Cavendish Labour Party Conference preview 2018

As the Labour Party prepares to descend on Liverpool next week for its annual party conference, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership face a number of disparate but equally important issues as they seek to establish themselves as a credible alternative to a Conservative Government which remains dominated by its perceived mishandling of the Brexit negotiations.

At a national level, Labour has yet to clearly pin down its own position – other than its “six tests” for the deal – on what a future ‘Lexit’ would look like should the opportunity to gatecrash the Tory Brexit bandwagon present itself. Controversial plans will also be up for discussion which would make it easier for Labour members to deselect sitting MPs, the grassroots Momentum group having said that the vast majority of delegates attending next week support their proposals for mandatory reselection where MPs have to stand in open contests in order to run again for a seat.

It’s also likely that the continued internal fracas over allegations of anti-Semitism will rumble on. The issue heavily impacted the Party’s performance in local government elections in May when Labour failed to take targeted seats from Tory control due to the allegations.

It is clear that the effervescent issue of Brexit looks set to dominate the conference hall. The sheer number of motions submitted – earlier this week over 150 Bexit-related motions were submitted by local Labour parties – will mean the Party is all but bound to accept Brexit as the major topic of debate at conference.

Several motions are calling for either a general election or a fresh public vote on the final Brexit deal, with Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan also calling for another vote on Brexit earlier this week. It now appears that there is a large ground swell of support amongst Party members for a “people’s vote” on the final deal, with template motions drafted by a number of grassroots groups, including the leftwing Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a People’s Vote and the student group FFS (For our Future’s Sake).

All this will continue to increase the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, who has refused to rule out the idea, but has consistently said that it is not Labour policy to support a fresh referendum.

MP selections
Of other issues likely to dominate in Merseyside, one of the most contentious issues facing delegates in Liverpool will be whether conference will back what is called “mandatory reselection” – under which MPs wanting to stand at another election would have to face full selection contests that would be open to other candidates. Critics of the plan say it would leave MPs too vulnerable to purges, while supporters insist it would ensure the views of local members and MPs are aligned, and be a big step towards a truly democratic, member-led party.

A number of senior Labour politicians have already expressed concerns about the proposals, warning that it would draw attention away from Westminster if Labour MPs had to fight for reselection in every election cycle. The issue is so sensitive to many in the Party that both Team Corbyn and Unite, which wields a large section of the vote at conference, have yet to publicly declare their support for the idea. Importantly, it looks like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has decided that he does not support mandatory re-selection, one of a range of issues where he is subtly adopting different positions from the leader.

Democracy review
Another likely controversial issue will be the Democracy review proposals, which will be sent to conference for approval by delegates. The Party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee, was scheduled to meet on Tuesday and again on the Saturday night before conference opens to agree on the draft amid a number of controversial proposals.

This includes the future system under which leadership elections will be conducted – whilst a large number of submissions by members favours a system that would make it easier for left-wingers to make the ballot in the event Jeremy Corbyn steps down, the most recent proposals sees any candidate still requiring the nomination of 10% of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as well as 5% of CLPs and at least three affiliate organisations (which includes Trade Unions). Momentum had previously advocated for a model under which the candidate could chose whether he/she would seek either 10% of either the PLP, the membership or the Unions to make the ballot.

The new proposals will put the Momentum-endorsed left-wingers on the NEC in a difficult position, as the new compromise is seen as Trade Union leaders flexing their muscles. Whilst Momentum and grassroot members often advocate for member-let democracy and systems such as “One Member One Vote”, Trade Unions are reluctant to give up the electoral college and therefore their power. Union leaders were reportedly unhappy about the high threshold for their section in the 10-10-10 model advocated by Momentum. This is yet another indication of the existing – and widening – differences between the new Corbynite left and the older Trade Union generation.

Labour leadership
Divisions also remain at the Labour top table. Many were surprised Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson was denied a prominent speaking spot at conference, later announcing he would break from convention by opting not to speak from the main stage in Liverpool. Watson announced he would instead address party activists at a fringe event rather than making a traditional conference hall speech alongside other senior party figures.

The Labour Deputy Leader had been vocal in his disapproval of the Party’s handling of antisemitism allegations that have dogged Labour over the summer and his omission from the conference agenda has prompted speculation that he was being rebuked over criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn. Sadiq Khan is another notable omission from the conference agenda at a time when the Party needs to have its ‘heavy hitters’ on side to broaden the Party’s electoral appeal.

Next stop, Liverpool
Overall Labour Party conference promises to be a very different affair this year from the jubilation which greeted the last conference in Brighton following a better than expected general election campaign. At that point Jeremy Corbyn claimed he’d be in Downing Street within months and told the party faithful that Labour were a government in waiting.

This year promises to be a much more fiery affair and if Labour wants to retain its ambitions for power then its crucial that the Party looks to address the deep divisions over Brexit, the handling of antisemitism complaints and the potentially destabilising cycle of mandatory reselection processes.