Atlas Partners Director, Charlie Napier, reflects on his time at Labour conference 2018…

Atlas Partners Director, Charlie Napier, reflects on his time at Labour conference 2018…

Well, in the end, conference 2018 for Labour did focus on the three predicted themes but only one of which had any impact beyond the political bubble. That of course was Brexit and despite seeming to tie themselves up in knots as to whether they would be open to having another in/out referendum, most members left conference feeling in a better place than perhaps they had been at the beginning of the week when it came to Brexit.

Remainers were encouraged by Keir Starmer’s open acceptance of a second referendum if Brexit negotiations fell apart and Leavers were pleased that that policy didn’t appear to become official. It certainly summed up Labour’s policy of obfuscation over Brexit which once again served them well as it managed to neither offend nor please anyone greatly. In the end the whole argument was trumped by Jeremy Corbyn’s offer to support the Government on Brexit if they could guarantee a customs union, ensure an open Irish border and keep to a bunch of promises on jobs and sustainability. Finally it seems that Labour had a clear position on Brexit albeit a near impossible one for Theresa May to deliver. A cunning ruse in that they have at least stated some sort of position but one which is also vacuous in its lack of deliverability.

The other two issues that we and most others had predicted would be central to conference was the row over anti-Semitism and internal party changes to enable the Left to maintain power. There was some focus on anti-Semitism but Corbyn’s condemnation seemed to broadly shut the issue down even though not everyone was convinced by its sincerity.  As for the internal changes, Tom Watson can feel pleased that his strong support for a second (female) deputy so unnerved the Left that they promptly withdrew the idea.

Overall, the whole conference seemed to work well for the leadership and the idea that the party is ‘ready to govern’ genuinely seems to have got cut-through. Corbyn’s visit to see Barnier the day after the conference was a masterstroke (despite a lack of Euros) as it gave them an extra day of largely approving headlines which focused on the professionalism of the party giving it that ready to govern feel.

Delegates and members, whether they agreed with the leadership or not, recognised that real policy which actually made sense to people was being proposed on an industrial scale. It was almost as if the longed-for general election was actually due to take place soon and the battle lines were being drawn. It seems to have rattled the Tories, many of whom have admitted that Labour’s policies and ideas appeal to more than just a minority of the population.

The party definitely smells blood as the Government attempts to get Brexit over the line, hurdle after hurdle. If this week’s Conservative gathering in Birmingham is as bad as last year and the subsequent Brexit negotiations and eventual vote in Parliament are lost then that pressure to have a general election, unlikely as it seems currently, will grow ever stronger and Labour will feel that they can turn the gains of 2017 into an outright victory. Of course, it’s all very well being prepared but unless the Conservatives do decide to commit a collective hara-kiri then a general election does seem a long way off and all the talk and look of being ready for govern will mean absolutely nothing.

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