All of the reports from the wider media here in Brighton have been focused on two things: one, Labour infighting, centring on the attempt to remove Tom Watson from the Deputy Leader position; two, Labour’s more radical policy ideas like abolishing private schools and the 32-hour week. Neither of them strike me as being electorally helpful for Labour in the short-term. I am here in Brighton, at the conference, witness to it all. Is the infighting as bad as the papers are saying it is?
For a start, it is best to explain what Labour conferences have been like since Corbyn became leader. They have all mostly been flat as a pancake, atmosphere-wise. This is in sharp contrast to how they felt during the Miliband years, where Labour really felt like a political party that believed it was going to be in government after the next general election and had a buzz about them as a result. Like all of the four before this one, Labour conference this year again feels like a party that thinks it is going to be in opposition for a very long time, whatever they say out loud.
Part of the reason that atmosphere has been lacking at Labour conferences during the Corbyn era has been the spectacular own-goal that is the The World Transformed conference, organised by Momentum. The Labour Party has grown more than any other party in Western Europe in terms of new members since Corbyn became leader; you would never know it from their conference, however, which has felt more empty every year since 2015. This is because instead of channelling all that youthful energy toward the actual party conference, all the new activists are at the Momentum thing down the road going on at the exact same time. The only way that this isn’t idiotic is if the Labour leadership would actually like to keep the young activists away from the conference floor in order to make whipping the votes there easier. But that would be cynical of me to consider.
Labour conference 2019 is easily the smallest feeling Labour conference that I’ve ever been to. The drinks events that used to buzz with big names in the world of Labour politics and media even half a decade ago are now half-empty, as are the hotel bars. It still feels bigger than Lib Dem conference, but only just, which is really poor when you consider the Lib Dem surge in the polls came too late for the corporates to steam in, while Labour are supposed to be in with a shout at forming the next government. With the corporate types not bothering and all the activists perversely in the same city, at the same time, but not at Labour conference, you then begin to see why the whole thing can seem small.
As for visible signs of infighting – I’ve seen nothing terribly exciting so far. The air at the conference doesn’t feel charged with nervous tension so much as populated with delegates who are depressingly resigned. Being here in Brighton, Labour feels like a party in trouble. I’d even go so far as to say it feels like a party that is dying. I take no pleasure in saying that, actually. With all of the things about the Labour Party I never liked, there was still a lot of good things in there. At it’s best, Labour knew how to mix liberalism and communitarianism into something coherent. The days when that seemed possible now seem long gone.