I joined politicos, activists, lobbyists and an overwhelming number of tote bags in descending on Liverpool for Labour Party Conference this week. In the cold, clear sunshine of Liverpool both friends and foes of Labour’s leadership were developing confidence in the idea that Labour could soon be back in government. In the words of Lord Prescott, the former deputy PM of the last, New Labour Government, the place had “a buzz – almost like the buzz of the 1997 election… by God, it’s on again.” And while the Conservatives – and even some in the Labour Party – hate the idea, it’s getting harder for them to ignore the rise of the actual left.
The similarity between this conference and the one on the eve the last Labour Government is the sense that Labour will soon be back at the helm. But this time it is because of a shift left rather than a shift to the centre. Notably, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell reintroduced the leadership’s commitment to Clause IV of Labour’s 1918 constitution, which the centrist 1995 Labour leadership had done away with in order to “modernise” the Party and make it electable. The Clause commits the Party to “secure for workers the fruits of their industry” and an “equitable distribution thereof” through common ownership: socialism. McDonnell reiterated the Party’s pledge to nationalise utilities, transport and the mail service – all popular in the polls. Labour would put more workers on boards, give employees shares in their companies, and enforce a 20:1 salary cap between the highest and lowest earners in a company. Four years ago it was unimaginable to see a major Opposition Party, which Conference often reminded attendees is now the biggest political Party in western Europe, commit to these principles.
Brexit was one of the most notable points of contention in the conference. Delegates stayed late into Sunday night compositing the 150 Brexit-related motions from Constituency Labour Parties (CLP) around the country into one motion for debate. They finally agreed, in summary, to keep all options open, which was widely regarded as high-quality fudge. A fudge found also at the highest level. On one hand Shadow Brexit Secretary Kier Starmer reiterated that Labour believed in a second referendum with an option to Remain. On the other hand, the increasingly commanding Shadow Chancellor said that any referendum would have to ask whether to Leave the EU with the agreed deal or no deal. Perfect fudge, or to use a more academic term, a perfect case of constructive ambiguity. It is in the Party’s best interest to avoid committing to one position on such a controversial issue for as long as they can and leave the Conservatives to fight over it between themselves.
Other notable events included Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s announcement that Labour would commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050; Shadow Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler pledged to give survivors of domestic violence the right to 10 days leave from work in order to get out of dangerous situations; and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner expanding on plans for the National Education Service, including not opening more free schools and academies. Predictably, this was all well received and added to the sense of excitement and expectation amongst Labour delegates. However, the party faces the conundrum of every opposition party feeling its ascendency: for without an election how can they capitalise on one of their best conferences for years? We must wait and see: all eyes in Westminster now turn to Conservative Conference starting this weekend.