He made for pugilistic and theatrical Labour conferences – something we may not get this year, writes Andrew Whitaker
IN the days ahead it’s highly likely that we’ll hear how Jeremy Corbyn is facing a fractious first Labour conference as party leader when the annual event opens in Brighton this weekend.
Doubtless we’ll be told by Corbyn’s detractors that a stormy conference by the seaside is on the cards for the new Labour leader with metaphorical blood on the walls of the conference hall as the party rips itself apart.
Historically Labour has had its fair share of drama at party conferences, some of which made for great political theatre and for the most part were unrivalled by proceedings at the Tory and Lib Dem annual gatherings.
For high drama involving Labour by the sea think of Neil Kinnock’s onslaught against the left-wing Militant Tendency when he denounced the group’s activities on Liverpool council as “grotesque” while its leadership figure Derek Hatton shouted “lies” from a sedentary position back at the Labour leader at the 1985 party conference in Bournemouth.
The left-wing politician Eric Heffer even stormed off the conference platform in response to what proved to be a decisive move by Kinnock to oust Militant - which for a time had three MPs, controlled Liverpool council and ran Labour’s youth wing - from the party.
But just how likely is it that Corbyn will preside over a week of bloodletting next week with the very public spectacle of senior party figures trading blows in a similar fashion? Given the dramatic few weeks and months Labour has had it’s a racing certainty that next week proceedings in Brighton will be lively and perhaps be the most interesting UK party conference in many a year.
But a critical difference between Corbyn’s conference next week and the battles of yesteryear are that the old clashes were largely pre-planned and of a set piece variety with the protagonists ready with sleeves rolled up and fists clenched. Labour’s conferences in the early 1980s were probably the ones most severely gripped by internecine warfare in the party’s history, but a crucial point to remember is that there were radical changes being debated during those gatherings.
Moves to change the way Labour elected its leader, with the removal of the monopoly Labour MPs had on such a decision, and the introduction of the right to deselect sitting MPs were just two of the items on conference agendas in the early 1980s.
There were also radical policy positions embraced by the party in that period such as the adoption of a unilateral position on nuclear disarmament and backing for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Community.
Such seismic changes took place against the backdrop of the creation of the SDP. The right-wing split from Labour led by the so-called gang of four of Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers had been long years in the making, with some of the 28 Labour MPs who defected to the new centrist party facing deselection battles in their local Labour branches.
It’s true that Corbyn’s overwhelming election as Labour leader has not gone down well with the Parliamentary Labour Party, with senior frontbenchers refusing to serve in his frontbench team - a move described by veteran Labour moderate Roy Hattersley as “self-indulgent nonsense”.
However, despite attempts by the Tories and Lib Dems to spin otherwise, there is no sign of defections from Labour’s parliamentary ranks, even from those who suggested during the febrile atmosphere of the leadership contest that disgruntled MPs could begin moves quite quickly to oust Corbyn. Also Labour’s conference agenda for next week does not even remotely come close to resembling that of the early 1980s, with no controversial votes on overhauling the party planned, although a number of local constituency parties have tabled motions opposing Trident.
The fact that Corbyn was elected less than a fortnight ago clearly lends itself to such a situation, but the point remains that there is nothing obvious to have a set-piece dust-up over on the conference floor whatever hype there may be in the days ahead.
To return to Labour’s famous battle royals, the successful introduction of one member one vote for the selection of parliamentary candidates by the late John Smith at the 1993 party conference in Brighton came after a tense summer for the then party leader.
The decision to abandon Labour’s backing for unilateral nuclear disarmament at the party’s 1989 conference, again in Brighton, under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, was also the culmination of lengthy rows, not least because of the former leader’s past links to CND.
Labour conferences were also repeatedly gripped by rows over nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s in long-running battles between unilateralists and multilateralists.
So much so that at the 1960 Labour conference in Scarborough, the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell vowed to “fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love” after party members voted against his wishes to back a position of unilateralist disarmament.
The legendary left-wing Labour politician Aneurin Bevan even accused supporters of unilateralism of an “emotional spasm” at Labour’s conference in 1959 in Blackpool after shifting his own position on the nuclear weapons issue.
Another factor is that the UK Labour conference is not the event it once was in terms of power and policy-making.
Although in practice Labour leaders down the years regularly ignored party policy positions voted on by the conference, in principle at least the Labour conference was the supreme policy-making body of the party with decisions meant to be binding on the leadership and with a Labour government in theory the agent of it.
However, particularly during the New Labour years and the ascendancy of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, the significance of conference decisions were downgraded somewhat.
Paradoxically, Blairite moves to gut the party of internal democracy make it hard for a real challenge to the authority of Corbyn at least this time around, although it may be that conference will take on a more powerful role and be democratised once again under the new leader.