Labour Party Conference 2017: What does this mean for Labour’s year ahead?

Josh Andrew, 3rd year BSc Politics student at Canterbury Christ Church University, reports his impressions from the Labour party conference in Brighton.

This year’s Labour party’s annual conference was the biggest the party had ever held. Media coverage of policies and a plethora of other issues was widespread, from BBC reporter Laura Kuenssburg’s bodyguard to the restrictions on debating Brexit. In my observation, three aspects particularly stuck out and are worth discussing further.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the party’s annual conference in Brighton | image via @uklabour

First, while the majority of press coverage focussed on the party leadership only, it is worth looking at the party itself and its membership – particularly at the relationship between Jeremy Corbyn, his cabinet, and the rest of the party. Within most of the party, Corbyn is a cult hero – especially after the 2017 general election result, which turned from a Labour decimation to the Conservative party losing its majority, all in two months. The chants and buzz in the air whenever there is a mention or appearance from Corbyn only emphasised this and there was a real feeling that Labour could potentially form the next government. The enthusiasm spread to other key figures in his shadow cabinet, such as John McDonnell, whose speech gained media attention with the announcement of further investment for the north and transport, with a huge cheer for his reaffirmation of nationalisation, with the quote “we’re taking them back!” This created a presidential attitude within some parts of the party:

Corbyn now carries the party as an essential part of its electability, the complete opposite from before the 2017 election.

An equally striking aspect of conference was the media coverage, which focused not on policy but on two other issues: the alleged anti-Semitism within some areas of the party, and the restriction on debating Brexit.

The Brexit debate restriction was a controversial decision for many members and MPs (Clive for instance Lewis spoke passionately about this at a fringe event). Many members also spoke of their frustrations about this at conference. The curtailing of a full Brexit debate was important as it is one such a difficult policy issue for Labour as the main opposition party. However, the restriction was understandable, as most fringe events would develop into a debate on Brexit policy, which is a polarizing issue in the Labour party, especially on the single market and freedom of movement.

The issue of anti-Semitism within the Labour party raised its head again, with reports of holocaust denial being debated by a controversial author, and the party’s board for approving panels for fringe events being called into question. This put pressure on Corbyn to come out and speak on the issue, especially after Wes Streeting, a Labour party MP, spoke on the matter, claiming Corbyn was not an anti-Semite, but was involved in running an ‘ostrich style’ leadership on the issue. This brought a sad and contentious note to party conference, coinciding with the vote on changes to the party’s definition of anti-Semitism, in which many proposals from different CLP’s were rejected due to non-specific wording. Everything I have seen and heard at conference and in the news – from the opinions of MP’s, members and the change of definition – seems to have only reinforced the party’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism inside and outside of its membership.

Overall, in the year ahead Labour, Corbyn and his shadow cabinet need to be committed to being ready for government, and just as importantly, ready for another election. They appear willing to make required changes and send out the right messages to project a clear image of the Labour party, a party that has solved its own internal issues and is preparing to solve those of the UK.

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The End of Post-ideological Times: The Centre Cannot Hold

Dr David Bates is Principal Lecturer and Director of Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His research and expertise focus on contemporary and radical political thought, Marxism, Hardt and Negri, Occupy, Arts and Politics, New Social Movements.

Until recently, political scientists often claimed that British politics had ceased to be ideological – by which they meant that it was no longer divided so clearly between left and right. The concomitant claim was that election battles were to be fought on the ‘centre ground’. As a social and political theorist, I have always found these claims to be deeply problematic.

First, we might note that those issues which typically underpinned left-right distinctions (that is, issues of economic distribution, of wealth and power) have continued to shape British politics.

Second, the centre ground as typically understood is a fiction. The idea of the centre ground is, in the minds of most people, associated with moderation, a middle way between ‘extremes’ – an Aristotelian mean.   But as one writer has maintained, since the 1970s the fictitious centre is ideologically an extreme one. Put another way, extreme free market policies have come to be dressed in the clothes of pragmatic ‘common sense’. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has maintained, ‘post-ideological times’ are in fact the most ideological of times.

We have seen left-populist attempts to articulate a different common sense in Greece and Spain. In the last election, Ed Miliband spoke of the need to move the ‘centre to the left’. But he failed to articulate this within an effective left-populist discourse.  Jeremy Corbyn – aided by an innovative social media campaign – has achieved this. The Labour campaign was based on the articulation of a form of friend-enemy distinction which the political philosopher Ernesto Laclau has argued is essential to all forms of populism. Corbyn claimed to represent ‘the many’ (the people), against ‘the few’ (financial elites, Tories, media barons, et al). This was a rhetoric of mobilisation. And his mobilisation of young people (the turnout figure for 18-24 year olds is estimated to be over 70%) has been one of the big stories of this election.

