As I sat in a reception last night, the endless affairs one goes to at any political conference, I thought: so this is how the Left dies; not with a bang but a whimper. Like before last year’s Labour conference in Brighton we heard all about how the party’s divisions were going to be on violent display; there would be fights in the bar and the like. Yet in the end, it was much like last year in Brighton replayed: the Corbynites had won by so great a margin there was no need to gloat; the moderates weren’t prepared to press the nuclear button so there was nothing they could do but sit and stew.
Not all nastiness was banished, of course – it just took more subtle forms than punch-ups at midnight. At one event, Lisa Nandy gave a brief speech during which several young people several feet away heckled her. “Tory!” they yelled. When Lisa Nandy is being called a Tory, you realise fully just how ridiculous everything has got.
This was the smallest feeling Labour conference I’ve ever been to, by miles. McDonnell’s naming and shaming in last year’s speech plus the McDonalds and G4S debacles have resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of serious, external exhibitors. You kept hearing so much about how Labour is the biggest party in Europe – and yet there was no feeling of that in Liverpool at all. Rather it felt like one of the big beasts of world politics a decade ago had committed suicide and was feeling the long term effects really kicking in now.
Tory conference lies only a few days ahead. I have no doubt my arrival in Birmingham for said event will confirm the thoughts travelling around my head all week: the Left, even the centre-left, is dying. Momentum, Corbyn-mania and the membership surge feel like the last gasps of breath before meeting its maker. What happens when it becomes completely clear to everyone that no one but the Tories can win a general election anytime in the next 15 years, I don’t know. It scares me to think about.
Denial is rife on the Left, still, even in the most moderate sections. That’s why there was no prospect of a split. The PLP thinks it’s their party and they aren’t going anywhere as a result. While I can understand those feelings, they may look back on Liverpool 2016 as a missed opportunity.
The one hope Labour has of ending this nightmare relatively quickly is the trade unions. Many of the big wigs in the movement are becoming increasingly hostile to Corbyn, but Len still vociferously stands by his man. If McCluskey either changes tack or loses his job via the next Unite general secretary election then that could be a game changer; the Corbyn majority on the NEC is only so because of assumed trade union loyalty to the leadership. We have a situation in which McDonnell is announcing things that are antithetical to many union interests, and surely there is only so long that can continue before they decide as a bloc to oust Corbyn and his friends from control of the Labour party.
That may all come too late to save Labour, however. Again, the time for action is now – and yet as Liverpool shows, everyone is convinced it is the time to wait to see what comes next.