Conference offers a political party a once-a-year opportunity to showcase to the country its policies, its people and perhaps most of all, its unity of endeavour. Well Labour didn’t quite get that memo and as their annual shindig gets underway this weekend its been an incredibly fractious start.
First, on Friday night came a move from Momentum to abolish the role of Deputy Leader, removing Corbyn’s nemesis Tom Watson from the Shadow Cabinet. Remarkably, the motion received majority support at the Party’s National Executive Committee, but didn’t quite reach the two-thirds support required for such a big step. By Saturday morning, it was clear that any further moves to depose Watson could see scores of Labour MPs walk out the party with him, and Jeremy Corbyn called off his Momentum dogs.
Then last night came the resignation of one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies in politics, party policy chief Andrew Fisher. And with his resignation came a dynamite email blaming the “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency” in the Leader of the Oppositions private office.
So far, so comradely. But don’t worry, it will surely get better as the week goes on because this year’s Conference only has to resolve the party’s position on the soft, gentle, easy of Brexit. Oh dear.
Going into this year’s conference, more than 90 Constituency Labour Parties have submitted motions calling for Labour to commit immediately to campaigning for Remain in a referendum, whatever the result of any renegotiation with Brussels. Similarly, key members of the Shadow Cabinet, most notably Emily Thornberry – who yesterday appeared on Brighton seafront in an EU blue dress – have already signalled that they would campaign for Remain in any future referendum.
This is in sharp contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, who only this week suggested a Labour Government would seek to negotiate its own Brexit deal and put it to a public vote. Crucially, unlike Shadow Cabinet colleagues, he remains tight lipped about what side he himself would support in such a situation.
Labour members may not like the Lib Dems, but for those within the Party who back Remain, they must surely admire their clarity on the issue. They must also be worried. The latest polling from YouGov puts the Lib Dems on 23 per cent compared to Labour, who are sitting on just 21 per cent. These worrying stats follow the Lib Dem’s own party conference in Bournemouth last weekend, during which they announced their decision to drop their commitment for a second referendum, favouring revoking Article 50.
There are concerns in Remain supporting Labour ranks that Corbyn’s restatement of Labour’s ambiguous Brexit position, including his insistence that voters be presented with a Leave option, could be used to stifle debate in Brighton. Constituency Labour Parties believe they could win a conference vote on the issue, but are understood to be wary about so publicly defying their Leader. Ultimately, many within the party are looking beyond conference to a General Election, and having to take a calculated decision about what’s more important: Stopping Brexit, or getting the keys to No.10.
If it is the keys to No 10 they desire most, this Conference has not made a good start. Labour need it to improve, and fast.