For the second year in a row, Labour has spent the summer preoccupied with a leadership contest. At a time when, perhaps more than any other period in recent political history, it would be useful to have a robust Opposition, diligently holding the new government to account on its post-Brexit planning, Labour has instead been embroiled in an increasingly bitter battle for control of the party.
Barring a major upset (though we should never entirely rule those out these days), it seems Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader will be confirmed on the eve of Labour conference in Liverpool. That’s the same Jeremy Corbyn who secured the support of just 40 Labour MPs out of 230 in a confidence motion earlier this summer. And yet, if polling is to be believed (again, be careful!), he may in fact increase the size of his majority among the Labour selectorate this time around.
Viewed in this context, it is difficult to imagine this Labour Party conference being anything other than a highly introspective gathering. Assuming a Corbyn victory – and quite possibly a large one – talk at the conference will inevitably turn to what the more ‘centrist’ MPs will do next. Is a split inevitable? Or will they bide their time and have another go at ousting Corbyn next year? In a past life, Corbyn supported annual re-election for the Labour leader, so perhaps that would suit him down to the ground. But speculation about what the future holds for the party will almost certainly overshadow any discussion of more policy-orientated matters.
Despite efforts early in the campaign by Owen Smith to turn attention to the lack of detailed policy thinking under Corbyn’s leadership – Smith unveiled a list of 20 specific policy pledges in an attempt to play up this contrast between he and Corbyn – the leadership election has, inevitably, been more about big macro issues – party unity, Labour’s response to Brexit, prospects for electoral success – than policy minutiae.
Don’t expect this to change just because the leadership contest is over. Yes, there will be the usual crop of fringe events on a range of policy issues from financial services to manufacturing to health and social care – but, given that Labour has been without dedicated Shadow Ministers for many of these briefs for the past two months, there is unlikely to be much fully fleshed out thinking emerging from these. One of the biggest challenges Corbyn is going to have if re-elected is finding enough people willing to serve on his frontbench to ensure these vacancies can be filled and Labour can start making meaningful contributions in these areas again. Mutterings are beginning to emerge suggesting that some of the well-regarded ‘moderates’ such as Dan Jarvis and Keir Starmer may be prepared to accept jobs in Corbyn’s team in order to try and restore some semblance of party unity. It will be worth listening out for what signals they give out at conference in this respect.
But what if the unexpected happens and Smith pulls off an unlikely victory? While this would be a relief to many MPs, at least in the short term, it would also pose a whole series of difficult challenges of its own. Those members and supporters who have been supporting Corbyn vociferously at rallies and hustings events across the country will not simply disappear overnight and, accordingly, neither will the threat of de-selection currently hanging over many MPs. There is a real chance that, if Corbyn loses, many will feel the result has been ‘rigged’ against their man due to stories of people being summarily struck off the register without due cause. They may see de-selecting ‘disloyal’ MPs as appropriate retaliation. The alternative Momentum conference being in Liverpool to coincide with the main conference only serves to illustrate the divide between many Corbynistas and the party ‘establishment’.
It is clear that Labour is currently living through one of the most difficult moments in its history. If the expected Corbyn victory comes to pass, the gathering in Liverpool will be a glum one for most Labour MPs. The question is, will they stick around long enough for next year’s conference?
A version of this blog was originally published on New Model Adviser.