This time last year the Labour Party headed to its conference in Manchester hoping it would act as a springboard into a successful General Election campaign that would see Ed Miliband moving in to Number 10.
What a difference a year makes.
The party now heads to Brighton led by a left-wing MP of 32 years standing who has never previously held a frontbench post. He is supported by a Shadow Chancellor whom many regard as even further to the left than the leader. Many of those who had hoped now to be occupying some of the top jobs around the Cabinet table have instead found themselves on the opposition backbenches. And even amongst those ‘moderates’ who have decided to serve under Corbyn, many are openly contradicting the positions set out by their new leader and Shadow Chancellor.
Whatever other problems Labour currently faces, at least their conference won’t be dull.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have not enjoyed the easiest of starts to their tenure as the two most senior figures on the Labour benches. From rows over national anthems and the IRA to difficulties in assembling a Shadow Cabinet and policy disagreements on sensitive topics such as NATO and Trident, the early signs are that the Corbyn leadership will have a tough job in rising above the daily battle with negative headlines.
For Corbyn and his allies, conference will provide an opportunity to draw a line under the rocky start to his leadership and connect again with the grassroots of the party that swept Corbyn to the top job. His leader’s speech will be an opportunity to speak directly not just to the party but to the country and try to set out his positive vision for reforming both.
But if conference provides an opportunity for the new leader, so too it poses a threat. Firstly, Corbyn-sceptics will set a high bar for him to clear – they will expect him to deliver a ‘proper’ leader’s speech and to oversee a conference that does not make Labour look like it is in meltdown. Failure to live up to these standards will give fresh ammunition to those who want to see Corbyn removed from office sooner rather than later.
Secondly, conference provides ample scope for potential rebels to begin making their own voices heard, both in public in the conference fringes, and in private in the conference bars. By the time we leave Brighton we may well have a clearer idea of who the leaders of ‘the resistance’ are likely to be.
Away from the personality politics at the top of the party there are a number of serious policy conversations which look set to dominate many of the fringe events. In particular, anyone looking for events centring on the EU referendum and Labour’s positioning around EU reform will not be short of options. Many of those who opted not to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet indicated a clear desire to play a leading role in the Labour ‘In’ campaign and they will use conference as an opportunity to set out their stalls in this regard.
What is clear is that this is set to be one of the most fascinating Labour Party conferences in many years.
Labour can only hope it is not fascinating for all the wrong reasons.