RICHARD PORRITT with this week’s big stories
The comrades are massing on the south coast for the Labour Party conference – but hidden by the raucous renditions of The Red Flag the whispers of division continue.
With the McDonnell rule – meaning leadership contenders only need the support of 10% of their peers, not 15% – backed by the National Executive Committee and likely to be passed by delegates, it seems Jeremy Corbyn and the left of the party have a firm grip on Labour’s future. But the majority of their MPs remain of a more centrist persuasion – and they are still not happy.
It appears even an impressive general election will not truly unite the party behind Corbyn. In his foreword to the Brighton conference programme the leader pleads: ‘I ask everyone to engage in the debate in a comradely, respectful and honest way. We have something to learn from everyone.’
Maybe Corbyn should have a chat with his Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade Barry Gardiner who suggested Deputy Leader Tom Watson got the party line on the single market wrong because it was ‘a late-night interview’.
To be fair, Watson has been a constant headache for the leader and is now the only real hope for centrists. And even with Corbyn’s stock at an all-time high Watson keeps on fighting. In his programme notes he warns: ‘Conference is more than just an opportunity for us to showcase Jeremy’s vision to the world.’
Labour must be on a war footing. The uncertainty of British politics as Brexit looms means another general election could happen at any moment.
And apparently Labour is tooling-up for another war as well – The Robot War.
Several fringe events strike a dystopian tone, for example ‘Is Artificial Intelligence Sexist?’ and ‘Undercover Political Policing and State Surveillance’.
Delegates are clearly worried about the dangers of technology and unscrupulous leaders and fear a future where robots and humans do battle, much like in the popular film franchise The Terminator. No need however to tempt the enemy into a vat of molten steel, which is how Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character meets his fate. A simple vote of no confidence could topple The Maybot.
Chuka Umunna is something of a superhero for Labour’s Remainers.
In the face of mounting pressure from colleagues to get into line he continues to battle for Labour to take a stronger position on Brexit. He also remains an outspoken critic of the leadership.
It was his rebel amendment to the Queen’s Speech which called upon the government to ‘rule out withdrawal from the EU without a deal’ and ‘set out proposals to remain within the Customs Union and single market’ that cost three frontbenchers who supported it their jobs.
Reacting to Corbyn’s calls for party unity in the wake of his re-election at last year’s conference Umunna said unity ‘will not come about through demand, through threat, through online thuggery’.
For many of the Momentum activists set to attend conference, the Streatham MP is enemy number one. It is brave then for Umunna to be appearing at so many fringe events with topics as diverse as ‘Protecting the Economy Post-Brexit’ and ‘How We Create a Cohesive Society in a Divisive Time’.
Superman Chuka is so keen in fact to get his message out that he is speaking at two events at the same time on Sunday. Maybe he really is super human?
Another chap who will not be chanting ‘Ooooow JER-EM-Y COOOR-BYN’ in Brighton hostelries is comedian, broadcaster and former Labour adviser Matt Forde.
He is not afraid to admit to being a ‘committed Blairite’ and defends his political hero’s legacy at every opportunity. He even called those who think Corbyn can win a general election ‘hysterical’. But gigs for comedians are tricky to come by so he has accepted an invite to host the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s bash on Monday evening.
I imagine he is hoping to dash in and out of Brighton quickly to avoid any Corbynistas. Shame then that his gig is on the British Airways i360, the world’s tallest rotating observation tower, which climbs an impressive 531ft high. Basically if you are in Brighton you won’t be able to miss him.
Brexit, not surprisingly, dominates this year’s conference fringe. And yet the party’s top brass are still only lukewarm to Sir Keir Starmer’s recently revved-up Brexit policies.
Perhaps Corbyn, McDonnell et al should drop in on think tank Demos’ event titled ‘Year Zero – Resetting Britain’s Economy After Brexit’. The New European doubts Demos is comparing Theresa May to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot but his radical programme – isolating Cambodia from the world, persecuting enemies of the state – could end up resembling a Hard Brexit.