Pity the Conservative press. Not only has the Labour Party declined to change its policy on Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system, it has not even seen fit to debate it.
Since the news broke, on 22 September, that delegates to this week’s annual conference would be allowed to vote on whether to send the issue to the floor, the sound of headlines being sharpened has become increasingly shrill. Now, ‘Jez’s Nuclear Fall-Out’ and ‘Reds’ Atomic Dustbin’ will have to go back in the drawer.
But, setting aside the thought that the imminent commissioning of weapons of mass destruction, at a cost of somewhere between £17.5 billion and £100 billion (depending on one’s choice of sums), is exactly the sort of thing a political party ought to be deliberating, the story was not just the latest case of the media talking up the unlikely. Labour’s National Executive Committee had indicated that the decision to consider a wider range of motions was a direct consequence of the recent change in leadership, and it appears Jeremy Corbyn’s office lobbied the Conference Arrangements Committee in favour of the vote. Corbyn himself told the New Statesman that if a motion on unilateral disarmament were to be approved it would ‘of course’ become party policy. (Which begs the question: will multilateralism now become his?)
Some of this could be interpreted as Corbyn forcing the issue, but it was also the logical outcome of the noises made during his election campaign about restoring a more democratic culture of policy-making to the party. The last time delegates voted on Trident was in 1997, when unilateralism was rejected by 56 per cent to 44. Since then such motions have been suppressed. Many of those who assembled in Brighton this weekend will have clear memories of Tony Blair’s final conference as leader, in 2006, when the high command again stopped the question reaching the floor, incurring criticism from both serving and former ministers – including Peter Hain, Hilary Benn and Charles Clarke – as well as from the rank and file. Yesterday it was representatives of the trade unions and the membership who blocked the motion; but at least this was ‘bottom-up democracy’, to purloin a Corbynism. The leader, it would appear, is honouring his pledge to give the membership its voice.
That it chose not to speak is curious, albeit not altogether surprising. Disarmament remains a totem for the old left, but nuclear armageddon stopped troubling the dreams of most Labour activists with the end of the Cold War. And though Trident is Britain’s white elephant par excellence, one of the upshots of all that public spending is the thousands of high-skilled jobs it sustains; hence the ‘no’ votes from Unite and the GMB, which represent many of those whose livelihoods would be threatened by the policy.
Still, the media had been preparing for an historic volte-face, caused, presumably, by all those Trotskyite entryists and CND peaceniks they’d warned us about over the summer. Surely the infiltrators should have tipped the scales in favour of scuttling the subs?
Well, no. Despite the doubling of the party’s membership since the general election, it is not obvious that the ideological character of the conference floor must have reddened since Blair first saw off the unilateralists in 1995. As Lion & Unicorn has already argued, only a minority of the new recruits are likely to play an active role in their local parties, and too little time has passed for these to have exerted a significant influence over their officers and delegates.
Indeed, the overall impression given by this week’s conference might, on balance, be more upbeat and ‘moderate’ than hostile scribblers are hoping. Expect much talk of party unity, and calls from left, right and centre alike to seize the opportunity for renewal (of the party, not the nukes) presented by the surge in members. Various pundits will deem the break in style from New Labour ‘refreshing’. The new Corbyn era may be hailed for its pluralist attitude to debate. Watch out for ‘a spirit of optimism’ and Labour’s ‘new generation of radicals’.
As for the verdict on the leader himself, after his abysmal first week, in particular his shambolic speech at the TUC congress, anticipate a grudging thumbs up. It’s not simply that expectations are already at rock bottom, or that the hall will indulge him: Corbyn, the life-long protestor, is a perfectly adequate platform speaker. He isn’t charismatic, witty or a fleet thinker, but he scores points for his apparent earnestness and plain-spoken commitment to social justice. For the sake of the occasion, praise will come, albeit carefully phrased, from some unlikely quarters.
