The weirdest thing about Labour conference? No one even seemed up for a proper fight

Away from the punchier The World Transformed, the main feeling at conference was of a group of people waiting for something to happen

September 25, 2019
Delegates arrive in bad weather for the Labour Party Conference. Photo: PA
Delegates arrive in bad weather for the Labour Party Conference. Photo: PA

Between Sunday and Wednesday, the weather in Brighton was odd. It was windy and wet but also close and a bit humid, like a summer’s day stuck inside a winter’s storm. It was occasionally awful, then surprisingly pleasant for a few glorious minutes, but mostly it was overbearing in its ominousness.

Labour party conference, which took place in Brighton between Sunday and Wednesday, was largely similar. You never quite knew what was coming next, but you were always conscious of the fact that something probably was on its way.

If newspaper coverage of the gathering made it sound like a mass brawl—between Remainers and Brexit-sceptics, Corbyn’s friends and his foes, or whoever else—it did not feel like it on the ground.

The attempted removal of Tom Watson right before the jaunt did create some sparks, but they were short-lived; mostly, by Sunday, people either felt that the idea had been good but the timing poor, or the idea poor but the failure hilarious.

Similarly, the mess that was Monday’s Brexit votes could have provoked outright outrage in another world—it was, after all, a classic conference floor stitch-up—but the response was largely subdued.

After all, fudging procedure to get the result the leadership wants is a proud Labour party tradition, and it only seemed fair for this leadership team to get in on the fun.

When people told you they disagreed with what had happened, you could tell that they were going through the motions because they felt they had to; emotions, for the most part, were not running high.

It also did not help that the whole place felt empty. As anyone who has been to a party conference will know, trying to get a round in at the hotel bar usually involves queuing for a lifetime and a half, then being wholly unable to find the people you had gone to buy drinks for in the first place.

This year, it was possible to get served at both the Grand and the Hilton without feeling like you may die of old age in the process—which should have been welcome but left you feeling unsettled.

Perhaps it was people on the harder left having permanently decamped to The World Transformed down the road, or perhaps it was the fact that most MPs and assorted Corbynsceptic travellers did not bother coming down.

In any case, it did feel like no-one’s heart was really into it, and everyone was waiting for something (good or bad) to happen so the usual bickering could resume, but it never did—all foreplay and no fighting.

The logical conclusion of it all was for something huge to happen elsewhere, and the Supreme Court merrily obliged by blowing a hole in Boris Johnson’s week on Tuesday morning.

Though everyone felt the need to stay for the leader’s speech, hastily moved from Wednesday morning to that afternoon, there was a feeling that it had all ended by lunchtime, before proceedings had even really started.

Corbyn’s keynote was warmly received then forgotten a few hours later, and most journalists scuppered back to London as soon as they could. After all, who can blame them? Over the past few years, they have had to cover explosive Labour conferences and shambolic ones; they’ve had to talk to furious members and jubilant ones, and have been privy to vicious rows and shameless plotting.

They have witnessed the party go through all the stages of grief on one side, while the other went through the perilous highs and lows of learning how to lead. This should have been the conference of a party in a state of relative equilibrium—done with its messy teenage years and ready for government—and maybe that is what it was.

Maybe that was as good and united as this iteration of the Labour party was ever going to get; a party where the factions still don’t really like each other but don’t have the energy for trench warfare, and where people mostly turn up because they feel they should.

Some whispered in the bars that these were the dying days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and maybe that is really what was going on; exhausted by the chaos of the past few years and gearing up for the chaos about to unfold, everyone loitered by the seaside and caught their breath.

It wasn’t the best of times and it wasn’t the worst of times; it was three days in Brighton and it was just a bit damp.