is ready to take power and rebuild Britain.

It’s hard to understate how remarkable the changes in Labour are: where a self-described socialist leader is receiving praise from Britain’s business representatives, and where young ramshackle activists are drinking side by side with the media elite at party conference. Policies that were considered beyond the pale even just five years ago are being accepted by all sides as popular and pragmatic. It will be interesting to see how the Conservative party responds.

About the author: Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a journalist and commentator, writing mainly for the Guardian. She has also written for the New York Times, the Times, Foreign Policy and others. She broadcasts regularly on Sky and the BBC. Her first book, Collapse, about the death of the political centre, will be published by 4th Estate Books in 2019. Ellie has been active on the Labour Party left since 2011 and has been covering the party as a journalist since then.