First published in Progress magazine
Conference in Liverpool was a success for moderates
—The honest truth is that I had not been looking forward to Labour party conference this year. 2015 had been the first year I had not enjoyed conference, not because of the leadership result, but because suddenly Brighton went from being friendly to alien. Those who were abusive online decided to be so in person, and my staff were treated in not dissimilar ways, just for doing their job. Added to this year’s trepidation was the exhaustion from a summer of Saving Labour, a National Executive Committee campaign, and a leadership contest that went straight into a conference where those behind Momentum and the so-called Campaign for Labour Party Democracy wanted to change our party beyond recognition.
There was some, I hope understandable, foreboding. In the lead-up to conference, Progress and Labour First – working together like never before – travelled the country on our Road to Conference tour. Back to the basics of how conference works, what motions would be up for discussion, why moving from a 15 per cent to five per cent threshold for nominations for the leadership – known as the ‘McDonnell amendment’ – would be so catastrophic. I always enjoy getting out of London for our various events series in British cities – invariably run by brilliant Labour councils – but often these ‘moderate meet-ups’ were as much about hearing the stories of abuse being levelled at long-standing constituency officers, Jewish members and women councillors and members of parliament as they were about policy and procedure. I called the editorial of a previous edition of Progress ‘heart-breaking times’ – little else brings it home more than when members who campaigned for Michael Foot are close to tears because a small number of supporters of the current leader shout them down in meetings and intimidate them into silence. And it is not everyone, just some. Often not ‘new members’ but those returning to relive the 1980s (and the same sad outcome).
So as we arrived in the city of the Liver Birds and the Beatles, of MPs Alison McGovern, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger, had enough delegates been elected? What would the NEC finally present? Would Rhea Wolfson and Darren Williams – two Momentum-backed NEC members from Scotland and Wales respectively – really oppose their democratically elected leaders taking their rightful place on the NEC? (Yes, was the answer). How would the unions vote? Could Chris Williamson – former MP for Derby North – lose his fourth election in half that number of years? (Yes, also).
The Saturday of conference was dominated by the result. Jeremy Corbyn received the much-anticipated ‘increased majority’. Strangely, I did not feel as despondent as some. If the party had added 300,000 new members and Corbyn’s vote only increased by two per cent, that means two things. First, we, the moderates through Saving Labour and the likes, recruited a good number to the party. And, second, we convinced many more that this experiment will be a disaster for our party. Owen Smith won more votes than Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall combined. Authoritative polling suggests that the moderates won young members, Scotland and a score draw in London. We could well have experienced ‘peak Corbyn’. We can live in hope.
More importantly, the result spurred some unity among moderates. From Progress to the newly formed Tribune group, #StayInLabour was our clarion call. Unfortunately, we lost some good comrades – we will need to convince them to rejoin over time. But it was not the exodus it could have been.
But, as you know, the real work of conference is not the Labour First rally with its overflow into the street, or the Progress rally that was filled to the rafters, but the votes of living, breathing delegates. There were three tests: the priority ballot – this was a score draw and would have been better – conference would have debated Brexit had one youth delegate not run off with their delegation’s card vote; rule changes; and Maggie Cosin’s re-election to the National Constitutional Committee. The hard left tried every rule in the book. Those who most claim to believe in democracy seem to believe conference should have as many votes as it take to get the decision right. But the delegates were clear: Tom Watson’s package of reforms, endorsed by the NEC, was to be voted through. Labour’s leaders in Scotland and Wales, Kezia Dugdale and Carwyn Jones, won representation on the NEC, and Glenis Willmott succeeded Paddy Lillis as its chair. Cosin’s re-election means that the committee due to receive a string of new powers following the Chakrabarti report will be minded to use them when antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia rear their ugly head. Sadiq Khan and Watson were on top form and showed us what unity and leadership look like. Clause I in action – that with power we implemented our principles in government over 13 years and in London and many city halls right now.
Khan and Watson rose to the occasion. They showed they want to build broad tents and work together on shared endeavours. By stark contrast, Corbyn said the word ‘unity’ a lot but did nothing to unite Labour behind him. Shrill demands for followership are not leadership. There was no ruling out of deselections or ruling in of shadow cabinet elections. He said nothing about long-standing members, whether Momentum should be for Labour members only, and his words on antisemitism rang hollow as he failed to honour his pledge to back the Jewish Labour Movement’s rule change in the preceding day’s NEC meeting. One thing is very clear: Corbyn only wants to lead the bits of Labour that voted for him. It is the sad but honest truth.
Richard Angell is director of Progress
Want to help with the activist operation at next year’s Labour party conference? If so, fill in this form.