With everyone focussed on Labour’s announcement of the leadership election result on 12 September it is easy to forget that just two weeks later the party will assemble in Brighton for Annual Conference.
In between, the new leader will presumably have had to assemble a Shadow Cabinet, though it is not 100% clear whether this will be appointed as it has been since Ed Miliband persuaded the PLP to waive its traditional power to elect it in 2011, or whether the PLP might seek to reassert its right to elect the Shadow Cabinet.
This looks like being the most volatile and divided Annual Conference since the debate on introducing One Member One Vote in 1993. Whoever is elected leader and their team will have a huge job of political management to turn the focus towards any kind of positive launchpad and critique of the government and avoid it just being an inquest into the General Election defeat and a continuation of the infighting seen in the leadership election.
Who will be at conference? The obvious point is that it represents a radically different set of people to the far larger electorate that has just been participating in the leadership elections. The “registered supporters” are not represented at all, and nor are the influx of new full members who joined after the General Election. Many CLPs will have elected their delegates before the election and certainly before “Corbyn-mania” started. There is no reason to suspect that the CLP delegates, who hold 50% of the votes, will be any different in political complexion to previous years, when they have a fairly strong record of giving majority backing to the moderate wing of the party on internal elections and other key votes. Quite a lot of CLPs won’t have sent a delegate on the basis of cost and the assumption not much of any excitement was going to happen! The remaining 50% of votes are held by trade unions and other affiliates, giving them about one and two thirds times the influence they have in the leadership ballot. The union delegates are there to do a job of work – to vote in line with the policy book of positions determined at their own policy conferences, and to ensure their union’s voice is heard in debates that matter to their members. Where they have any flexibility, the leaders of union delegations will do pragmatic deals, trading their block of votes with the leader’s office for other policy or selection concessions.
Voting delegates are of course a small minority of the people physically present at the conference. If Jeremy Corbyn wins I would expect rather a lot of the habitual visitors from the other wing of the party, including ex-officious delegates such as MPs, councillors, and parliamentary candidates (the people who stood in May and lost are technically still entitled to attend) will decide they can have a more fun week at work than at the conference, and the surplus of hotel space may be taken up by people who worked on the Corbyn campaign. I would expect numbers of commercial visitors (AKA lobbyists) to be down whatever the leadership outcome, as it will be at least five years time before Labour has a shot at influencing national policy. But I would expect the media to be there in force as there will be no shortage of gory “red on red” infighting stories to cover.
In terms of formal business the main focus will be the Parliamentary Report, the antiquated formal name by which the Leader’s Speech is known. All four of the leadership candidates have plenty of material to deliver, having spent months travelling the country giving hustings speeches, and will want to showcase the policy proposals they have been expounding to members, and presumably throw in some surprise announcements. They have a little bit longer to prepare than the three days Ed Miliband had between his Saturday election and Tuesday speech, but not much longer – only 16 days when an incumbent leader’s team will usually have spent the whole summer drafting, revising and rehearsing the speech. Whichever candidate wins, the themes may be remarkably similar – an emphasis on issues like the NHS and inequality where there is a broad consensus in the party, rather than on more divisive and contentious ones; an attempt to bind the wounds of the leadership contest and bring people back together; and an attempt to refocus on attacking the Tories.
The Deputy Leader’s speech comes on the final day and will have a dual purpose – to try to send delegates home with their morale boosted by a rousing knock-about speech; and to remind the party they elected two people this summer not one, without giving the media a “Labour split” story.
If the leader hasn’t had much time to prepare, the rest of the shadow cabinet will be in an even worse quandary. Either they will be giving speeches which are effectively job re-applications if the reshuffle hasn’t happened before conference, or they will have just had a couple of days to prepare if they are newly appointed. If Corbyn is leader the main focus will be the performance of any ideological soulmates he has brought in, and on whether any bigger guns who stay on from the previous team choose to subtly signal the extent to which they are reconciling themselves – or not – to the new leader’s approach. With Ed Balls having lost his seat, this will be the first speech by a new Shadow Chancellor whatever happens, and this will be a big event in its own right as it will start to set out Labour’s new economic strategy.
