Arriving in Liverpool to a torrential downpour seemed a fitting start to perhaps one of the most heated and contentious Conferences in the history of the Labour Party. With numerous stories in the press predicting the end of the party as we know it doing the rounds in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide re-election as leader, the main question on everybody’s lips seemed to be ‘How can Labour survive?’ rather than the usual ‘How can Labour get back into Government’.
Yet, with the prospect of forming a government so low and party discipline seemingly out of the window, the fringes of this years conference showed an encouraging sense of intellectual freedom and innovation which was sometimes lacking in the pre-Corbyn age.
Day one was all about presenting a united front to the press, with victorious Corbynites stressing the need for conciliation. However, one of the more interesting speeches of the day saw Shadow Housing Minister Theresa Pearce set out Labour’s commitment to tackling the housing crisis – building over a million new homes, with half as social housing.
By day two the public theme of party unity was quickly breaking down in private, with Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis seemingly livid at Corbyn’s aides watering down his speech on Trident renewal despite later claiming ‘nothing to see here’.
The Tories took a hammering from Housing Association bosses at a packed Housing Fringe while Jon Healy MP outlined Labour’s previous achievements in government and James Murray, Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor for Housing, talked about what Labour is doing right now in London.
Khan himself took centre stage on day three, with a fiery speech aimed directly at Corbyn that challenged him to focus on winning elections rather than ideological purity – particularly apt with next year’s elections for the devolved City Regions. If anything can show Labour a route back to power it will be these new offices creating a platform to show it can be trusted to govern again.
An evening fringe event on the future of the UK’s energy mix gave a stark impression of just how confused Labour’s policy is at the moment. Shadow Energy Minster Barry Gardiner gave a realistic and sensible overview of the UK’s energy challenges, setting out the need for a long term comprehensive strategy removed from party politics. Hard to disagree with that, except for his earlier (obviously partisan and short termist) announcement that Labour would ban all fracking…
The final day of course has all been about the Leader’s speech. Coming onstage to a welcome unlike anything previously seen for a major party leader, he began with a firm rebuke to Sadiq Khan’s speech about winning power, stating that “winning justice for all… is at the heart of Labour is about.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of his speech, however, was a radical proposal to shake up local government finance, removing the borrowing cap and allowing local authorities to borrow against their housing stock, which he estimates will allow them to build thousands of new council rent homes.
This will certainly go down well with Labour councils, in particular those in London facing huge challenges to secure funding for new affordable homes. It’s worth noting too that these are councils dominated by the Blairite wing of the party – is this the much vaunted ‘olive branch’?
But if the central idea behind this conference was to show a newfound unity and reconcilement between the different wings of the party, then it has ultimately failed. There is still a huge amount of work to do from both sides to work out if reconcilement is even possible. However, this Conference showed Labour is far from ideologically dead, and there is a wealth of talent still working behind the scenes to create innovative policies to answer the most challenging issues of our times. It’s what the Party does with this talent over the next few years that will be most interesting to watch.