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COMMENTARY: Corbyn and the PLP: finding common ground to make Labour electable again

Ben Blackburn from Freshwater’s public affairs team sets out some key insights from Labour’s 2016 party conference.

While it is ironic that the impressive dock and quayside district of Liverpool which hosted the Labour Party Conference can thank a Tory minister, Michael Heseltine, to see it redeveloped rather than destroyed, there are few UK cities quite so befitting a Labour Party Conference.

In a political sense, if not a footballing one, Liverpool is red through and through.

But while 2016’s jamboree promised much, it failed to live up to its billing. Overshadowed by a predictable end to a summer’s leadership electioneering, for the politicos touring the fringes there was little of substance to get their teeth into. After all, with the leadership question only just resolved and a skeleton shadow cabinet still in post, there was negligible scope for the party to advance a proper policy programme for the 2020 general election.

Meanwhile, it was the interplay between the (centrist) core membership of the last twenty years and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on one hand, and Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Momentum and the large left wing body of the membership, that defined the last four days. 

It is staggering that there are more members who signed up after 2015 than before. The majority of them support Corbyn. Perhaps if Momentum - a ‘party within a party’ - had not held its own conference at the same time and in the same city, the level of debate may have been somewhat more vigorous.

It was always going to be interesting to take the temperature of the much analysed relationship between the leader and the PLP. Beyond a staunch handful of anti-Corbyn backbenchers, would MPs start to warm to the idea of coming back into the fold of the shadow cabinet? Would the leader back up his rhetoric about wiping the slate clean with actions?

In many ways, the answer to both of these questions is yes. The leader’s speech to conference on Wednesday afternoon was unifying in tone and well-received. When even the likes of prominent anti-Corbyn MP John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) praised the speech for his delivery and firm direction, things are certainly looking up. And, while we have yet to hear much in the way of new shadow ministers being announced, there are signs that centrist Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) will join John McDonnell’s Treasury team and that Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) will replace Andy Burnham on the Home Office brief.

However major disagreements persist over what one MP called the ‘Clause 1 debate’. What exactly is Labour’s purpose?

Some, including many of the leader’s supporters, see the primary purpose of Labour as not to win power at the ballot box, but to build a popular movement for change.

While this vision of mass grassroots participation is actually one that can be traced back to Ed Miliband and his introduction of the £3 ‘supporter’ membership, it has been taken onto the next level by Momentum and in the rhetoric of Corbyn, McDonnell et al.

Certainly, a grassroots strategy built upon social media make some sense. It has worked for Democrats across the Atlantic and acknowledges the irrevocable rise of the social media generation and the democratisation of power structures that it purportedly brings.

Yet it can only go so far. Aside from the limitations of a heavily digital approach (in one meeting, Yvonne Fovargue told us that 30% of her Makerfield electorate have never accessed the internet), the majority of the PLP, and a large proportion of the membership, believe that the only way Labour can truly make change is through the ballot box.

And winning in 2020, 2025 or 2030, will only become more difficult with the rise of Ukip in many former Labour strongholds, the effective harnessing of nationalist sentiment by the SNP in Scotland, and by the impending boundary review which will reduce the number of winnable constituencies for Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn has a monumental challenge to overcome, one that is only possible if he can find a way to work effectively with his colleagues in parliament and tap into the needs – both ideological and pragmatic – of the whole electorate.

Listening to the following five insights from the PLP may well prove helpful.

  1. The “Basingstoke Question”

    At an open PLP session, Graham Jones MP (Hyndburn) told the audience that the party cannot only concentrate on targeting traditional Labour heartlands, on winning over non- or new voters and those who may otherwise vote for minor parties like the Greens. To win the 11 million-odd hearts and minds needed to secure a Labour government, Labour must be an attractive proposition to people in shire constituencies like Basingstoke: people who currently vote Conservative.

  2. Be pragmatically ideological

    Much of the leader’s rhetoric to date has been strongly values-led: ambitious around fairness, respect, democracy, and righting the wrongs of capitalism. However, such messages do not resonate with all. As Graham Jones also argued, many people are quite comfortable and don’t have major gripes with “the system”. Equally, many of the working people he represents are floating voters who will back any party which can provide non-ideological and pragmatic solutions to problems around jobs, immigration and public services.

  3. Build meaningful momentum

    The party constantly trumpets the fact that Labour now has one of, if not the, largest membership of any political party in Western Europe. However, while nearly all MPs have seen marked increases in their paper membership, most tell us that it is still the same old faces who do the hard yards leafletting, door-knocking and volunteering in the constituency office. Online activism is fine, but unless the new members are willing to support their MPs and get out and meet the public, Labour will both struggle to understand the wider electorate’s concerns and motivations, and develop policies that resonate with them.

  4. Future proofing policy

    As Nic Dakin MP (Scunthorpe) argued at conference, Labour must embrace progressive policies that reflect a changing society. As he stated, “most people don’t think about politics, they trip over it”. This means effective politics have to understand the electorate’s lives outside the party’s traditional comfort zone of the state and what it provides. For example, many MPs fear that too great a focus on fighting the Tories on grammar schools is backward looking. While it is an obvious battle to take on, the party must ensure doing so does not take them back to the same arguments of the 1970s. The leadership should also be asking itself “are we connecting with the self-employed new working class?”; “how are we addressing the rise of the robots, the loss of ‘old’ jobs and the creation of new, but markedly different ones”? Essentially - like in 1997 - Labour needs to communicate a positive, optimistic message for the future rather than retreat into safe, yet negative, debates.

  5. Democracy for all

    It was clear that Shadow Energy Minister Barry Gardiner’s conference announcement that a Labour government would ban all fracking was done with no consultation with MPs or the wider party, clearly to the consternation of Yvonne Fovargue and a number of other PLP colleagues. While the leader’s democratic mandate is vital for his authority, he should consider how to ensure the spirit of democracy lives in his relationship with parliamentary colleagues, particularly on issues which may have very direct implications for jobs in struggling industrial constituencies.

Freshwater’s consultants work on the ground at the major party conferences every year. Follow @fwpublicaffairs for the latest from 2016’s Conservative and Labour conferences.

If the 2017 season is part of your strategy, we can advise you on how best to make use of the opportunities conference provides to meet your strategic communications objectives. Call us on 0207 067 1595.

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