Catching the Mood of the Nation
Labour’s conference, held last month in Liverpool, was a huge success with Jeremy Corbyn showing real signs of a Prime Minister in waiting. That, surprisingly, was the general view of the British media, including most of the press. The Daily Mail, inevitably, described the policies as “lunacy” but admitted that voters could still be tempted. The Mirror, usually sympathetic to Labour, said that it “was singing the tune the country wants to hear.” And BBC Radio News summed it up saying that “Labour seems to have caught the mood of the nation.”
There were certainly clear signs that Corbyn has changed the narrative. With the Tories in disarray and lurching ever further to the right, the left now occupies the centre ground in British politics. Labour’s economic policies, opposed by the right-wing press, are, according to opinion polls, popular with voters. Although Corbyn himself has a lot of work to do to convince them he is a strong leader. But his performance at conference convinced delegates of his strength and sincerity. Conference was behind him and ready to fight an election.
Labour is now a united party after months of division and discourse over antisemitism. There were signs that it has now been put to bed. It was absent as an issue at conference, with no reference made to it by any delegate. (In his winding-up speech Corbyn made it absolutely clear that racism in any form had no place in the Labour party.) And now that the National Executive Committee has endorsed the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, Corbyn’s critics in the parliamentary Labour party have no basis for attacking him. They have nothing left in their locker. Any further attempts to undermine him could result in deselection.
With the hardline Tory Brexiters making the running, Labour have a golden opportunity to outfox the government on Brexit. A report by the right-wing Think Tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, praised by Jacob Rees-Mogg, proposes wholesale deregulation of the British economy, purging the economy of workers’ rights, food standards and environmental protections. It was up to Labour to set out a clear position on the EU. The difficulty of this was experienced by Labour’s NEC which met for over 5 hours to put together a motion on Brexit out of the 150 submitted by Constituency Labour Parties.
In his speech to conference Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer told delegates that in the event of a People’s Vote, Remain would be an option on the ballot paper. This was not Labour’s official position and seems to have been inserted into his speech by Starmer without consulting his colleagues. Labour insists that a final deal with the EU must meet its six tests, which include the protection of jobs and investment in the economy. Conference, like most party members, was enthusiastically in favour of a People’s Vote.
There are however dangers in this. However it is dressed up it will be seen by Leavers in Labour constituencies as a second referendum on EU membership. The party’s preference is for a general election, but Theresa May has ruled this out. And in any case with fixed term parliaments a general election could only be called if two-thirds of MPs support a vote of no confidence in the government. An unlikely event as the Tories will go to any lengths to cling to power. And will look with horror on the prospect of a Corbyn Labour government.
Labour’s plans for the economy were laid out by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. In a highly praised speech he told conference that a Labour government would take bold steps to tackle the inequalities and injustices in British society. Plans to return the railways and the utilities to public ownership inevitably drew a negative response from the current private owners, but Labour has the public on its side on this at least. It was probably these plans that the Daily Mail described as “lunacy.” He pointed out that the utilities receive more in tax credits than they pay in tax. An anomaly that Labour will address.
Taking a leaf out the Institute for Public Policy and Research report ‘Prosperity and Justice: a plan for a new economy.’, McDonnell promised that Labour would legislate to put worker representatives on the boards of companies employing over 250 workers. The IPPR report proposed two representatives on the boards, but Labour has gone a step further and suggested that it should be a third of the total number of board members. But whatever the composition this is long overdue. TUC General Secretary Frances Grady, a member of the Committee that drew up the report, has been a strong supporter of industrial democracy. But she is a lone wolf howling in the wilderness. TUC affiliated unions have been decidedly lukewarm on this. McDonnell and O’Grady must press the unions to adopt Labour’s plans on this. Germany has shown that worker representatives on company boards is a key factor in its economic success.
The one downside of the conference was the speech by Emily Thornbury. The Shadow Foreign Secretary appears to be a liberal interventionist, keen to promote human rights throughout the world. How she will do it without intervention in the internal affairs of those nations with an appallingly bad record was not made clear. Mere tut, tutting at Hungary and Saudi Arabia for example will not make an ‘apporth of difference. Working through the United Nations is the traditional way, but so far this has had limited success. Orban in Hungary, an EU member state, has made it clear he will ignore all pleas to change his policies on immigration and the EU and UN are powerless to override him.
Thornbury’s one saving grace was her opposition to UK participation in military adventures such as those in Iraq and Libya. But only time will tell on this given pressure from Britain’s allies. It will take a bold government to reject pleas for future support. Harold Wilson did it in Vietnam, but Blair was willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with George Bush Jr over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As we all know, and which Blair has only partially acknowledged since, it ended in the chaos which still affects the people of that country.
The next few months could decide Labour’s future. If it remains united and determined to hit the Tories hard on its economic record and its handling of the Brexit talks, nailing the lie that Labour governments are bad for Britain, and setting out its popular programme in detail, like the premier team in Liverpool the future will be red.