The weather in Brighton this week veered from the sublime to the ridiculous, mirroring remarkable swings in the mood and political backdrop to Labour’s annual get together. A week that looked set to be dominated by stories about bitter splits and internal battles was ultimately saved by external events in the form of yesterday’s remarkable Supreme Court judgement overturning prorogation.
The Conference started with a furious row over a motion to abolish the Deputy Leader position, intended as a punishment for Tom Watson’s perceived disloyalty to Corbyn’s leadership. No sooner was this swept under the carpet (with a pledge to review the post) than another row erupted over the Party’s position on Brexit. The leadership eventually got its way, Labour will head into the next election promising to put a negotiated leave deal to the people in a referendum with remain as the alternative but they won’t decide which way to campaign until a special conference after the deal is negotiated. This leaves the Party holding the tricky middle ground between the Conservatives as the Party of leave and the Lib Dems as the clear remain option.
But as the weather turned stormy on Monday afternoon through Tuesday morning, the focus shifted to domestic policy. The most significant development was the adoption of a bold, radical approach to climate change. The Party is now officially pledged to a 2030 target for net zero carbon and a huge £250bn war chest for green investments and technologies. This is linked explicitly to the Party’s industrial strategy and will be a centre piece of its ambitions to reshape the UK’s economy. There will have been some nervousness at the fact that the motion on this topic also included a pledge to nationalise the big 6 energy suppliers and ban fracking, though that does not mean these specific points will make it into the manifesto as immediate priorities of the leadership.
This move underlines the salience of the Extinction Rebellion movement and their climate crisis messaging. This agenda is now becoming more mainstream.
Elsewhere there was plenty of red meat for the Corbyn faithful. Proposals attacking private schools are a stark demonstration of just how mainstream the ideas of what was previously the radical fringe of the party have become and it is far from clear how this could be implemented in practice. Also prominent was a pledge to deliver free social care for all over 65s to be funded from general taxation. This is a core theme, the state raising more tax from the ‘top 5 per cent’ to fund a far greater range of free universal state support; social care, university tuition, childcare, adult skills and learning – the list is extensive and the overall cost uncertain.
Then, as the rows over Tom Watson and Brexit threatened to reignite and collide during his speech yesterday afternoon, the storm lifted and the sun began to shine just as the Supreme Court judgement landed and changed the course of the Conference. It immediately became the main topic of conversation and MPs began pulling out of fringe event speaking commitments and heading back to London. Corbyn’s speech was brought forward in place of Watson and what would have been a further embarrassing spectacle was conveniently sidestepped.
Corbyn’s speech itself hit all the right notes with the audience in the hall and painted a picture that will enrapture his core supporters and concern many in the business community. He had plenty of easy Boris bashing lines from the Supreme Court judgement to deploy and plenty of policy content to delight the audience in the hall. Ultimately though, it was his condemnation of the Prime Minister that dominated the news bulletins last night with much of the policy content flying slightly below the radar.
So how does Labour emerge from all this? Firstly, they have had a slightly lucky escape. The Supreme Court ruling served to mask what remain pretty serious splits within the Party over its direction on Brexit and support for the leadership. But the Party now has a very bold, eye catching domestic policy programme with climate change at its heart to take to the electorate whenever a general election is eventually called. The big question is whether their ambiguity on Brexit detracts from their core domestic offer of drastic change. In 2017 Corbyn was effective in steering what was expected to be a Brexit election towards domestic policy issues. His ability, or otherwise, to do so again will be a key to his chances of becoming the next Prime Minister.