Unfortunately, this will change nothing. The following week the Tories will gather in Manchester to demonstrate how little the sight of party democracy matters in the eyes of most British voters. David Cameron and George Osborne, posing as statesmen, will trumpet the hard-won gains of five years spent repairing the ‘mess caused by Labour’s overspending’. They will warn of a dangerous world and commit themselves umpteen times to maintaining Britain’s ultimate national insurance policy: those missiles. They will claim to be the true champions of working people, announcing new gimmicks on tax, benefits, home ownership and pensions designed to paint Labour as the last refuge of the workshy. And there will be mutterings about the need for Her Majesty’s government to remain an ‘honest broker’ in Northern Ireland. (If they lose their heads, the cabinet might even make like the Lib Dem Glee Club and serenade a Battle of Britain veteran with the national anthem.)
The whole spectacle will be slick, sly and utterly opportunistic. And it will work, because Cameron is in his imperial phase, exuding calm, confidence and competence as if he were their Platonic form. That much was evident from Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs, when the Labour leader’s new, boring style of questioning left Cameron appearing more, not less, prime ministerial.
Before the end of October it is likely that the Tories will have further extended their poll lead over Labour, which has seen no significant deterioration since Corbyn’s election, and is, in fact, at a five-year high. By that point the mantras about unity, hope and renewal will be like ashes in their utterers’ mouths. The divisions among the party’s MPs will have hardened, and more than a few of its councillors will be in squeaky bum time, as they start to contemplate the implications of the polls for next May’s local elections. The talk of coups during the leadership election may not break back into the open, but minds will turn to how and when Corbyn should be deposed.
My prediction – and I admit it is merely a mischievous guess – is that his leadership will not last beyond next year’s conference. The argument made among party members that the Corbyn experiment should be given at least two years to prove itself sounds far too polite. There are powerful figures who would see it fail now, and, as the party’s electoral prospects continue to darken, they are unlikely to become more sanguine. Indeed, if the two great lessons from the general election really were that Labour lacked credibility on leadership and the economy then the imperative must be to remove the latest lame duck at the earliest opportunity. (The repeated comparison with the defenestration of Iain Duncan Smith ought to be more instructive: the Tories left themselves too little time to undo the damage done by that quiet man’s troubled reign, and were thus forced to opt for authority over popular appeal when choosing Michael Howard as his replacement.)
So the key question facing the plotters is how long to wait. The rules on challenging an incumbent guarantee Corbyn a place in the contest. To win, the rival candidate – and it should be just the one – will need two things above all others: principally, that the Corbyn project is seen to be failing in the eyes of the membership; secondly, charisma. They cannot wait too long, however. IDSS causes lasting stigma. (The final ‘S’ stands for ‘syndrome’, you guess the rest.)
Although Lion & Unicorn believes the influx of new members may be short-lived, it seems unlikely it will wither away within twelve months. More probable is that longer-standing activists, dispirited by Corbyn’s poor approval ratings and a drubbing in next year’s elections, will tire of the experiment especially quickly. It is also reasonable to assume that many of the £3 registered supporters will choose not to participate a second time around; by then they will have seen Trident renewed with Labour support, the passing of another Tory budget, and the reality that even Jeremy Corbyn needs to compromise sometimes. The novelty of Corbynmania will quickly ebb away. And so too will his union backing, as further cuts and ‘reforms’ to public services and the enacting of the Trade Union Bill begin to impress on labour leaders the virtue of government over opposition.
Then there will be the hostile press stories. The most astonishing aspect of the opprobrium heaped upon Corbyn during his first week was how little of it relied on old news. He laid the banana skins himself: the absence of women from the shadow cabinet’s top jobs, that shambolic performance in front of the TUC, the appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, his silence during ‘God Save the Queen’ at the Battle of Britain service in St Paul’s Cathedral, and that scowling traipse through the darkness, dogged by journalists, with its unfortunate impression of another shifty politician evading scrutiny.
