Labour’s Jekyll and Hyde conference

Our Public Affairs team assess the highs and lows of this year’s Labour Party conference,  from confident policy ideas to internal divisions continuing to cause problems for Jeremy Corbyn. Read on for their analysis.

Political party conferences have a natural cycle.

To attend a Conservative or Labour Party conference in the years immediately after an election defeat, is to witness a party grappling with its identity, working out how to re-engage with voters, and undergoing the internal turmoil with which the first years of opposition politics is synonymous.

Conversely, the conference of a party that has just emerged victorious from an election cycle or feels that it is on the cusp of power, is one filled with confidence, purpose, direction and hope.

Labour Party conference this week somehow managed to defy this received wisdom, and find a third path. This was a Jekyll and Hyde conference, for a party whose confident policy ideas remain dogged by internal division.

On one hand, we had a shadow cabinet that approached conference with the intention of laying out a legislative programme for government. The announcements flowed.

There was a pledge to scrap prescription charges and provide free personal care for the elderly. On workers’ rights, Jeremy Corbyn announced the abolition of zero hours contracts, the introduction of a £10 living wage, and a four-day week. Other policies included the abolition of private schools and Ofsted, investment in renewable energy, and the introduction of a Green New Deal. Jeremy Corbyn also announced his intention to bring rail, mail, water and the national grid into public ownership.

Agree or disagree with their policy approach, the party clearly has a bold agenda, outlined with clarity this week. This was one of the most dramatic policy programmes ever announced by an opposition party.

And yet, the Labour Party could not suppress its inner Mr Hyde.

From attempts to remove Tom Watson as Labour’s Deputy Leader, to continued prevarication from the leadership on its Brexit position, leading to huge controversy over a vote on the Party’s approach to a second referendum, this was a party that, on the eve of a general election, simply could not focus on the battle ahead, instead continuing to fight a battle within.

Outside the main conference hall, around the fringe and even on the streets of Brighton, the theme continued. Police were called to remove an antisemitic poster from the fencing surrounding the conference building, members of the party suspended for alleged racism took part in controversial fringe events, and one organisation even raffled off allegedly antisemitic cartoons at a reception.

A lack of clear direction from Jeremy Corbyn and his allies on Brexit, along with a vocal fringe of Labour members that obsess over issues far removed from the concerns of the electorate, continue to undermine the Party’s efforts to present itself as a credible alternative to the Conservatives.

This should have been a conference during which the party imprinted itself on the public consciousness with a clear plan of action, a programme for government, and a unity of purpose. Instead, observers had to fight through a bewildering array of controversies to catch a glimpse of a government in waiting.

If the Dr Jekyll of Labour’s vision for government continues to struggle to suppress the Mr Hyde of internal division, Labour may spend its next conference reflecting on just how it all went wrong.

Written by Jamie Slavin, Senior Account Director, Public Affairs

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