This week’s Labour conference was rooted in the past, and simultaneously looked to the future. By past, I mean 2014, when Labour last seriously contemplated imminent office. Whether or not it’s a realistic proposition, the (minute) possibility of a general election did concentrate minds. Not for everyone: there were still plenty of people prepared only to look at things through a what-does-this-mean-for-Jeremy lens. And no political conference would be worth its salt without a big bust-up. But as well as the inward-looking arguments about deselection Labour is scratching around trying to have a proper debate on what Brexit means. And once you get beyond the (quite legitimate) attempts to secure political advantage you see some interesting discussion about what brings Britain back together again. I have yet to see that debate at the Liberal Democrats let alone the Tories: the Liberal Democrats are still in mourning and the Conservatives have their energy sapped by the ERG on one side and the cheerleaders for the narcissist oaf Johnson on the other. (Though I will pitch up in Birmingham longing to be proved wrong.)
It’s quite possible for a single conference to have many realities. Online I read that Luciana Berger’s police protection didn’t actually exist and was part of a smear etc. This was news to me as I had said hello to them in the exhibition hall and they confirmed who they were and what they were doing. And there are plenty of people who oppose any attempts to get to grip with anti-semitism. But the two largest and sustained bouts of applause I personally witnessed were at two separate fringes: one where a passionate case was made that Labour should tackle anti-semitism not because it was affecting the party’s electoral ambitions but because there was a moral imperative to do so, and one to Ms Berger herself. I always attend the Progress rally as it’s a good place to compare the mood in Conference year-on-year: numbers were low but the speakers repledged their loyalty to Labour. Presumably the new centrist party won’t count this year’s attendees among their numbers, but like Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced I’m trying to work out who wasn’t there.
The NEC is looking to clip the wings of an Acting Leader, should Jeremy Corbyn need to stand down for whatever reason. Had this policy been in place in 2015 I wonder whether Corbyn would have been elected at all: it’s unlikely that a NEC-controlled Acting Leader would have made Harriet Harman’s calamitous mistake to whip MPs to abstain on Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Act which among other things allowed Corbyn to showcase his authenticity over blind obedience to the whip and was the source for the surge in his campaign. Even now there are those who say that MPs supported the Act and even though that was never the case (the party voted against at Third Reading) it was interesting to hear Wes Streeting say that this was a moment where the party forgot who it was and what it stood for.
Liverpool 2018 saw the return to Labour conference of many organisations that had not in 2015-2017 seen the sense in spending money to be part of the background for internal squabbles. This meant a lively set of fringe events. Some excellent discussions looked at subjects from young volunteering to skills, wealth creation to housing and examined the personal impact of big-picture policy change. It was what you look for from Conference: personal testimony that makes you think differently and question your assumptions.
What this conference’s legacy will be is hard to judge. The Conservatives saw Corbyn’s Brexit offer as the clever trap it was. But this was the kind of conference – passionate on one hand, serious and sober on the other – that an opposition aspiring to government should have. What happens next is anyone’s guess.