What to expect at Labour conference

Those hoping that the annual gathering of the Labour Party might herald a turning point for the party may be disappointed or vindicated depending on their perspective.

On the one hand the party can celebrate an unambiguous vote of confidence in the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and membership numbers swollen by groups enjoying a new political relevance. On the other this is a party still deeply divided and any hope of overcoming a collective introspection and finally offering policies that provide real opposition to Theresa May’s government seems about as distant as Ed Ball’s prospects for winning Strictly Come Dancing.

There will be plenty debated in the various fringe events taking place, but the lack of a shadow cabinet team will be telling in the quality of the discussions and instead the party will be more focussed on healing the wounds of the recent bloody leadership contest. And if you believe the weekend media reports those wounds run deep. The noises so far from both sides suggest a preference for conciliation, but also an admission that the terms of a truce are yet to be defined.

Some MPs have been quick to offer a more conciliatory tone as conference begins, others equally quick to distance themselves from a front bench position. Corbyn and McDonnell will have to quickly win some support to draw a line under the last few months. Balancing the celebration of their victory with the magnanimity that party leadership requires will enable the sort of progress that they will need for electoral success. Feuding political parties do not perform well at the polls and they will know that a poor performance at the next general election for Labour will vindicate those that suggest their left leaning agenda cannot resonate successful beyond the party membership.

Success for the leadership will be a conference focussed on beginning to find common ground and a new frontbench team. Failure will be continued bitterness and internecine battles that show the Labour Party is destined to spend the next few years with different party factions opposing one another more so than opposing the Government.

Watch out for Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan’s speeches on Tuesday for signs that rifts may be healed. Look out too for proposed changes to the National Executive Committee (NEC) constitution on Tuesday, which may provide further powers to the party membership. And obviously the leader’s speech on Wednesday will be a key moment to define this conference for the party.

Michael Stott

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search