I have attended the Labour Party’s annual Conference almost every year since 1971. In 1981 Denis Healey beat Tony Benn to the Deputy Leadership by the narrowest of margins. In 1985 Neil Kinnock hit back at Militant. Labour Party Conferences have certainly not been without dramas over the years but none that I can recall prompted the gasps of surprise and amazement there were when Lady Hale announced on the television screens at Conference the Supreme Court’s decision on Prorogation.
Up till then, the Conference had proceeded much as expected. The resolutions debated and adopted at Labour’s Conference always tend to be fairly radical but this year the tendency to pin the Party, if it gains power, to dramatic change was even more marked than usual. There were promises of substantial increases in expenditure both on social programmes and on infrastructure expenditure. Labour’s plans to re-nationalise the royal Mail, railways and utilities were reiterated. Promises were made to strengthen the position of trade unions and to enable 10% of the shares in larger companies to be owned by those who worked for them. Austerity measures were to be ended. To pay for all these programmes taxes would be raised especially on the rich but most of the cost would be borne by getting the economy to grow faster, although exactly how this as to be done was not always very clear.
During the run up to the Supreme Court bombshell, however, the most hard-fought battles were about Brexit. There were powerful calls from many Constituency Labour Parties and many leading figures for Labour to commit itself to being fully and unequivocally for Remain, albeit with the need to obtain democratic endorsement for this stance by holding a second referendum and securing a Remain majority. This position was opposed by Jeremy Corbyn and many trades unions who favoured a second referendum but one where Labour would not commit itself as to which side to back until a special conference had been held to decide which way to go. In the end, it was this second approach which carried the day.
Where does this leave Labour in electoral terms? The honest answer is that the Party is in difficult territory. There was almost no support for No Deal at Conference even as a lever to secure a better outcome, but Labour’s compromise position leaves it vulnerable to losing votes both to more Leave orientated parties – Conservative and Brexit – on the one hand while also leaving the Party liable to lose support to the Lib Dems among those who feel very strongly about Remain being the outcome with or without democratic endorsement. A recent poll showed Labour on 23% and the Lib Dems on 22%, while the Conservatives, despite all their divisions were some ten points ahead. This is not a good starting position for Labour if a general election is held, as seems likely, in the course of the next few weeks or months. It is understandable that Labour does not want an immediate election whose timing might allow a No Deal exit from the EU to take place by default. Labour would also be on stronger ground if Brexit had receded as the dominant issue, leaving the Party to campaign on safer ground such as the future of the NHS, social care and education.
The Supreme Court announcement, however, changed the atmosphere – pulling everyone back to Brexit. Clearly it was a major blow to the Prime Minster and his government, although how public opinion will react to what has happened remains unclear. Exchanges this week in the now recalled House of Commons suggest that divisions between Leave and Remain are even deeper than they were before. The Brexit saga rolls on with little sign of its intensity diminishing as far ahead as we can see. The Labour Party Conference epitomised how divided the country is.