Mistakes of this kind will become rarer now the new leader’s office is in place. His chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, and director of policy and rebuttal, Neale Coleman, were aides to Ken Livingstone at London’s City Hall, so both know something about dealing with a hostile media. Even so, they will still struggle to stem the ongoing unearthing of old speeches, articles and associations that will be used to paint Corbyn, and by association the rest of the Labour Party, as reckless, unpatriotic and a danger to national security.
In this McDonnell will prove to be the new leadership’s weak link. As profiled by Lion & Unicorn’s own Alwyn Turner, he is a more abrasive character than Corbyn, disliked by many on the opposition benches, and prone to provocative language, as his widely reported remarks about ‘honouring’ IRA terrorists and the ‘British occupation in Ireland’ go to show. Given such a long career on the frontline of the hard left it is reasonable to suppose that more such disquieting views will surface, raising the question of how many times a senior frontbencher can apologise for causing ‘offence’ before he appears irredeemably toxic.
Not that his friend, the principled Corbyn, will see it like that. The brickbats from the Sun, Mail, The Times and the Telegraph, will be shrugged off as ‘smears’ from the capitalist press, while the more balanced but equally damaging echo coverage from the broadcasters will be taken as toadying (on the part of the BBC), evidence of Murdoch influence (Sky), or gutter journalism (ITN and Channel 4). In my own constituency I’ve already heard Labour activists denounce the recent Panorama programme on Corbyn as a ‘hatchet job’. The questioning on Channel 4 News of his associations with Hamas and Hezbollah? ‘Tabloid’.
Corbyn’s unyielding response to this assault on the new frontbench will, according to allegiance, either smack of an honourable refusal to kowtow to bullies, or look like an ostrich act. Whichever, the consequence will be further Balkanisation, with the left ever more clearly defined against Labour’s right and the swing voters the party needs to win over in 2020.
Doubts about John McDonnell’s sums, a sense that Corbyn has chosen to stand still on social security, and ‘cranky’ decisions like placing a militant vegan on the agriculture brief will also factor in Labour’s estrangement from the electorate. But the ‘patriotism problem’ will loom largest. For this, confirmation should be sought in Birmingham and Manchester, where a third of borough seats will be up for election next year.
To repeat an earlier prediction, the Tories’ outriders will resort to the memories (and victims) of the IRA bombings in these cities to detach Labour from its more nationalistic supporters. Searches of YouTube and the Birmingham Mail quickly reveal the anger that still simmers about these atrocities, especially in the West Midlands. Combined with George Osborne’s determination to make the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ a recruiting call for new Tory voters, this line of attack could cut deep. And Labour going backward in England’s second and third cities would be a humiliation.
Whether a failure to regain the mayoralty in London and another pounding at the hands of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland will add to Corbyn’s woes is yet to be seen. The latter is playing her game with great guile, and, as seasoned observers have warned, the Green and Liberal-friendly Zac Goldsmith could be a forceful contender in the capital. Labour might well come out of next May’s elections with nothing to boast of at all (Wales aside). Even if Sadiq Khan does bag the consolation prize in London, this will be cold comfort. The MP for Tooting may have nominated Corbyn for the leadership, but he was not among his supporters. And anyway, London and Scotland are sideshows: all wings of the Labour Party know that to win again they must make progress in England.
As this brute fact becomes starker – and by this time next year it should be just about stark enough – so the murmuring and plotting will intensify. The challenge for Corbyn’s internal opponents is to coalesce around an appealing successor.
Chuka Umunna remains the obvious choice, except that he has much to do in terms of adding rough edges to his smooth, metropolitan (let’s be honest, ‘smarmy’) public image. He also needs to ditch the Blairite mantle he all too eagerly, and ill-advisedly, cloaked himself in during the dying days of Ed Miliband’s reign. The IPPR has helpfully plucked the canard that Labour lost the last election because it was too left wing. If a bid to topple the Great Bearded One is to succeed it will need to appropriate populist policies from across the political spectrum, not just to win over the party but also the country. It will require, too, a strategy for enthusing and recruiting a £3 army of its own.
