Preparing for power: Labour conference 2017

Preparing for power: Labour conference 2017

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Helen Lewis gives us her views on where the party stands as they head into party conference season

The last two Labour party conferences have had a strange, divided feeling, reflecting the split between Jeremy Corbyn and the majority of his backbenchers.

Helen Lewis
                                   Helen Lewis

In 2015, there was numb shock in the bars and fringe meetings in Brighton – what did his victory mean? Where was the party heading?

The next year’s conference was even stranger. It happened in the shadow of two seismic events: an EU referendum in which Corbyn’s campaigning was notably low-key (he is a lifelong Eurosceptic) and a failed coup against his leadership after Leave won. In Liverpool that year, much of the energy seemed to have drained away from the main stage to the nearby Momentum conference, “The World Transformed”, where radical policies such as universal basic income were discussed.

This year, the mood will be different again. Corbyn is triumphant: not only did he avoid the expected Labour wipeout in this year’s general election, he led a spirited, genial campaign where Labour made advances across the country. That means even former critics such as Lisa Nandy will speak at The World Transformed, alongside Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer who resigned from the shadow cabinet over the vote to trigger Article 50.

At the main conference, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Manchester mayor Andy Burnham face having their speeches shortened or cut from the programme altogether – the former backed Owen Smith last year, but the latter stayed resolutely neutral. The ostensible reason for the cutbacks is to allow more Labour members to speak from the floor – a reflection of the swelling size of the party’s grassroots.

One of the big schisms of Corbyn’s leadership – Trident, the nuclear deterrent – will not be debated, as it was tackled last year. The biggest row could be over continued free movement: most of the party’s activists want the softest possible Brexit, but the current leadership line is that Britain will leave the customs union and single market after a long transition period.  Managing the divide will be a tough challenge for Corbyn, who has staked his leadership on transferring power to the grassroots.

There could also be compromise on one of the most bitter internal wrangles, the so-called “McDonnell amendment” covering how many MPs would need to nominate any future leadership candidate.  The level is currently 15 per cent, but Corbynites wanted it cut to five per cent to make it easier for the party’s left to flourish in future contests. Given Corbyn’s newly strengthened position, however, some of the anxiety has gone out of the debate. A compromise seems likely.

Overall, both sides of the party are keen for this to be a conference that heals divisions, rather than reopens old wounds. With the TV cameras rolling, and political journalists waiting with open notebooks, Labour wants to use conference to paint itself as united, disciplined, and full of ideas: a government-in-waiting.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of New Statesman