What did we learn at Labour Party Conference 2019

By Simon Fitzpatrick, Account Director, Cicero Group

This was a rollercoaster party conference for Labour.

It began with a botched attempt to abolish the deputy leadership post which almost blew apart the fragile unity in the Labour party; it ended with an energised Jeremy Corbyn calling on the Conservative Prime Minister to resign for misleading the country. The intervening period veered from popular announcements on the environment and the economy to fractious debates on the party’s Brexit stance which left many on the pro-remain wing of the party feeling deeply deflated.

It remains a matter of when, not if, an early General Election will take place. So what did we learn in Brighton about the basis on which Labour will fight that election?

My impression was of a party that does not want to fight a ‘Brexit election’. Whereas the Conservatives appear to be gearing up for a ‘People vs Parliament’ contest that is about the need to deliver Brexit, Labour wants a debate about the type of economy and society the country wants to have.

On Monday afternoon, when the Brexit debate was raging in the main hall, fringe events I attended were focusing on policies the party needs for its next manifesto and on how to win the support of low-income voters. At the latter event, research was presented by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) which found that Brexit is not a driving issue for this group, who are instead motivated primarily by concerns around living standards. Or as Lisa Nandy MP put it at an earlier event, many voters want to talk about “buses, not Brexit”.

The ambiguous position which Labour has ended up in on Brexit – backing a second referendum but not clearly committing to campaign to remain – is perplexing to many in the party. The risks of this are indeed clear: at an Ipsos MORI fringe event on Tuesday, analysis was presented showing that 21% of 2017 Labour voters now intend to back the Liberal Democrats, with the clarity of the Lib Dem Brexit position a key factor in making the switch.

But Labour may be betting that a General Election campaign, even in these exceptional times, will never solely be about a single issue, be it Brexit or anything else. The campaign, when it comes, will provide an opportunity to ‘change the conversation’ and to put other issues front and centre, as happened in 2017. And when the Brexit question does arise – which of course it will – Labour can argue that, for from being on the side of Parliament against ‘the People’, the party is now fully committed to putting the issue back to the people for the final say. Whether that position proves tenable or not, time will tell.

Repeating the trick of 2017, when Corbyn’s Labour was able to massively outperform expectations, will be no easy feat however. Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings are even worse now than they were going into that contest. He is better known now, and may not have the same capacity to surprise voters. The Liberal Democrat fightback now has some real momentum behind it, the Brexit Party will be a significant factor in many Labour seats and the Conservative campaign might not be as bad as it was last time around.

But on the positive side of the balance sheet for Labour, the Johnson government also has historically poor approval ratings and, on a range of non-Brexit issues, Labour polls ahead of the Conservatives. This conference has also seen a number of new announcements which will add to Labour’s repertoire of popular policies on the campaign trail, not least the commitment to transition to a 32-hour working week. The environment is an issue which is rapidly rising in salience among voters, and we saw in Brighton further evidence that Labour plans to put this issue front and centre of its agenda for government with a green industrial revolution. This was the focus for the party’s official business briefing event with John McDonnell, and it was striking to see the level of support expressed by the CBI’s Dame Carolyn Fairbairn for this agenda.

So, while this was an at times fraught conference for Labour, the party continues to have grounds for optimism. The hurdles ahead are significant, but we have been reminded again this week of what volatile times we live in and how quickly the political weather can change. If Labour can capitalise on the Government’s difficulties and regain momentum behind their radical reform agenda, come Labour Conference 2020, they may yet be a party of government.

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