Written by David Button
The Labour Party’s members descended on Brighton this week in buoyant mood, a mood echoed by their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. For the first time since 2014 Labour held a conference that was not in the shadow of a leadership contest, and the Leader was finally able to revel in his victory knowing his position has never been safer.
The new incantation was of a 'Government-in-waiting', building on the members' claim to be the true victors of the 2017 General Election. They are ready to win the next election whenever that comes and until that time, while try to be the most effective Opposition that there can be.
Knowing your audience
The conference strap-line was ‘For the many, not the few’ – the title of the Labour manifesto and the mantra of the party since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The tone of the Leader’s Speech was, not surprisingly, valedictory in tone and spent a good deal of time praising the ‘movement’ that had been created. The figures are indeed impressive, with Labour now the biggest political party in Western Europe, but the commentariat’s response to the speech was that it was too insular for a PM-in-Waiting.
This remains Labour’s biggest problem. I attended conference this year and while I can confirm the mood was extremely buoyant amongst the membership and the party’s frontbenchers, it felt different to the last time I attended, back in 2014. The mood was no less buoyant – afterall, the party was also doing well in the polls and were expected to bring about a hung parliament at least at the next election.
But then-Leader, Ed Miliband was not heralded as the party’s saviour. No one, not even Tom Watson, sang ‘Oh Ed Miliband’ whenever he appeared. Labour were more points ahead in the polls ahead of the 2014 conference, according to YouGov, than they are now, but there were not stands in the conference hall selling Ed Miliband colouring books or scarves or carrying around paintings of him with a hailo.
That this is the case with the present Leader is not his doing – Mr Corbyn admitted this week that he often feels “deeply embarrassed” by the personality cult that has been created. And it is clear from the polls that his popularity has not extended beyond his core vote: damningly, ahead of his speech, YouGov’s ‘Who would make the best Prime Minister’ poll showed Mr Corbyn is 8 points behind Theresa May, despite her taking a battering during the election campaign, and actually comes third behind 'don't know'. From a personal perspective, I can understand that: I voted Labour at the General Election for the first time, but I did so despite the leader not because of him.
Policy, not personality, is Labour’s best hope
While Labour did better at the General Election than expected, it is clear that the party needs to try once again to reach out to those who are still to be convinced by the leadership. And it’s only with policies that they can do this – both in the keynote speech and in the fringe events around the conference, housing was central. Our Political Pigeon earlier this week set out the key details on housing, but in case you missed them:
- Regeneration schemes will have to benefit existing communities and “not private developers, not property speculators”, and tenants would be balloted on whether the project should go ahead.
- Undeveloped land will be taxed or compulsorily purchased
- Rent controls could be introduced to protect tenancies – potentially controlling prices as well as increases
- Building, planning regulation and management of the social housing sector will be reviewed
- Labour will push for “unimpeded access to the single market”, protect jobs and wages, and reject immigration targets
And outside of the main hall, at fringe events it was announced that former Shadow Housing Minister, Roberta Blackman-Woods will lead a review of planning policy, while Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, John Healey, is to launch a joint project between the Labour housing and health teams to look at how good quality housing can improve health outcomes.
For the many, not the few
Labour’s message is clear: it will create a Britain that works for everyone. To do so, they must take the country and the voters with them and present themselves as a party that can lead for the many, not the few. Shedding the ‘cult of Corbyn’ and focussing on the policy platform that served them so well in June will be of more benefit to their prospects than chants and scarves.