I have been attending Labour party annual conference for some years now. One thing I have learned is that the degree of confidence and expectation on display often bears no relation to what is going on in the outside world – in particular the party’s standing in the polls.
This year was no different. To observe the general atmosphere of anticipation and positivity around the streets, bars and meeting places of Brighton, one could be forgiven for assuming that Labour is on the brink of being swept to power by an enthusiastic populace desperate for us to build the New Jerusalem. Whereas the truth is that we are consistently trailing in the opinion polls and going nowhere fast – a failing all the more inexcusable considering the government’s current disarray.
The week got off to the worst possible start with the aborted defenestration of Tom Watson. There is no doubt that Watson has, to the fury of many inside the party, frequently sought to use his deputy leader post to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and present himself as an alternative leader. But instead of seeking to remove him from office via a democratic process, his opponents – the Momentum group and its outriders – resorted to the worst kind of bureaucratic manoeuvring. They couldn’t silence the man, so they tried to abolish his position. In doing so, however, they showed themselves to be undemocratic authoritarians who were frightened of a dissenting voice. The lesson of history, plainly lost on them, is that you don’t win the battle of ideas by purging people.
It is abundantly clear that the Corbynites now wield control over huge chunks of the party. So far as there is resistance, it comes principally from the Parliamentary Labour Party, which provides a redoubt for those – and there are many – who remain faithful to the creed of Blairite centrism.
But what is also clear, is that neither side truly understands Labour’s current dilemma – how to build that coalition between the party’s traditional working-class base and less tribal middle-class voters which is a precondition of electoral success. Or, if it does, it offers no credible strategy for achieving it.
The centrists seem to think that power will be won through a return to the pre-referendum status quo – a status quo that did so much to alienate working-class voters from the party and set in train the events which have led to our nation’s current polarisation; whilst the Corbynites believe that all we have to do is keep hammering on about elitism and economic injustice, and the voters will flock to us.
Both are mistaken. Labour will only win again when it offers a programme that combines its entirely laudable policies for a fairer economy alongside a social agenda that recognises the sense of cultural fragmentation and deracination brought about by globalisation, and seeks to build in its place a new, post-liberal politics of communitarianism. In short, it needs to marry its economic radicalism with a return to the politics of belonging.
There were signs in Brighton that some people in the party are beginning to understand this. It was heartening to see fringe meetings organised by some groups, including the Fabian Society, focusing on these very questions. A clutch of MPs too – often those representing constituencies which voted Leave – are beginning to address these issues. Stephen Kinnock has been particularly vocal in arguing that the party’s – indeed, the entire political establishment’s – relentless promotion of liberal cosmopolitanism has pushed away voters in the more traditional working-class constituencies and risks tipping the country into a full-scale culture war.
When set alongside efforts to subvert the result of the referendum result, it’s easy to see why the atmosphere in these communities is becoming increasingly toxic. And, maddeningly, Labour did nothing to ameliorate the tensions on this issue this week. On the contrary, the party’s absurd and anti-democratic position on Brexit will serve only to further disenchant those whom we should be moving heaven and earth to win back, as indeed will the spectacle of senior Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet members, heading a march around Brighton calling for a ‘People’s Vote’.
None of this is to say that nothing good came out of the conference. In fact, several policy commitments – such as the reduction in the working week, abolition of prescription charges and introduction of free personal care – are forward-thinking measures, entirely in keeping with the party’s traditional values.
But sadly these announcements were overshadowed by the conference’s decision to support motions that will make many voters recoil and serve to justify their perception of Labour as a party in the grip of militant hardliners. In particular, the pledges to extend free movement at a time when millions are demanding proper control over immigration; grant voting rights in elections to non-UK nationals, thereby undermining the very concept of citizenship; and abolish private schools — a sinister and authoritarian measure that has no place in a free society — will do nothing to help propel Labour towards power.
In making such controversial commitments, Labour fell into the classic trap of appealing to the activists within its own ranks, rather than to the wider country.
The air in Brighton was thick with fashionable buzzwords such as ‘diversity’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘equality’ — the type of terminology that has become the stock in trade of the modern Left, but which has little resonance out there in the provinces of the nation.
The party, if it is to ever reconnect with its one-time core vote, needs urgently to start speaking the language of ‘place’, ‘community’, ‘belonging’, ‘work’ and ‘family’ — the things that hold real meaning for people and which they wish their politicians to focus on. Because, ultimately, until its own language and priorities match those of the millions for whom it purports to speak, the Labour party cannot expect to win their votes.
For all the upbeat chatter and optimism that I experienced in Brighton this week, the truth is that the Labour party has a mountain to climb if it is to form the next government. And we are – with potentially just weeks to go before a general election – still in the foothills.