Other than party members and journalists, not many people are particularly interested in the inner workings of political parties. Some Conservatives may like to assume that Labour are dominated by students calling for revolution from relatively affluent university constituencies, whilst some Labour members assume that Conservative meetings consist of corrupt local businessmen greasing the palms of city councillors.
Despite this, the inner workings of political parties are rarely so dramatic. However, party conference season, the one time where intra-party politics gets consistent national press coverage, is upon us yet again.
While the Tory conference may often play host to cringeworthily awkward speeches, and businesses promoting themselves and their interests to the party, the limited scope of intra-party democracy means that it’s usually the aforementioned businesses indirectly shaping party policy via conference, not Tory members.
Those of us who don’t like the Conservatives see this as blatantly exposing in whose interest they really work, but as an attack line for their opponents ‘the Conservatives take their orders from big business’ doesn’t seem to cut through very well, because most people know it already. As such, the Tory conference, as is common with the conferences of governing parties, essentially serves as a PR event for the government, to give them an opportunity to hint to the press and public their plans for the next year or so.
Labour on the other hand, for obvious ideological reasons, almost has to allow wide scope for policy proposal and debate at conference. A perfectly good thing, but the myriad of other problems within Labour mean that the conference is seldom a reasoned policy debate between different wings of the party, but a venue through which to publicly launch artillery in the perpetual factional war.
Despite widely being accused of being a Southeast-centric party, Labour still opted to host this year’s conference in Brighton (while the Conservatives chose Manchester). Venue aside, the Labour conference would be a spectacle wherever it’s to be held. On policy, numerous internal party organizations and factions have submitted lengthy lists and motions on which delegates can vote.
Before the conference has even started there’s already controversy, with Labour for a Green New Deal’s motion being ruled out of order by the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) for covering more than one subject. If the subsequent Labour Twitter outrage is anything to go by (which it may well be as Labour activists seem to be disproportionately online), this will no doubt inflame passions and lead to more bloodletting on the conference floor.
As put by Morgan Jones in Renewal‘The Labour right thinks the Labour left are bullies and anti-Semites with no understanding of how to win in the UK electoral system. The Labour left thinks the Labour right are hypocritical, dirty-tricks-pulling bullies with no desire to change the status quo. They both believe that their side controlling the party is a matter of life and death.’
There seems to be no reason to think this personalised factional conflict will abate at the coming conference, particularly with the blocking of motions making prime ammunition for both sides.
As well as policy, Labour conference also allows debate and changes to party rules. Almost all these proposed changes are factionally-tinged snipes at internal opponents, such as Momentum calling for ‘democratisation’ of the General Secretary position, by giving the party conference greater powers of selection, rather than just ratifying the selection of the NEC. This is obviously borne of their distaste for and desire to remove current General Secretary David Evans, perceived by much of the left as a right-wing bruiser.
The one potential rule change of any significance is the recently revealed possibility of changes to the selection of the party leader. LabourList revealed that allegedly a return to the pre-2014 electoral college system may be on the cards. This would give MPs, party members, and trade union representatives one-third of the votes each, and is likely opposed by most trade unions, and almost every faction except Labour to Win, a chimera formed from Labour First and Progress, now serving as cheerleaders for a thus-far directionless leader.
A rule change of such radical scope is almost certain to fail, but it will make good political drama either way, serving as a far less impressive and captivating ‘Kinnock moment’ for Starmer and those who either think that he’ll one day be prime minister, or that his purpose is to manure the ground for a leader even more ‘moderate’ to take over when he loses the next election.
Labour MPs are largely liberal, middle-class professionals, about as disconnected from the working-class people they seek to represent as possible, the membership is 77% middle-class by the last proper analysis, and the trade unions still represent only a minority of workers, and those who are involved in union politics are an even smaller minority still.
It’s hard not to see the Labour conference this year as a facile struggle for power within and between a tiny minority of the liberal-minded, middle class and politically active, who really represent very few other than themselves.