Dropping Khan and Burnham risks conference navel gazing

Imagine for a second you’re Andy Burnham or Sadiq Khan. At this time of year, you’ve probably given significant thought to your speech to the annual Labour conference. After all, you’re the London or Manchester mayor and have spearheaded one of the Party’s major successes in recent years. Entirely reasonable, therefore, that you’re given not just a speaking slot at the Party’s biggest event of the year, but a prominent one.

And chances are you would feel more than a little miffed if you were then told you might not be speaking at conference at all.

That’s the situation facing the mayors of Manchester and London today. According to Labour sources, speaking to a number of the national press, the speaking programme at Labour’s conference will be stripped back. There’ll be fewer speakers and more time afforded to debate amongst members.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that member debates aren’t important. They certainly are, particularly after 12 months in which Labour has struggled to articulate a coherent message on some fundamental issues. Sir Keir Starmer may have grabbed the Brexit debate by the scruff of the neck since the election, but it would be a mistake to think there’s absolute consensus within the Party on issues like migration and the single market.  The differing views are there, bubbling under the surface. Trident, to name but one other issue, is another problematic issue for the membership. Labour’s manifesto might have committed to renewing the nuclear deterrent, but that hasn’t dispelled the significant anti-Trident feeling amongst the party faithful – or indeed the leadership.

But while debate is important in order to try and reconcile these and other positions, it would be folly to leave Sadiq Khan and/or Andy Burnham off the stage.

There are three reasons why. Firstly, because both mayors have achieved what are arguably Labour’s biggest successes of recent years. Labour may have returned more MPs than expected in the general election, but they still lost. And the asterisk to that performance is the Conservatives achieved a percentage of the vote not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Why not, therefore, put your two most successful members of recent years onto the speaking programme to highlight those achievements and spread a sense that Labour can not just outperform expectations but actually win in future?

The second reason is that conferences are national media events. And, whether you like them or not, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham are box office. Their participation as successful mayors and distinguished, media savvy politicians would guarantee the soundbites needed in the evening, nightly and morning news – helping Labour’s appeal to the country.

The third reason is that by not including the two mayors, Labour runs the risk of its conference being an insular affair, focused more on navel gazing rather than utilising a platform to appeal to the electorate. It would also do little to silence the critics of Jeremy Corbyn, who would – not without some justification – claim the absence of Messrs Khan and Burnham was a sign of the Labour leadership circling the wagons and avoiding any prospect of challenge from heavyweights in the party.

We’ll see what happens when the conference programme is published. But Labour would do well to put Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham on the stage, and use them to attract the cameras and potentially positive coverage.