There was a time during the heady days of Tony Blair’s government when Labour Party Conferences were somewhat glitzy affairs, a place for party members and politicians to rub shoulders with the great and the good from the world of showbiz. A figure who was obsessed with modernity and the cult of celebrity, Blair used popular culture to boost his message, and famous speakers at Conference during his tenure included the American actor Kevin Spacey and the rock star Bono. Those days of New Labour and ‘Cool Britannia’ seem like a very distant memory today, and as the Labour Party faithful gather in Brighton this week for their annual convention one can be certain that Kevin Spacey will be nowhere in sight. Indeed, it is turning out to be a Conference like no other.
Labour is no longer a party of celebrity, modernity or showbusiness – or indeed business of any other kind. Instead, this once-great force in British politics has become little more than a vacuous personality cult. These are not my words, but the view of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, a lifelong Labour supporter who yesterday tweeted her dismay over the state of the party. Rowling is right, and nowhere is this more apparent than at this week’s Party Conference where delegates seem to be united on one thing: their adoration of Jeremy Corbyn. The whole event has the feel of a religious revivalist gathering rather than a political rally, as substantial policy discussions are thrown out of the window for fear of destabilising the leadership.
With Brexit dominating the political agenda at the moment, one would expect this to be at the centre of debates in Brighton. There’s only one problem – Brexit is a particularly awkward issue for Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran eurosceptic who now leads an overwhelmingly pro-European party. As such, he would rather not talk about it, and his loyal band of disciples are only too keen to shelve their own europhilia in order to satisfy the wishes of their leader. 24 motions concerning Brexit were ditched thanks to intense lobbying from the Corbynista pressure group Momentum, causing a significant amount of consternation amongst the most ardently pro-European MPs, but their concerns were rejected by the far-left as yet another attempt to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.
Substantial debate on the EU may not have made it to the Conference floor, but a painting of Jeremy Corbyn wearing a tinsel halo did. The painting, carried in by a zealous delegate and framed with fairy lights, captures the very problem at the heart of the modern Labour Party; the primary focus for the new influx of pro-Corbyn party members is not to debate policy, campaign for local candidates or uphold the values and traditions of the Labour movement, but to swear loyal allegiance to one man who can seemingly do no wrong. As such, anything which may cause discomfort for Corbyn is to be avoided. As John Crace writes in The Guardian, this is a Party Conference with only one purpose – to please Jeremy and give him what he wants.
This overaching aim has been reflected in the speeches over the last two days at Conference. The long-serving MP and veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner was given a prime spot yesterday afternoon, just minutes before Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell took to the stage, and he used this slot to deliver a barnstorming speech railing against the Conservatives whilst calling for a vast programme of government borrowing in order to invest in public services. Other Corbyn supporters who have spoken so far include trade union leader Len McCluskey, who claimed that Labour were the legitimate winners of the June general election, and a number of loud, sometimes screaming delegates who all seemed to be from the pro-Corbyn wing of the party. Labour moderates must be feeling like strangers within their own party.
The iron grip of the Labour left was only confirmed in yesterday’s two major speeches. The first of these was from Mr McDonnell, who announced plans to nationalise all existing private finance initiative (PFI) contracts. The PFI scheme, whereby private companies fund new public facilities such as schools and hospitals, with the government paying them back over a protracted period of time, was a mechanism that was embraced by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The last Labour government oversaw a boom in new PFI contracts, and today there are almost 700 operational PFI projects across the country. McDonnell’s plan to bring all of these back into the public sector therefore represents a decisive break from the Blairite, pro-business centrism of the past, and it would come at a significant (and unspecified) cost. ITV News political editor Robert Peston has estimated the cost at around £40 billion, a figure which has been confirmed by Labour sources.
If John McDonnell did a good job of burying Blairite economics once and for all by repudiating one of the main legacies of the New Labour era, the final defeat of Labour centrism came not from a left-winger but from the London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Mayor Khan is largely viewed as the standard bearer of the the party’s moderate wing, having supported efforts to ditch Corbyn last year, and in the run-up to this year’s Conference there had been an organised effortamongst Corbyn supporters to deny him a speaking slot. Never mind that he has the largest mandate of any Labour politician in the country, with over a million Londoners having voted for him in the 2016 mayoral election; as a critic of Corbyn, he is clearly a Tory stooge who deserves to be shunned for his heresy. Despite these efforts, Mayor Khan did get the opportunity to speak, but his performance did more than anything else to confirm Corbyn’s grip on the party. Describing Corbyn as a ‘king,’ Khan lavished praise on the man who ‘reached voters we hadn’t reached before,’ presumably forgetting that Tony Blair won almost all of the seats Corbyn won and more.
When even Sadiq Khan succumbs to the pressure and finally genuflects at the altar of Corbynism, you know that the Labour Party has fallen. Despite frequently speaking out against Corbyn and supporting a coup against his leadership, Khan has now been reduced to delivering sycophantic speeches claiming to ‘love’ the man who has hijacked his party, whilst the rest of Labour revels in a strange yet pervasive sense of jubilation. Listening to delegates, it is easy to forget that Labour are still in opposition and Jeremy Corbyn is not Prime Minister; in their eyes they all but won this election, and are now the legitimate government-in-waiting.
In actual fact, Labour are nothing of the sort. Beneath this delusional veneer of electoral ‘success’ lies a rotten carcass of a party riddled with unresolved divisions and unspoken resentments. The moderates have not gone away, but they realise that the battle for the soul of the party is over for now, and as such have learned to stay silent. Meanwhile, the rest of the party believes that it is on the brink of a dramatic return to government, and that they just need to stand firm and repeat their 2017 campaign in any future election, whenever that may be. This gives the Conservatives a golden opportunity to outfox Labour, knowing that they are unlikely to change their approach over the coming months and years. A party that refuses to debate Brexit whilst clinging to the outdated socialist doctrines of the last century is not a government-in-waiting, but a nostalgic throwback. It is only a matter of time before Labour members begin to wake up from their self-induced state of collective delusion and realise that they have in fact become a hollowed-out shell of a political party unfit for high office of any sort.