Labour conference

I Watched Labour Moderates Plot Against Corbyn

How the Labour right will use Brexit to steal fans away from the Absolute Boy.
Simon Childs
London, United Kingdom
September 25, 2017, 11:06am
Wes Streeting at a previous Progress rally (Laura Lean/PA Archive/PA Images)

The Labour right have spent a couple of years claiming that the hundreds of thousands who have joined the party in frenzied Corbynmania are a waste of space. But since Momentum helped them keep their seats and are taking over the Labour Party, the moderates want to win young, change-thirsty supporters round to their change-the-world-so-slowly-you-can't-actually-feel-it views. A new generation is into Labour, and the party's "moderates" want to harvest their souls.

This much was clear from last night's rally of Progress at the Labour Party conference. Progress is a small but influential Tony Blair fan club on the right of the party that is looking for wealthy backers after Lord Sainsbury stopped sinking millions of pounds into it.

The rally weirdly took place in an Odeon. If you want a flavour of the night, it was pretty well summed up by this tweet:

Progress attendees were very, very angry that Brexit is not going to be debated at conference. Momentum successfully blocked a Brexit debate because they know it's a tricky one for their man JC. He has to walk a tightrope between pro and anti-EU feeling in the electorate and his party, not to mention his own less than total enthusiasm for membership of a single market that might stop him nationalising the trains.

It's on this point that the right of the party is going to focus their attention. They cast a division between what they termed the "Bennites" – crusty old socialists who see the EU as a capitalist club – and the young, starry-eyed Corbynistas, who are concerned about the implications Brexit will have for their Erasmus. The "Comrades" vs. the "Corbynite crowd", as Progress director Richard Angell put it.

With that, they're going to make a grab for the new supporters, who they're suddenly taking an interest in. "Everybody who's a new member of the Labour Party is a potential member of Progress," said Richard Angell, now a convert to the benefits of a mass party.

Wes Streeting MP is the golden-boy of the moderates, and we'll probably be hearing more from him. He seems to get it. The centre-left has not only been "out of office, but out of ideas", he said. He called on Progress to "not be seen as the technocrats and the tinkerers, but people who genuinely want to deliver transformational change for our country" and to "provide centre-left answers to this revolutionary moment".

Rhetorically, at least, this contrasted with last year's Progress rally, which was an embarrassing parade of bitter Blairites whining about how great 1997 was. They've now clocked that they need to make a positive offer, and this wing of the party is just as capable as Corbyn as coming across all hopey-changey.

Again and again, speakers at the rally made the point that austerity is harder to fight if we have a hard Brexit. Never mind that Progress and their moderate pals have opposed Labour becoming an anti-austerity party. Never mind that "fighting austerity is harder with Brexit" implies that austerity might actually be necessary. Anti-austerity is the new normal. Even Theresa May isn't so sure about it now. So Corbyn has lost his USP. Being the anti-cuts guy is something his enemies in the party are well able to recuperate and even use as a stick to beat him with.

There was a lot of turning stuff around to beat Corbyn going on, in fact, including some interesting interpretations of how the election went. Jess Phillips MP decried that "at the election, we aimed so low we were jubilant to lose", perhaps forgetting that she was speaking to the people who spent two years trash-talking Corbyn for being unelectable, thereby making him less electable.


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Earlier in the day, at a meeting of Labour First – another group on the right of the party – there were more attempts to woo the young. I missed the Labour First rally last year, but I'm told it was very "we shall fight them on the beaches" against the left. Here, there was a begrudging acceptance of the new reality.

Sarah Jones, MP for Croydon Central – who Momentum helped to victory – told people to "find the good" in the new members, a hugely generous sentiment; one you might offer to a remorseful sex pest.

In another star turn, Wes Streeting praised Momentum's campaigning in the election, and claimed they have a choice to make: "They can either be the positive force of the party that mobilises members, that does creative, online, digital organising – creative, edgy, cultural campaigning – or they can become a factional vehicle that's more focused on resulotionary socialism…" In other words: just make me some memes, my child. Don't let your youthful enthusiasm be sapped away by boring policy resolutions at conference.

Next up was Labour First top-donny Luke Akehurst, who gave everyone a rundown of exactly which boring conference resolutions his supporters should vote for.

It was all deadly serious stuff with an element of the ridiculous. But Akehurst did land one punch when he was telling an anecdote; he recounted a conversation with someone at The World Transformed – Momentum's parallel festival. This person had said that if the Labour right had its way, the party would be facing "PASOK-ification". Greece's centre-left party went from major party to a tiny rump in a three years because it imposed austerity after the financial crash. You'll want to be careful with that Greek analogy, said Akehurst, because under Corbyn Labour might end up like Syriza – the Greek government of the radical left that ended up imposing harsher austerity than ever before. The Corbynista replied that this is why you need a fighting, democratic party – "So they're already preparing for the betrayal!" said Akehurst. Corbynistas need to face up to these contradictions, but what does it say to a politicised youth who have seen the effects of cuts on their communities? The world sucks. Get used to it, kiddo.

When the Labour First meeting seemed to be finished, Yvette Cooper rushed in to speak. She apologised for being late, having been held up by the traffic caused by a pro-EU protest nearby. She gave a bland speech about party unity, after which the faintest chant went up of, "ooooh Yvette Cooper" to the tune of "Seven Nation Army".

@SimonChilds13