Two years ago, at Labour’s 2021 conference in Brighton, party officials frantically hustled people into the conference hall for the leader’s speech, whether their passes entitled them to be there or not, so that cameras did not pick up rows of empty seats. This year you had to be there early to get a seat and the overflow rooms where you could watch the speech on a screen were packed.
Labour’s top brass now believes that only a foolish error can prevent it from being the next government, so they are neurotically risk-averse – which explains, to an extent, why they are reluctant to discuss Brexit, among other things.
I suggested some fairly mild announcements to one of its top strategists. His reply each time began: “But if we did that, the Daily Mail headline would be….”
His headlines were just right – he could earn a good living at the Mail – but is that the right basis to decide what announcements to make? Yes, he said, because otherwise “it diverts us from highlighting the government’s failures.”
The drive to look like a government in waiting extended to the shadow cabinet – with David Lammy and Lisa Nandy eager to talk about their recent trip to the UN at a fringe event on Monday and about meeting the two Bills – Clinton and Gates – to talk about the future of the world.
Even the appalling events in Israel could not derail the focus on keeping the so-called “ming vase” intact. The timing of the brutal Hamas attack seemed briefly to offer a lifeline to desperate Conservative strategists, now willing to grab at anything, who hoped Labour’s Palestinian lobby would enable them to revive the spectre of anti-Semitism.
Not a chance. Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, one of the cleverest of Labour’s frontbenchers and an impressive shadow foreign secretary in the Corbyn era, closed down the question in television interviews. Hamas’s behaviour was dreadful, talk about long-term Middle East strategy was “for another day.”
On Monday morning I went to the Labour Friends of Palestine fringe meeting, where the vastly experienced Wayne David, shadow minister for the Middle East and North Africa, a former MEP and former leader of Labour’s MEPs, shared a platform with pro-Palestinian activists. An hour later I went to Labour Friends of Israel, and there on the platform listening to bitter attacks on Palestinian activists was the friendly, avuncular Mr David.
He left both meetings on good terms with his hosts, yet his basic message was the same, phrased slightly differently: condemn the attacks on Israel, distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian people, get back to negotiations, a two-state solution is still the only way forward. He says the government has failed to use its influence and its overseas aid budget to help with peacemaking.
If the Conservatives could not get Labour on anti-Semitism, they hoped to accuse their opponents of “betraying Brexit” – which, against all the evidence, Tory strategists seem to think is still an arrow with poison in its tip.
Again, not a chance. There is no case for a second referendum, said the platform speakers at the EU fringe, Douglas Alexander, Hilary Benn and Sella Creasey, one after the other. It would be like putting the toothpaste back into the tube, said Creasey.
Even Pedro Serrano, the EU’s ambassador to the UK, had got the memo. “We have followed the British government in what sort of Brexit they wanted,” he said wearily. “The prosperity and well-being of the UK is good for Europe.” Even that former bastion of Remain, Best for Britain was only calling for limited reform to the Brexit agreement.
Serrano also pointed out that it was no use complaining that what we got was not as good as members got: a point not lost on the hardcore Remainers, who later drowned their sorrows at the Labour and Europe reception at Cains Brewery Village a few hundred metres away from the secure zone. “The European Movement can still organise a piss-up in a brewery”, sighed former MEP Richard Corbett.
The only slight deviation from the line came from Andy Burnham – said to be loathed by Starmer’s inner circle – who came out in favour of proportional representation at a fringe event hosted by the Centre for Cities, trashing the out-of-touch “SW1A machine” in the process. “They don’t like it when the North answers back, but they’ll have to get used to it,” he said.
Apart from that, things were so perfect that “boring” seemed to be the word of the week. Old hands spoke wistfully of the days when delegates amused themselves with internecine warfare and you didn’t have to queue up to get into even the fringiest of fringe events.
They were almost grateful for the shocking security lapse which gave a protester from the hitherto unknown “People Demand Democracy” group (which apparently advocates the appointment of the House of Lords by lottery) the opportunity to pour glitter over the Labour leader just before he started his speech.
But even this was a blessing in disguise. Starmer did not panic, took his jacket off at the prompting of an old hand from Labour’s staff, and rolled up his sleeves. The unplanned message: this will be a prime minister who does not panic and gets on with the job. He was not going to let one idiot destroy all the progress of the last four years, he said later at a Unison reception. Labour quickly started marketing Sparkle with Starmer T-shirts.
Apart from that, the only fun was to be had in the evenings. At the Jewish Labour Movement party, one speaker explained the neck brace he was wearing by saying: “You should see the guy from Momentum.” A senior member of the shadow cabinet had some other choice words about the left wing fringe group – “cranks” and “crackpots” were among the politer ones.
But the best fun was to be had at a pub a long, long walk from the conference centre, where the European Movement gathered to deride the idea that we should simply salami-slice our way to a better relationship with Europe.
Chair Mike Galsworthy, the medical researcher and long-time campaigner against Brexit, was not going to be bought off with “a bit of Erasmus here, a bit of trade there” and he set out a vision of Europe as a force for world peace which Britain must rejoin.
Richard Corbett was even more direct. “We can no longer try and appease the small number of people who still think Brexit was a good idea” he said, “we have to address the views of the growing number of people that recognise Brexit was a disaster for Britain”.
It’s not a welcome message in the Starmer circle, but once the election is won, it’s a message they are going to hear with increasing frequency. Perhaps, as some in the European Movement hope, he will see how the wind is blowing and move carefully towards rejoin.
And perhaps it will take some by-election embarrassments to show him that if Labour is to have the decade in government he craves, he has to provide the means to rejoin the EU.