This has been an unusual Labour Party Conference. The outward-facing mood has been calm all week with no visceral divisions on show. However, you don’t need to scratch much beneath the surface to see it’s two conferences in one: Corbyn’s tribes are packing out the anti-austerity fringes, while the “new Labour” tribe (as was) is congregating in different parts of the conference venue to lick their wounds and hear from their heroes such as Chuka Umunna or Dan Jarvis.
Team Corbyn’s over-riding objective this week has been to have a smooth conference, no provocation of splits and so no more bad blood or any unnecessary media headlines. However, within this, the message to new Labourites has been clear and pointed: you expected loyalty from everyone in the party when you were in charge, now we’re in charge with a massive mandate so you need to show loyalty to us.
In return, the Blairites are realising that they were the insurgents once who instigated their own coup within the party twenty years ago. Now they will need to be the insurgents again. However, in starting to think like that, the recognition is dawning that the best they can hope for with the next leader after Corbyn will be someone from the soft-ish left – a Kinnock for the 2020s.
This language around “tribes” is heavy with meaning. There is a consensus across Labour that voters are no longer tribal and many within the Party argue that therefore the most effective way for Labour to connect with voters is to be grassroots led, to build new alliances across all progressives and to create a wider movement. The problem is Labour is so tribal itself that it needs to build new and better alliances within its own networks before it can effectively start to mobilise wider audiences across communities up and down the land. Perhaps this is a clue as to why Corbyn’s speech yesterday was so geared to the hall and not the country.
For many, though, this was a missed opportunity for the new leader to make a strong first impression on those swing voters whose support Labour will need in 2020. That focus on the party activists was even more surprising given that Corbyn has surrounded himself with advisers who know what it takes to build new mainstream alliances for a left-wing leader of an administration. Corbyn has around him some of Ken Livingstone’s former advisers from when he was Mayor of London as an independent candidate. Ken didn’t have the backing of any political party at that time and so had to build new alliances to drive his mandate through. Corbyn is in a similar position since, in effect, he doesn’t have support from the Parliamentary Labour Party and so is having to take an “outside-in” approach to drive engagement within the PLP.
Where those new alliances could have real electoral cut-through remains to be seen. Housing, mental health, campaigns against austerity – all are contenders. But perhaps the focus on a kinder politics and society could be the surprise package. The diagnosis behind that is not a million miles away from the “more human” focus of one Steve Hilton who’s reportedly helping Cameron with his forthcoming conference speech. Surely not some common ground there?
Corbyn’s advance has been a very different coup which has so far broken all the rules. His gamble is that he can continue to defy the political gravity of recent times. But to do that he will need to overcome the scepticism that currently reigns supreme in many quarters of both his party and the country.