UK Politics

A Tale Of Two Conferences – The Labour Party in Liverpool

Barely twenty-four hours after Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour’s leader, party general-secretary Iain McNicol – suspected by some Corbynites of attempting to rig the leadership election – took the stage to deliver his annual report to the party conference. Someone at the back of the hall shouted ‘Resign’.

It was an inauspicious start to a conference that was supposed to showcase a reunited Labour Party. On the platform in the main hall, speaker after speaker stressed the need for a united party. Veteran MP Paul Flynn said the past twelve months should be buried in a concrete tomb, never to be unearthed. Moderate MPs queued up to announce that they had no intention of leaving the party. Many used the words of the late Jo Cox – so tragically, brutally murdered in June – to sum up their theme: ‘We have more in common than that which divides us.’

Sitting in the conference hall, you could almost believe it.

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Outside, however, at fringe meetings and receptions, and in quiet conversations in the corridors of Liverpool’s ACC, the wounds of the leadership election had not even begun to heal. A National Executive Committee member described the Parliamentary Labour Party as ‘scumbags’; a trade union leader openly derided Corbyn’s electoral chances; a group of moderate party members, finding John McDonnell sitting at the table next to them, heckled him with a chorus of Things Can Only Get Better.

Worse for Corbyn himself was his appearance at the London regional reception. He arrived to lacklustre applause, and the attendees proceeded to talk throughout his speech. After Ed Miliband’s election in 2010, audiences had listened respectfully, even cheerfully, to his speeches at these regional receptions. As Corbyn rambled through a speech about housing and education that was more suited to one of his rallies, he wasn’t even heckled. He was simply ignored.

But perhaps the starkest example of the party’s latent split was the physical divide between the moderate wing at the official conference and the Corbynite wing at the parallel Momentum conference, held in the Black-E, an old community centre about a mile away.

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Here, a much younger crowd had decorated the interior with various socialist banners, demanding justice for Liverpool dockers or victims of police brutality. At the Corbyn victory party on the Saturday night, music was mixed with earnest poetry and speeches denouncing Blairites and claiming to have beaten an establishment plot. One woman read a statement that began ‘In 1997, there was nothing to choose between Labour and the Tories.’ I wondered if they had short memories, or just revisionist ones.

Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis dropped in to make a speech, sleeves rolled up and working the crowd like a rock star. ‘This is where the real action is,’ he said, taking off his conference pass. He and his fellow MPs may have preached unity on the conference stage, but in front of the Momentum crowd he was more bullish. ‘We’ve taken a step towards them, but they’ve got to take a step towards us,’ he said. Hostilities, it seemed, were still ongoing.

Between the banners, the young crowd and the eclectic music, it reminded me of a student occupation, all watched over by a likeness of Jeremy Corbyn emblazoned with the word ‘Socialism’. The attendees seemed to agree. One Momentum activist told me, ‘It’s so much better than the corporate Labour Party over there.’

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He had a point, the official conference was a bit corporate. Delegates spent their evenings flitting between events, scoffing the free – and decidedly non-Labour – food (polenta crutons, grissini wrapped in parma ham), trying to blag more free wine or lying their way into invite-only receptions. But if it was corporate, it was also practical. Fringe events talked about hard – if occasionally dry – policy issues like planning, housing and cybercrime. In contrast, Momentum’s talks were often abstract and esoteric with titles like ‘Citizens’ Collective Creativity and the Renewal of Socialist Economics’ and ‘Radical Municipalism in Europe’.

Perhaps the physical division was in some ways helpful. Most Corbynites stayed at the Black-E, limiting the chances for aggressive confrontation. Indeed, one conference delegate told me he hadn’t met a single person who had voted for Corbyn. Nevertheless, it was clear that for all the talk of unity in the main hall, there is real hatred between the two wings of the party and little real desire for reconciliation. The separation of the two conferences only underlined the seemingly irreparable damage done to the party over the last twelve months.

On the Saturday night, I left the Momentum victory celebrations and joined the moderates at the LGBT Labour party on the other side of the town centre. When I arrived, they were playing Things Can Only Get Better. It was a cruel irony. Things are going to get a lot worse.

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