Last year’s Labour conference was right in the middle of the fight for the future of the party. We had just seen a self-destructive leadership contest – supported by most Labour MPs – end with Corbyn’s leadership being reaffirmed, but not secured. He clearly had the support of the membership, but he had little else – all the key committees and structures of the party were populated by his factional enemies. Moreover, an increasing number of members were becoming pessimistic about his electoral chances.
A lot changes in a year. If during last year’s conference everything was still up in the air, it is at this year’s that we will begin to see how everything has landed. Here are five things to watch out for.
1. The party’s rebirth.
Corbyn has had the popular support of the majority of members for the duration of his leadership, but the left initially succeeded only in mobilising for big, online, all-member votes, impeding the transformation into a radical mass-party. This conference, however, looks like it could be the turning point. If a majority of elected delegates at party conference are pro-Corbyn and pro-democracy – and it looks like they are – this will indicate that the balance of power in the activist-base has caught up with that in the membership. This can only spell the end for the Labour right’s outrageously disproportionate representation on key committees. Moreover, it will mean the party’s two-year state of flux is coming to an end, and that it is beginning to settle into a new form.
2. The lingering legacy of right-wing dominance.
The legacy of centrist control on the party’s structures will not disappear overnight. One of many sections still in their hands is the crucial CAC, or Conference Arrangements Committee (although after conference, control will pass to the left following the stonking election victory of Momentum-backed candidates this summer). It’s normal for them to use this committee to prevent important issues from being discussed at the conference, but last year they reached new lows of anti-democratic skulduggery when they insisted that all rule-changes be voted on at once: the blindingly obvious alongside the fiercely partisan. This meant that anyone who wanted to ensure MPs could not remove a leader without giving the members a chance to object also had to vote for the anti-Corbyn wing to be given two extra seats on the ruling National Executive Committee.
With their influence in the membership fast evaporating, the Labour right rely on these kinds of shenanigans more and more. This will be the last year they abuse their position of power on the CAC, so it will be interesting to see if they make the most of it.
3. Evidence of life after Corbyn.
The most important vote at conference will be on some variation of the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’. As it stands, potential leadership candidates need to secure the support of 15% of Labour MPs to make it onto the leadership election ballot paper. Corbyn only met this threshold thanks to MPs ‘lending’ him their nominations, in part to “prove that [his politics] are not the direction the vast majority of members want to go in”. Some have since made it clear they will not make the same mistake again. Consequently, the election for Corbyn’s successor could potentially not have any candidates from the left, despite this wing enjoying the support of the vast majority of members.
The original ‘McDonnell amendment’ would reduce the threshold to 5% of MPs. This has been further amended by the National Executive Committee to create a ‘compromise’ proposal for 10%. If either passes it will almost guarantee a left-wing candidate in future leadership elections, cementing the long-term future of the Corbyn project. The result of this debate will tell us much about the current strength of the party’s left wing, and serve as a good indication of what is to come.
4. The Labour right trying to find their new role.
Last year the Labour right were trying to hold back the tide. There was a new mass membership and new leader, and neither gelled with the existing structures and culture. So left and right fought over which would have to give: does the party adapt to accommodate this change, or does the membership and leadership reconcile themselves to the status quo? It now looks like the left has won decisively. The party has changed and the Labour right need to find their place in this new environment.
In general, this means striking a more conciliatory tone. For instance, last year Momentum’s grassroots festival The World Transformed was shunned and described as an “alternative conference” run by “entryists”. By contrast, this year over 70 MPs from across the political spectrum are speaking at it as though it was never controversial.
Of course this doesn’t mean that no one on the right will continue their losing struggle to undermine Corbyn and hang onto their privileged positions of power. Expect lots of disingenuous arguments against pro-democracy initiatives. Supporters of last summer’s attempted leadership coup will condemn these as ‘divisive rule changes’ with seemingly no sense of self-reflection. And we will hear lots about how literally everything – from politicians’ speeches to celebrations of the general election manifesto – should be prioritised over the debates on motions and rule changes for which the conference is intended.
5. New divisions emerging?
The party may be moving into a new era, but this is not the end of history. The bitter polarisation of the pro- and anti-Corbyn wings has hidden some of the substantial disagreements on each side. As the Corbyn-majority achieves greater dominance, these scissions will become more apparent.
At this conference the key flashpoints will be on Brexit. The left wing Labour Campaign for Freedom of Movement has submitted a motion which will split the left. Equally, on the right of the party the newly-founded Labour Campaign for the Single Market have their own motion which will divide their wing.
There will be many who do not want either motion to reach the conference agenda, but if either does then we could see the beginnings of some new divisions in the Corbyn Labour party.