Is he engaged in a lasting strategic move away from his past, or just making short-term tactical concessions?by Peter Kellner / September 28, 2015 / Leave a comment
An easy cliché for starting a commentary is to say that such-and-such a person or institution is at a crossroads. In my sporadic attempts to avoid clichés, it’s a metaphor I try to avoid. But sometimes it really does sum things up. Writing this blog at Labour’s conference in Brighton, I am observing a party that truly is at a crossroads.
In the fortnight since Jeremy Corbyn won his stunning victory, he has chosen, or been forced, to temper positions he has held for more than three decades, on issues ranging from Europe to Trident, from wearing a red poppy to singing the national anthem. But the big question is not really being asked, and certainly not answered: is Corbyn engaged in a lasting strategic move away from his hard-left past, or is he simply making short-term tactical concessions while he builds up his power base inside the party?
We know that most MPs and many members of his shadow cabinet are appalled that he is leader at all. And, on the opening day of conference, his declared wish to hold a debate on the future of Trident was rejected by delegates. This rebuff looks especially significant, for Corbyn keeps telling us that he wants to restore conference’s power to determine party policy. Could it be that conference, far from egging Corbyn on to ever more left-wing policies, will act as a moderating influence now and for years to come?
I’m not so sure. This year’s delegates reflect the party as it was when Corbyn was seen, not least by himself, as a no-hope outsider. They were chosen before the summer break and, in the case of constituency delegates, by local activists whose ranks had not yet been swollen by men and women who joined up to vote in the leadership election.
Future conferences could be very different. The hard left will dominate many, perhaps most, local constituencies. They may well choose different delegates, and vote for different candidates for Labour’s national executive and other, normally obscure, bodies such as the Conference Arrangements Committee. Corbyn will have far more levers of party power in his hands than he does today. These will include the possibility of deselecting MPs who openly oppose him. He says he has no intention of kicking anyone out—but the coming boundary changes mean that the great majority of MPs will have to go through local contests to retain their position as candidates in 2020. If Corbyn stands by and does nothing, a number of MPs could well be turfed out by their local parties. Corbyn needs positively to protect them.
Which brings us back to the crossroads. Will Corbyn’s Labour Party choose to endorse all the causes that the leader has espoused throughout his parliamentary career, or seek a genuine compromise with the party’s more recent, moderate past? The first will alienate millions of voters—but the second will upset tens of thousands of party activists. Which does Corbyn want—and will he get what he wants? This year’s conference isn’t telling us. Next year’s might.