This week, anti-Corbyn Labour MPs are have been expressing their concern about Momentum (the Labour left group backing Jeremy Corbyn) organising a "rival" conference. The Momentum events will take place in Liverpool, at the same time as Labour's official conference, at the end of September.
There has been no shortage of outrage over these meetings. The Telegraph say a "senior party source" called this "rival" conference "poisonous and inflammatory". Chris Bryant MP said they showed that Momentum was "a party within a party endorsed by the party leader". A leading Owen Smith supporter was quoted in the New Statesman saying: "How is it ok for Momentum to organise an alternative conference, that Jeremy Corbyn will attend? Clearly a party within a party which is not OK." Tom Blenkinsop MP said this was a "rival conference" organised by Momentum, which he called the "personal hard-left automaton army of Corbyn".
Which is strange, because all those MPs know that there is always an extensive "fringe" involving hundreds of meetings around the main Party conference. Last year's official Labour Party Conference guide – the essential programme given to every MP, delegate and journalist – is 118 pages long. Fifty pages, nearly half, are fringe listings.
Momentum's Liverpool meetings look like a regular part of this fringe, not a "rival" at all. The only difference is that, unlike many of the conference fringe meetings that helped New Labour entrench itself as a centrist business-friendly party, they are not sponsored by major corporations.
Official Labour conference business takes place every day between 9.30AM and 5PM, with a break for lunch. For every other available hour, all nearby conference rooms or halls are filled with fringe meetings organised by different groups buzzing around the party, from 8AM breakfast meetings to 8PM rallies to receptions to midnight debates.
MPs like Bryant and Blenkinsop, who have attacked the Momentum fringe as a rival "split", have been active members of Progress, the Blairite group who are a mirror image of Momentum. Progress, who are funded, in part, by an annual £260,000 donation from supermarket heir Lord Sainsbury, emerged from Tony Blair's 1995 Labour leadership campaign. Momentum emerged from of Jeremy Corbyn's 2015 Labour leadership campaign.
Like Momentum, Progress also hold their own mini "festival" at the Labour Conference – a series of meetings and a rally in nearby halls. The headline meeting this year, for example, is Angela Eagle "in conversation" with the boss of the British Venture Capital Association, whose organisation is paying for the event.
I've been going to Labour Conference since the late 1990s, when the fringe became the site of corporate-sponsored Blairite rallies that helped cement the shift of the party towards its New Labour identity. Here, for example, is the "Fabian Fringe" advertised in the 2000 Labour Conference Guide. Labour ministers such as Alistair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn spoke at the meetings, which were all sponsored by different corporations: supermarkets Tesco and Iceland, Wessex Water, a privatised utility, Aventis, a drug firm, and stockbroker Charles Schwab.
Thinktanks organise many of the fringe meetings, acting as a kind of dating service, linking up the corporate sponsors with the ministers and Labour insiders at conference. This, for example, is the fringe programme of the Social Market Foundation from the 2006 Labour Conference.
Again, there were top ministers like Alastair Darling, Andy Burnham, Alan Johnson and Tessa Jowell. But the meetings were paid for by the likes of Barclays bank, private health firm BUPA, "workfare" privatiser Working Links, private bus and train firm Go-Ahead and cheese-slice-maker Kraft. They paid for ministers' meetings in the heart of the Labour conference at the same time that Labour were deregulating banks, privatising welfare and health, and selling off rail operator licences at a loss.
I went to many of these meetings. The more corporate-sponsored they were, the more likely they were to be in meeting rooms in the smartest hotels, with more elaborate catering. They often had fewer people in attendance than those organised in cheaper halls by trade unions and charities, but they were rallies of the New Labour insiders, reinforcing their pro-business stance.
The thinktanks who arrange many of these fringe meetings are open about selling influence in politics. The Social Market Foundation said that they "offer an excellent standard of service to our sponsors" including the chance to "shape the key questions for debate" and "input into the speaker line-up" at conference meetings.
The same MPs objecting to the Momentum meetings didn't make a peep of protest at their conference being surrounded by these business-funded events, which remain a part of proceedings. Here are a couple of dog-eared pages from my copy of the 2015 conference brochure. Policy Exchange, an essentially Tory thinktank, was trying to organise meetings at the conference sponsored by hated welfare-testing firm Atos, along with Lloyds Bank and pro-privatisation City firms KPMG and Deloitte.
Following Corbyn's election, some of these business-backed meetings became unviable: the Atos and G4S meetings were both cancelled because, unlike previous years, no leading Labour figure could be found to share the platform with representatives from the firms.
The history of the Labour fringe suggests that the angry opponents of Momentum's Liverpool meetings don't object to them because they are doing something new and different. Rather, they object to Momentum using the same, effective methods New Labour used to shift the party right.
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