After the comradely weekend warm-up act that involved a failed putsch against the Deputy Leader, the resignation of the party policy chief and no end of backroom shenanigans over Brexit, Labour Party Conference really hits the ground in earnest today. A number of the Corbyn Shadow Cabinet will be making their conference addresses, starting with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Once considered a potential rival to Corbyn, McDonnell is now seemingly happy to play second fiddle. In an interview with The Times last week, McDonnell stated that if Jeremy Corbyn were hit by the number 57 bus the next leader should be a woman. This was an interesting comment, and not just because of the suggestion that only death could halt Corbyn’s eternal reign. McDonnell is ruling himself out of contention here and indeed he has recently been insistent that he has no ambitions to lead the Party. But a cynic might also wonder if the remark was as much about warning off other big beasts like Keir Starmer and Tom Watson, as it was about gender equality.
Expect McDonnell’s speech to be light on Brexit and heavy on other policy initiatives. A few of these have trickled out over the last few days: an end to prescription charges, abolishing the non-dom tax status, scrapping Ofsted. These are very populist measures but possibly quite effective ones, and frankly, the Labour leadership will be desperate for a conversation about anything other than Brexit right now to shift the focus away from the infighting and incoherence of the Party’s position on the issue.
We might also hear more about the radical plans agreed yesterday to scrap private schools. Yes, that’s right, not tax them more. Not force them to help other schools more. But actually scrap them and seize their assets. We wish the lobbyists from the Independent Schools Association a fraternal “good luck” this morning…
But if talk of Brexit will be low in the morning, it will be back with a vengeance in the afternoon as Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer take to the stage. Starmer and Thornberry were both present at the People’s Vote march in Brighton and both explicitly stated that Labour should be campaigning for ‘Remain’ in a referendum, whatever the outcome of the Prime Minister’s negotiations with Europe. Starmer has been at odds with Corbyn for a long time now and it will comes as no surprise when he advocates a more clearly pro-Remain stance than his leader. Thornberry is a different story however. Until recently, she stayed broadly loyal to Corbyn throughout the ups and downs of the last few years, and for her to clearly contradict him in her speech would be a blow to the Labour leader and a sign that even within his own camp the tide is starting to turn in a more unapologetically pro EU direction.
Today will be a microcosm of the wider problem Labour faces. Three of the biggest beasts in the Cabinet will make speeches, but they will be singing from slightly different hymn sheets and talking about slightly different things. Since Corbyn came to power in 2015, Labour Conference has felt like two conferences in one, with the moderates and the Corbynistas in the same town for the same reason but stubbornly staying apart and pursuing their own agendas. The split between the two wings is a chasm and day by day, it feels harder to see how that can hold without a fracture.