I’ve been coming to Labour Party conference for more than a decade. It was my geeky political dream to be a Labour adviser and I always loved conference. It was like attending a family wedding. A lot of drinking, a lot of drama, embarrassing relatives but a lot of love.
In many ways, nothing appeared to have changed that much this year. The same old faces were still rushing along the Brighton sea front to fringe meetings or queuing at the bars in the wee hours. But the truth is, everything has changed – especially for us moderates in the Labour Party.
Once, centrist MPs were treated like political heroes and couldn’t move for party members stopping them to shake hands or get a photo. Now they roam free, all lonely without their entourage and no one bothers them anymore apart from to ask for directions to the Momentum festival. A former Cabinet minister quipped that back in the day, he would sweep past the small groups of angry protesters waving placards against the leadership – now he is one of those people.
I used to have an “access all areas” pass which allowed me into the main conference hall and even go backstage. As I tried to enter the hall one of the once-friendly stewards stopped me and looked at my pass. “Sorry, you’re not allowed in here – you’re in the cheap seats upstairs,” he said. “But I used to be able to sit in the hall,” I protested. “Not anymore love.”
When I got to the balcony, I saw MPs and former government ministers huddled at the back. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
My final insult was getting an email saying I had not been successful in my application to get a ticket to watch Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. I didn’t even apply for one! You have to admit, that is top trolling. I then got abused at a fringe meeting where some horrid, aggressive bloke yelled at me, demanding I make a public apology for ever doubting the great leader.
I explained that I had eaten humble pie – what more did he want? That I crawl over broken glass? That I be flogged in public? His nasty face lit up like a Christmas tree – clearly he wanted both! To be fair, Shami Chakrabati who was also on the panel was horrified and took him to task immediately.
Jeremy Corbyn didn’t win the election but he won his party lock, stock and barrel and smashed his internal opponents to smithereens. To the victor, the spoils. In politics that means controlling the policy agenda, the party machine and the rule book. We are seeing fundamental rule changes being voted on which will lower the amount of support a future leadership candidate needs from MPs to get on the ballot paper. This is to ensure that Corbyn’s successor can be from the left. I get why the left wanted this rule change but I’m not sure it was needed as the psychology and heart of the Labour party is shifting left anyway.
If anything, by the time there is a leadership challenge – which won’t happen for a while – the right or moderate wing of the party will actually be in the minority and this change could ironically help get a centrist on the ballot paper. Not that they would win.
If the moderates want to win back the party, they need to do more than fight the machine. They need to understand why so many Labour members, and indeed the public, like what Corbyn has to say and do more than simply slag him off.
There needs to be an understanding that the context of politics and social attitudes has shifted from the days of Tony Blair and even Gordon Brown. People have grown tired of austerity which hasn’t worked. People don’t feel the economy works for them or their family. Wages have been frozen for many people since the crash ten years ago. People are sick of more of the same from politicians which is why what Corbyn offered felt so appealing, especially the young.
Yes, there were eye-catching policies like scrapping tuition fees but there was something more – there was some hope and having had almost ten years of pretty brutal, downbeat political rhetoric, something which offered a positive vision had understandable appeal.
Of course, the question is whether people will put their trust in Corbyn as Prime Minister and whether he has the solutions to the big problems facing the country at a time when there isn’t a huge amount of money and we are about to leave the EU.
What I found particularly interesting about this conference was the number of businesses who had come to find out more about what a potential Corbyn government could look like. Many are fearful of Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell but they are starting to take them seriously and I think the rest of the party has to as well, even if they may not like or agree with them.
Labour moderates need to find a way to do more than simply rage against the machine. We need an exciting, radical, positive vision for the future and a potential leader who has empathy and kindness as well as intellectual prowess. But not for a while yet.
Politics is like comedy – everyone laughs at you – and timing is everything. I’m afraid we moderates face a long, lonely, chilly exile in which to ponder the scale of our defeat.