Labour heads to Brighton in better spirits than could have been imagined before Theresa May called June’s General Election. Having surpassed expectations in that contest, Jeremy Corbyn finds himself with greater job security than at any time in his leadership. And for the first time, his claims to be at the helm of a government-in-waiting do not sound entirely far-fetched.
Clearly, it is not just Corbyn and his supporters who feel this way. After taking a pass for a couple of years, the business community is flocking back to Labour in big numbers. The Times reported last month that corporate attendance is up by more than 50 per cent on last year with almost 3,000 people set to attend, representing 1,800 companies. One party source was quoted as saying that business is “knocking the door down” to meet with Labour.
This reflects the new reality of electoral politics in Britain: we need to expect the unexpected and prepare for all eventualities. There is much that the business community did not like about Labour’s election manifesto, but ignoring Corbyn and co is no longer an option – their grip over Labour has strengthened and the polls continue to show the party riding high. If an election comes along sooner than we currently expect, Labour may well start as favourites.
But even without an election on the near horizon, Labour’s capacity to influence has increased. The Conservatives loss of an overall majority and newfound reliance on the DUP means that the Opposition is empowered. If Labour can make common cause with even small numbers of Tory rebels on particular issues, they will be able to force concessions from Ministers. Party conference should deliver some real insights into where Shadow Ministers and Labour backbenchers see such opportunities and over what issues they will be looking to frustrate the Government.
The business contingent will also be on the look out for clarity on Labour’s latest lines on Brexit. The party’s stance certainly seems to have ‘softened’ since the election but, much like on the Government side, it appears to be something of a moving feast. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has pushed Labour towards supporting Single Market membership during the transition period, but what remains less clear is where they stand on long-term Single Market membership. Corbyn recently declared himself “open to discussion” on this question, only for his spokesperson to shut this down an hour later. A motion due to be debated at conference calling for unfettered free movement to continue may be significant in determining where the party ultimately ends up on this question, with conference still an important policymaking body within Labour.
It will also be interesting to see whether Labour can emerge from conference with the veneer of unity which has been maintained since the election intact. Party conferences are notorious for behind the scenes plotting and there is usually someone looking to make a name for themselves with a high-profile intervention. While most Corbyn critics have kept their heads down in recent months, conference may be the moment some of them choose to come back out of the woodwork. Debate over the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’ – which would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot in future leadership contests – could be the catalyst for this.
Whatever happens, this is likely to be the liveliest and most upbeat Labour conference for a number of years. The business community is right not to miss it.