What happened at Labour Conference?

Michael Calderbank brings you a bite-sized guide to what went on at conference, and what that means for the future of the party. 

October 1, 2018
6 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


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Photo by Andy Miah (Flickr)

As the dust settles, as we bring you a bite-sized guide to what went on at conference, and what that means for the future of the party.

On Brexit

Following a campaign calling for Labour to commit to a People’s Vote, with the option of remaining of the EU, opinions are split over the extent to which Labour’s position has shifted.  After an exhausting six hour compositing meeting, a united position was thrashed out leaving all options “on the table”. Keir Starmer received a warm response from some delegates in the Hall for his argument that “no-one was ruling out Remain as an option” in a future vote. Yet there was general unity of purpose around the argument that the People’s Vote we really want is a General Election. Laura Smith’s call for ‘General Strike’ in the event that the Tories denied this provoked a predictably over-wrought reaction from the press, but indicates the strength of feeling building up on the issue.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Leaders’ speech was clear that whilst Labour will not support a bad Tory deal, “we aim to get the best Brexit deal for jobs and living standards to underpin our plans to upgrade the economy and invest in every community and region.” Both John McDonnell and Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey were clearly of the opinion that referendum result had to be respected, and that any future vote on the deal ought to be limited to the terms of Brexit, not over-riding the outcome to remain a member of the EU.    

On the Democracy Review

The major development on internal Labour Party rule changes was over reform of the existing “trigger ballot” process for determining whether sitting Labour MPs are reselected without facing a contest. Barely anyone defended the existing process, where in some cases branches of a single affiliated union could outvote every Constitency Labour Party (CLP) branch put together. However, the unions clearly feared the proposal for Open Selection in every constituency, and opted to pre-empt a vote on such a rule change proposed by Labour International, with an National Executive Committee (NEC) backed proposal to reform the existing system. From now on 33% of CLP branches or affiliates (trade unions or affiliated socialist societies such as the Co-Op or Fabians) can trigger such a process. This lowers the hurdle for MPs to be triggered, but still requires a negative campaign to trigger an open contest.  In some ways this is much more likely to spark destablising internal feuding than simply requiring all MPs to re-contest the nomination alongside other candidates. This reform might well need to be revisited in favour of Open Selection.

Meanwhile the rest of the Democracy Review – set up at last year’s Conference under the stewardship of Corbyn lieutenant Katy Clark –  delivered little real meat, beyond a long-overdue shake up the way BAME Labour is organised. The change to the process for Leadership candidates getting on the ballot paper spurned the opportunity to reduce the Parliamentary Party’s ability to act as gatekeeper, merely introducing the additional need for 10% of either CLPs or affiliates. Again this passed as an NEC proposal which meant more radical rule changes from the membership fell. Other key changes – not least over democratising Labour structures at Local Government level, or the overhaul of the party’s policy making process, have been kicked into next year. The balance of the NEC has now become more favourable to the left, and it is hoped that more of Katy Clark’s original Review proposals can be resurrected in time for next year’s Conference.

On antisemitism and Israel/Palestine

Corbyn dealt with the issue head-on and with a forceful reassertion that, “this party, this movement, will always be implacable campaigners against antisemitism and racism in all its forms... We will work with Jewish communities to eradicate antisemitism, both from our party and wider society. And with your help I will fight for that with every breath I possess”.  At the same time, it was equally clear that accusations of antisemitism would not be allowed to stifle legitimate criticisms of Israel in respect to the occupation of Palestinian territories. In previous years motions on Palestine had fallen foul of the “contemporary” criteria (which has been abolished for next year), but this year made it through the “priorities ballot”.

Whilst some on the fringes attempted to arguing that the sea of Palestinian flags waved on the Conference floor indicates Labour is not a “safe space” for Jews, in reality this display of international solidarity called for human rights and democratic freedoms for everyone in the region. Labour recommitted itself to a two-state solution with a secure Israel alongside a viable and secure Palestinian State, and to formally recognising Palestine as a state.    

Meanwhile tensions continued to surface around the Conference fringe, with Luciana Berger claiming she required a police escort for her security, and a film-showing about suspended member Jackie Walker cancelled following a bomb threat.

A Radical Policy Platform

It now seems clear that, if anything, the manifesto at the next General Election will be still bolder than the previous one. John McDonnell’s commitment to introducing worker ownership funds, handing 10% of company shares to a collective pot owned by the employees, is an eye-catching initiative and one which rubs against the grain of private profiteering. Corbyn’s embrace of the green jobs agenda, coupled with a robust commitment to a regional investment strategy, is points in the direction of a modern, transformative agenda of environmentally-sustainable growth. The radical expansion of free childcare for all, combined with Dawn Butler’s announcement of a right to paid leave for women who are the victim of domestic violence were part of a bold programme on equalities.  

There is more work to be done: setting out a new strategy for social security for all; rebuilding local government; mapping the return to a publicly-owned and democratically accountable education system;  are just some of the outstanding challenges. But Labour under Corbyn is a confident party with ideas and imagination – it emerges stronger from its Conference, and is serious about an agenda for government.


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank