In Brighton, Labour’s so-called moderates have finally started to absorb the fact they’ve broken up with power—and don't seem to know what comes nextby Marie Le Conte / September 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour conference is often at its best in Brighton: the venues are all along the seafront, escaping to the beach for a short break is always an option, and the Grand and the Hilton hotels are both homes to genuinely pleasant bars.
After spending a day running from one fringe to the other and away from their hangovers, MPs, journalists and party members can hope to meet one another in these cosy rooms with lovely views, and let the mischief begin.
The last time conference ended up there was two years ago, barely a month after Jeremy Corbyn had first been elected. There was electricity in the air in those bars then, and every corner hosted its own plot on how to make sure the left-winger’s stay at the top would be limited.
A year later, the plotters met again in grey, windy and rainy Liverpool, and the atmosphere was leaden. The moderates had failed in their coup and were embarrassed about Owen Smith’s campaign; the Corbynites had won but were aware of the hard road in front of them. In those days, Theresa May seemed like an unassailable Tory messiah.
Now, another year has since passed, Emperor May has crumbled to dust, the Labour party far exceeded expectations in an election no-one was expecting—but something still isn’t quite right.
Away from the barnstorming speeches in the main hall and gleeful preparations for government down the road at Momentum’s festival, The World Transformed, the Hilton and the Grand have lost their soul.
A lot of Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs didn’t even bother turning up to conference, and most of those who did struggle to seem like their hearts really are into it.
Their reality is, after all, quite bleak: though some of them were pleasantly surprised not to lose their seats in May, it is unclear what their next steps should be.
Understandably unwilling to sack those who stuck by him, Corbyn didn’t go for the unifying reshuffle some were hoping for after the election, meaning that a lot of former frontbenchers with ambitions are now stuck in the wilderness for the foreseeable future.
Though the fury has subsided and the parliamentary party now seems vaguely united, a lot of Labour MPs are still sceptical of some of their leadership’s flagship policies, and doubtful that their platform really can win them an election.
Even if it does, it is unlikely that most of them will make it onto the cabinet—and given the recent internal rule changes, they cannot simply regain their status by manipulating the party machine.
Privately, there has also been anger at fringes of centrist groups like Progress and Labour First, who still seem hell bent on waging war against Jeremy Corbyn and his allies without offering much in way of an alternative.
This is, in a way, the source of the so-called moderates’ problems:they have run out of ideas. Out of power in the party for over two years, none of them has managed to come up with a credible centre-left platform to stand on.
While “anything but Corbyn” worked to an extent until the election, the party’s results, and apparent electability, means that they have lost the argument behind which they could hide to pretend their dearth of inspiration wasn’t an issue.
It is now a battle of ideas—and the party’s centre brought a damp squib to a knife fight.
So what about conference? To use a slightly tortured metaphor, the party’s anti-Corbyn faction was, in 2015, a person who had just been broken up with, but in denial and still full of desperate hope; lining up vodka shots on a night out while loudly shouting that everything was fine.
2016 was the moment it really hit that the relationship had come to an end. Texts from friends went ignored as they stayed at home watching TV on the couch, hiding under a duvet and surrounded by empty packets of crisps.
This year marks the last stage of the break-up arch, and they’ve ventured out into the world again— but they’re still getting caught in the pub with a blank stare, occasionally looking at the wall instead of listening to the table’s conversation.
Down by the seaside, these MPs and fellow travellers spoke at their fringes—the same ones they were speaking at the year before, and the year before that—had their drinks receptions and cosy dinners, and made peace with their own irrelevance.
The left of the party might have won the war and the right to run the show in Parliament, but for four days in the bars of the Grand and the Hilton, yesterday’s men and women got to enjoy their slowly bursting bubble for a bit longer.