In the Canterbury and Whitstable constituency, it is clear that the mobilisation of young people was a key factor. Another factor has undoubtedly been the palpable lack of popularity of the long-serving MP Sir Julian Brazier. Throughout the campaign, social media has focused on how his free market and socially conservative beliefs have conflicted with the economic interests and beliefs of his constituents. Indeed Sir Julian was considered by many to have taken the electorate for granted.  All his opponents were able to capitalise on this, but Rosie Duffield for Labour won through with the votes. It is difficult to imagine someone further away ideologically from Sir Julian (a man who has held his seat since 1987) than the new Labour MP for Canterbury and Whitstable.

As Bob Dylan would no doubt put it: ‘The Times They Are A Changin!’

#GE2017 and Brexit – Traincrash vs lucky escape

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, god forbid, without adequate WIFI for the last day, you will be aware that we are having a snap election in just over 7 weeks’ time on the 8th of June. While seemingly the entirety of the UK population is preoccupying itself by venting their joy and frustration into the bottomless void of Twitter, I would like to take a moment to talk about Brexit and what this means for the upcoming negotiations.

In the short term, it means kicking the can down the road, but fortunately snap elections are… well, snappy. It seems highly unlikely we are going to hear anything major out of the Government over the next 7 weeks, not least because Parliament will be dissolving in 2 weeks time, the pre-election ‘Purdah’ will be kicking in any moment and the Prime Minister is going to be spending most of her time staging awkward photo-ops with nursery children.

My one word of warning, however, is that this ‘Article 50 Road’ is not very long and we are already going to spend the best part of 6 months of it with the French and German elections. Using these potentially crucial, if short, 7 weeks before the German elections start in earnest messing around with our own election might come back to bite us when we are scrambling to get a deal, transitional or not, in 2019.

But on the other side of the channel, the EU27 have an interesting opportunity to throw a spanner in the works if they so wish, as there is a European Council meeting on the 29th of April. Whether or not they will is a speculation too far for this graduate coordinator, but if they believed they might get a better deal out of Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May, or fancied a 28th member in the form of an independent Scotland, or if they just wanted to make life difficult for Theresa May by pulling a lever or two and forcing her into some manifesto pledges, now is the time for Donald Tusk to start honing his spanner-throwing skills.

With a longer term view, I muse two possible alternatives;

The first and, YouGov willing, much more likely outcome of this election is that May doesn’t have any moving vans arriving outside of No.10. If she wins, it seems fairly likely that the UK negotiating position will stay more or less the same: No European Court of Justice, No Single Market, No Customs union, but with a Free Trade Area and some form of customs agreement that allows for minimal non-tariff barriers, and a hard border in Dover but a soft one in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if as seems most likely she increases the Conservative majority in House of Commons she will treat this as a cast-iron validation of her Brexit strategy. Alongside this the EU27 position is unlikely to change much either unless there is the arrival of the aforementioned spanners.

I suppose there is a chance she has some electoral difficulties: perhaps she becomes concerned about her ‘Brexity’ base being tempted to UKIP or her ‘Remoany’ base being tempted by the Lib-Dems, and is forced into changing the Brexit strategy to appease an aspect of her coalition, but given her batting average of 46% vote share in the most recent Comres poll, this doesn’t seem that likely.

The second and, Ipsos willing, much less likely outcome is that Theresa May cannot achieve a majority. This alternative would be very chaotic and a massive upset to the Article 50 process will ensue. The polls seem to suggest Corbyn has a snowman’s chance in hell of actually getting a majority. So this alternative looks something like a Lib/Lab/SNP coalition or Con/Lib coalition…. here are two Buster Keaton GIFs as to what that might resemble:

 

To sum up, if everything goes according to Theresa May’s plan and the polling is correct, the snap elections shouldn’t affect the Brexit negotiations too much – yet, Trump is in the White House, Marine Le Pen has a shot at the French presidency, Leicester City boasts a Premier league victory and Britain voted to leave the European Union…

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

CEFEUS Director comments on Jeremy Corbyn’s view of Europe

Dr Amelia Hadfield, Director of the Centre for European Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University, appeared on the BBC News Service last Thursday to discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s support for continued British membership of the EU. She discussed the matter with host Roberto Perrone, who asked about the significance, and credibility of Corbyn’s announcement that Labour MPs should vote to remain.

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Jeremy Corbyn shuffles the deck chairs

Dr Mark Bennister, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, assesses the success of the recent Labour shadow cabinet reshuffle by leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is perhaps the hardest job in politics. You have to look electable, be in control and exude credibility. Meanwhile, straight after an election the recriminations continue and you have very limited opportunities to actually do anything than resonates with the electorate.

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