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!’