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30 September 2015

'Straight talking. Honest politics' - Labour Conference 2015

Government Affairs

By John McTernan, commentator and political strategist

‘Straight talking. Honest politics’. The conference slogan said it all. Jeremy Corbyn wants to define himself – what new leader doesn’t? But, unusually for a political party, that definition of change is not against the Labour Party’s main political opponents – the Conservative Party – but instead it is in relation to Labour’s past, and, in particular, Tony Blair. There was a ghost haunting Brighton this week and it was that of the last Labour leader to win an election. That is the key to understanding what just happened – both in the Labour leadership election and the conference. Labour is a party as haunted by Blair as the Tories were by Thatcher for the fifteen years after they defenestrated her. Not a single fringe meeting passed off without a mention of him.

The ‘new politics’ is, then, a lot like the old politics. Remember, the first rule of political warfare is to put your enemy in the wrong and keep them there. Simple, you’d have thought. Except for the question who is the enemy? In politics it’s not normally your main competitor – they are simply the opposition. It’s the people on your own side who are the actual enemy. For all the emollience of Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell there is an emotional, psychological and ideological battle going on within the Labour Party. It is being conducted in code – but it is very real.

So, the trick is to see beyond the surface language to the underlying meaning. The most important concepts are ‘review’ and ‘mandate’.

Many conflicts were deferred this week under the guise of a review. Trident is the most high profile one. But other significant ones were the Financial Transaction Tax (the so-called Robin Hood Tax), the nationalisation of the railways, the mandate of the Bank of England (and the proposal to print money to fund public services) and the proposal for building 100,000 council houses a year. The review process was masked as a new commitment to pluralism, debate and dissent.

As opposed to the years of spin and message discipline. This has two problems. For one, there was no concession to the fact that the Tories who won the election were always relentlessly on message – ‘long term economic plan’, anyone? (But then Corbyn’s speech did not even concede that Labour had been devastatingly defeated in May.) For another, and more importantly, conflict may have been deferred but it has only been delayed not denied. Moderate, mainstream Labour had a majority at this conference. That is why there was so much rhetoric from the leadership about the decisive role of conference and the members in making policy decisions yet no votes. The right had the numbers. Next year the left hope to have taken over the party and we will see vote after vote to change party positions.

This is the coming conflict. And why the word ‘mandate’ was so ubiquitous. The election defeat was unmentioned by the leadership but that was not accidental. It was essential not to talk about the voters for fear of having to address why they rejected Labour and what they wanted. Almost all MPs – or at least the 90% who didn’t vote for Corbyn – will tell you that Labour lost because the voters didn’t trust the party on the economy, welfare or immigration. Facing up to that would see a substantial revision of party policy – and would not start with a leftward lurch. Against the views of the British public Corbyn wants to set those of his supporters. That is why his words were a chilling warning to MPs:

“No-one – not me as leader, not the shadow cabinet, not the Parliamentary Labour Party – is going to impose policy or have a veto.”

The country won’t matter only the Corbynistas. That is the battle to come not just for the soul of the Labour Party, but for its relevance to Britain in the future.

John McTernan is a commentator and political strategist. He was a Labour adviser on health, welfare, regeneration, defence and Scotland; and was Tony Blair’s director of political operations. He also worked as director of communications for the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard.

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