There are few times in history when a General Election loss has put a Labour leader in such a strong position. For the first summer since 2014 Labour has not been undergoing a leadership election and Party conference will not mark the end of a long, hard-fought battle. Moreover, Corbyn’s position seems relatively unassailable, at least in the short term.
But not all is well for the Labour Party; this unity only goes skin deep. The Party is aware that it has now lost three elections in a row. Party moderates are organising through groups like Labour First, Progress and Momentum to battle for control of the Labour Party’s machinery. Bodies like the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) and the all-important National Executive Committee (NEC).
This battle has mostly been fought behind closed doors and, while moderate groups scored early victories, Corbyn’s team has had time to dig in. It is within this context that Labour conference starts.
In the weeks leading up to conference, this tension flared. First was the battle fought by two of Labour’s directly-elected mayors, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, to get speaking time on stage at Conference. The pair argued that their large personal mandates gave them this right, but were denied their request by the CAC. However, at the last minute, Sadiq Khan was given a speaking slot. It’s possible that the leadership, through the CAC, is concerned about the pair developing rival, more moderate, power bases.
Another battle, and perhaps the most important, was the one fought within the NEC around the so-called McDonnell amendment. This was the leadership’s ambition to reduce the threshold of MP nominations needed to get on the ballot paper during leadership elections. Corbyn had to be “lent” nominations to get on the ballot in 2015 and the 2016 coup aimed to bring down Corbyn and prevent him nominating a successor, by refusing them the nominations needed to get on the ballot. This meant the hundreds of thousands of new members would not be able to elect another “hard-left” leader. The leadership’s response was to attempt to wrest control of the NEC and pass an amendment reducing the threshold from 15% of MPs and MEPs to 5%. This week an altered version of that amendment was approved by the NEC – albeit at a compromise level of 10%.
So while Labour’s battles over the summer have been less public, they are still rumbling on and as ever, they will manifest themselves at the Party’s Annual Conference. What’s more both sides are digging in for the long-term.
The most difficult battle for the leadership will be the Party’s position on the EU. While Labour’s membership supports being inside the EU, the party’s leader has historically been more equivocal. At the start of conference on The Andrew Marr Show, Corbyn expressed an interest in ensuring EU rules governing state aid are ended when Britain leaves, allowing Government to step in to support struggling industries. Corbyn’s decision not to allow a debate on Brexit in the main conference hall also caused controversy on the first day of the conference, with the Party later backing down from this, but struggling to contain the row.
While the summer might not have been the trench warfare of previous years, the guerrilla war continues.
Corbyn’s battles are not over yet.
By Mike Blakeney