All of this is achievable between now and the run-up to next year’s conference – when the rule book permits the first viable challenge – which is why I’ve placed a bet on Corbyn’s leadership ending in 2016.
That possibility should also re-focus minds within Team Corbyn. No small factor in his support among long-standing party members is the promise – paradoxically redeemed in that non-vote on Trident – that he will revive the party’s democratic culture. But simply relaxing the leadership’s grip on the conference floor and honouring the motions passed there ought not to suffice. (Nor should the welcome, but nonetheless unimaginative, strengthening of the National Policy Forum.) If you think about it, Labour deciding policy in such a crude and public manner looks distinctly unsound. Worse, it’s a throwback to an argument from 40 years ago; a fix for the problem of an outdated party machine that failed to convince even then.
Making policy that is viable and popular involves the drudgery of research, budgeting and, yes, polling. As much as politicians and pundits might lament 21st century Britain’s apathetic, ‘anti-political’ culture, the upside of the decline of deference and tribal party allegiance is that most voters are far more sceptical about grand promises. Nationalisation is regarded warily not just because it reeks of nostalgia, but for the reason that the term is simultaneously big and empty. In the 1940s and ʼ50s the case for state ownership was often made on grounds of efficiency, investment and modernisation – themselves airy words, but at least in keeping with the preoccupations of a country eager to shirk off austerity and catch up with America. Corbynism, with its fetish for British Rail, is yet to show more than a ‘last one out, first one in’ approach to the utilities; although its muddled thinking on the energy sector contains promise.
None of it will receive a serious hearing, however, without the hard graft of detailed, costed, evidence-based policy-making. And the debates held at party conferences – sometimes heated, sometimes bored, often ill-informed – are not the place for that. Instead, how about directly elected taskforces, where activists, councillors, MPs and MEPs with proven expertise might research and develop proposals over the long-term? (Imagine, for instance, a transport team led by recent London mayoral candidate Christian Wolmar.) Such groups could subject their plans to year-round online voting, or ‘crowdsource’ ideas through what used to be called ‘bulletin boards’. In the spirit of the three-pounders, some decisions might even be thrown open to Joe and Josie Public.
Other structures could be developed to give activists a greater role in regional and constituency decision-making. And all of this should be codified in the party’s rule book, with the say on future changes reserved to the membership, thus setting it beyond the whims of the leader or a meddling NEC. In this world the annual conference would resume its more recent roles of rally and rubber stamp, but with all those present unified by a genuinely democratic route to that endpoint.
Such ‘modernisation’ could yet be Jeremy Corbyn’s enduring legacy, the ‘positive outcome’ Lion & Unicorn held out hope for in our recent editorial on his election. To achieve it he will need to step outside the retrograde thinking of groups such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, embrace seriously the opportunities offered by the internet and social media, and take a leaf out of the playbook of the man whose leadership he is, perhaps, least inclined to emulate: Tony Blair.
In Blair’s own first conference speech as leader, in 1994, he seized on Labour’s hunger for power to refashion its constitution in his own image, announcing the process that would lead to the revision of Clause IV the following year. It was a PR masterstroke, but displayed, too, a pragmatic understanding of the always fragile nature of a leader’s mandate: Blair could not have risked a confrontation over the issue a year later, so close to a general election.
With just a day to go before his own debut, Jeremy Corbyn should revisit that bravura performance and take heed of Blair’s gambit. Unlike his predecessor he does not enjoy majority support in all sections of his party; the current truce in the PLP will soon expire; in 12 months, I’ll be collecting my winnings. Corbyn’s sole chance to remake Labour – to equip it for the democracy of the new century – is now. Whether he chooses to do so is the only test of his leadership that matters.
Be in no doubt, Corbynistas, this year’s conference is as good as it gets.