The National Policy Forum process hasn’t restarted yet as we are at the start of the policy cycle, so a rather bland NPF Annual Report, including reports from the eight policy commissions on any meetings they have held or submissions they have considered, will be tabled, but expect the debate on this to provide a platform for both new MPs and defeated key seat candidates to try to make a national name for themselves with some pithy insights into why the voters in their constituency went the way they did.
The report on the General Election campaign and the General Secretary’s report will also give opportunities for venting of theories about whether we should target non-voters or Tory swing voters.
Labour’s Scottish and Welsh leaders and London Mayor candidate will get set piece speeches where they set out their stall for next May’s elections.
Up to eight topics can be debated as Contemporary Motions if the drafters successfully link their text to events which have happened since the end of July publication of the NPF Report, and get them voted through in the priority ballot. The four picked by the unions are usually about industrial, employment rights or economic matters. Sometimes CLPs pick an overlapping topic so fewer than eight topics are discussed, but the left will try to push four other topics. The left have not broken cover yet and published their model motions which they push around the country, but it makes sense that they would try to capitalise on Corbyn’s success by pushing some of his key policy demands around anti-austerity or opposition to benefit cuts or Trident renewal through conference so that if he has won he can claim some early policy mandates. CLPs will be debating what Contemporary Motions to submit at meetings either immediately before or immediately after the leadership result.
Emergency Motions may be accepted if they relate to an event that happens after the 17 September deadline for Contemporary Motions.
There is only one election involving CLP delegates this year, now that the Conference Arrangements Committee is elected by One Member One Vote. This is for a single seat on the National Constitutional Committee, which deals with complex disciplinary cases, and is a straight fight between the incumbent Judith Blake and the left’s Gary Heather.
A number of rule changes were submitted by CLPs in 2014 but only come up for debate this year having lain on the table for a year. The CAC has ruled most of these out as having been debated within the last three years as part of the Collins Review, but the left will challenge this at the start of conference and try to force a debate on them. The key things the left had been pushing through CLPs were to bring in a more robust re-selection process for MPs than the current trigger ballot of branches and local affiliates, to allow CLPs and affiliates to submit a rule change and a contemporary motion, not one or the other, and to allow conference to refer back parts of a policy document rather than the present acceptance or rejection of the whole thing.
There may be a fast move at the NEC by the left if Corbyn wins to capitalise on the disarray of their defeated opponents and both adopt the rule changes proposed by the CLPs as NEC backed and bring forward a more radical set of rule changes as NEC proposals and try to bounce these through conference with union support. These could cover areas such as easier de-selection of MPs (resurrecting the idea of “mandatory re-selection” where all MPs have to fight for re-selection in each cycle), reducing the power of the national party over shortlisting in by-elections late selections, giving affiliated members and registered supporters wider rights in relation to selections, extra NEC seats for CLPs, further rollout of OMOV (perhaps to cover election of conference delegates), and enhancing the resolutionary policy making powers of conference vis-a-vis the slow and consensus based NPF process, whilst allowing CLPs to submit amendments to NPF documents . Most – but not all – of these proposals have already been drafted and are on the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) website. If they wanted to be really dramatic this would be the time to propose a redraft to Clause IV of the party’s aims and values, as changed by Blair in 1995.
As is always the case, much of the most interesting debate at Labour Party Conference will take place not on conference floor but at fringe meetings. Given the tumultuous atmosphere I would expect some cracking fringe debates about why we lost in May and about how the losing and winning factions in the party respond to the leadership election. I would expect journalists to be swarming over any fringe meeting where an ex-Shadow Cabinet member speaks, looking for remarks that can be turned into stories, and turning up for the first time in years to the rallies and caucuses of the different ideological and factional groups. If Corbyn is leader even the dynamics of how delegates react to him when he tours the regional receptions to glad hand people will be newsworthy – let alone whether he follows convention and drops into speak at the receptions of groups he may not agree with on policy such as Labour Friends of Israel.
All in all it should be an exciting week – but probably not one that will generate many positive perceptions of the Labour Party.
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