by W Stephen Gilbert
Nobody worked harder at the Liverpool Conference than John McDonnell. You could count yourself unlucky if he didn’t breeze in at the session you were attending, however arcanely fringe it might be. He never gave a speech or even a few words that you’d heard before and, though looking increasingly exhausted, he was winningly upbeat, ending with a cry of either “Solidarity!” or “Socialism!” every time. His keynote speech in the main hall put pounds of flesh on the bones of the party’s economic policy, indicating that he’s been working flat out all the rest of the tumultuous year that he has been shadow Chancellor. He’d better pace himself. Labour needs him.
Conference also established triumphantly that the Corbyn loyalists who stepped up to fill the suddenly empty seats in the shadow cabinet after the mass exodus were nothing like the fourth eleven that the media and other belittlers claimed. Sadly, I missed the much-praised address by Clive Lewis, but I caught most of his comrades performing in one setting or another: Angela Rayner, Cat Smith, Richard Burgon, Jon Ashworth, Rachael Maskell, Dave Anderson, Jon Trickett, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Barry Gardiner, Rosie Winterton and, several times, Diane Abbott, and all were on top of their briefs and raring to go in a united front.
The theme of the week was “there is far more that unites us than divides us”. If you Google that line, the name popping up most often is that of Hillary Clinton, but of course it originates long before; Pope John Paul II also used it but it can hardly be his to claim. Jeremy Corbyn tended to mangle it a bit (he needs a more fastidious speechwriter), but inevitably it was the newly-confirmed leader for whom it had the most resonance.
Corbyn’s own speech was confident, determined, comprehensive and encouraging. It was also notably generous and conciliatory. The chasm between his gracious acknowledgment of Sadiq Khan and the latter’s suppressing-a-fart face that the television reaction shot revealed was telling. Elsewhere, the leadership’s enemies – some of them, anyway – were making constructive noises. In declaring after Saturday’s leadership result that “we’re absolutely settled on who leads our party”, the Ilford North MP and leading irreconcilable Wes Streeting will have astonished those who believed him.
In fact, the war continues in subterranean form. After all, the intention of denying Corbyn the prospect of leading Labour into the next election has been thwarted for now but, his enemies hope, there is time to rectify that. The war will be in the trenches and on the surface if Corbyn is still in post in a year, and nuclear if he enters Downing Street. The magnificently shrewd Jon Trickett warned us that this summer has been “a small skirmish, just sharpening the pencils”. Though the anti-Socialists have shown themselves time and again devoid of tactics, their strategy still works. They have damaged and can and will damage Corbyn by daily undermining and distracting. That this is self-harming does not enter their heads.
The tactics are astoundingly ham-fisted. After the leadership numbers were released, Neil Coyle, MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark and one of the Corbyn nominees who’s been turned, tweeted: “Seems 20% of Labour members haven’t voted. If we can’t enthuse 1/5 of our own members we may have bigger problem engaging wider electorate”. Somebody please inform him that an unknown number of members – certainly running into six figures – was prevented from voting by arbitrary decision of the NEC. Does he not read the papers?
Shortly before Corbyn’s speech to Conference, a group of Progress supporters stood up and walked out, intending that the television cameras would show by their empty seats that Corbyn could not fill the hall. Tragically for their delightful plan, the Liverpool ACC had provided what every venue where Corbyn speaks needs to provide: an overspill hall (which incidentally was also ‘ram-packed’ as we say now). The abandoned seats were quickly filled with lucky ‘entryists’ from the overspill. As is his habit, Corbyn followed his address with an immediate appearance in the overspill hall – imagine the rapturous reception – where the audience got the benefit of a variation on his stump speech and hence more material than anyone else. His enemies accuse him of failing to ‘reach out’ to voters beyond his ‘comfort zone’, but there’s nothing lost by keeping the enthusiasts fired up. One of Labour’s growing strengths is the depth of its activism. These are the people who till the soil in which wider popularity will grow.
On the commercial radio stand in the exhibition hall, I went on LBC for an argy-bargy with Richard Angell (I’m glad you missed it; I was terrible). As gay men are apt to do, we established within a minute of meeting that we are both gay. But Angell – can that be a pseudonym? – is the paid ‘executive director’ of Progess, not merely a ginger group but an incorporated company set up to spread the philosophy that we are no longer allowed to call Blairism. Once we were on air, the gloves were off. I chanted the mantra that I brought with me to use at every opportunity, that anyone purporting to speak to the media for the Labour Party who declared that the party could not or would not be elected at the next election or that the present leadership was ‘unelectable’ ought to be disciplined. Angell wasn’t having that. Members must say it because it’s what people tell us on the doorsteps.
This is wilfully disingenuous. If anyone does actually say it on the doorstep, it’s a mere parroting of what they’ve heard on the media, a chicken-and-egg effect. And Progess doesn’t peddle anything else it hears on the doorstep – ”you want to bring back hanging”; “I’d send all the Pakis home”; “those poofs should all be in jail” – at least not as far as I am aware.
When Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership of the Liberals was in trouble in 1976, his old friend Michael Foot observed: “They pretend to be against you for your morals, but really hate you for your politics”. We need to remember that Progress and others pretend to be against Corbyn for his supposed incompetence, but they really hate him because they want New Labour to remain what Thatcher hailed it as: her greatest achievement.
As I left the ACC for the last time, I spotted Tom Watson striding towards his taxi. A tiny, pony-tailed Liverpudlian was scampering beside him, shouting “Two-nil”. I suddenly realised she meant that Corbyn had twice been elected leader. As the taxi pulled away, she ran alongside, punching the air and chanting “Jez we can, Jez we can”. It was a heartening and extraordinarily pertinent image to take home.