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Labour Party conference showed how leaders lag behind membership’s radicalism

This article is over 4 years, 8 months old
Labour adopted radical policies, but the fight to get party leaders to implement them will be harder, writes Nick Clark
Issue 2674
Jeremy Corbyn speaking at Labour Party conference last week
Jeremy Corbyn speaking at Labour Party conference last week (Pic: Socialist Appeal/Flickr)

One takeaway from last week’s Labour Party conference is that the members are further ahead than the leadership and the trade unions.

They passed a number of policies much more radical than those that appeared in the 2017 manifesto.

These included abolishing private schools, defending and extending freedom of movement for migrants, and achieving a zero carbon economy by 2030.

Naturally, all of this horrified the Labour right. But you get the sense that some of Labour’s top politicians aren’t entirely on board either.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner repeated her own announcement that Labour would “close tax loopholes” that benefit private schools.

Meanwhile, some of Labour’s most powerful affiliated unions—the GMB and Unite—are nervous about the new climate policies.

Conference backed a Green New Deal, with a target to decarbonise the economy in 11 years. The GMB openly opposed the deadline, arguing its members working for energy sectors would lose their jobs. Instead, it backed another motion without a deadline.

Unite backed both motions, claiming there was no contradiction. The divisions mean many policies won’t make it into Labour’s next manifesto.

The manifesto isn’t simply party policy. It’s drawn up ahead of an election at a special meeting.

Shadow ministers, union leaders and other delegates can pick and choose which policies they like, water them down or even completely disregard them. So getting policy passed at Labour’s conference is one thing. Whether it ends up in Labour’s manifesto—or being implemented by a future government—are different.


Less than a day after conference supported free movement, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott had backtracked on it.

Meanwhile, it was a bad week for deputy leader Tom Watson.

He arrived at conference in full pomp, having seen off a bureaucratic attempt to depose him by Momentum founder Jon Lansman.

This was supposed to be the moment he broke Labour’s membership from Corbyn, gambling that they would choose remaining in the European Union (EU) over backing their leader.

It backfired. In a battle between Watson and Corbyn, the members backed Corbyn.

Corbyn’s conference speech posed Labour’s position—negotiate a deal then have a referendum—as a way to unite working class Leave and Remain supporters.

Yet before a referendum Labour will have to decide whether it backs its own Brexit deal or Remain.

There’s space for the right to push Corbyn into backing the Remain demanded by big business.

And the Brexit deal that Corbyn said he would seek—a close relationship with the neoliberal single market—is far too close to the status quo.

More worryingly Labour doesn’t want a general election until a no-deal Brexit is “off the table”.

So having geared party members up with what was effectively an election campaign speech, Corbyn is avoiding one.

But many party members agree that the way to beat the Tories is to get away from Brexit. “It’s getting back to the 2017 election,” Rachel told Socialist Worker.

“If we campaign like that and move away from Brexit, people will probably be tempted to vote Labour.”

Labour could win with an insurgent campaign that focuses on class issues.

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