Jeremy Corbyn stood in front of the Labour party conference in Brighton and declared that Labour was a “government in waiting”. One year ago, this statement would have been ridiculed by commentators and even party members.
But a lot has changed in a year.
Attendees of the subdued 2016 conference in Liverpool would have been hard-pressed to predict the optimism and ebullience of the past four days in Brighton. And nowhere was the optimism and ebullience more evident than in the leader’s speech: a rabble-rousing epic which lasted for over an hour.
The order of the day was unity. Labour is a “united party, advancing in every part of Britain” and “standing on the threshold of power”, having achieved the biggest increase in vote share since 1945.
But was it unity we saw in Brighton, or a takeover by the left? MPs who could barely conceal their disdain for Corbyn and his policies at conference panel events in Liverpool were notably silent this year. Shouting louder than your opponents doesn’t mean they agree with you.
The message of unity extended beyond MPs. Corbyn’s job was to convince party members to put differences aside and make Labour “government-ready”.
But to become government-ready, Labour will also need the policies to match. One obvious area is Brexit.
Labour is the party of both Hackney and Hull, which voted 78% Remain and 66% Leave respectively. To have a hope of winning a general election, Labour’s Brexit strategy must appeal to both camps.
The task at hand is a relatively straightforward one. With the public frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations in Brussels and the in-fighting amongst Theresa May’s cabinet, it won’t take much for Labour to look like the party with a plan, whilst the Cabinet tears itself apart.
This leaves time for the party to focus on its ‘retail offer’, and develop policies which appeal to people aged 35 and over. Young people may have turned out in droves in June, but the former demographic are the ones who can help Labour to edge over the line in an election. The big concern here will be the cost of living – expect to see more focus on this in the coming months.
Unlike party leaders before him, Corbyn is not seeking to move his party to the centre ground. He is seeking to move the centre ground to the party. Labour, he argued, is now the political mainstream – but stopped short of explaining why they had still come second to a shambolic Conservative election campaign.
But this was not a speech designed to dissect the election.
This was a speech designed to build on the ‘people’s manifesto’ from earlier in the year, and encourage members to maintain the momentum which has been gathering over the summer, particularly in grassroots groups.
This was a speech designed to send a clear and simple message to the country that Labour is here and ready to govern.
This governance will come in a form not seen in this country for a long time. Multiple keynote speeches by shadow ministers throughout the conference offered Labour’s response to the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ of automation and artificial intelligence, re-animating the old-fashioned debate of labour versus capital.
Labour’s ambition is to defend workers against automation and to stop the “cannibalisation of capital” in a society where technological change shapes the labour market. This is epitomised in the party’s new report on alternative models of ownership, which brings co-operatives and national ownership back to prominence, and dispels any doubt about the strength and influence of the party’s left wing.
The implications for business are huge. Engagement with Labour – either in Government or opposition – will depend on a recognition of the paradigm in which Labour is operating. Businesses must learn to speak the language of labour and capital, even if it leaves a bitter taste in their mouths.
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