What Really Went Down at Labour Conference, According to Insiders

"It's a bit weird that you could get served at the bar on Sunday night without too much bother – that doesn't feel like a good sign."
September 25, 2019, 11:07am
Jeremy Corbyn Labor Conference 2019
Jeremy Corbyn at Labour Conference 2019. Photo by Allstar Picture Library/Alamy Live News
Commons Confessions is a column by political journalist and author Marie Le Conte. Keep reading for more anonymous insight into British politics from those in the know.

Hello and welcome to the first edition of Commons Confessions, which very conveniently took place in Brighton for Labour conference. You’ve probably seen news stories about the roughly one million things that have taken place over the past few days, but what has it felt like on the ground? Has it really been a complete clusterfuck? What was the mood like at the Grand, the conference venue? More importantly, what were the bars like? We chatted to a bunch of Westminster insiders as they tried to survive their hangovers and caffeine overdoses, and this is what we found.

ON PARTY INFIGHTING

“Well, there's been a huge amount of drama because of the slightly weird decision to open the last conference before a probable general election – where Labour should be outlining a whole bunch of exciting policies and demonstrating that it's a united party ready to govern – by attempting to murder the deputy leader. Which, whatever you think of him or anyone involved, just strikes me as a little bit stupid.

"There is no way that was ever going to happen in a way that didn't overshadow everything else. Whether it succeeded or failed, it just dominates everything, and that is not massively sensible. The fact that it did fail was also really hilarious. It's bad enough trying to murder someone in broad daylight; it's even worse to miss. So that wasn't brilliant. And I think Tom Watson's been going around quite enjoying himself.”

“It doesn't feel like anybody's at war; it's a cold war if there is a war.”

“I've been going to conference for a long, long time now. And it's quite common for it to get written up as 'Labour at war'. The problem is that you can always find people to feed whatever narrative you want. There will always be delegates who are cross with stuff, you can always interview them, and there will always be disagreements.”

“There are two big areas where the Labour At War thing is probably fair: one is over Tom Watson, the attempt to get rid of him just reflects a lot of people who do want to get rid of him... Then the other thing is Europe, where there's a real argument about what Labour should go into the election with and people are really passionate about that on both sides.”

“It feels a bit flat this year; I think the problem with this whole 'Labour at war' thing is that one side lost ages ago, and just because that side still has a deputy leader doesn't really change anything.”

ON ACTUAL POLICY

“The private schools policy will probably be a bit of an albatross for them in the next few months. I think it's going to help them mobilize the base, it's just whether that will be enough, and in a general election I don't think it will be.”

“Every conference, you get stories that say Labour has proposed the following 10 mad policies because they've gone through the various motions, and it's always bollocks. Labour hasn't really – there's just some slightly crazy people who've had a slightly mad proposal go into a composite because it's not worth having a fight about, and then it doesn't happen.”

ON THE GENERAL VIBE

“There's a lot of stressed people from the leader's office who have been trying to hold things together for a very long time, but now those tensions have just become unbearable. You know, you've seen [Corbyn senior aide] Andrew Fisher resign, and I think that there are a lot of people who are thinking about their positions in light of what's happened recently. I think it's becoming too much for some people.”

“I mean, it's a bit weird that you could get served at the bar on Sunday night without too much bother – that doesn't feel like a good sign.”

“What I'm used to is, if this is a pre-election conference, you'd expect it to be rammed because people would want to be making a difference and really feeling that they are shaping the narrative for the election. Also, if it's a pre-election conference with a party that has any expectation or anticipation of winning internally, then lots more people turn up. If you manage to convince the wider public that you are likely to win then more of them turn up now, the public affairs companies and all that, because they're interested in what you're saying. And normally on a Sunday night, at the Grand, it's mobbed. Last night, it was extraordinarily quiet. That is not usual, at this stage.”

“I was expecting a mess, because Labour has been a mess for so long and the stuff that kicked off with Tom Watson, the infighting stuff overshadowing all the policy stuff was massively not a surprise. But it's slightly different because it feels a bit more end of days. Andrew Fisher resigning felt a bit like maybe Jeremy Corbyn's time is up... There's a bit of weariness about Jeremy Corbyn, which hasn't happened before, so that's new. The fact that the party is a shambolic mess, that's pretty standard.”

ON THE SUPREME COURT RULING

“I always think of conference as a number of different conferences actually going on the same time. For the exhibitors, they probably thought, 'Fuck. What's the point of this then?' For the Westminster village – for journalists, the lobby and associated hangers-on – this is just sort of 'right, okay, we're now done; the leader's speech will be out the way then we're all leaving tonight'. But I think for literally all the activists and the members, this is actually exciting. My sense is this has emboldened them and excited them at what could come next. I mean, there was all there was chanting when the when the announcement was made about Johnson from the conference floor.”

“I think what's been interesting is that the vibe has been about other stuff that is sort of but not quite happening. So there'd been lots of discussion at the start about the fact that Tom Watson was not removed, then there were discussions about the fact that Remain was going to get through, which then didn't happen. And now, obviously, we had this Supreme Court ruling, which is just to my mind, moved everything. Suddenly, everyone's like 'well, off we go then'.”

@youngvulgarian