Corbyn has brought party conference back to life
For all the faults of his conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn has achieved one very important thing: he brought party conference back to life. The Brighton centre is hosting the most exciting party conference for the last twenty years. There is debate – real, full-blooded political debate – everywhere. In the conference hall, the fringe, the bars, the hallways, the streets. Corbyn said he wanted to turn this place into a festival of politics and he has succeeded.
For years – since Tony Blair at least – conferences have been dead places. The decision-making power of members over party policy was stripped away. Campaigning and debate were replaced by something akin to a trade fair. Charities and lobby groups set up stands (not unlike the ones Politics.co.uk, I should probably mention, has all over this conference). Lobbyists prowled the corridors looking to secure a few minutes with a junior minister which they could write up to the boss to sound more impressive than it really is. Too many people with too many expense accounts clogged the bars. It had become a networking event and a fairly hideous one at that.
On top of the mechanics of conference, the deadening effect of rigidly-enforced centrism also stifled debate. Once Clause Four was scrapped, there were no more ideological arguments to be had. The big differences were settled. Fringe meetings involved a room full of people who already agreed on an issue – say penal reform or nature conservation – with four panel members who all agreed as well. It was as tedious as anything you'd ever seen.
Sometimes a Cabinet minister or shadow Cabinet minister would come along. But while it was clear party members could not influence policy, it was also clear Cabinet ministers couldn't influence the prime minister. The macho requirements of a party leader – a key to British political optics since Margaret Thatcher – meant power had been increasingly centralised to avoid embarrassments or perceptions of being 'weak'. It was centralised away from conference, away from parliament, and away even from the Cabinet table. The sense that anyone was being convinced of anything was lost.
Conference was not a talking shop. It was worse than that. It was a place for the troops to be marshalled, so they would diligently do their door-knocking and campaigning. But they were never to be listened to. In fact, they were to be routinely abused by the leadership. This was the great maxim of the media and political class, the idea that to be loved by the country you must be hated by your party. So the leader would demand obedience and then go off and spend their time sucking up to whatever paper represented the other end of the political spectrum. The political strategy is sound in the short term, but the loss of trust makes it toxic in the long term.
In just a few days, all of that has changed. Last night's Fabian event typified the new character of conference. On the anti-Corbyn side stood strategist John McTernan and ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie. On the pro-Corbyn side, to varying degrees, were Guardian commentator Ellie Mae O'Hagan and shadow women and equalities minister Kate Green. It was as exciting and explosive a fringe event as I've ever seen. All the panel acquitted themselves well, but the room tore itself apart. Even at a Fabian event, where one would expect the room to skew away from Corbyn, there were angry voices of despair at the path Labour had taken since Blair. There was also eloquently expressed anguish at the sense Corbynistas have no interest in getting Tory voters onside.
O'Hagan made the excellent point that Labour centrists had not stopped to ask themselves why so many people had voted for the new leader. They seemed terribly interested in the views of Tory voters, but not at all in the views of their own fellow members. McTernan at one point launched into a defence of his own long record of Labour activism and dared anyone to challenge his commitment to the party. It was properly dramatic stuff, more akin to a Ken Loach film than the usual tedium you get in the autumn.
At the heart of it was Green, who seemed as if she had encapsulated Labour's duelling tribes within herself. She began by admitting that it was strange for a front bench politician to be able to express themselves publicly. Corbyn's democratic project, after all, is not just for the conference hall, but also for the Cabinet table. He wants debate everywhere. She was learning to be comfortable with that.
Green spoke in a broadly supportive way of what Corbyn was doing and the passion he had sparked in Labour's new recruits, although she noted, in a manner which suggested she did not entirely agree, that his conference speech had not tried to speak to voters outside the hall and instead aimed to consolidate his support base.
— The Fabian Society (@thefabians) September 29, 2015
But it was when she defended Labour's record in government that the stresses and strains all came flooding out. She reeled off an impressive list of accomplishments – The Human Rights Act, tax credits, the minimum wage , all that – ever louder, ever faster, with the room applauding and protesting around her. For a moment it was as if she was caught up in some sort of religious ecstasy. I honestly thought she might cry. I'd never seen a front bencher behave that way before. There was real passion, real commitment there. It was extraordinary and even a little bit scary. But it was real politics, hot red blood flowing through the veins of the party conference. It was a room full of people fighting for the soul of their party.
It could not have been further removed from the charity stalls and stale fringes of the past. Whatever else he is doing, Corbyn's victory and his encouragement of a robust democratic culture have brought politics back to conference. It's no small achievement and one he deserves considerable credit for.
The Tory conference seems like a dark, turgid cloud on the horizon compared with the extraordinary event that is going on in Brighton today.