What to make of Labour Conference? And what does it mean for the Tories as they gather, next week, for their own?
The first thing to understand about the delegates who gathered in Brighton is that they are not – for the most part and despite appearances – delusional. They know that they did not win the General Election. They know that Jeremy Corbyn is not Prime Minister. But they also know that, in-spite of all that, they have snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of certain defeat. Closing the gap between Labour and the Tories from well above 10% to just over 2% was an unprecedented achievement. Winning seats when almost everyone predicted they would lose them – particularly in Tory strongholds such as Canterbury and Chelsea – marks real progress. And denying the Conservative Party a majority (when they fully expected to win a landslide) was no mean feat.
Many Labour MPs never expected to be attending this conference, they believed they would still be licking their wounds and looking for work having been shown the exit by pro-Brexit voters. It didn’t happen. So whilst it is easy to mock those who insist on describing defeat in the terms of victory, it is worth remembering that for many this Election felt like a miracle even if, in the end, they fell slightly short. Because of this, the Labour Party’s centre of gravity has now moved firmly to the Left. A new leader will not change that in the medium term, the Overton Window has shifted – within Labour, at least.
It is also worth noting that Corbynite central command has upped its game. During the election they found a rhythm and – to their own surprise – a will to real power that had previously been lacking. Proximity to victory has refreshed the Leader and his team and given them a new steeliness. Conference was managed ruthlessly by allies in Momentum and Unite – preventing embarrassing votes, keeping delegates mostly on script. It was powerful and purposeful. It was almost Blairite. And so long as Corbyn’s enemies in the party continue to convene under a banner proclaiming progress but with a message that is all nostalgia – remembering the good old days of New Labour – they will struggle to be heard.
Commentators of the old school sat with their heads in their hands as ‘moderate’ after ‘moderate’ signaled their willingness to give Jez a chance. Sadiq Khan, Owen Smith, Tom Watson – each, in their own way, bowed to the Corbynite tide. The Labour Hard Right sees this as a capitulation and as unprincipled. But in truth, apart from on foreign policy or the wildest fringes of McDonnell’s economic ideas, these MPs’ primary criticism of Corbyn has always been of his competence rather than of his principles. The Soft Left, to which most Labour MPs belong, worried that Britain would balk at red in tooth and claw socialism. But a coherent manifesto and a better-than-expected showing in the election have answered that worry. They are genuine when they say that Jeremy must be allowed to build on the real progress he has already secured. This display of unity from Watson and others also puts paid to the notion that Labour will split any time soon. The Parliamentary Labour Party is tucking in behind Corbyn, they aren’t mulling a mass walk out any longer.
For Mrs. May this is all very good news, in the short term at least. Were Labour still at war with itself or losing its shine, she would be facing more plots than the producers of Game of Thrones. But the strength of Labour is staying assassins’ hands. They dare not move decisively against her whilst there is a chance that the next Government will set about implementing fully automated luxury communism. And so she survives. Damian Green – out testing the waters this week by suggesting that the Prime Minister will fight the next Election – is an outrider for continuity Mayism. His confidence is a signal that no immediate danger is perceived.
But May and her team may be depending a little too much on the traditional Tory virtue of self-preservation. Yes, replacing her might trigger a Labour Government. But Conservative MPs are existentially miserable. They feel trapped and afraid. They see a Government failing and flailing and they loathe every second of it. As we saw in the Brexit referendum campaign there is a streak of modern Toryism that longs for revolution almost as fiercely as do the Corbynistas – for them, the calculation that keeps May in office could change at any second. If Tory conference feels boring next week, bet on May. If there are green shoots of excitement, her time may almost be up.
As things stand, Jeremy Corbyn has momentum while Theresa May pins her hopes on her Party continuing to be frozen by fear.